Samyukta: A Journal of Women’s Studies (January 2016)



Sreedevi K. Nair
G S Jayasree

This number of Samyukta carries papers presented at the International Seminar on Decolonizing Theories of Emotions organized by the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of Kerala, with Samyukta: A Journal of Gender and Culture, from 11-13 November, at Thiruvananthapuram. The seminar was coordinated by Prof. Sneja Gnew of the University of British Columbia and supported by ICSSR, New Delhi and the University of Kerala. At the seminar there were heated discussions on the many ways of looking at the broad band of human emotions - psychological, anthropological, aesthetic. Independent observers present at the seminar felt that for all the emphasis on grounded analysis, all sides converged on a certain abstract idea of affect. This we think was based on, as Joseph S. Alter puts it, an analytic faith in an epistemology wherein that which is physical becomes powerful and meaningful only through the agency of metaphysical transformation. We are carrying the entire set of papers presented at the seminar in this number for you to read and judge. Whatever be the outcome, it is our hope that the arguments, discussions and laughter around theories of affect will continue to stimulate scholars in coming years.

Guest Editor

Guest Editors

Sneja Gunew

It is difficult to summarise either these rich and complex papers or (an equally difficult task) attempt to represent the event that triggered them, the international seminar “Decolonizing Theories of the Emotions” held in Thiruvananthapuram in November 2015. What follows is an attempt to engage in a conversation with the papers for this special issue. But first a quick word about where and how the concept for the seminar arose.

This project began for me in 2006 when I convened a workshop and finally a conference titled “Decolonizing Affect Theory”. Our loosely defined group was made up of colleagues and graduate students across the disciplines at the University of British Columbia. In 2009 I published a paper in the journal Concentric (Gunew, 2009) based on these workshops. Over the years this essay has attracted quite a lot of comment and the theme and questions have continued to preoccupy me to the extent that I suggested the topic of “Decolonizing Theories of the Emotions” to Professors G. S. Jayasree and Sreedevi Nair when they asked me to guest-edit a special issue of Samyukta. In the earlier workshop our group had examined contemporary traditions of Affect Theory and found them indebted to clinical psychology as well as psychoanalysis and more recently, in particular, the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze which introduced a new fluidity into conceptual apparatuses. However, because of the input of colleagues from cultural anthropology, for example, we also looked for alternative taxonomies to those deriving from European traditions and were particularly influenced by traditions emanating from India. I’ve been intrigued ever since to find out more about those different Indian approaches.

In preparation for this seminar I reached for a favourite text titled Vishnu on Freud’s Desk published by Oxford India in 1999. In it there was an interesting essay by Jeffrey Masson titled “Sex and Yoga: Psychoanalysis and the Indian Religious Experience” which speaks to his disillusionment with much of institutional psychoanalysis. Masson was briefly the Director of the Freud Archives until he famously turned on psychoanalysis in his book Assault on Truth (1984). Masson was also a Sanskrit scholar and I’m not sure how much research has been done that connects these two elements: to what degree were his Sanskrit studies linked to his rejection, ultimately, of the psychoanalytic universe? (He did retain his respect for Freud as this essay demonstrates). The animating question for the initial workshop had been: To what extent can we think meaningfully about affect outside the concepts and terms of European psychoanalysis? We met over several months sharing our work and thoughts and finally held a two-day colloquium in which we came together with researchers from Australia, USA, and the U.K.1

But somehow the questions continued to resonate and the recent seminar was a way to engage once again with those same questions and while we retained an interest in the “affect debates” we also wanted to speak more broadly about what was entailed in conceptualising the emotions. In my own ruminations over many years of attempting to understand ‘rasa’2 I was often reminded of what Jean-Luc Nancy has called the problem of the ‘singular-plural’ (Nancy, 2000) and this tension, possibly also informs Homi Bhabha’s statement that adding to does not mean adding up (his distinction between the performative and pedagogical nation to be found in his last chapter of The Location of Culture (Bhabha, 1994). The challenge lies in trying to keep these two contradictory concepts in balance without absorbing the one in the other. In relation to rasa, it isn’t really a matter of encountering aesthetic forms (theatre or books or music etc.) in order simply to be reminded of or put in touch with one’s own emotions and associated memories –that is only the first step. As I understand it after our seminar, it also involves having those emotions/affective states be de-personalised—that is the next step. In the western system we were taught that the catharsis we experienced in the theatre, for example, was supposed to ‘purge us of pity and terror’. There may be affinities with rasa in this respect but these would need to be disentangled with further scholarship and discussion. As Sanil argues concerning the theatre spectator, ‘He identifies with the emotion but not as its bearer. To make this possible he has to leave behind his personal and worldly concerns as he steps into the theatre.’ Rasa might also be associated with western notions of the sublime—a concept difficult to pin down and to keep separate from the domain of the religious, the latter being an element that Govind analyses as possibly constituting a premature foreclosure. There is a sense in which that heightened state can be perceived as religious (and that is the implication in B. Hariharan’s paper as well as V. S. Sharma’s and Srinivasa Murthy’s) but it can also be seen in light of the concepts of dhvani (indirect meaning) and ‘ataraxy’ (a state of serene calmness possibly deriving from the Epicurean philosophers) as discussed in Govind’s paper. And might this concept resonate with the ‘revolutionary serenity’ linked by Al-Kassim to Genet?

  1. Sharma did an excellent job of setting out for us the traditional approach to the two thousand year history of Indian aesthetics. His account and that of Srinivasa Murthy provided robust reference points for the other papers that entered into conversation with this tradition. Equally, Vilashini Cooppan provided an inspiring history of affect as constructed by the ‘psy’ disciplines in Western discussions while Carolyn Pedwell honed in on the specific emotion of ‘empathy’ taking us through the ideological investments (certainly not all benign) in cultivating empathy. Sangeetha Menon brought together western and non-western theories in her overview of consciousness studies and the neurosciences and Sanil also looked at both western (Damasio) and Indian (Abhinavagupta) traditions in demonstrating that ‘negative’ emotions (humiliation) facilitate the formation of political ethics.3The questions Menon raises in her paper could generate a productive year of seminars:

How and why does brainactivity generate emotions? Or does it? Are emotions evolutionary vestiges or enhancers of experience? Are feelings and emotions different, and do they have differing roles to play? Are there feelings that are not necessarily dependent on sensations? Can we have perceptions without feelings? Are feelings emergent properties of experience or are they discrete cognitive events? . . . Can feelings be considered as discrete cognitive events and understood within the framework of neuroscience? . . . How do emotions influence our cognitive capacities and rational processes? As I stated in my summary at the end of the seminar, for me there were several distinct themes in the discussion:


This is an issue that underpinned much of the discussion since our work speaks from and is informed by varieties of systems and theories which we have worked hard to acquire and which we hold dear. It is a question not so much of seeking for authenticity as of exploring the affective investments we have in such systems which sustain the whole edifice of scholarly enterprise (an issue addressed in Nikhil Govind’s paper). Indeed, as I was reading and editing the papers I kept thinking about “academic affect” and the ways in which this is an under-researched field. Academic affect played out across the seminar proceedings in various ways and permeated the papers in a different register. For example, the opening remarks in Vilashini Cooppan’s paper and her question as to whether a sari is ‘for thinking’ made me recall as well Nigel Thrift’s comment that ‘affect is understood as a form of thinking’ (Thrift, 60). To my knowledge Melissa Gregg’s study of affect in cultural studies is the closest we have to a study of academic affect (Gregg, 2006).4 Vilashini Cooppan also poses such questions in her paper in relation the ways affect disrupts continuities: ‘What might these mean for our understanding of disciplines in themselves and in transformative contact with one another?’ Clearly further work in how affect structures our own scholarship would constitute a rich field for further investigation, another opening out of the topic.

It is clear, and certainly obvious in the whole field of affect studies, that as scholars we are highly invested in generating taxonomies to provide a scaffolding for rational categorisation of what might generally be termed the non-rational or, perhaps more productively, what exceeds the rational. T R S Sharma’s paper deals with the contradictions involved in trying to conceptualise the non-rationality of emotions within a rational framework. And those taxonomies are often anchored in universalist assumptions. For example, V. S. Sharma’s eloquent summary of Indian aesthetic categories that opened the proceedings included several slides of a dancer displaying certain facial emotions. His comment was that these required no further explanation and for many members of the audience this may well have been true. However for those of us outside a familiarity with those traditions the meanings were not clear at all. Listening to V. Sanil, Srinivasa Murthy, and B. Hariharan it seems as though there is a need to hold onto universals and yet this is difficult for many of the postcolonial theorists in the room since the notion of the universal has invariably been linked with the pernicious spread of European colonialism’s “civilising mission”. But as Sanil argues compellingly, ‘Universalisation is a process of desubjectivisation’. So one of the questions going forward is whether it is useful to hold onto some form of the universal within our parsing of the aesthetic?


The referencing of the body was a constant refrain in all the discussions. The presence of corporeality, the materiality of actual bodies, was most directly registered in the various performances we were fortunate to have included in the seminar. On the first evening there was (to cite V. Priya) ‘Sitara Balakrishnan’s unforgettable staging of Radha’s heart-wrenching complaint in “Yaahi madhava” drawn from the Gitagovinda.’ On the second evening we had a Kudiyattam performance of Act 2 of Sakthibhadra’s AscharyachoodamaniSurppanakhankam where the drama, in B. Hariharan’s words, ‘focuses on the confrontation and deforming of the rakshasi (demoness) Surppanakha (sister of Ravana) by Lakshmna, Rama's brother. On the third evening we had the Kathakali performance of Usha Chitralekha enthusiastically mediated by B. Hariharan’s account in his paper that emphasized the detailed training the actor undergoes.

(i) Performative

Theories of the performative (which in Western theory, most notably the work of Judith Butler based on J. L. Austin’s speech act theory, are often seen as the enactment or installation of the normative) may function as a site for change including change to theoretical frameworks. Traditions of disciplining bodies (including the bodies of the spectator as well as the performer, an issue addressed in B. Hariharan’s paper and by V. Priya) are often deeply conservative but it would be interesting to untangle the affective investments they contain. How does the performative translate across different genres: dance, music, theatre, film and, literature? What might it mean to take into account the testimony and the scholarship of practitioners (such as women) who had hitherto been excluded from these aesthetic tradition? This was addressed movingly in V. Priya’s ‘Afterword’ to the essays. While much discussion ensued concerning the performance traditions relevant to the Keralam context within which the discussions were taking place, the performative was also present in literary analyses presented in the papers. What might it mean to consider the body of the violated Dalit woman in terms other than always–already signifying caste violence, (K. Keshavamurthy’s paper)? How might the invocation of empathy in texts by Jamaica Kincaid or Aminatta Forna, as discussed in Pedwell’s paper, evoke a complex set of emotional responses in specific readers? This was something that also came into play in Sanil’s reference to a negative emotion, humiliation, in his discussion of the contemporary film Fandry.


Indeed the idea of negative emotions came up quite a lot in the discussions ranging from Carolyn Pedwell’s analysis of the ways in which empathy could reinforce negative colonial stereotypes of prematurely knowing the colonized ‘other’ to Sanil’s complex analysis of ‘humiliation’ as an example of the ways in which emotions need to be de-personalised, de-subjectivised, in order for us to understand their role in the political. Vilashini Cooppan summarises some of the debates in western discussions of trauma while Dina Al-Kassim’s paper on Genet and Darwish deals with trauma, specifically the ongoing trauma of Palestinians, but contemplates not so much a negative emotion as dwelling on the concept of revolutionary joy. Al-Kassim invokes a theory of affect that creates solidarity through what she terms a ‘recognition’ created through affinities and modes of attunement that transcend the personal. K. Keshavamurthy’s paper on the Dalit writer P. Sivakami focused on the inter-caste violence to which Dalits are regularly exposed but also pointed to the question concerning the dubious political expediency of repeatedly subsuming sexual violence into inter-caste violence. The Dalit protagonist of P. Sivakami’s first novel cannot, it seems, be construed as being violated as a sexual being rather than (as well as?) a caste being. Trauma is differently conceived in Margery Fee’s provocative paper on extinction affect—an affective domain that proliferates in the growing field of eco-criticism—that argues for the need to pay attention to the discrete structures of Indigenous knowledges that should not simply be appropriated by dominant knowledge systems.


At the seminar itself, there was considerable poignancy (and frustration) in listening to Dr. Usha Nangiar’s lecture in Malayalam on the Kudiyattam tradition.

As someone who was not born into the English language and have spent many decades making a virtue of forging an unhomely or provisional home within it, I was very aware of the affective saturation experienced by the majority of the participants at the seminar in two and a half days of functioning in a foreign language. The juxtapositioning of several language systems was a palpable and welcome presence in the seminar. That was another of the ways in which the corporeal was a consistent theme in the seminar.

What kind of translation models were presented to us? Carolyn Pedwell suggested translations that should ideally retain a sense of the foreign, to attain the state of (following Venuti) ‘dissident translation’. Vilashini Cooppan demonstrated how Amitav Ghosh’s text The Hungry Tide incorporated a multilingualism within its English monolingualism. A model for me is Chantal Wright’s translation into English of the German Japanese writer Yoko Tawada’s story “Portrait of a Tongue” produced in two columns on the page. On the left is the ‘standard’ translation and on the right Wright's, both comments on and interrogates her own choices and Tawada’s initial choices in the German (Tawada, 2013). There was also the question of translations between disciplines— Sangeetha Menon’s paper concerning the uneasy conversations between the neurosciences and the humanities or cultural studies in relation to theories of the emotions was an important reminder of this growing collaborative field.

There is also the theme of what I termed ‘ecologies of language’—where we pay particular attention to the cognitive dimensions of metaphor or figurative language in general. How do we represent ‘silence’ or ‘ataraxy’ (for example in Govind’s paper)—as desolation or as serenity and accommodation? As well, what does one do with the bewildering textual excesses and over-determinations described in many of the papers that suggest a representational (and possibly ideological) system in crisis? Metaphors create parallel hermeneutic systems—the rhizomatic network (Cooppan); the surprisingly resilient flowers of revolutionary joy (Al-Kassim); the hunt as a site that brings together a variety of approaches to theories of the emotions (Sanil); the Indigenous dissolution of ‘Nature’ as a sphere separate from the human: Inuit and other Indigenous knowledge systems alluded to by Fee where ‘an epistemological shift from an anthropocentric worldview to a non anthropocentric one, similar to those widespread among indigenous cultures world-wide’, help us comprehend the ways in which emotions and affect are a form of thinking — one that we need to learn to trust.

What was certainly clear from the seminar is that there is no clearcut divide between ‘Western’ and ‘Indian’ theories of the emotions since many of the papers referred to overlapping theories and theorists. As Sanil cautioned us,

The contemporary revivalist tendencies in Indian theory demand extreme vigilance from western decolonisers and their Indian comrades. For example, the rasa theory of Abhinavaguta is an obvious choice for those who look towards Indian ideas on emotion to decolonize western theories of emotion. However, we now hear that Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) the Hindu nationalist organization, has decided to celebrate Abhinavagupta as part of its cultural and political maneuvering in Kashmir (Pathak). RSS glorifies the brahminical image of the past and legitimizes caste. Should we here appeal to the western binary between thought and its context and isolate the thought of Abhinavagupta from its political appropriations? How do we respond to the humiliation of the Dalits that may be worsened by the brahminical appropriation and denigration of their emotional universe?’And as Govind suggested:

. . . it is all the more imperative to read the Sanskritic tradition as incomplete, as textually open, rather than as a fixed list of rasas. The minutiae of reading is not merely an example of a pre-formulated theoreticism, but rather the desire to keep open the ever more minute phenomenology of reading (where the experience of reading stands metonymically for the richness of a perceptual world), where one does seek both transcendence and immersion.

And as V. Priya reminds us, ‘If the past is to be thought of as no longer a singular monochromatic entity and heritage itself a matter of selection, articulation and repetition, how does one make space for a political reactivation of the archive now attempted in order to decolonize western theories of emotions?’ What one can say, in general terms, is that Western scholars need to become more informed about and to engage with traditions in Indian philosophy and aesthetics and we hope this special issue will facilitate that project. As I was finishing the editorial work on the special issue, fortuitously, the latest issue of the PMLA arrived. It was a special issue on the ‘Emotions’ and included a contribution by Vinay Dharwadker, “Emotion in Motion: The Natyasastra, Darwin, and Affect Theory” (Dharwadker). Clearly our seminar had tapped into the Zeitgeist and such comparative work is beginning to gather pace—we certainly hope this is the case.

Heartfelt thanks to Professors G. S. Jayasree and Sreedevi K. Nair, to the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of Kerala and Samyukta. Particular thanks and appreciation as well to the two moderators: Dr. S. Divya and Ms Farah Zachariah and to V. Priya who provided an elegant and eloquent ‘Afterword’ to the special issue at very short notice.


1The workshop and symposium were captured in a DV D titled Feeling Multicultural: Decolonizing Affect Theory Colloquium , 2007, Centre for Women’s and Gender Studies, University of British Columbia (now the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice: GRSJ).

2I am indebted here to my colleague at the University of British Columbia, the Sanskrit scholar, Professor Emerita Mandakranta Bose whose list of rasa/bhava categories forms the appendix to Gunew 2009. See also Bose and Bose,


3After his compelling account he also sent many of us to seek out the film Fandry (as I did via Netflix).

4Gregg went on to co-edit the highly influential Affect Theory Reader (Gregg and Seigworth 2010).


Bhabha, H. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. n

Bose, M. and S. P. Bose. A Woman’s Ramayana. Translated with an Introduction and

Notes. London: Routledge, 2013.

Dharwadker, V. (2015) The Natyashastra, Darwin, and Affect Theory. PMLA Vol. 130, no. 5, Oct. : 1381-1404.

Gregg, M. Cultural Studies’ Affective Voices. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan,


Gregg, M. and G. J. Seigworth. eds. The Affect Theory Reader. Durham, N. C: Duke UP, 2010.

Gunew, S. “Subaltern Empathy: Beyond European Categories in Affect Theory.”

Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies, 35.1 (March 2009): 11-30.

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York: Penguin, 1985.

---. “Sex and Yoga: Psychoanalysis and the Indian Religious Experience”. T. G. Vaidyanathan & J. J. Kripal. eds. Vishnu on Freud’s Desk: A Reader In Psychoanalysis and Hinduism. Oxford: Oxford UP, India1999. 235- 249.

Nancy, J. L. Being Singular Plural. trans. R. D. Richardson & A. E. O’Byrne. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000.

Tawada, Y. Portrait of a Tongue: An Experimental Translation. trans. Chantal Wright. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2013.

Thrift, N. “Intensities of Feeling: Towards a Spatial Politics of Affect.” Geografiska

Annaler 86 B.1 (2004): 57-78.

Is there an Indian way of reading emotions?

Is there an Indian way of reading emotions?

TRS Sharma

Abstract: The discourse on emotions, one learns, has mostly not fared well in the conceptual history of the Western philosophers. The problem arises because this discourse has always been made within the rhetoric of rationality, and emotion and reason have been characterized as opposing forces in man. Moreover, in the Western philosophical tradition the primacy of reason over emotions has been the shaping principle of conceptual thinking.

Do emotions happen to us or do we create them? Are they biological drives or can they be cognitive, conative, and ethically responsible? The notion of emotion in short has occupied this ambivalent space, and points to an either/or situation. The debate has gone on for centuries.

Patanjaliyogasutras apart, Bharata’s Natyasastra studies emotions minutely and in a major way, and visualizes their nature, their ontology, as being both fluid and steady. Given the context of both verbal and performing arts, Bharata enables us to envisage how emotions get transformed into the status of rasa, and to realize how aesthetics has ultimately returned to the discourse of the body. Now outside the realm of aesthetics, can there be pure emotions untainted by reason that we can experience in ordinary life? None, only blurred edges!

Keywords: svabhava, svadharma, nirveda, rasa, arishadvarga, sanchari, vyabhi chari , ci tta prasadanam, physicalism, biological determinism.

Aren’t emotions known to be notorious in messing up one’s moral life? Can we ever trust them? Besides, emotions haven’t fared well in their conceptual history in the west. Part of the reason is that the discourse on emotion has always been made within the rhetoric of rationality, and emotion and reason have always been characterized as opposing forces in man. Moreover, the western philosophical tradition has always emphasized the primacy of reason over emotions as the shaping principle of conceptual thinking.

As if to add more substance to the destructive powers of emotions, we have in India what is formulated in Sanskrit as the basic composite concept, the arishadvarga (Apte 50). These are the six hardcore, inimical emotions – the negative ‘affects’ if you will – such as kama, krodha, lobha, moha, mada, matsarya, translated as desire, anger, greed, infatuation, arrogance and jealousy, which figure in our great epic narratives, causing a great deal of havoc and cataclysmic changes in the lives of heroic men and women. They are paradigmatic and universal, though the way they manifest in psycho-social life is often culture-specific. For the genesis of emotion is often determined by the kind of life-world that a particular culture provides. We need ‘to interpret emotions functionally,’ suggests Owen Lynch, ‘in the sense of what they do, how they are used,’ not what they are (15). The next question that arises is: Do any of these raw emotions occur in its pristine form? It is most unlikely, for each raw emotion gets laced with elements from other emotions – say, anger gets mixed with jealousy, or with greed and when thwarted, explodes!

However, recent cognitive studies suggest a different perspective altogether, and emotions can also act as moral sensors and reinforce one’s ethical values. This looks like a paradoxical situation, then. However, before we arrive at a plausible theory of emotion which is both substantive and heuristic, we may look at some telling examples in poetry and in fictional narratives to see how emotive states emerge, and with what components they coalesce/synergize. We may begin with a couple of specific instances and then work outwards toward a theory.

Now to consciously entertain emotions, even to cultivate fine emotions, may keep us close to our life-world and to reality. But such an act does not enhance one’s will to power, which a regime of reason would ensure. The Enlightenment world-view implicit in such a regimen obliges one to set aside or downgrade one’s experiential structures. No one perhaps was more keenly aware of a disaster implicit in such a philosophic dispensation that prevailed in the post-Enlightenment age in the West than Charles Dickens in his novel Hard Times or Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. True, emotion, as mooted earlier, has not fared well in its conceptual history. It has often been classed with ‘fancy’ or imagination as against utilitarian calculus. With farcical humour and satire, Dickens describes in Hard Times the school system designed and modeled by Gradgrind, a character in the novel, on Benthamite education, and its strict rational lines, wherein any show of emotion or imagination would be a heresy. The novelist here chooses to speak ardently in favour of a life ‘lived freely and richly from the deep instinctive and emotional springs,’ to quote F. R. Leavis (171). Dickens even declares unequivocally that “a nation without fancy, without some romance, never did, never can, never will, hold a great place under the sun” (Hard Times, Notes: 171).

Ivan, a character in The Brothers Karamazov, tells Alyosha, his brother in the novel, that he has no use for a ‘world view’ of order of the kind which the Enlightenment project would envisage:

I have a longing for life, and I go on living in spite of logic. Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky leaves as they open in spring and the blue sky. . . It’s not a matter of intellect or logic, it’s loving with one’s inside, with one’s stomach (as quoted by Joel Marks 12).

Ivan’s desire or longing for life is spontaneous, and occurs rather gratuitously like a gift from nature if not from God. It is a desire that ‘passeth understanding’ of any logic. Ivan, the Dostoevskian intellectual, passionate and given to strange and conflicting ideas, skeptical and idealistic at the same time, has already made his choice. As against firmly repudiating the ‘logic’ of the world, its unity or total order, he has preferred the phenomenology of his own experience, which structures the world, and attaches itself to specific things, the ‘sticky leaves . . . and the blue sky.’

The western man’s dilemma, his alienated self, is however already implicit in Ivan’s choice. It is an either/or choice made within the problematic of emotion versus reason. The same problematic can be seen operative in Wordsworth’s famous search for unity and order even though this search is in direct contrast to Ivan’s choice. The poet is obviously in search of a ‘logic’ and invokes ‘a motion and a spirit, that impels/All thinking things, all objects of all thought, /and rolls through all things ’(from ‘Tintern Abbey’) – the unity implicit in them in order to ease the anguish of his alienated self: a self torn asunder by, the various atrocities he had witnessed during the French revolution. However the poet stands apart from the surrounding nature with a modicum of self definition– hence the feeling of alienation. In epistemic terms, it is the ecology of mind that is lacking – the ‘lack’ of interplay of subject and object, wherein the subject attains its identity only in terms of the object, and where the human and the natural overlap. The alienated self lacks this ‘interplay’ and seeks its self-definition in isolation.

The capital ‘I’ – the self or ego – on the other hand, constitutes its own history, a wavering history of aggressive conquest or passive submission. And whenever the ‘I’ asserts and assumes self-definition in opposition to the other nature or world, dilemmas occur. Moral dilemmas occur, especially, when a community, despite sharing a common system of values, finds itself at war with itself. The psychic paradigm of such a dilemma – to shift focus to an earlier age, to a different culture – constitutes the classic dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna in the Mahabharata war as depicted in the Gita. Ivan’s cross-cultural archetype is Arjuna, a parallel indeed, but Arjuna without a sense of alienation, who nevertheless fails to see any cosmic design like Ivan in the war he is obliged to fight. He sees only specific things, like Ivan again, his own kinsmen ready to kill and be killed. While he is convinced of the just cause of war, he is horrified at the possible consequences of it. He wonders with ambiguous anguish, ‘which will be worse, to win this war or to lose it?’(Gita, ch. 2). He develops a sudden revulsion for it, for the horrendous killing involved in war even though he is raised as a warrior. His svabhava (inner nature/impulse) which believes in human values is at war with his svadharma (his duty as a warrior), which will not baulk at killing his own kinsmen when at war. The complex emotive state that Arjuna undergoes is an aporetic event in the epic. It is a state of nirveda, desirelessness, and is described in the Gita in great detail, both as bodily events, sattvajabhava, that is, as sensations such as shaking, quivering of limbs, and heavy breathing, and as a feeling of profound psychic disquiet characterized by confusion, panic, and indecisiveness (Bilimoria 73-77).

In these several examples we witness, corresponding to two different epistemes prevailing in two different cultures, two conceptions of the self: the self standing apart from and in defiance of its culture, and the self at war with itself but from inside its own culture. In other words, it is the self holding on to its separate identity and alienated from the rest of the life-world versus the self as part of nature, part of its socio-political environs but exercising its freedom to reject the culture of war from within.

The logic of both Dickens and Ivan, the character in the novel, operates within a problematic of either/or wherein the notion of emotion was conceived in a dichotomous relation to reason. This dichotomy, established through centuries of traditional thought in the West, was rarely questioned till, say, the twentieth century. To question the validity of this dichotomy is to envisage the conditions of possibility for a new relation between emotion and reason. This is to see them not in opposition, but in juxtaposition. It is to see them with ‘blurred edges,’ and see them as freely mixing with each other. This is to move into a non-Aristotelian universe wherein the laws of thought are more heterogeneous, contrarian, recursive. Besides, this is to realise that even concepts come to us not in their formalistic purity but in hybrid forms. What is necessary here is a movement of thought that can reconcile oppositions, differences and resolve them into aspects of a single, comprehensive notion, call it emotion or experience. T. S. Eliot once phrased it thus, to think one’s feeling, and feel one’s thought (216). This process is what Korzybski calls a balanced ‘semantic reaction.’(15) These elements fuse in the writer’s imagination, as Eliot meant it, but then they can also burst asunder. Hence the aberrations seen in human behaviour, that is, excessive emotionality at times or sovereign rationality draining all human emotion.

Broadly speaking, and in a more generic sense, one may envisage two kinds of emotions: the basic or primary emotions, the universal arishadvarga that we referred to in the beginning. Then there are the secondary emotions, the softer and subtler ones, which may remotely be linked to the primary ones: for, when we build our argumentative structures, brick by brick as it were, the mortar that we use is something like emotion. These emotions sneak into our arguments through the kind of rhetoric we use, for rhetoric is the art of persuasion. So all the rhetorical devices that we use – such as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, oxymoron, paradox, hyperbole and catachreses – in order to persuade the audience are emotive or emotion-ridden. Therefore one wonders whether one can strictly be rational while speaking about emotions. Sometimes we even get emotionally involved while we build an argument – don’t we?

Now let me quickly go through some of the arguments woven around emotions. Emotions, since the time of the Sophists, Plato and Aristotle, have been a subject of inquiry among philosophers, humanists and psychologists in the West. We may, to pursue a critical theory, categorise two kinds of emotion according to their genesis, which subsequently develop into paradigms, identified by Owen Lynch as physicalist and cognitive (Lynch 21). The physicalist theory has dominated the discussion on emotion for quite some time: the theory believed that emotions are something that happens to us. And they follow ‘a hydraulic metaphor of forces’ from within the body, eventually welling up, and ‘the psychic energy’ exploding. Emotions are therefore natural, not cultural; they are universal – so the argument ran. Descartes is said to be the most influential originator of this physicalist theory. The Cartesian dichotomy between mind and body is so well-known it needs no further elaboration. Gilbert Ryle’s famous phrase, the ‘ghost in the machine’ (Passmore 446) in a way sums up the Cartesian mind-body dualism.

Consequently, there have been three important shifts in perception in western philosophical thinking which involves a frequent re-inscription of emotion in relation to the human body, cognition and judgment. The common perception, shared by many a philosopher, of emotion as unreliable, ‘blind animal surges,’ like bodily feelings can be traced back to Plato. Plato would reject anything that has to do with the human body, any form of sensuous cognition that imagination is said to cherish. Conversely, this view was countered very early by Aristotle who shared his perceptions with the Stoic philosophers such as Chrysippus that emotions are not just ‘blind surges’ of feeling: rather they are ‘discriminating responses closely connected with beliefs about how things are, and what’s important’(Nussbaum 42). They have a strong social/cultural angle, and that emotions involve both mind and social context.

However, the status of emotion suffered a major reversal with Immanuel Kant, who, following the Cartesian heritage, held, in the light of his postulation of the sovereignty of reason, that emotions are ‘unreliable, animal, and seductive’. They are spontaneous and not trustworthy for moral action. So his moral imperatives could not accommodate anything as ‘fickle’ as emotions (Nussbaum 76).

The third paradigm shift has occurred of late through a detour to Aristotle and the Sophists with extensive studies in cognition, that is, if one were to overlook the effort of poets and novelists who have always assessed the value of emotions in human life. This viewpoint, contrary to the physicalist theory, postulates that emotions are social constructs and envisages that there are cross-cultural differences in the expression of emotions. This is the social constructionist approach. This viewpoint posits emotions as being rational: a cognitively based appraisal of situations, for they are socially negotiable experiences. Post-structuralists even argue that ‘reason requires emotion as a supplement’ (Lynch 10) – and that’s how we build arguments, say, in seminars and colloquies. So this debate has gone on for centuries: whether emotions happen to us or do we create them? Are they biological drives or can they be cognitive, conative, and ethically responsible? The notion of emotion in short has occupied this ambivalent space, and points to an either / or situation.

However, even though we have l earned to believe i n t he cognitivist theories, the physicalist theory cannot be abrogated so easily, and the cognitive theory cannot wholly replace it. There is a strong biological angle to it, some kind of biological determinism, if you will: the Kantian thought that emotions are ‘unreliable, capricious,’ besides being transitory and not providing a steady motivation for moral action – this argument gets additional support from what Arthur Koestler states, basing his views on what seems to be hard evidence from the biological sciences. Referring to the unsteady/insidious nature of emotions, Koestler poses the question: ‘Is homo sapiens a victim of one of evolution’s countless mistakes which have adversely affected the evolution of the brain?’ Koestler cites in support of his contention the biologist MacLean’s view that ‘while our intellectual functions are carried on in the most highly developed part of the brain, our affective behaviour continues to be dominated by a relatively crude and primitive system by archaic structures in the brain’ (Koestler 11). The consequences are all there for us to see: ‘the conspicuous symptoms of mental disorder which appear endemic in our species, and the paranoid split between rational thinking and irrational beliefs.’ There is also the glaring contrast between man’s ability to conquer nature and his ineptitude in managing his own affairs.

‘This pathological phenomenon is uniquely human,’ says Koestler (19). There is, as Koestler concludes, a genetic imbalance between what he calls ‘an explosive growth of the human neo-cortex and its insufficient control of the archaic brain’ (ibid). You have the gaping aporia resulting from this fact of ‘schizophysiology’ – the mismatch of the two faculties, the neocortex and the hypothalamus (said to be the seat of emotions). This mismatch finds its interpretive register – to shift sites of discourse – in the poetic formulations of T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” in the following lines:

Between the idea
and the reality
between the motion
and the act
falls the shadow
For Thine is the kingdom
Between the conception
and the creation
between the emotion
and the response
falls the shadow
Life is very long

Consequently, man is thrown into a congenitally ‘aporetic situation’ – that is the primordial human condition. So the near impossibility of setting right the biologically wronged system was perhaps intuitively felt by Indian thinkers. How to restore a workable balance in the psychosoma, that was the real problematic preoccupying our thinkers. Mind, body and their functional relations came under a specialized study of Yoga. The astanga-yogi (not the asana therapeutics yogis of the present day!)
can find access to the hypothalamus – he could consciously stimulate through pranayama, (pratyahara, dharaṇa) the vagus nerve which is linked to the hypothalamus. That’s how he could bring about some kind of equilibrium in his body-mind mechanism. Furthermore, a Yogasutra of Patanjali refers to how a person can consciously negotiate emotions in order to attain citta prasdanam. Through consciously cultivating friendliness and compassion, the individual can attain the mental state of citta prasadanam. This phrase ‘cittaprasadanam’ can be translated as ‘reflective equilibrium, to use the famous phrase by John Rawls.

Bharata in his Natyasastra could visualize the nature of emotions, their ontology as being both fluid and steady. ‘Fluid’ because they are sancharibhavas, meaning transitory, momentary or complementary feelings/states that we all have. The Natyasastra distinguishes minutely the sanchari or vyabhichari and how they need to get to the status of a sthayi (a state of stability) before they can attain the art status of Rasa. Rasa itself is a concept metaphor, and its semantic ramification is imbricated with many archives. With no precise meaning as such, the concept ranges from the mystical to the gastronomical. To realize one significant part of it is to see aesthetics as having returned to the discourse of the body for the human emotions on which the rasa concept is based belong to the world of the body. The Natyasastra begins with aangika, the body language. The term vyabhicharibhava, mentioned above, needs to be redefined because (etymologically speaking) this emotion is wayward, contrary, and even defiant. And so often in the artifacts and in our own consciousness, these agonistic contests occur frequently between the sanchari and the vyabhichari.Bharata and his theatrical cohorts thought what better locus is there than a theatre before an audience for emotions to be consciously displayed, understood and controlled. Emotions have always interested artists, writers and they are also one step ahead of the philosopher. To cite an instance: both Bharata and later Wittgenstein (to cite a western example) seem to hold the view that both the comic and tragic, hope and despair, as emotions cannot be held together in a single psychic state, but only successively. However, both the comic and tragic emotions are indeed convincingly shown as holding together in an open-ended form such as allegory, as in Waiting for Godot for instance, within the same dialogic frame. Besides, Salman Rushdie comes up with his reading experience of Rudyard Kipling: " . . . the early Kipling wrote with a storm inside him,” which “creates a mirror storm of contradictory responses in the reader” with the result, an Indian reader will never be able to read (him) calmly. Anger and delight are incompatible emotions, yet these early stories do indeed … infuriate and entrance’ (74).

This discourse will not be complete unless I refer to the unique phenomenon of bhakti (unique because it constitutes one kind of ‘stylization’ wherein emotions, both sthayi and sanchari bhavas, get stabilized and cathect a single object , the personal god of the devotee, resulting in intensities of song, gesture wherein a devotee like Allama Prabhu (a Kannada saint poet-philosopher of the 12 century) encounters the divine in its effulgent formlessness, as in the following vacana (an utterance):

Looking for your radiant light
I saw
it was like the sudden dawn
of a hundred million suns,
knots of lightning creepers
for my wonder.
O Lord of Caves
if you are this effulgence (jyotirlinga)
there can be no metaphor
(tr. Ramanujan, 1973: 168, with changes by author).

This vacana inscribes the incandescent delight of the devotee in whom the synergy of the body-mind-spirit is wholly at work. The vacana tries to “present the unpresentable” (to use Lyotard’s oxymoronic phrase) (123). The following words of Georg Lukacs capture the dramatic intensity of such an experience: ‘it was a dance on a glowing volcano, a radiantly improbable dream,’ (as cited by Simon Critchley 67). It was utterly improbable, yet it was ineffable, radiant while it lasted!

Consequently, in the emotions of bhakti the usual polarity of the sacred and the profane disappears, and what one gets is a continuum which comprises at one end the ‘surreal’ and at the other, the ‘hyper-real.’Bhakti for a saint is both agony and ecstasy – more agony perhaps: two powerful emotions held together in a single moment. It is the aesthetic of the self, the internal theatre, wherein the saint is the chief actor. This is in one sense apodictic theatre in its totality – an internal stage wherein the devotee reconstitutes himself and wherein he hypostatizes, say, a Siva into a human character – a character with whom the devotee engages in a process of constant apostrophization. The saint thereby upsets the social structures of feeling based on gender, for he plays both man and woman. Didn’t Saint Basavanna, a contemporary of Allama, declare, ‘Look here, dear fellow:/ I wear these men’s clothes/only for you./ Sometimes I am man/Sometimes I am woman.’(Ramanujan, 1973: 87). He celebrates androgyny. Isn’t Lord Siva himself half-woman? This is one kind of emotion at its best, the self merging in the Other. Or shall we say the self emptying itself in the Other in a state of bhakti, a kind of kenosis – a mystical state of mind.

Well, to conclude is there such a thing as pure emotion? There is for Bharata in a purely aesthetic context when emotion turns into a rasa or for a saint into bhaktirasa. Otherwise for most of us in a pragmatic world, there are no pure emotions, only blurred edges.


1 This essay is partly based on my book Toward an Alternative Critical Discourse. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 2000.

Apte, Vaman Shivaram. The Student’s Sanskrit English Dictionary. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1970.

Bilimoria, P. “Ethics of Emotion.” Emotion in Asian Thought. Eds. J. Marks and R. T. Ames. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995. 65-90.

Critchley, S. Continental Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Dickens, C. Hard Times. New York: Norton, 1969.

Eliot, T. S. Selected Essays: 1917-1932. London: Faber and Faber, 1999.

Koestler, A. Janus: A Summing Up. New York: Random House, 1979.

Korzybski, A. Science and Sanity. Fifth Edition. Fort Worth, Texas: Institute of General Semantics, 1958.

Leavis, F. R. The Common Pursuit. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

Lynch, O. ed. Divine Passions: The Social Construction of Emotion in India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Lyotard, J. F. The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Trans. G. Bennington and R. Bowlby. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1993.

Marks, J. and R. T. Ames. eds. Emotion in Asian Thought: A Dialogue in Comparative Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Nussbaum, M. C. Love’s Knowledge. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.

Passmore, J. A Hundred Years of Philosophy. Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1972.

Ramanujan, A. K. Speaking of Siva. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1973.

Rawls, J. https://en. John Rawls.jpg [Accessed on 28 September 2015]

Rushdie, S. Imaginary Homelands. London: Granta, 1991.

De-Colonising Empathy: Thinking Affect Transnationally

De-colonising Empathy : Thinking Affect Transnationally

Carolyn Pedwell

Abstract: Opening up modes of political thinking and feeling take us beyond Euro-American calls to ‘put oneself in the other’s shoes’, this article explores how empathy is generated within, circulated through, and productive of transnational power relations. It starts by mapping some political genealogies of empathy, while considering what it might mean to ‘decolonise’ emotion. I then begin to flesh out my own critical approach by examining the ambivalent relationship between empathy and transnational capitalism, considering how feminist and antiracist discourses of care, empathy and social justice are susceptible to various forms of neoliberal appropriation. I move on to focus on the related workings of empathy in the affective aftermaths of European slavery and colonialism, asking how empathy expressed at the margins of normative postcolonial imaginaries might disrupt or refigure universalist emotional politics. Extending these critical concerns, the final section examines what I call ‘affective translation’, exploring what might be gained in moving away from dominant ideas of empathy premised on knowledge, accuracy and prediction towards a mode of affective translation involving attunement, negotiation and invention – across cultural and geopolitical borders and boundaries. Throughout, I am interested in how empathy might be translated differently– how liberal, neoliberal and neo-colonial visions and practices of empathy can be reinterpreted in the context of transnationality to activate alternative affective meanings, practices and potentialities.
Keywords: empathy, transnational capitalism, neoliberalism, alternative
empathies, translation
Within Euro-American public culture, warnings increasingly abound regarding the destructive social and political implications of ‘empathy erosion’. In The Audacity of Hope, for example, Barack Obama announces that the U.S. is suffering the effects of an ‘empathy deficit’ (Obama 67).While in Zero Degrees of Empathy, neuro-psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen claims that the ‘erosion of empathy is an important global issue related to the health of our communities, be they small (like families) or big (like nations)’ (2011, 124). Both authors call on us to develop more empathetic attitudes and capacities as a means to create a global society built on greater respect, cooperation and equality. Relatedly, in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities,political philosopher Martha Nussbaum contends that, as universities become increasingly corporatised, we are witnessing a serious erosion of the very qualities essential to democracy itself, namely empathy: ‘the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicaments of another person’ (Nussbaum 7). In order to address these troubling deficiencies, she insists, we must ask what we can ‘do to help compassion and empathy win in the clash over fear and hate’ (43) and neutralise the pernicious effects of ‘disgust and shame’ (38).
As these and many other examples attest, creating more or better empathy is now framed as an affective ‘solution’ to a wide range of social ills and as a central component of building cross-cultural and transnational social justice. Yet empathy - understood in shorthand as the affective ability ‘put oneself in the other’s shoes’ - can easily become a kind of endpoint. Precisely because it is so widely and unquestioningly viewed as ‘good,’ its naming can represent a conceptual stoppage in conversation or analysis. Thus, the most pressing questions tend less to be “what is empathy?”, “what does it do?”, “what are its risks?,” and “what happens after empathy”, but rather the more automatic refrain of “how can we cultivate it?” It is also evident that, although a number of commentators in the global North insist that empathy can play an important role in mediating relations between different social and cultural groups and across national and geo-political boundaries, relatively scant attention has been paid specifically to the transnational politics of empathy. As such, we have little insight into how empathy emerges and flows through global circuits of power, and the complex ways in which it transforms and translates as it travels between diverse contexts.
In the face of these dynamics, my work has grappled with two central questions: firstly, how can we think more critically about the contemporary political workings of empathy? and secondly, how might we understand the complex links between empathy and transnational relations of power? I understand ‘transnationality’ as constituted by inter-related and shifting processes of colonialism, slavery, diaspora, migration, development, globalisation, neoliberalism and global media, among other phenomena (Grewal, 2005; Ong, 2006). I am interested in how empathy – which I conceptualise as a social and political relation involving the imbrication of cognitive, perceptual and affective processes – is generated within, circulated through, and productive of transnational politics. Through analysis of political communication, international development literatures, popular business and science books, postcolonial literary works, and feminist, anti-racist and queer theory, my wider project has sought to unpack the potentialities, risks and contradictions of figuring empathy as an affective tool for transnational social justice. Methodologically, my approach is one premised on both staging and tracing trans-disciplinary juxtapositions, encounters and entanglements. As feminist, queer and postcolonial scholars have incisively illustrated, it is so often at the intersections, borderlands and in-between spaces of both geo-political domains and disciplinary bodies of knowledge that we not only encounter the productive force of affective technologies of power but also critically imagine how they could be otherwise.
As a means to open up modes of political thinking and feeling take us beyond Euro-American calls to “put oneself in the other’s shoes”, this article examines empathy’s dynamic relationships to transnational processes of location, translation, imagination and attunement. The first section maps some political genealogies of empathy, while considering what it might mean to “decolonize” emotion. The second section begins to flesh out my own critical approach by examining the ambivalent relationship between empathy and transnational capitalism. I do so through considering the links and distinctions among feminist and antiracist ethics of care, Obama’s political affect, and the neoliberal rhetoric of the ‘empathy economy’ within popular business literatures. The third section focuses on the related workings of empathy in the affective aftermaths of slavery and colonialism. Considering the potentialities and limitations of what I call “alternative empathies”, I draw on Antiguan American author Jamaica Kincaid’s postcolonial invective, A Small Place (1988), to ask how empathy expressed at the margin of normative postcolonial imaginaries might disrupt or refigure universalist emotional politics. Extending these critical concerns, the fourth section examines what I call ‘affective translation’. Drawing on British-Sierra Leonean author Aminatta Forna’s novel, The Memory of Love (2011), I explore what might be gained in moving away from mainstream ideas of empathy premised on knowledge, accuracy and prediction towards a mode of affective translation involving attunement, negotiation, and invention. Throughout, I am interested in how empathy might be translated differently – how liberal, neoliberal and neocolonial visions and practices of empathy can be reinterpreted in the context of transnationality to activate alternative affective meanings, practices and potentialities.
Thinking and Feeling Empathy
In the context of contemporary social and political relations, empathy is perhaps most commonly defined as the affective act of seeing from another’s perspective and imaginatively experiencing her thoughts, emotions and predicaments. Although empathy has a long genealogy1, many scholars locate its modern political roots in the work of Scottish philosophers Adam Smith and David Hume. By the mid eighteenth century, Smith and Hume had identified empathy as important both ‘in relation to our capacity to gain a grasp of the content of other people’s minds’ and ‘in relation to our capacity to respond to others ethically’ (Coplan and Goldie, 2011: ix). Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that, although we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, the process of imaginatively assuming the other’s ‘situation’ and circumstances allows us to ‘enter into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them’ ([1759] 2006, 4). Although Smith used the terms ‘sympathy’, ‘pity’ and ‘compassion’ rather than empathy, he generally understood sympathy in a way that was quite close to contemporary uses of empathy premised on imaginative perspective taking. German phenomenological theorists writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, such as Edmund Husserl, Edith Stein and, later, Max Scheler, similarly associated empathy and sympathy with the affective capacity to enter the minds of others. However, following in the footsteps of Hume ([1777] 2004) rather than Smith, they described empathy less through models of imagination and identification than via accounts of embodied perception and attunement (Pedwell, 2014).
Resonating with these earlier (as well as later) debates2 regarding whether empathy should be defined primarily as a process of imaginative reconstruction of the another’s experiences or rather as a more intuitive experience of embodied sensing, feminist and anti-racist theorists have long asked challenging questions regarding how specifically we can understand the workings of empathy and its political and ethical implications. Sandra Bartky, for example, queries:
What does it mean, exactly, to become more ‘sensitive’ to the Other – in addition, that is, to my learning more about her circumstances? Does it require that I feel what she feels? Is this possible? Is it desirable? . . . Does a heightened sensitivity require an imaginative entry into the affective life of the Other? . . . Is such an entry possible . . . Does greater sensitivity require perhaps a merging of self and Other? (Barting: 181).
Critical scholars have tended to respond to these discussions by insisting on the need to maintain an ontological distinction between the one empathising and the one being empathised with. When empathy is understood as the experience of ‘co-feeling’, it is suggested, this not only invites problematic appropriations or projections on the part of ‘privileged’ subjects, it also risks obscuring their complicity in the wider relations of power in which marginalisation, oppression and suffering occur. Indeed, the acknowledgement of complicity in and responsibility for transnational relations of power is key for scholars such as Elizabeth Spelman (1997), Megan Boler (1999) and Kimberly Chabot Davis (2004). Boler, for example, envisions an approach to empathetic engagement which ‘radically shifts [one’s] self-reflexive understandings of power relations’ (Boler 157) and enables one to ‘recognize oneself as implicated in the social forces that create the climate of obstacles the other must confront’ (166). In this way, feminist and ant-racist theorists have provided a potent critique of universalist discourses of empathy.
Importantly, however, these Euro-American genealogies of empathy are not the only, or the most salient, frameworks for understanding these kinds of affective processes and their implications within many transnational cultures. As the international ‘Decolonising Theories of Emotions’ seminar so richly showcased, there exist many varied and overlapping cultural paradigms of emotion - from the ancient Sanskrit topologies of ‘Rasa and Bhava’ to Indigenous Canadian theories of ecological affects. In this vein, in her discussion of ‘subaltern empathy’, Sneja Gunew considers various paradigms for understanding emotion that move beyond ‘European categories of affect theory’ (Gunew 11) - including cultural anthropologist Anand Pandian’s (2009) analysis of ‘the figurative topographies of sentiment and sympathy sketched in a genre of funeral elegy (oppu) in South India’ (Gunew 18) and postcolonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty’s (2000) discussion of the Bengali concept of the ‘exemplary’ or ‘compassionate heart’ (hriday) (Gunew 19). Relatedly, exploring how contemporary theories of affect might be ‘creolised’ from a feminist perspective, Joan Anim-Addo turns to literary accounts of the gendered ‘history of the Caribbean slave plantation’ to ‘delineate a trajectory and development of a specific Creole history in relation to affects’ (Addo 5). Against ‘consolidated, universalising and Eurocentric conceptualisations of affect’ she develops ‘a differentiated cartography and literary archaeology of affect’ that pays critical attention to how affective creolisation occurred in and through intimate sexual relations in the context of slavery (5). From a critical transnational perspective – as indicated by Anim-Addo’s use of the term ‘creolisation’ - the point is not to see the world as composed of discrete, culturally particular traditions of feeling, but rather to explore the ways in which such discourses, practices and experiences have been produced relationally and are, as such, genealogically implicated in one another.
Such transnational imbrications are made clear, for example, though incisive analysis of the colonial legacies of empathy. Extending genealogical work on empathy and sympathy by scholars such as Saidiya Hartman (1997) and Amit Rai (2002), Susan Leigh Foster argues for the importance of situating the development of empathy as a concept ‘within the context of Britain’s discovery of the new world and subsequent colonial expansion’ (Foster 11). Smith and Hume’s founding analyses of sympathy and empathy, she suggests, depended on pernicious distinctions of nation and race, as well as those of gender and class. Smith, for instance, argued that ‘sympathy accrued to those [largely men] in a civilized society who lived in relative comfort and those of better means possessed greater sympathy. Savages, in contrast, necessarily spent their time tending to their own needs with no available time to devote attention to another’ (142). This example and others point not only to the ways in which empathy has long been employed as an affective tool in the pernicious construction of racialised, classed and gendered social ‘difference’, but also to how such empathetic discourses are not simply ‘European’ in invention, but rather, to borrow Ranjana Khanna’s words, they ‘could emerge only when Europe’s nations were entering modernity through their relationships with the colonies’ (Khanna 10).
While it is not my project to undertake an in depth analysis of the kinds of ‘non-Western’ frameworks for understanding emotion that Gunew, Anim-Addo, Khanna and others consider, my analysis takes inspiration from these scholars in its efforts to engage in a project of ‘worlding’ empathy, of ‘provincializing’ emotional discourses and practices that have presented themselves as universal as a means to open up other ways of thinking and feeling affective politics (Khanna, 2003: 3). Keeping these various affective interventions in mind, the following sections flesh out key aspects of my approach to theorising the transnational politics of empathy, focusing on three main themes: ‘neoliberal empathy’, ‘alternative empathies’ and ‘affective translation’.
Neoliberal Empathy?
One important starting point for my project is to consider how current manifestations of empathy are tied to the shifting assemblage of policies, techniques, discourses and atmospheres commonly referred to as ‘neoliberalism’. Although neoliberalism is diverse and takes shape differently in different geo-political domains, I understand it broadly as involving ‘the infiltration of market-driven truths and calculations into the domain of politics’ (Ong 4; see also Rose, 2006). I am interested specifically in how feminist and anti-racist ethics of empathy are susceptible to appropriation by market-oriented rhetorics and practices that are arguably concerned with ‘empathy’, ‘care’, ‘equality’ and ‘social justice’ primarily to the extent that they can be incorporated within, or indeed leveraged to advance, goals of transnational economic competitiveness. As an exemplary case, I want to consider some of the affective interconnections among feminist and anti-racist praxis, American presidential communication and popular business narratives.
Rhetorics of care, compassion, and empathy have been pivotal to recent American presidential politics. As Kathleen Woodward argues, ‘the political fortunes of George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’ all turned on a ‘national discourse of empathy’ (Woodward 60). For Bill Clinton, the empathetic catchphrase ‘I feel your pain’ was a consistently successful mode of political rhetoric (Garber, 2004). Via the slogan of ‘compassionate conservatism’, the Republican party skilfully ‘appropriated the rhetoric of feeling that had been so powerfully associated with the Democrats’ (Woodward 59). Yet, as critical theorists have argued, Republican discourses of compassion served merely as a code for the privatisation of the state and for the federal government’s divestiture of responsibility for ameliorating social suffering through impelling families, local institutions, and faith-based organisations to take up this obligation themselves (Berlant, 2004).
While keen to distinguish his politics from Republican narratives, President Obama has not shied away from mobilising such affective rhetorics. Indeed, a discourse of empathy was central to his 2008 presidential campaign. As he wrote in his second memoir, The Audacity of Hope, ‘a sense of empathy’ defines ‘[my personal] moral code’ (Obama 66) and serves as ‘a guidepost to my politics’ (67). While Republican discourses ask ‘us’ to ‘cultivate compassion for those lacking in the foundations for belonging where we live’ (Berlant, 2004: 3), Obama calls for empathy that appears to transcend the borders of community and nation. As he proclaimed in his 2009 inaugural address, ‘we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect’. And, in a widely cited commencement address to Northwestern University in 2006, Obama argues that ‘In a culture where those in power too often encourage selfish impulses’, we are told that ‘the innocent people being expelled from their homes half a world away are somebody else’s problem to take care of’. Yet, now is the time for Americans to ‘broaden, and not contract, [their] ambit of concern’ and recognise their ‘obligation to those who are less fortunate’ and their ‘debt to all those who helped [them] get to where [they] are’ (2006b).
In urging Americans to develop more empathetic attitudes to those who are less privileged than themselves, whether ‘the laid-off steel worker, [or] the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room’ (2006b), Obama employs a language of ‘mutuality’, ‘debt’ and ‘obligation’ which seems to echo feminist and anti-racist concerns regarding privilege, complicity and social justice. Yet, the nature of Obama’s empathy and its potential affinities with these critical perspectives need to be assessed in the context of his administration’s wider neoliberal stance. It is important to note, for instance, that his vision of empathy, which transcends national borders is articulated in the context of a speech that simultaneously, and predictably, stresses the need to increase the nation’s economic competitiveness in response to threats that ‘better educated’ Chinese and Indian ‘kids’ will take ‘American’ jobs (2006b). Indeed, upon closer inspection, I want to argue, Obama’s image of the ‘empathetic American’ is a risk-taking and enterprising individual who not only cultivates appropriate emotional capacities and skills but also engages in ‘healthy’ economic competition - in other words, an ideal neoliberal citizen.
Reminding his audience that the ‘power’ of the market to ‘generate wealth and expand freedom’ is both ‘unquestioned’ and ‘unmatched’ (2009), Obama impels the American citizen to ‘cultivate’ empathy as an emotional capacity alongside the imperatives to ‘challenge yourself’ and take ‘greater risks in the face of greater odds’ as a means to ‘realize your full potential’ (2006b). He maintains that while developing an empathetic outlook is a necessary means of recognising one’s obligations to those less fortunate than oneself, cultivating empathy is crucial, above all, ‘because you have an obligation to yourself’ (2006b). That is, I want to suggest, an obligation not only to be a caring and empathetic individual because it’s ‘the right thing to do’, but also because empathy, as an emotional competency, has become part and parcel of being a self-managing and self-enterprising individual within a neoliberal order (Boler, 1999; Swan, 2008; Pedwell 2012a, b).
In these ways, Obama’s political language resonates closely with the neoliberal rhetoric of the ‘empathy economy’ in popular business literatures, which figures empathy as an affective tool for increasing multinational corporations’ competitiveness and profit accumulation in the context of globalisation (see, for example, Nussbaum, 2005). Dev Patnaik and Peter Mortensen’s bestselling book, Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy (2009) is emblematic of this growing business trend. While Obama envisions the ‘empathetic nation’, Patnaik and Mortensen imagine the ‘empathetic company’: To ‘continue to grow and prosper’, they argue, corporations have to ‘step outside of themselves’ and ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’ (Patnaik & Mortens x). Through producing ‘widespread empathy’ amongst employees, companies like IMB and Nike have not only become more in tune with the specific interests and needs of their customers, Patnaik and Mortensen suggest, they have also been able to discover and seize on new markets and ‘opportunities for growth’ (xi). It is clear, however, that what is valued above all here is not care, ethics or morality per se, but rather how empathy, as an affective technology for ‘knowing the other’, can be mobilised to extract increased profits via a return to ‘capitalism in its oldest form’ (64) – that is, capitalism unfettered by cumbersome regulations. Indeed, Patnaik and Mortensen go as far as to suggest that, within the capitalist marketplace, empathy could in fact
replace regulation (62).
Thus, in common with feminist and anti-racist literatures, both Obama’s liberal political discourse of emotion and Patnaik and Mortensen’s neoliberal business rhetoric of empathy figure empathic engagement as that which connects individuals to wider communities. Yet unlike more critical scholars and activists, the emphasis in these interventions is not on empathy’s potential role in building transnational social justice. Rather, empathy is understood primarily as an affective technology for ‘creating the many’, a means to maximize economic competitiveness and growth within transnational circuits of capital. It is vital to note, moreover, the gendered, raced, classed and geo-political distinctions on which these mobilisations of affect depend – that is, who is able to capitalise on the affective injunction to hone empathy as an a mode of neoliberal capital and who is confined to performing unrecognised emotional labour (Pedwell, 2012a, 2012b). The key point to underscore at this stage, therefore, is that a critical, transnational politics of empathy needs to pay attention to empathy’s uneven effects, to the particular social and geo-political distinctions and exclusions the generation of it can produce in a global frame.

Nonetheless, my intention is not to (re)produce what Clare Hemmings (2011) calls ‘a good/bad empathy’ divide by mapping it onto neoliberalism – where ‘bad empathy’ functions in the interests of capitalist technologies and ‘good empathy’ lies outside these calculative logics. Rather, given complex the entanglement of both intellectual and professional discourses and practices (including feminist and anti-racist praxis) with neoliberal modes of governmentality, my argument is that no such divide is possible. This is not to suggest, of course, that the only response possible is resignation to the inevitability of neoliberalism, but instead to argue that it is in the ambivalences, tensions and contradictions of both emotion and global capitalism that spaces for thinking and feeling transnational encounters differently might emerge. In this vein, the next section considers how we might exploit such ambivalences by engaging the possibilities of ‘alternative empathies’.
Alternative Empathies
Although mainstream liberal narratives pose empathy as universal (as something everyone has the potential to develop), these discourses routinely take for granted a socially privileged subject as potential “empathiser”. That is, in the vast majority of Euro-American calls for empathy as affective solution, it is an imagined subject with class, race and geo-political privileges who encounters “difference” and then chooses whether or not to extend empathy and compassion. Yet, as critical theorists have argued, the act of “choosing” to extend empathy can itself be a way to assert power. Moreover, the repeated mapping of categories of “empathiser” and “sufferer” onto traditional social and geo-political hierarchies can function to fix such hierarchies and the privileges they uphold. That is, while the affective capacities and skills of privileged (middle class, white, and/or Western) subjects can be cultivated, honed and tested through empathy, the less privileged (poor, non-white and/or “third world”) “other” remains simply the object of empathy and thus once again fixed in place (Hemmings, 2011; Pedwell, 2012b, 2013).
With these power dynamics in mind, this section explores the potentialities of what might be referred to as alternative empathies. Specifically, I am interested in how empathy expressed from the marginsof dominant postcolonial social imaginaries might differ from mainstream liberal and neoliberal mobilisations, as well as how it might disrupt or refigure their affective logics.3 To engage this question, I want to turn to Antiguan American author Jamaica Kincaid’s, postcolonial literary work, A Small Place (1988), which provides a powerful commentary on the political, cultural, economic and affective links between colonialism, slavery and more contemporary practices of tourism in the Caribbean. Given empathy’s historical links to debates about the imaginative possibilities of literature (Boler, 1999; Nussbaum, 2003), drawing on critical literary works to consider how empathetic engagement has the potential to ‘become otherwise’ seems fitting (Deleuze and Guattari 1994).
A Small Place opens by directly addressing an imagined Western tourist: ‘If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see’ (Kincaid 3). Seeing through the eyes of this ‘white North American or European’, Kincaid’s narrator describes the seemingly unreal beauty of the island that will have revealed itself as their airplane descended into V. C. Bird International Airport: ‘What a beautiful island Antigua is – more beautiful than any of the other islands you have seen’ (3). But ‘since you are on holiday’, the narrator points out, ‘the thought of what it might be like for someone who had to live day in, day out in a place that suffers constantly from drought, and so has to watch carefully every drop of fresh water . . . must never cross your mind’ (4). With these lines, Kincaid’s intention becomes clear - this will not be a pleasurable literary tour of this ‘exotic’ island for the reader, who may themselves be the kind of tourist these opening pages conjure. Rather, it is likely to be a distinctly uncomfortable experience, one that brings to life for the reader with visceral clarity ‘the palpable impact of European colonialism and tourism and their own complicity in perpetuating it’ (back cover).
In assuming this imagined tourist’s view of Antigua as she negotiates her stay on the island, Kincaid’s narrator, I suggest, engages in the empathetic practice of ‘imaginatively experiencing the feelings, thoughts and situations of another’ (Chabot Davis, 2004: 403). However, different to liberal (as well as many more critical) narratives, Kincaid’s ‘confrontational empathy’ is not premised on care, concern and sympathy towards this other. Rather, it is sharp, incisive and uncompromising. Furthermore, this empathy works not to enable “privileged” subjects to put themselves in “the other’s shoes”; instead, it is a mode of affective perspective-taking adopted by those usually viewed as the postcolonial“ objects” of empathy, which calls various transnational subjects to account for their role in perpetuating damaging neo-colonial and neoliberal relations. Throughout A Small Place, Kincaid’s careful yet staggering juxtapositions make connections between colonial “pasts”and neoliberal “presents” palpable: ‘You must not wonder what exactly happened to the contents of your lavatory when you flushed it’, she tells the tourist, ‘Oh, it might all end up in the water you are thinking of taking a swim in . . . it would amaze even you to know the number of black slaves this ocean has swallowed up’ (13-14). Thus, rather than positioning “the tourist” as a potential empathiser who, if they could only be forcefully affected, might be transformed into a more critically aware and ethical person, Kincaid’s confrontational empathy figures this subject as devoid of empathy, as perhaps incapable of it. Indeed, the tourist’s very existence - her relaxation, pleasure and freedom – depends precisely on repressing any discomfort or critical questioning that might lead to an empathy premised on acknowledgement of her own complicity in others’ suffering.
Although Kincaid is no doubt aware of the differences between tourists (of social location, privilege and perspective), she gives the reader no choice but to fill the role she has assigned her imagined tourist – a move that, for some readers, produces frustration and anger. If this move is read as strategic, however, we might say that Kincaid’s hope is that readers’ anger at being stereotyped might give them an (empathetic) sense - if very limited and fleeting - of what it feels like to be the object of dehumanisation and stereotyping as well as to always be spoken for – a feeling that black Antiguans (and other so-called “racial others”) have long been subject to at hands of colonial (and postcolonial) commentators. The possibility therefore exists that, for some readers, reactions of anger or rage might, once interrogated, give way to shame.
While shame is widely viewed a ‘negative’ emotion, feminist, postcolonial and queer theorists have explored its ambivalence and transformative potential. For example, drawing on the psychologist Silvan Tomkins’ notion that ‘interest and shame are intimately connected’ (Probyn ix), Elspeth Probyn argues that ‘shame reminds us with urgency what we are interested in’ and ‘goes to the heart of who we think we are’ (Probyn x). ‘We must use shame’, Probyn suggests, ‘to re-evalute how we are positioned in relation to the past and to rethink how we wish to live in proximity to others’ (xiv; see also Spelman, 1997). Acknowledging shame, however, is not an easy or straightforward task, not least because it iswidely ‘considered shaming to admit shame’ (xiii; see also Ahmed, 2004). In this respect, it seems important to point out that Kincaid’s narrator also expresses her own shame, shame that self-governed Antigua may be, in her words, ‘a worse place that is was when it was dominated by the bad-minded English and all the bad-minded things they brought with them’ (Kincaid 41). As such, we might see the narrator’s own admission of shame as indicative of the critical generosity that underscores her confrontational empathy. That is, in expressing her shame, Kincaid’s narrator may make it more acceptable for the reader herself to show shame, indeed, she may take away some of the shame in showing shame - while also suggesting that there might be something powerful in sharing in shame’s varying postcolonial contexts, causes and affects.4
From this perspective, in contrast to liberal narratives (such as Nussbaum’s cited at the beginning of this article) in which “positive” empathy and compassion must be cultivated to win over “negative” shame and anger – A Small Place helps us think about how these emotions are not oppositional, but rather, may be complementary: in particular circumstances, it could be their mutual presence and interaction that creates conditions for affective transformation to occur. But Kincaid’s text also suggests that efforts to generate empathy might be less important or productive in some contexts than examining the potential causes and implications of empathetic “failures” (Hemmings, 2011) – those circumstances in which empathy reaches its limit point, is ignored or rejected by its intended recipient(s), has antithetical consequences to those anticipated, or simply makes no sense (or difference) in the midst of given social conditions and political hierarchies. Extending this section’s interest in the possibilities of alternative empathies, the next section considers what might be gained through thinking empathy and/ as “affective translation”.
Affective Translation
Within liberal and neoliberal political imaginaries of social justice, empathy has frequently been understood as an affective technique through which “we” can come to know the cultural “other”. As noted earlier, since the writing of Smith and Hume, many philosophical and psychological accounts have conceptualised empathy ‘in relation to our capacity to grasp of the content of other people’s minds and to predict and explain what they will think, feel and do’ (italics mine, Coplan and Goldie ix). As such, I want to argue, political mobilisations of empathy that draw on these frameworks often employ a positivist lens that associates empathy reductively with knowledge, accuracy and prediction. For example, the philosopher Amy Coplan argues that genuine empathy necessitates that ‘an observer’s affective states are qualitatively identical to a target’s, though they may vary in degree’ (Coplan 6). By contrast, ‘congruent and reactive emotions’ (i.e. becoming angry in the face of another’s mistreatment or suffering) ‘do not qualify as empathetic . . . because they are not sufficiently accurate representations of a target’s situated psychological states’ (italics mine, 7). Questions immediately arise regarding whether any two (differently culturally, socially and psychically located) transnational subjects can ever feel ‘the same’ feelings, and indeed whether emotions or affects, in their often ephemeral and fleeting quality, lend themselves at all to the positivist registers of “accuracy” and “equivalence”. Furthermore, and crucially, it is clear that, in a geo-political context in which neoliberal and neocolonial affective technologies and psychologies designed to produce increasingly “accurate” knowledge of “cultural others” are employed by global hegemons, empathetic targeting can function insidiously the interests of regulation, discipline and even annihilation (Chow, 2006; Povinelli, 2011).
Moving away from visions of empathy concerned with accuracy, equivalence and prediction, I want to think through the possibilities of empathy and/as translation. What might it mean to understand empathy not as emotional equivalence (either by spontaneous fellow feeling or imaginatively conjuring an “accurate” sense of the emotional or psychic state of another), but instead as a complex and ongoing set of translational processes involving conflict, negotiation and attunement? What could emerge from a giving up of the empathic desire for cultural mastery or psychic transparency and a giving in to being affected by that which is experienced as “foreign” in the midst of transnational flows, relations and power structures?
In addressing these questions, there are productive resources to be found in the field of critical translation studies. In the midst of “the cultural turn”, scholars of linguistic translation moved away from the ‘once key concept of equivalence’ (Lefevre and Bassnett, 1998: 1) to pay increasing attention to rhetorics, norms and cultural and geopolitical context. Translation could be understood from this perspective as practices of intercultural transfer within structural relations of power, which operated through forms of cultural ‘negotiation’ rather than strict linguistic faithfulness’ (1-2; see also Bielsa and Bassnett, 2009). If translation is understood as premised on negotiation, I want to suggest, then it must not only involve power, bartering and compromise, but also relationality, resistance, imagination and change. From this perspective, rather than posing conflict as what needs to be neutralised or eliminated through empathy (as per the liberal ethics of empathy), a conceptualisation of empathy as translation figures conflict, contradiction and even antagonism as vital to affective politics and political transformation.
Alongside mapping the colonial legacies of translation practices, postcolonial translation scholars also explore the political implications of “foreignising” translation. As Lawrence Venuti has discussed, when a translation strategy based on ‘domestication’ is followed, the text is ‘adapted to suit the norms of the target’ audience, and ‘signs of its original foreignness are erased’. By contrast, in the practice of ‘foreignisation’, ‘the foreign’ is ‘deliberately not erased, so as to compel the target readers to acknowledge the otherness of the source’ (Venuti, 1992 cited in Lefevre and Bassnett, 1998, 9; see also Bassnett and Trivedi, 1999). Referring to this technique as ‘dissident’ translation, Venuti points to how foreignisation can function as a practice of political resistance, compelling readers ‘to rethink their own domestic norms and conventions, and recognize that in erasing the unfamiliar, what is happening is actually a form of ethnocentric textual violence’ (10). In this vein, we can say that an
empathy premised on translation works less to achieve an accurate or faithful affective equivalence, than it does to revise, re-direct, or open up affective relations in ways that can be politically transformative. Furthermore, critical scholars examine how processes of linguistic and cultural translation often involve, and in turn produce, a range of emotions and affects. For Gayatri Spivak, for example, translation ‘is the most intimate act of reading’, and a translation practice that does not simply reproduce neo-colonial paradigms require that the translator be motivated by ‘love’ – not as a romantic ideal, but rather as a ‘surrender to the text’ (Spivak 180). If translation is now seen as a highly affective process, there are also, however, important questions to ask regarding how emotions and affects themselves are translated (Ahmed, 2004; Gunew, 2009). While empathy, frequently understood by liberals as a universal human quality, is framed as an affective bridge between subjects, cultures or societies, it cannot simply be assumed that it is understood, generated or felt the same way in different contexts or by differently positioned subjects.
Keeping these contributions in mind, I want to consider how the dynamics of affective translation take shape through a critical reading of Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love (2010). Set in Sierra Leone before and after its civil war of the 1990s, Forna’s novel engages with how trauma, loss, empathy and love are experienced, expressed and translated in the aftermath of violent conflict and interrogates the role of “European” psychological and affective techniques in these processes. Much of the story follows British clinical psychologist, Adrian Lockhart, who, alongside a host of Western aid workers, has travelled to Freetown with the conviction that he can provide aid and support. Through examining the affective contours of Adrian’s fraught intimate and professional relationships as the narrative unfolds, Forna highlights the limits and dangers of an empathy that involves amassing “accurate” contextual knowledge of “the other” and illuminates how translating affect is bound up with negotiating both conflict and uneven temporalities. Although Adrian has come to Sierra Leone with the conviction that he can help its people heal, his efforts are frustrated by the seeming incommensurability of affective patterns and norms that alienate him from his patients and colleagues. Feeling isolated and shut out by Sierra Leoneans’ ‘unembarrassed’ refusal to fill what he perceives as gaping silences in the course of his “talking therapy”, Adrian ruminates on the difficulty of being ‘surrounded by languages you don’t understand’ (Adrian 27). Interestingly, Adrian’s experience of affective dissonance in the novel is intimately linked with his sense of temporal dissonance. While his life in London was organised by seasons and ‘train timetables’ (64), in Freetown, ‘there is no dawn. No Spring or Autumn’ (27). Time seems much slower and, in the intense heat, ‘he feels like a sleepwalker’ (45). He admits that, in his sessions with patients, his ‘empathy’ feels ‘slight, unconvincing’ (21). Linking back to critical translation studies, we might say that Adrian arrives in Freetown equipped with an empathy premised on expectations of ‘domestication’ (Venuti, 1992). He wants cultural and affective particularities to be translated for him in a way that can smooth over traces of radical ‘otherness’, so as to mesh with his existing assumptions and expectations.
Adrian’s very motivations for coming to Sierra Leone are continually questioned by his colleague Kai Mansaray, a surgeon in the hospital. Calling Adrian ‘a tourist’, Kai goads him, framing his arrival in Freetown as part of a massive influx of Westerners who now see the war-torn nation as fertile ground, not only for ‘giving something back’ to those in need, but also, as Kai puts it, for ‘living out their unfinished dreams’ (220). Yet, as Kai makes clear, this sense of limitlessness reveals precisely the geo-political particularity of the hope and affective possibility that only those in positions of privilege see as universal. The two men’s first encounters in the novel, though convivial, thus seem overdetermined by the wider geo-political structures of power in which they are embedded. In one of the novel’s early scenes, for instance, Adrian watches Kai while he sleeps during a break from work at the hospital: here we have Adrian as voyeur, his empathy premised on the power to look, indeed to maximise the visibility of his ‘target’, to ‘see without being seen’ (Chow, 2006).
Drawing on Spivak’s analysis of translation as a political process requiring love, in the form of affective surrender to ‘the rhetoricity of language’ (Spivak 181), we might say that things begin to change for Adrian only when he lets go of an approach to translation premised on knowledge, accuracy and prediction, and instead surrenders to the ‘foreign’ rhetorics, affects and temporalities that confront him. Indeed, a different kind of intimacy between Adrian and Kai begins to take shape, in part, through a kind of temporal translation that frays hierarchical boundaries:

In the days and weeks that follow, the rhythms of their lives begin to intertwine . . . The patterns of Kai’s breaks from the operating theatre become familiar to Adrian, and he will, on occasion, endeavor to stop working at the same time. He finds he looks forward to the other man’s companionship in the evenings (51).
This process of affective synchronization involves not a flattening or domestication of differences, but rather a temporary intertwinement of rhythms, a tuning of frequencies, and a sense of shared survival in the midst of staggering losses. The most substantial shift in Adrian’s relationship with Kai comes when Adrian falls ill with malaria. Dizzy and weakened by his symptoms, he must let go of any semblance of sovereignty as he becomes dependent on Kai to nurse him back to health. Gradually, through becoming open to being affected by Freetown’s affective temporalities and by sharing time and space with Kai and others, Adrian becomes more affectively attuned to ‘the silences, the textures, the shades’ of life in Sierra Leone (104). He begins to have ‘less trouble understanding’ the ‘accents and patterns of the language’ (161), and eventually feels that his patients have more ‘trust’ and ‘confidence’ in him.
Significantly then, unlike a project of establishing cultural authority through mastering complex cultural codes and amassing ‘accurate’ knowledge of ‘the other’, the empathetic attunement between Adrian and Kai men develops, in part, through a process of de-subjectification – a sensing of mutual vulnerability that creates an opening for different ways of affecting and being affected to emerge, and for a sense of affective solidarity to take shape. As such, affective translation here is not so much about the faithful reproduction of meaning from one cultural context to another, but rather, about the potentially radical implications of becoming ‘a foreigner’ in one’s own affective language; that is, of becoming minoritarian (Deleuze and Guattari, 1975). This is not, by any means, to claim that wider structures of power are ever cast aside, a point crystallized by the fact that Adrian can always (and will indeed always) leave Freetown; but only to suggest that, in this context, there appears to be a link between openness to being affected by what is ‘foreign’ (internally and externally) and a relinquishing of both certainty and (a degree of) control.

Interestingly, empathy in The Memory of Love is not confined todescribing relations between individual subjects (i.e. through affectively entering the mind/psyche of another); indeed, it exceeds “the subject”. The processes of affective synchronization and attunement I have described are partly about a kind of empathising with time and space themselves. As such, in addition to engaging the intimate and political potentialities afforded by empathy’s less intentional, willed or conscious aspects, affective translation offers an understanding of empathy that extends affective relations to the non- and more-than-human.5 For further discussion of non or more-than human empathy, particularly in relation to neuroscience and ethology (see Pedwell, 2014). Importantly, however, such processes of attunement are not simply direct or passive ones of “emotional contagion”: affective translation here involves conflict and negotiation. Indeed, Adrian is politically challenged by those around him throughout the novel; he is repeatedly compelled to translate and interrogate how power and geo-political positionality shape his affective expectations, his habitual ways of thinking and feeling. My reading of Forna’s novel therefore offers an understanding of affective translation that figures empathy as both a relation of power in which conflict is always present, and as a potential openness to being affected and transformed by that which is encountered as ‘foreign’ in the midst of shifting transnational ‘connectivities’ (Grewal, 2005).


This article has explored some of the varied ways in which empathy travels and translates; how affect is differentially interpreted, experienced and made to work transnationally. Rather than posing empathy as an emotional solution to complex structural, political and economic problems, I have asked what attention to empathy’s diverse manifestations might tell us about the affective nature and workings of contemporary international geo-politics – whether this is the way in which neoliberal modes of governmentality extract and hone our emotional capacities in the interest of global capital or how the affective aftermaths of empire continue to shape both politico-economic and psycho-social relations in the (uneven) present. As I have tried to show, empathy, or any other emotion, alone cannot be the remedy to complex transnational social inequalities and conflicts, because it is always already bound up with, and produced through, these very relations of power.

In any critical approach to theorising empathy transnationally, attention to the ways in which feelings travel, and the political implications of such mobility, needs to be combined with attention to the significance of contingent social and geo-political location and positionality. As my analyses of ‘alternative empathies’ in Kincaid’s A Small Place and Forna’s The Memory of Love have sought to show, embodied location and geo-political context matter to the production of affect, to the particular ways in which empathy might work and gain significance. Nonetheless, from a critical transnational perspective, we cannot simply delineate discrete cultural contexts with their “own” affective particularities that might be compared to others: attention to affective relations requires that we constantly negotiate between the imperative to contextualise and the need to account for emergent and shifting cultural, socio-political and economic connectivities which keep the co-ordinates and qualities of any imagined context, group or site in flux. As such, we need a critical approach to exploring the transnational politics of emotion that can oscillate between particularity and flux, location and circuit, context and relation, structure and ephemera.

While my analysis has been critical of various claims for the transnational political efficacy of empathetic identification, it has not dispensed with empathy or extinguished its transformative potential. Indeed, in my mapping of empathy’s ambivalent grammar, and the ‘dissident translation[s]’ (Venuti, 1992) this has involved, there is, I hope, something of the promise and power of empathy that lives on – an affective afterlife generated precisely through empathy’s ambivalence, complexity and contingent relationships with other emotions and affects. In embracing a mode of affective translation involving negotiation, resistance, restaging and, perhaps, the creation of newness, my approach has offered empathies that open up rather than resolve, that mutate rather than assimilate, and that invent rather than transcribe. Affective translation, as I understand it, involves ways of relating that take difference, conflict and lack of full commensurability as central to transnational affective politics, and approach empathetic “failures” and “mis-translations” as opportunities for discovery and transformation.

1 See Foster, 2010; Coplan and Goldie, 2011; and Pedwell, 2014.

2 These differences between Smith and Hume resonate with much more recent scholarly debates concerning the overlaps and distinctions between “emotion” and “affect”. For further detail, see Pedwell, 2014.

3 Concepts of margin/marginality - and related distinctions of “centre” and “periphery” – are, for course, complex, fluid and shifting. People may be marginalised in some respects and privileged in others and such distinctions of power may change over time or across cultural and geo-political contexts. Nonetheless, as a complex and contingent concept, marginality offers a productive heuristic for thinking through the ambivalent links among emotion, positionality and transnationality at a time when distinctions between “the West and the Rest”, among other social and geo-political hierarchies, remain salient.

4 Importantly, differently positioned readers may have different (and shifting) affective reactions to this text. For a discussion of these complexities of reader location and reception, as well as the contradictions of Kincaid’s own “marginal” location, see Pedwell, 2013.

5 For further discussion of non or more-than human empathy, particularly in relation to neuroscience and ethology, see Pedwell, 2014.


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Body Sense and the Somatic Markers: Emotions in Consciousness Studies

Body Sense and the Somatic Markers : Emotions in consciousness studies

Sangeetha Menon

Abstract: Within the area of cognitive sciences and consciousness studies the primary aspect of emotion that is emphasised is the feel factor or the qualia of the experience. What makes an experience unique to the person defines its qualia and therefore is mostly inaccessible to others. The closest relative to qualia is emotion because of its person-centric nature. Emotion, for neuroscience, is today one of the junctions where brain and personal experience meet. The binary notions of reason/emotion are increasingly disappearing from serious discussions on cognition and consciousness, at least from the neurobiological point of view. And the central factor for this transformation is the binding problem in consciousness studies which brings the self to the forefront.

Keywords: qualia, feelings, emotion, reason

When the ears are filled with the sound of sweet song, or the nostrils with the scent of sandalwood etc., the state of indifference disappears and the heart is invaded by a state of vibration; such a state is precisely the so called power of beatitude, thanks to which the human is ‘gifted with heart’.

tatha hi madhure gite sparse va candanadike

madhyathi avagameya sauhrdaye spandanamanata

anandasaktih saivoktayatah sahrdayoh janah

(Abhinavagupta, Tantraloka, 3: 200)

What is it that makes us human? It’s not something you can programme. You can’t put it into a chip. It’s the strength of the human heart. The difference between us and the machines. ‘Terminator Salvation’ (as Marcus gives his heart to John Connor)


The history of interest in studying emotions is as old as ancient Egyptian culture and Ayurvedic medicine. Several questions persisted since then which continue to inspire the study of emotions and bring in the role of the brain, the body, and the self, interspersed by the influence of environment, society, art, and one’s character. When from one point of view emotions guide neural mechanisms for physiological and chemical balance, from another viewpoint emotion enhances self-expression and the presentation of the person. It is commonly agreed that all our experiences come with the subjective quality which provokes, invokes and enriches its contents. What we identify as ‘my own self’, ‘me’, and ‘mine’, is felt by us and expressed for others through our emotions. It is the feel factor of emotions that is recognised and gauged by others through our facial expressions, tone of voice, innuendos in speaking, and the general disposition of the body. The body-sense is invariably tied up with the expression and experience of emotions.

Emotions are variously interpreted as: physiological changes caused so as to produce appropriate behavioural responses; aesthetic agents that invoke relish in one who enjoys a piece of art; tools of communication that tell another person about the warmth or coldness of one’s personality; markers of attitude for inter-subjective transference; valence of one’s perception about life and life goals. Emotions carve our personal identities, without which others will find it hard to understand us and communicate with us. They are the narrators of physical, mental and social health for us and for others. Through our emotions we know how much we are in ‘control’ and how much we are involved.

How and why does brain activity generate emotions? Or does it? Are emotions evolutionary vestiges or enhancers of experience? Are feelings and emotions different, and do they have differing roles to play? Are there feelings that are not necessarily dependent on sensations? Can we have perceptions without feelings? Are feelings emergent properties of experience or are they discrete cognitive events? Can emotions be understood within the framework of neuroscience? Can feelings be considered as discrete cognitive events and understood within the framework of neuroscience? Another pertinent issue that is discussed currently is the ability of emotions to be part of a decision-making process by contributing to the cognitive deciders. How do emotions influence our cognitive capacities and rational processes?

How do emotions reason and respond? What are the rational and cognitive components in emotions? Or, in other words, what is ‘known’ through emotions? Can we think exclusively as a rational entity, or is it that our emotions influence the arguments that we form using rational activities in advance? What is the relation between emotion and memory? What is the role of emotion in autistic subjects? How is social behaviour guided by our emotional responses? What is to it to sense sensation, and sense feeling? Can we discount the belongingness and owning features of feelings, and how adequate are the concepts of qualia and representationalism to represent these subjective nuances? What is the role of bodily subjectivity in framing a continuum of self-experience?

Yet another contention about feelings i s that they are not necessarily dependent on sensations, and that there is the possibility of perceptions without feelings. Or, in other words, what is it to sense sensation, and sense feeling? Is there a difference between these two kinds of senses that we possess? And if they are different, how are physical sensations and mental feelings presented in a united manner to our subjective experiences? In spite of these enchanting questions that lure human imagination, emotions give us a sense of belonging and ownership through our feelings. They are the spokespersons of our inner life and aid in framing a continuum of self-experience and social interactions. We feel the other through our emotions. The other gets to know us through the expressions of our emotions.

Experiences Come to Us as a Unified Whole

Before we discuss emotion as a separate entity, we also need to remember experiences which make emotions what they are. At any given time, a subject has a multiplicity of experiences (Bayne & Chalmers). These experiences are distinct from each other. At the same time, they are unified by being aspects of a single encompassing state of consciousness. This total state is not a conjunction of different conscious states but is another conscious state in its own right. There is a fundamental and intrinsic unity to all experiences. The unity is experienced primarily through and by the subject of experience. Hence, we also know that we do not have just one single unified sensory experience but multi-sensorial experiences. We receive five sensory experiences that are directed to one object or several objects at the same time. I could be eating an apple, watching the blue waves, feeling the breeze on my skin, smelling the fresh air, hearing the distant call of the boatman – all these are experienced at the same time with clear distinctive feelings for each. At the same time, I could be also reveling in what could be described as a nostalgic feeling about the rivers in Kerala. Our experience presents all of its different content in one unitary perception. They all cohere in a unitary subject, which is my-self.

The question of unity of experience is crucial in understanding the feel factor in an experience. Does each sensory experience come with a feel factor unique to it? Or is there only a single experience with a rich feel factor? How are the distinct feel factors of discrete sensory experiences retained in a single, unified experience? Feinberg writes:

When the neurologist observes the brain experiencing ‘pain’ from the outside, she sees specific patterns of neural activity that can be accurately defined, but cannot see in the brain something neurological that is equivalent to the experience of ‘pain.’ When viewed from the outside therefore, the quale ‘pain’ really does not exist materially. From the outside point of view, my patient’s qualia are illusory. Qualia are personal and the relationship between a given brain and a given mind differs whether one is the person having that brain and that experience (Feinberg 147).

The Class of Qualia

In order to commence a discussion on emotion, it is important to understand the class of concepts to which it might belong. All components that produce or contribute to the subjective nature of experience, including our feelings, belong to the class of qualia. Emotions and such other entities are perhaps even responsible for generating the qualia of experience – the qualitative essence of experience.

A strong assumption among philosophers of mind is that all mental facts and states can be explained in terms of natural science. Mind can be naturalized and explained reductively in terms of neural functions. Emotions are also of natural kinds that can be known objectively and ARE marked biologically. Is this true? Have we even succeeded in defining emotion without vagueness?

. . . I suggest that progress in the scientific understanding of emotion is not, as one might assume, hampered by disagreements. Instead, I argue that progress is limited by the wide acceptance of assumptions that are not warranted by the available empirical evidence. These assumptions can be summarized by one core idea: Certain emotions (at least those referred to in Western cultures by the words ‘anger’, ‘sadness’, ‘fear’, ‘disgust’, and ‘happiness’) are given to us by nature. That is, they are natural kinds, or phenomena that exist independent of our perception of them. (Barrett 29).

Another view that argues against the naturalist supposition of emotion holds that the subjective nature of experience cannot be naturalized since the processes responsible are rooted in representational structures of mind. Amongst philosophers of mind the notion of ‘mental representation’ is a major contender to describe qualia in terms of cognition. Primarily, mental representation is a concept that has arisen from the theories of cognitive science.

Computational psychology and cognitive neurosciences postulate different structures and processes towards describing representation. These structures are rarely parts of common experience, but often linguistic concepts for representing the phenomenal and the feel factor of experience. Computational theory of mind suggests that brain is like a computer and mental processes are computations. Metzinger cautions against such approaches:

. . . Because many such philosophers are superb at analysing the deeper structure of language, they often fall into the trap of analyzing the conscious mind as if it were itself a linguistic entity, based not on dynamical self-organization in the human brain, but on a disembodied system of rule-based information processing (Metzinger 4).

From classic times the mind has been viewed as consisting of cognition, affect (emotion) and conation (motivation). A valid criticism against the approaches in cognitive sciences is that though the claim is that it is the ‘mind’ which is studied, only one aspect of the mind is projected to represent the whole mind, namely cognition. Emotion and motivation are as important, or at times more important than the cognitive rules we apply in life. And therefore our acts are not just ‘lifting objects’ or ‘standing up’ and ‘using linguistic rules’. Ledoux (2002) makes the following perceptive argument:

The fact that emotion and motivation are not studied by cognitive science makes sense if cognitive science is regarded as a science of cognition, but is troubling if the field is supposed to be the science of mind. A mind without feelings and strivings (the kind of mind traditionally studied in cognitive science) might be able to solve certain problems given by a cognitive psychologist, but it doesn’t stack up well as the mental foundation of a self. The kind of mind modeled by cognitive science can, for example, play chess very well, and can even be programmed to cheat. But it is not plagued with guilt when it cheats, or distracted by love, anger, or fear. Neither is it self-motivated by a competitive streak, or by envy or compassion. If we are to understand how the mind, through the brain, makes us who we are, we need to consider the whole mind, not just the parts that subserve thinking (LeDoux, 2002: 14).

The growing interest in ‘affective neuroscience’, as demonstrated primarily by the works of Panksepp, argues that if the focus on understanding consciousness is shifted to the realm of emotions, better results might emerge.

. . . many of the scientific dilemmas of the twentieth century, including the Computational Theory of Mind advocated by many cognitive scientists, were created by situating all of consciousness (i.e. the capacity of have ‘awareness’ of experiences) just at the very top of the brain, especially the sensory-perceptual and executive regions of the brain . . . These foundational basic emotional and motivational urges of all mammals, which monitor vital life qualities, are the foundation of mind (Panksepp, Asma, Curran, Gabriel, & Greif 15).

Is Qualia Impersonal?

Can we have a feeling without a sense-experience? How do we understand the mental feelings we have that are not necessarily dependent on sensations?

Much of the discussion on qualia is dependent on the body and the examples are centred on bodily subjectivity. We know that we can have a ‘feel’ without physical objects invoked by our thoughts, fears, elations, and such mental phenomena. On certain occasions, the ‘feel’ extends from the mind to the spirit through the values we cherish, such as altruism and compassion.

Every experience, along with the distinct sensory feel, comes with another awareness which is of a ‘belongingness’ or ‘owning’, as Kant says. But the ownership itself is an expression of non-intentional consciousness. The Eastern tradition of Vedanta describes this as one of the characteristics of the ontological self which serves as the adhering entity, enabling us to be aware of sensory experience(s).

Representationalists endorse an impersonal characteristic of qualia. This is not true in our real, lived life. Our sensations do not come to us in a blank, receptor mode. The unique features of our personalities are the filters through which they arrive, change, and are sustained. The implications of the feel factor differ for each person. To feel is not an isolated, clear, cognitive event. It is much more subjective in the sense that it involves mood changes, invokes memories, and even brings in abidance to values in life. The phenomenal aspects of an experience can transform a person for good or ill. Hence, the result or the extent of the feeling can continue for several days, indefinitely, or stay just for that moment.

Following Nagel and others before him, we ask with curiosity ‘what it is like’ to have a specific experience that belongs to another being? The mystery of ‘what it is like’ is sustained since we tend to address it in a cognitive context. With such an address the wholistic character of experience is reduced or ignored. The query ‘what it is like to be someone’ is about subjectivity and being as a whole, in its uniqueness.

The query on subjectivity as a whole is distinct from two other queries:

(a) What it is like to eat sushi?

(b) What it is like to experience the flavour of sushi enjoyed by A?

(a) is about the experience of a distinct sensation and (b) is about the distinct feelings that A enjoys from the flavour: (a) is object centred. (b) is person-centred?

Is (a) equivalent to (b)?

Unless we make this distinction, the larger question of ‘what it is like to be oneself’ cannot be approached. Nagel remarks: ‘the analogical form of the English expression ‘what it is like’ is misleading. It does not mean “what (in our experience) it resembles”, but rather ‘how it is for the subject himself’? (Nagel 442)

Feeling and its Uniqueness

Each discrete sensation comes with its designated feeling. The feel of touch is different from the feeling of watching sunset (and touch itself has myriad nuances depending on a large number of factors). The feel of anger is different from both these. What this means is that each sensation and mental state is discretely experienced. However, we cannot say that the feeling is a property of the object of experience. We can only presume that the feeling is a property of subjective experiences invoked by the object.

Yet another issue is about the universality of feeling. When we endure a toothache, or drink coffee, or watch the redness of an evening sky, these experiences invoke a certain element of discomfort (in the case of toothache), or joy (in the case of watching sunset), or another unique feeling. The feel factor is dependent on the object and the personality of its beholder. The nature of the feeling invoked by the objects has universal accompanying features such as ownership and a reassuring sense of being related to the world experienced. But the consequences of feeling need not be the same for all. For instance, I may become irritated by my toothache and go through a bad mood the whole day. Or I may quietly watch the discomfort without being overwhelmed by it.

Feeling cannot be considered in isolation as a one-time experience. Feeling is fully comprehended only if the one-time experience is extended to include the consequences such a feeling produces in terms of attitudinal responses. The feel factor is guided by the reflective consciousness the self possesses. In any case, what is arguably confirmed is that there is a subjective feeling to human experience. Feeling has unique nuances exclusive to the person, as well as universal features that influence the experience, the experiencer, and the cohabitants in an interpersonal world.

A few philosophers have argued that consciousness is not a composite and unitary entity but discrete and formed of different states. The discussion on feeling demonstrates to us that in fact consciousness is marked by its unity, and its intentional, phenomenal and introspective capabilities come together. What offers serious challenges to the unidirectional and closed theories about feeling and its relation to sensation is the question, ‘Can sensations be altered’? Can perceptions happen without a feeling? Is there a possibility for the brain to transfer and switch over sensory functions? Is feeling a natural state or is it induced? If so, what is the nature of the subjective self that gives a coherent feeling about sensations? By establishing the irreducible feel factor in all experiences, can we argue for an irreducible self?

Arguments for the non-reducibility of feeling are often demonstrated with thought experiments. The ‘Mary’s knowledge’ argument1 (Jackson), and ‘what it is like to be a bat’2 argument (Nagel) make strong cases for the existence of qualia.

Mixed Up Senses

Are the ‘ how’ and ‘ when’ (correlates) of feelings neural l y determined? Is the brain hardwired for each sensation separately and without change? Does the brain always differentiate among the senses? Can there be cross-sensory experiences? Can the conscious agent intervene and adapt to such experiences? Does the feel factor always follow sensation and not vice versa? The case studies in synaesthesia (Ramachandran; Cytowic) and experiments in auditory vision invoke these questions and challenge our classical idea about the feeling defined by sensation.

In usual conditions, we experience our five senses discretely. But what if the causes and effects of sensations are mixed up? Synaesthesia3 involves a breakdown in communication between areas within the brain, leading to a release of limbic processes which are, in turn, experienced as synaesthetic percepts (Cytowic 350). It is a perceptual condition of mid sensations. A stimulus in one sensory modality involuntarily elicits a sensation in a different sense, or senses. An internal intentional object is constructed during perception (Cytowic 350) without a corresponding external object of reference. synaesthetes also experience mid-sensations with the same modality. For instance, perception of a form may induce the perception of colour.

The mixing up of sight with sound (chromosthesia) is by far the most frequent synaesthetic experience. Colour, movement and geometric shape are typical properties of the synaesthete’s sensations. For persons endowed with coloured hearing, for example, speech and music are not only heard but also a visual mélange of coloured shapes, movement and scintillation is experienced (Cytowic 16). The narration of the strange experiences that a synaesthete could have baffles us and questions our taken-for-granted notions about normality, beliefs, discrete sensory experiences and body responses that we think we have naturally.

Studies also show that emotion and the limbic system have a greater role in synaesthesia. Emotion, in fact, has a significant role in normal sensory function. Ramachandran’s example of the sounds ‘buba’ and ‘kiki’ (Ramachandran) that give an image of smoothness and ruggedness to the listener encourages us to consider whether we have the natural ability to add emotional valence to sounds in everyday life.

The instances narrated above imply that feeling is not strictly predesignated with a sense organ. What we can assume is that there is a feel factor (due to the presence or absence of a sensation) that influences the brain to behave differently either by natural disposition (as in the case of synaesthesia) or by non-invasive techniques such as auditory vision. These instances question our standard ways of understanding the working of the brain. They also bring to light the place of the human self that constantly challenges the brain and seeks adaptability to neural changes, through will power, the urge to experience, the hope to live better, and emotional richness.

Emotions that Reason

In technical discussions we tend to discriminate reason and

its abilities to be the arbitrator to judge the ‘objectivity’ of a thought

expressed in words. Often we take thinking to be a rational process

and rate how people think accordingly. But is all of thinking reason based?

Are our thoughts distinctly rational when we make decisions or a judgement, or designate a preference?

Not quite! Our thoughts are influenced by our whole personalities, and not just discrete reason-based calculations and assessments. The overall nature of thinking is not directed by a well-organized system of reason and its attributes, but biased by the attributes of the person who thinks the thoughts. His fears, desires, expectations, frustrations, joys, intuitions, values and emotions frame even a very rationally expressed thought. The only reason that such a complexity driving a thought is not very visible in its expression is because reason is influenced by subliminal tendencies sometimes not apparent even to the thinker.

Mainstream studies in cognitive sciences focus on reason-driven qualities of consciousness. When even a subject matter such as the feeling is studied in an exclusively rational fashion, Damasio’s and Le Doux’s (2002) approach to integrate emotion into the study of the self is noteworthy, though the method is mostly biological. Damasio considers consciousness and emotions as states of the body, more specifically, of the immune system. He uses Cartesian dualism as a point of departure. He argues, based on neuroscientific research, that reason and emotion are closely linked and at the same time distinguishes feelings from emotions (Damasio). There have also been studies arguing that even aesthetic emotion and aesthetic pleasure can be related to cognitive experience (Pouivet, 2000).

According to James (1884) and Damasio, feeling is a mental representation or mental map of the bodily state. Feeling is mental awareness whereas emotion is its visible effect. Emotion is physical and precedes feeling, which is mental. Emotion results in a physical behaviour and creates a neural map, which in turn leads to the feeling. A few scholars argue that there could also be what is called unconscious emotions, even though Freud did not attribute the unconscious nature to emotion but only to its cause.

Emotions are not always felt. When emotion is felt, the feeling is an emotion: the emotion is a conscious perception of a patterned change in the body. But emotions can go unfelt: they can be unconscious perceptions of patterned changes in the body (Prinz 17).

Emotions can also involve imagined perceptions.

A real life emotional experience involves perceptions, thoughts and feelings, typically directed towards the object of the emotion. Recognition that one is having an emotional experience is not a necessary part of every such experience. So, if an emotional experience were to have an imaginative counterpart, then we would expect it to involve imagined perceptions, thoughts and feelings typically directed towards the imagined object (Goldie 131).

Can affective and cognitive processes be distinctly conceptualized? Jaak Panksepp argues in the affirmative with the suggestion of different locales for their origin and processing, based on the studies of animals.

Affects have a neo-cortical locus of control; they arise from broad scale

state control function - large scale neural ensembles in action; they are analog, less computational, and generate intentions-in action that guide action-to-perception processes, with many neuropeptidergic codes. In contrast cognitions have a neocortical locus of control; they arise from more discrete informational channel information. Thus cognitions are more digital, more computational, can generate perception-to action processes that can lead to intentions-to-act, and are profoundly dependent on rapidly acting amino-acid transmitters (Panksepp 173-174).

The cognition-emotion divide is presented in terms of somatic and felt differences by Damasio. Damasio echoes William James’ idea that we first react with the body and then we feel. James talks about the transition from an ‘object-simply-apprehended’, through the sense organ, to an ‘object-emotionally-felt’.

Developing the view of James on the bodily origin of emotion, a key hypothesis Damasio offers is the ‘somatic marker’, which highlights the importance of emotional learning in making effective decisions. There is an important role for feelings in reasoning. In a given situation, feelings enable us to narrow down the number of possible choices for an action. It helps us with consequential thinking and cautions about high risk actions. The idea of somatic markers, according to Damasio, also has potential benefits in therapies for mental health.

With the help of historical medical cases4 and his own case studies, Damasio (1999) demonstrates that impairment to the prefrontal cortical area (according to him, this is the seat of ‘somatic markers’) also impairs the ability to use reason or behave rationally. In short, to make rational decisions we need feelings as well. Emotion and feeling are equally important for the neural machinery, and are the foundation for biological regulations based on homeostatic controls. Neural processes and functions that are behind these mechanisms are distributed over several locations in the brain, their simultaneous working contributes to psychological phenomena. A reduction in emotion could contribute to irrational behaviour. Those with dysfunctions in decision-making seem to lack emotion, according to his studies.

As discussed in his book on feeling and emotion Damasio’s concept of emotion and the place he gives to the interconnections between feeling and reasoning are a welcome relief from the dominant theories that see the self as a computational or problem-solving process. Taking a different route from the notion that emotion is a remnant of the reptilian or the old mammalian brain, Damasio brings emotion to the forefront of sophisticated self-expressions and also proposes a theory of self. For Damasio, consciousness is a process whereby the mind gets the reference called self. Yet, for him to understand the self is to understand its neural underpinnings and unravel the illusory sense of experience by its owner.

The Face of Emotions

The study of emotions and emotional experiences has a history that takes us to the fascinating accounts of Charles Darwin (1872) in the West and Bharata (ca. First Century CE) in the East. While Bharata, through Natyasastra, his magnum opus of theatrics and aesthetics, discussed the pervasive nature of emotions, their empirical expressions and states of origin, Darwin focused mainly on some of the basic emotions such as fear, from the observations he made during his voyages.

The Western taxonomies of emotion are more similar to the Natyasastra taxonomy for negative than for positive emotions (Hejmadi, Davidson, & Rozin 183). What is noteworthy, but hardly referred to in an historical account of the study of emotions, is Bharata’s underlying view that vision, movement, felt feelings, and expressed emotions are tied to the artist not just in an aesthetic sense but in both somatic and spiritual ways. The artist’s self experiences an engagement coupled with detachment. Their agency brings in control of the somatic configurations, emotional expressions, while being in a receptive awareness to sensory and mental information from themselves and the audience.

A similar understanding is reported from a recent study of ballet dancers, which considers agency to be tied up with control, receptivity and transformation (Legrand & Ravn, 2009), and subjectivity to exist in movement. While our movement and gait are influenced and changed by emotional and other mental content at the prevailing time (Crane, Gross, & Fredrickson, 2006); amplitude, speed and fluidity of movement and gesture are indicators of underlying emotional process (Castellano, Villalba, & Camurri, 2007). Studies have also established that emotions can be recognised through multiple modalities such as face, body gesture and speech (Castellano, Kessous, & Caridakis, 2008). A cluster of studies presented at the 2012 Alzheimer’s Association’s International Conference in Vancouver linked physical changes such as changes in gait, to early signs before cognitive impairments became manifest (Paddock, 2012).

Emotion influences our body and subjectivity. The reverse also might be true to a certain extent in that the expressions on our face5, and the style of motion we adopt also reverse influence the emotions that could prevail. The exciting question from the mutual influence between emotion and body is whether emotion has a primary or intermediary role in actualizing the finer planes of self (Menon, 2011)? The ongoing discussion as to whether we can agree upon a set of emotions as basic, and whether the rest of the emotions can be worked out from them, is largely guided by the constituents of emotion itself rather than its impact upon the self.

It is a matter agreed upon by all of us that somehow our emotions have influences on our body and bodily organs. Our body and face represent the emotions felt, through different facial expressions, variations in temperature, and skin texture. A major debate in emotion studies is about the face and facial expressions. Charles Darwin brought in the relevance of facial and bodily expressions into the light of scientific discussion in his The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Darwin asked why a particular expression was associated with a particular emotion, and the ensuing work formed part of his demonstration of the continuity of the species.

Do the bodily expressions of emotion cause the subsequent experience of feeling an emotion, or does emotion cause movements and expressions of the body? This is a topic that has engaged psychologists, philosophers and physicians over the last century. A major attempt to trace the neural and anatomical correlates of emotions, primarily those that are described as ‘self-conscious’ emotions, such as embarrassment, pride and guilt (Dahlberg), might also help explain the function of emotions in general to contribute to and shape social relations. In recent times there is a resurgence in studying self-conscious emotions such as respect, embarrassment, pride, guilt and shame (Tracy and Robins) distinguishing them from basic emotions, and emphasizing the self-sense.

A sense of self as conceived by theorists since William James (1890) includes both an ongoing sense of self-awareness (the “I” self) and the capacity for complex self-representations (the “me” self, or the mental representations that constitute one’s identity). Together, these processes relating to the self make it possible for self-evaluations, and therefore self-conscious emotions, to occur (Tracy and Robins 7).

The significant neural areas and anatomical systems that are watched in order to trace the route of emotions from chemical to psychological space of the self are the limbic system, thalamus, insula and pregenual anterior cingulate cortex. The downside of such approaches is the assumption that emotions are evolutionarily driven and hence biologically primitive. It is also to be critically examined if each emotion is biologically basic and is a separate, inherited, complex reflex that is hardwired at birth (Barrett 30).

A comparative and collative study of basic emotions and emotion systems (Ortony & Turner) argues for affective valence, to feel positive or negative, to be the hallmark of an emotion. Emotion cannot generate neutral valence (though according to Aristotle ‘indifference’ is also an emotion). Following this argument one could ask whether complex psychological systems like desire can be moved out of the category of emotions? Geoffrey Madell (& Ridley 155) argues to the contrary: that some emotions are varieties of desire such as longing or yearning for something and some emotions are varieties of pleasure such as joy and elation.

It might also be not fruitful to categorize all human experiences under the rubric of emotions. Emotions are not a collection of various psychological functions. Emotions are typically experienced as unified states of mind, rather than as sets of components such as belief, desire, physiological perturbation, and some behaviour (Roberts 184). The pervasive attempt to distinguish emotion and feeling, or to address emotion as a composite of components, has also faced criticism. Another author on emotions, Robert Solomon, writes:

. . . insofar as a feeling is valuable in analysing emotion, feeling and emotion are neither distinguishable nor independently specifiable . . . [T]he sense of ‘feeling’ usually employed in the analysis of emotions is far too conceptually primitive to do justice to the richness and wisdom of our emotional lives (Solomon 654).

Another prominent approach towards emotions is to list a basic

or fundamental set from which other emotions can be worked out. Emotions are innumerable even when they are classified under social, counterfactual and positive or negative. To trace a list of basic emotions, their neural correlates, and chart a singular biochemical route for the traversal of these highly phenomenal psychological phenomena might not aid in understanding their complex nature and existence. One of the reasons that emotion cannot be taken as an exclusive scientific category is that there does not seem to be a single feature that is always present in all emotional phenomena (Ledoux, 1998). Arguing against enumerating a few as basic emotions, and building the rest from a finite number of basic constitutive elements, a strong position is that emotions, like languages, cannot have basic building blocks (Ortony & Turner) and it favours a multi-dimensional approach (Barrett & Wager, 2006). These positions are in opposition with the naturalist explanation and the placement of emotions.

The Inevitable Feel Factor

Is emotion an overall representation of our experience, or is it only one way of expressing an experience which is otherwise much more than mental? It is important to also consider the possibility of emotion being only a partial symbol of human experience. After all, our actions and experiences are driven by values, beliefs, commitments, and world views. An ancient but poignant Yogic theory does not even consider the class of emotions to categorize all of human experiences, but uses a much more universal structure of ‘pain and pleasure’ division. All experiences, according to Patanjali, can be classified under the resultant pain or pleasure. And in a later part of his text, he says, in fact even pleasurable experiences can be reduced to pain (Swami Bodhananda, 2008).

Emotions are pervasive phenomena interconnected with physiological mechanisms and phenomenal meanings in our daily lives. They give us the feel factor through anatomical features (such as gut feelings) and psychological aspects. As unique individuals, we own and express different degrees of emotion, and thus some of us are described as ‘warm’ and some others as ‘cold’ in personality. Often, the degree of experience and expression of emotions is decided by the repertoire of our capabilities, dispositions such as our beliefs, desires, attention, and sensitivity to nuanced meanings, conceptualization and visualization. A number of philosophical traditions both in the East and the West have almost condemned emotions as obstructive agents in the progress towards realizing the finer aspects of the self. At times, emotions are equated with outburst and uncontrolled behaviour that obstruct objective perception of a situation. But often, without feeling emotions and expressing them, we cannot communicate with ourselves let alone others. The delicate nature of emotions aside, without feelings we cannot accurately assess the inner worlds of others and ourselves, cannot bring in creative and imaginative outpourings, and add enrichment to our personalities. The feel factor of emotion is the unavoidable face of consciousness whichever way it is conceived theoretically, as basic, or otherwise.


1 ‘Mary’s knowledge’ argument is a thought experiment that refutes physicalism, and states that in spite of the availability of all the objective physical facts of colour vision, the scientist Mary did not know what it was to experience colour vision until she moved to the real world from the confinement of a black and white room.

2Nagel argues in this famous paper that subjective quality is central to consciousness.

3The word ‘anesthesia’ means ‘no sensation’. ‘Synesthesia’ means ‘joined sensation’ (Greek, syn = together; aisthesis = perception). Synesthesia may also be induced by sensory deprivation, hallucinogens such as LSD and peyote, or direct electrical stimulation of subcortical limbic structures.

4Phineas Gage (1823-1860) is one of the earliest documented cases of severe brain injury which led to significant findings. An accident destroyed areas of his prefrontal lobe, and consequentially led to loss of his emotional and social capacities. His rational capabilities were intact to some extent. The damage interfered with Gage’s capacity for planning and deciding a course of action. Damasio also narrates the case of Elliot who had a medical condition that affected the frontal lobe. He suffered from poor judgement and lack of insight, though he excelled in IQ tests. Patients like Gage and Elliot, though they perform well in cognitive and intelligence tests, show marked deficits in decision-making in everyday life.

5According to latest studies self-conscious emotions do not have discrete, universally recognised facial expressions, unlike the basic emotions.


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Terminator Salvation. Dir. J. M. Nichol. The Halcyon Company, 2009. 115 mins.

Flows of Feeling

Flows of Feeling

Vilashinin Cooppan

Abstract: Postcolonial studies has often figured colonialism as trauma and the “post” as an unresolved spectral remainder of that initial violence. In what ways does the critical turn to affect reshape this analysis of colonialism and open up alternative archives for the reading of postcolonial sensations, emotions, and memories? Affect is notoriously undefinable. The question of measure punctuates the critical debate on the category, surfacing in questions such as whether affect and emotion are equivalent; whether affect is or is not “in” language, whether affect is characterized by the speed of movement or the fixity of instantaneous response in the form of a visceral “shock.” Tracing several genealogies of affect in conjunction with a reading of Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, this essay suggests that affect offers a critical alternative to the haunted temporality and melancholic work often associated with the postcolonial novel.

Keywords: affect, consciousness, trauma, psychoanalysis poststructuralism, melancholy

  1. What Do We Know About Affect? And What Does Affect Know About Us?

I wrote parts of this paper at 30,000 feet up, in that improbably banal limbo of a world shrunk to the span of one’s folded arms and bent knees, you in your space, your seatmates in theirs, seats in their upright position, row after row, like pharaonic royals as they appear in on ancient papyrus and stone, in a timeless instant of waiting to command. I too am waiting, suspended on a flight path from San Francisco to Abu Dhabi to Trivandrum, with world enough and time in my little sarcophagus of space to think, not commanding but demanding, asking. I look at the questions I’ve typed (the epigraph above). And I wait. Nothing. Epigraph, epitaph, cenotaph. My thoughts make the relay: the letters in a question, letters on a tombstone, a tomb without a body. Death is in the air and I forget about affect. But affect doesn’t forget about me; indeed, affect knows me before I know it.

I am landing in the monsoon wet, three-o-clock-in-the morning night of Trivandrum in November and checking into the hotel across from the grounds (how green they will be in daylight) of the Kerala University College, Trivandrum, Kerala. I am crossing the cold white marble tiles aglow with the moonlight coming in through the curtains to open the tall dark cupboards with their slight smell of wet, wood into which air heavy with rain has seeped. I am showering off 24 hours of travel and, without really thinking, rubbing in the hotel’s neem body lotion and then dusting my body with the sandalwood talcum powder. And then it hits, this is the smell of Amma, my father’s mother, in whose sari folds that scent sweetly lingered; and it’s the smell of myself in my late teens and early twenties, when I too used Mysore talc every day; and it’s the smell of first loves, the white American boys to whom that sweet scent was so exotic, so different, so synecdochal of me; and it’s the smell of this here and now.

An affective instant brings times and sensations and whole statesof being together; it’s a moment in which you’re yourself but also other things, a moment in which something that “properly” belongs to a particular place and time and context slides into another, a moment in which you know without knowing. Roland Barthes (2005) reminds us to pay close attention to ‘the shimmer’ of ‘an affective minimum,’ that is, to the sparkling instant when a minor, microscopic apprehension suddenly pierces us right through and opens the world inside us to the world outside us.‘An inventory of shimmers’ is what Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth title their introduction to The Affect Theory Reader, which has come with me to Kerala. I admire the formulations I reread on the plane: the insistence on affect’s lack of an originary state, affect as that which is ‘born in in-between-ness and resides as accumulate besideness, affect as what moves as intensities and forces pass from body to body, body to world’, affect’s ‘persistent proof of a body’s never less than ongoing immersion in and among the world’s obstinacies and rhythms, its refusals as much as its invitations’ (Gregg and Seigworth 1-2). Affect is a dimension of the body’s capacity to be affected (or, better, the body’s incapacity not to be affected) by all the forces pulsing through matter, the matter of the body (skin, cell, tissue, pore, gut), the matter of the material world, the matter of the inorganic (the machine, the cyborg, the chip, the code, the image), and, in Gregg’s and Seigworth’s words, ‘the vaporous evanescences of the incorporeal (events, atmospheres, feeling-tones) (Gregg and Seigworth 2). ‘Bindings and unbindings, becomings and unbecomings, jarring disorientations and rhythmic attunements’ (Gregg and Seigworth 2) All of these are affect’s terrain and I know their description well enough. But what I think of, what I feel, in that predawn moment in Trivandrum are actually the shimmers themselves. The Mysore talc’s white glow on the brown of my skin (did it really, as I’d read somewhere, contain stray bits of ground glass?). Diamonds on skin, moonlight on marble tiles, hints of gold thread lighting up the saris I have hung in the tall cupboards. I have no saris that are not a little bit fancy. In my diasporic Indianness, saris are for graduations and weddings and births and deaths, for prayers and rituals and ceremonies and parties. As I rise to wrap and pleat and drape my sari (it is the first time I am wearing one in an academic setting) I wonder what it will be like if a sari is for thinking.

“Did you tie it yourself?” asks the generous hostess at the hotel restaurant over breakfast. Yes, I say, yes I did. Yes, I say again, yes, I love wearing them. Yes, I say (this time only to myself), there’s some feeling in the thinking today, something binding and unbinding, winding and unwinding, something that I don’t know if I can quite unravel, something not quite ready for display. I’m not wearing Draupadi’s mythological sari, which lengthened itself magically to resist exposing her nakedness to the demon who unraveled it. My skin in the sari is exposed, the skin I think in, the skin I think. It’s the tantalizing offer affect theory holds out, to put one’s body into one’s head (I shudder at my own lingering Cartesianism), to think as feminism once said “from the body,” to risk embodiment as an intellectual style, that draws me in. In the rustle of the sari’s folds as I walk, on the glimmer of my talcum-dusted skin, something is flitting, something coming into, falling out of, my grasp; this body doesn’t feel like the one I usually think in. What’s happening is softer, more tactile, as if I were thinking the way I sweat, leaching out and taking in moisture, thinking at the level of the pores. Something is definitely on the run, running down. Rivulets are how I see my thinking leaving me as I start to explain what affect is.

Affects are instances of shimmering apprehension that can’t be named in language or fully charted in taxonomies of particular states of feeling, whether the five primary emotions (joy, fear, disgust, anger, sadness) popularized by the 2015 children’s film Inside Out or Silvan Tompkins’ nine (joy, excitement, surprise, anger, disgust, dissmell, distress, fear, shame, each linked to a biological gesture expression) (Tompkins, 1995). Indian theories of the rasas and the bhavas, I learn over the next few days of Decolonizing the Emotions, are more enumerated still, indexing dozens of states of feeling to verbal descriptors, sensations captured by a musician or dancer in sound or gesture, and subsequently registered in an audience. Such philosophies of emotion seem in part to turn on recognizability, a performer’s verisimilitudinous performance of a feeling that in turn causes the listener or viewer to re-recognize the feeling as that which now exists in herself. By contrast, many philosophies of affect insist on its break with all kind of cognition, including recognition. It’s This sense of affect as a knowledge one cannot quite hold, knows without knowing, has without owning, that draws my interest to the field. Affect Is felt knowledge, knowledge that happens not at the level of cognition or language or belief or proof or trueness-to-life but rather at the sensate level of the body and what it remembers, retains, houses, takes in.

Affects are experiences of intensity, registrations of stimuli that press in, fold in, and presage some action: a grimace, a shudder, a turning up of the nose, a turning down of the lips, some burst of bodily being or (more abstractly) of pure potentiality, for which the entire apparatus of the knowing self is neither necessary nor adequate. Lawrence Grossberg calls affect ‘the most difficult plane of human life to define and describe.’ Unlike desire (which we know through its objects, its satisfactions, its privations), and unlike subjective feeling (which we recognize readily as the self’s “own”), affect is for Grossberg something like ‘the “feeling” of life (Grossberg 80-81). Where that feeling is precisely housed, what causes that feeling to burst out or plunge down (how hard it is to give up Freudian topography), and whom affect constitutes are, confusingly for post-psychoanalytic understanding, not questions affect theory demands. Or, if it does demand them, it does so without relying on the topography and temporality of psychoanalytic theories of the unconscious. Affect theory points to something that the Freudian model of the subject does not, with its lurking developmentalism, its teleology of desire, and its identificatory fixes (child to parent, lover to beloved, subject to object). In contrast to these linearities and symmetries, lines and twos, affect describe a world of sensation that resists typology. Affect, in the Deleuzean tradition that represents a break with Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, names the radical excess of those aspects of sensate life that are but cannot be readily or completely named, that exist but are housed at the preconscious level, that happen but surface without the doing, the knowing or unknowing, the acknowledgement or repression, of the subject. Affect is for this reason nonhermeneutic, beyond interpretation (‘Psychoanalysis,’ writes Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, ‘was first and foremost an art of interpreting’ (Freud, 1989: 18). Affects resist not only interpretation but even naming: as Grossberg notes, ‘unlike emotions, affective states are neither structured narratively nor organized in response to our interpretations of situations’ (Grossberg 81). Is then, my vignette of the hotel room in Trivandrum an account of an affective state? Perhaps not technically, embedded as it in the plots of loss and remembrance, love and longing. But the scene for me is also one of radical unknowing, of coming through a particular “feeling of life” in such a way as to feel myself on the verge of knowing something I don’t know. That hesitancy, that unreadiness of affect, that precipice-like sensation of being about to know, to feel, to be differently is one of its most opening attributes, not only as a way to think about the self but also about the world.

Brian Massumi, writing in Parables of the Virtual (2002), explains how in registering certain stimuli the body ‘infolds contexts . . . the trace of past actions, including a trace of their contexts’ even as it opens to that realm of potentiality that he calls the virtual (Massumi 30). In the virtual, ‘past and future brush shoulders with no mediating present’(Masumi 30), suggesting that affective intensity exists according to its own nonlinear temporal structure and that it furthermore works by accumulation, the carrying forward of the raw perceptual experience of the past and the contexts that inform a given affect. For Massumi, affects operate in nonlinear, nonhermeneutic, nonsignifying, and visceral ways. Affects also exist on a kind of temporal precipice, a state always in excess of being completed. It is for this reason that affect points to potential liberation, escape, freedom, or to use the Deleuzean term, becoming. Massumi’s mapping of affect emphasizes its indeterminacy, its constant state of excess, a trembling potential before the state of taking form. It is indeed precisely not affect’s form that interests Massumi but its remainder, its “virtual remainder,” that “never-to-be-conscious and autonomic remainder” of some conscious experience, a remainder through which ‘past action and contexts are conserved and repeated, begun but not completed’ (Massumi 30).

In its reminder of the remainder, Massumi’s Deleuzean account of affect has some resonances with Freud’s account. Freud’s psychic topography houses affects within, indeed beneath consciousness. Consciousness is the liminal zone, the contact point between ‘perceptions of excitations coming from the external world and . . . feelings of pleasure and unpleasure which can only arise from within the mental apparatus’ (Freud, 1989: 26). Lying on ‘the borderline between outside and inside’, ‘turned towards the external world and “envelop[ing] the other psychical systems,” consciousness is figured as an in-between zone but one that is far less fluid than affect’s skin-surface’ (Freud, 1989: 28). Consciousness envelops or holds within it the unconscious. It is there that ‘repressed instinctual impulses’ reside, impulses that find their satisfaction in repetition compulsion (21). ‘More primitive, more elementary, more instinctual than the pleasure principle which it over-rides’ repetition compulsion gratifies the unconscious by restaging the conditions for its instinctual impulses again and again, effectively writing an affective subtext to conscious life’s dreary drama of accommodation, resignation, and giving up of old desires (Freud, 1989: 25). Freud goes on to figure consciousness as a hardened, deadened ‘crust’, a ‘protective shield’ against the stimuli of ‘an external world charged with the most powerful energies’, energies that could overwhelm or kill the psychic system (Freud, 1989: 29). In describing consciousness’s function ‘as a special envelope or membrane resistant to stimuli’ Freud’s topography reassigns the domain of affective response to a deeper layer of unconscious life. ‘By its death, the outer layer has saved all the deeper ones from a similar fate – unless, that is to say, stimuli reach it which are so strong that they break through the protective shield’ (Freud, 1989: 30). Trauma is one such event, of shattering proportions, but ordinary sensations also penetrate the shield, entering in ‘very small quantities’, often as mere ‘samples of the external world’ rather than its full energetic, potentially destructive, force (Freud, 1989: 31). Where affect studies turns to the energetic possibilities of “ordinary sensations” psychoanalysis has more often privileged trauma.

In Carthy Caruth’s reading of Freud, trauma, the wound inflected upon the mind, is notable less for its topography than for its temporality. ‘Trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual’s past, but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature – the way it was precisely not known in the first instance – returns to haunt the survivor later on’ (Caruth 4). Trauma’s “truth,” furthermore, ‘in its delayed appearance and its belated address, cannot be linked only to what is known, but also to what remains unknown in our very actions and our language’. Language in Caruth’s deconstructive reading of Freud, as Ruth Leys critically observes, is the zone of unknowability par excellence. Trauma’s aporias of knowledge become the mirror image of the constitutive gap that perpetually severs language from meaning. Because of what Leys calls ‘assumptions about the constitutive failure of linguistic representation in the post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima, post-Vietnam era’, it becomes possible to take the Holocaust As an event that ‘radically exceeds our capacity to grasp and understand it’ (Leys 267-8). As an instance of what we might call the traumatic sublime, this event refuses knowledge even as, in its repeated retelling, it opens itself to an encounter with difference. ‘Trauma may lead, therefore, to the encounter with another, through the very possibility and surprise of listening to another’s wound’ (Caruth 8). For Leys, this encounter, negotiated at the level of language, is more properly an appropriation, a dangerous assumption of some exchangeability between the subject who has suffered a trauma and the subject who listens to that suffering, as well as of some transmissibility of the trauma across generations.

Affect theory has in common with Caruth’s rereading of Freud a concern with transmission. However, because affect theory understands affect not only as unspeakable and unnameable (like trauma), but also indeed beyond, even independent of, language, affect theory grounds transmission elsewhere. It is not the exchange of a tale, a passage of (and in) representation that transmits affect but rather the viral virtual contagion of one body being affected by what pulses through, hits, shimmers on another body. As Teresa Brennan explains ‘the transmission of affect means that we are not self-contained in terms of our energies. There is no secure distinction between the “individual” and the “environment”‘ (Brennan 11). Affects are not the purview of individuals alone, that is, individuals understood as autonomous entities.

In Massumi’s model affect is marked by an ‘autonomous’ capacity to remain unattached to the body that registers it and is animated by it (Massumi 26). What Massumi calls the ‘autonomy’ of affect also refers to affect’s housing in autonomic bodily responses for which the individual subject is neither origin, referent, nor master. Because affects are not in this sense ‘personal’, because they exist in excess of conscious perception, they enable a thinking of the interpersonal, the transpersonal, of what passes between bodies and worlds, what links them, connects them, even imbricates them. Affects do allow us to describe a particular kind of subject, one in several ways familiar to us. As Patricia Clough points out, ‘affect and emotion, after all, point just as well as poststructuralism and deconstruction do to the subject’s discontinuity with itself, a discontinuity of the subject’s conscious experience with the nonintentionality of emotion and affect’ (Clough 206). Affect’s subject is however differently, one might say more, embodied than poststructuralism’s and deconstruction’s. Affect’s subject is material yet also porous, open to that which is not it, say, the domain of the technological (the biomediated body, the body shot through with information). This is also the subject who experiences affect as the shock of an apprehension that puts her in contact with something she cannot already have known and will not ever completely know – in other words, the subject open to what lies outside her consciousness, beginning with her own autonomic responses but extending from there to the world of others and the otherness of the world.

The network is a key metaphor for this aspect of affect. Not only does the network in affect theory refer to the circulatory economy along which affects move, sometimes “stick,” and generally engage the sociocultural production of identities (Sara Ahmed, Lawrence Grossberg), but the network also describes the topography of the subject itself, a recognizably posthuman subject whose “interior” is no center and whose “exterior” is no boundary. Recall Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s influential description in A Thousand Plateaus of a system that is ‘reducible neither to the One nor the multiple . . . [that] has neither beginning nor end . . . system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automaton, defined solely by a circulation of states’ (Deleuze and Guattari 21). This system is a rhizome, that is a nonlinear, network-like structure of multiple branching, a counterpoint and alternative to the root-based philosophy of origin, singularity, and teleological development. Other theorists speak of the ways in which affects, with their location in the senses, return us to the body itself as a networked entity: in Ben Highmore’s phrase, ‘a body [that] would be understood as a nexus of finely interlaced force fields’ (Highmore 119). ‘Cultural experience’, he adds (and to this we might append historical experience) ‘is often a densely woven entanglement of all these aspects . . . the sticky entanglements of substances and feelings, of matter and affect are central to our contact with the world’ (Highmore 119).

Affects, as theory from Freudian psychoanalysis to Deleuzean post structuralism to new media studies and posthumanism tells us, do not exist in themselves alone. Each and every affect emerges against the backdrop of some set of circumstances and relations – being in the material world, or perhaps being in relation to one’s own history, or even being in and under a particular regime of the political, say new nationalism or late capitalism or that curious state of contemporary cosmopolitical existence that Bruce Robbins (1999) has dubbed ‘feeling global’. Affects are a map through which we can discern a set of spatial and temporal emplacements – in the body, in history, in culture, in nature. Affect, these days, is also a critical map, a shape shifting topic of inquiry that emerges at the intersections of other philosophical discourses on the subject. These are recognizably the subjects proposed by psychoanalysis and poststructuralism, from which affect theory inherits a preoccupation with the non-coincidence of the subject with its identity, the intransigeant unknowability of all of the self to some myth or mode or means of selfnarration, what we might call the aporias of being. But affect theory also dialogues with posthuman accounts of the subject as it is mediated by not only mind and body but also by technology, nature, and the inorganic, in others words, the subject as it is made (more than known), the subject as a byproduct of life in the material world. For affect’s posthuman theorists, including Massumi, Clough, Nigel Thrift, Katherine Stewart, Elizabeth Grosz and others, affect emerges untethered from the Enlightenment fantasy who is the subject of all he surveys, the subject constituted through scopic mastery of a world out there. Rather, the posthuman subject of affect is shot through by the world out there’s penetration into the world in here. Indeed, such topographies of surface and depth, of externality and interiority, the micro and the macro, are precisely what affect theory interrogates, proposing instead a sense of how these scales oscillate, even flow (the liquid metaphor is important), into one another. This posthuman subject of affect often touches, to use another of affect theory’s privileged metaphors, the ecological and environmental world, the world of a nature not entirely distinct from culture, an organicism not altogether separated from technology, an animal deeply intimate with the human.

And yet, the question of what we are still wont to call human subjectivity is, however, still taken up with some urgency by other affect theorists who wish to think political charges and attachments. In the psychological and social sciences, affect describes what John Campbell and Alan Pew call ‘the powerful charge of emotions that lies at the centre of the process of identification’ (Campbell and Pew 11). Affects thus bind individuals to such shared social identities as family, ethnicity, religion, culture, nation, and region. Sara Ahmed uses the figure of “stickiness” to describe the process by which affect is transferred from one object, subject, or entity to another (Ahmed 8). Thus something like fear, precisely because it ‘does not reside positively in a particular object or sign’, is able to “’lide across signs and between bodies . . . [and] becomes stuck only temporarily, in the very attachment of a sign to a body, an attachment that is taken on by the body’ (Ahmed 64). ‘[W]hat sticks “shows us” where the object has traveled through what it has gathered onto its surface, gatherings that become a part of the object, and call into question its integrity as an object’ (Ahmed 91). Emotions in this sense ‘work as form of capital’ (Ahmed 8); they acquire their value through circulation and exchange.

Affect is notoriously undefinable. The question of measure punctuates the critical debate, surfacing in questions such as whether affect and emotion are equivalent; whether affect is or is not “in” language, whether affect is characterized by the speed of movement or the fixity of instantaneous response in the form of a visceral “shock.” In contrast to Deleuzean critics’ insistence on affect’s existence in excess of signification or narrativization, others insist on the need to locate affect within the fields of the social, cultural, and political, exploring affect as a particular language of politics. So, for example, Ben Anderson argues that ‘cultural theories of affect promise sociopolitical insight by simultaneously naming a new object of power and the unassimilable limit or outside to power. Perhaps once we begin from the conjunction of affects and power, rather than their a priori separation, affect will itself come to operate in the promissory mode as an endlessly deferred horizon for inquiry rather than a stable ground’ (Anderson 183). Affect works not only in and as the future, but also against separation. In affect, the distinctions between subject and world, the material and the cultural, the past and the future, unfix.

Affect’s unmeasurability, like its undefinability, opens the field to individual genealogies and deployments of the term, situating affect’s critics in a host of critical microworlds – Deleuzean/Spinozan, feministmaterialist, sociopolitical, psychoanalytic. These worlds also include disciplinary worlds. The question of affect in these latter seems to me to catalyze or shock a renewed focus on what might be called the primal scenes of various disciplines: the encounter between a particular analytic method (literary hermeneutics, anthropological fieldwork, sociological study) and their particular objects (text, culture, group, other, self). The problematic of affect intensifies the relational nature of these fraught disciplinary encounters, illuminating or, to use a less “enlightening” metaphor that better honors affect’s radical unknowability, lighting up like a string of lights, on-off, on-off, with the inevitable broken light to break the continuity, a familiar chain of subjects and objects and methods. Critic, text, reading. Anthropologist, culture, fieldwork. Historian, archive, narrative. And so on. These triangulated chains, like their philosophical original (subject, object, knowing), are themselves affective circuits. What might these mean for our understanding of disciplines in themselves and in transformative contact with one another?

  1. Reading through Flows, Touching (on) Language

Now, I think, a return. A critic reading a text. A critic in a sari reading a text in which a sari figures. A critic pondering the affective intensities at play in her reading/the text’s figuring. A critic wondering if language after all does transmit affect. A postcolonial critic of postcolonial novels wondering if there is such a thing as postcolonial affect and if, so, how one might go about talking about it. Affect as I am exploring it is not interchangeable with the passions and emotions housed in particular characters, plots, and settings, such as the ‘melancholy’ that Geörgy Lukács famously attributed to the genre in The Theory of the Novel (Lukács 123). Such formal melancholy, like the trauma to which it is tied, has indeed become something of a hallmark of a certain subgenre of postcolonial fiction: the novel of disillusionment, of failed independence, of neocolonial inequities, of intractable war, of diasporic dispossession as, for example, in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, V. S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas, Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss. To speak of the melancholy animating these novels is for a critic like Massumito subject their more free-floating affects to emotional description (emotion’s terminology “captures” affects). It is also to subject affects to narrativizable meaning as it emerges from the technologies of novelist form (the teleology of plot, the interiority of character, the backdrop proscenium of the historical real). How else and why else should we attempt to read affect in the postcolonial novel? Grossberg, a reader of popular culture texts, offers a possible answer in his reminder that first, that ‘it is affective investment which enables ideological relations to be internalized and, consequently, naturalized’, and secondly, that ‘if affect cannot be “found” in the text or read off its surfaces (any more than meaning can), it is also the case that affect is not simply something that individuals put into it’ (Grossberg 83). ‘Too often, critics assume that affect – as pure intensity – is without form or structure’ (Grossberg 82). For Grossberg, these forms and structures are those through which social struggles, ‘people’s investments in and into the world’, are formed. But such forms and structures can also be thought of in generic terms, as part of the work – the affective work – that the postcolonial novel does. Affect might attune us ever more the complexities, the uneven-ness, the perpetually unachieved, even inexpressible, nature of the process by which, Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious long ago reminded us, the traces of history are sedimented into forms (Jameson 31). Affect in this sense could be a pulsing map of the postcolonial novel’s micro and macro states of feeling through which, in which, as which, politics are lived. If the novel in its Jamesonian model comes back to history, comes down to history, is in a sense history, then affect’s network of forces and intensities spread wide across a social, cultural, historical, and emotional field offers quite another snapshot of generic form. In this alternative picture of novelistic form there also emerges another portrait of that subject with which the European novel has been entwined. Affect’s posthuman subject rejects the Enlightenment fantasy who is the “master of all he surveys,” to use Robinson Crusoe’s terms for himself on the island. In contrast to this subject constituted through scopic mastery of a world out there, the posthuman subject of affect is shot through by the world out there’s penetration into the world in here. Michel de Certeau has proposed a theory of “the Freudian novel” that, like the affective theory of the postcolonial novel I am suggesting, positions itself against literary histories of the sort occasioned by and summed up by Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. For de Certeau, Robinson Crusoe is ‘a “mythic novel” of postulate that takes individualism as the historical trope for occidental modernity’ (de Certeau 24).Working on the assumption that ‘Freudianism dismantles individualism, destroys its truth-seemingness’, de Certeau’s theory of the novel turns instead to the realm of affects. Freud’s assumption, de Certeau explains, ‘is that the speaking subject’s place is decisive in a conflicting network of abreactions and that it is specified by the affect. This allows reintroduction of that which the objective utterance hides: its historicity – that which structured relationships, and that which changes them. To make this historicity reappear is the condition of analytic elucidation and of its operativeness’ (de Certeau 26). Like Freud, and like Grossberg or Jameson, de Certeau emphasizes the historicity of affect. This is not the presumed life history of a novelistic character or author (the subject of speculation in earlier Freudian theories of the novel) nor the history of the novel (the historicity implied in genre’s constant oscillating revision of its own codes) but the history sedimented into form, the history of the larger movements, events, and ideas that structured relationships among subjects and systems and changed them, all within some larger network of exchange. Finally, if to read affect in the postcolonial novel will require a sense of this macropolitical stage, it will equally demand the most loving of grammatological attention to what happens in, and beyond, language.

Ghosh’s writings are undoubtedly melancholy, even strictly speaking melancholic, attached as they are to losses of the past. Readers will know Ghosh’s preoccupation with the supplementation of official History with fragments and traces of lost records and various histories of feeling that subtend and transcend the history of the state spans the period from his first mixed-genre work, In an Antique Land, through his elegy for postcolonial nationalism, The Shadow Lines and his historical detective fiction Chromosome, and on to the recent Ibis trilogy, set against more than one century in the Indian Ocean World. The novel I wish to take up, The Hungry Tide, is one composed, like Ghosh’s others, of a feeling history, that is, a history registered at the level of the affects, and often through markedly melancholic affect. Recall Freud’s distinction in “Mourning and Melancholia” between holding on to a past loss (“swallowing the loss,” becoming one with it) and, instead, mourning the loss, laying it to rest, substituting for it, moving on (Freud, 1963). Melancholia’s loop, mourning’s progression; a circle and a line, neither of which, it turns out, are sufficient to delineate the different topography of affect. Topography, in fact, is the topic on which I want to focus my reading of The Hungry Tide: the sense of land, river, and sea whose metamorphic mobility houses all manner of postcolonial affect for Ghosh, including the ecocritical affect explored by readers such as Shivani Jha.

The Hungry Tide considers the contemporary diasporic negotiations of a homeland (the India to which a young Seattle-raised South Asian cetologist or dolphin researcher travels). That bounded national imaginary is supplemented, even supplanted, by the liminal zones of river, ocean, and mangrove forests of the Sundarbans, the remote island archipelago off the eastern coast of Bengal.

In our legends it is said that the goddess Ganga’s descent from

the heavens would have split the earth had Lord Shiva not tamed her torrent by it into his ash-smeared locks. To hear this story is to see the river in a certain way; as a heavenly braid, for instance, an immense rope of water, unfurling through a wide and thirst plain. That there is a further twist to the tale becomes apparent only in the final stages of the river’s journey – and this part of the story always comes as a surprise, because it is never told and thus never imagined. It is this: there is a point at which the braid comes undone; where Lord Shiva’s matted hair is washed apart into a vast, knotted tangle. One past that point the river throws off its bindings and separated into hundreds, maybe thousands, of tangled strands (6).

These are the words of a now dead teacher with poetic inclinations who went to the region decades earlier, inspired to teach revolutionary youth, but whose fervor was broken by witnessing a brutal local massacre of itinerant migrants seeking refuge. The teacher chronicled the events in a notebook whose fragmentary record unfolds history as memory in the text as his nephew, a professional translator, reads it. From this initial description of them mytholological origin of the Sundarban islands in ‘Shiva’s matted hair . . . washed apart in a vast, knotted tangle’, the description mutates form like the mangrove islands themselves, to propose ‘this immense archipelago of islands’ as ‘the trailing threads of India’s fabric, the ragged fringe of her sari, the achol that follows her, half wetted by the sea’.

Male, then female, ultimately networked, the islands are described as being connected by the channels of countless rivers, ‘spread across the land like a fine-mesh net, creating a terrain where the boundaries between land and water are always mutating, always unpredictable’. The tides that reach inland, sometimes two hundred miles, and recede, cause ‘every day thousands of acres of forest [to] disappear underwater, only to reemerge hours later’. The mangroves created overnight are capable of covering an entire island in a few years. In this metamorphic geography space and time are condensed and dilated. ‘A mangrove forest is a universe unto itself’ (7). Mangroves are also, of course rhizomatic, networks of branching roots that in a later description ‘coloniz[e]’ the banks, ‘breath[ing] through spear-like “ventilators” connected by subterranean root systems’. ‘The surface of the bank was pierced by so many of these upthrust organs that it was impossible to distinguish between one mark and another’ (264). With its anthropomorphized organicism, its indeterminate multiplicity, and the impossibility of distinction it instantiates, the mangrove here offers an affective topography that is mirrored in the opening description of how mangroves emerge in dynamic relation to many river channels that flow into the Sundarban’s sea.

The clustering of a few channels creates “confluences [where] the water stretches to the far edges of the landscape and the forest dwindles into a distant rumor of land, echoing back from the horizon. In the language of the place, such a confluence is spoken of as a ‘mohona – an oddly seductive word, wrapped in many layers of beguilement’ (6). Here, as throughout the novel, the word that seems most to catalyse affect, mohona is left untranslated, as if to point simultaneously to how language captures affect and remains uncapturable, perpetually lost in the fog of translation. Ghosh’s monolingual novel is shot through with multilingualism. The presence of foreign words, etymological speculations, and large-scale reflections on the transmissibility of meaning from one system layer together producing a networked sense of language. If affect pulses through this network, it happens at the level of language, thanks to a kind of flowing, mobile, tactile inhabiting of language, almost a wearing of it. Mohona ‘wrapped in many layers of beguilement’, the sari that is India with the flowing, trailing achol of the Sundarban archipelago, these feminized expressions of a condition of in-betweenness, affect in/as a sari. I am wearing it and thinking it, thinking what it is to wear it, not just at the level of me, my body, myself, but as a figure for the ways affect slides across the surfaces of things; skin, word, sea.

Nirmal, the teacher whose notebook records these images, worked in a school while his wife Nilima turned her attention to the women of Luisbari. The womens’ disproportionate dressing in borderless white saris reveals ‘an assumption [that] was woven, like a skein of dark wool, into the fabric of their lives: when the menfolk went fishing it was the custom for their wives to change into the garments of widowhood . . . as though they were trying to hold misfortune at bay by living it over and over again. Or was it merely a way of preparing themselves for that which they knew to be inevitable?’ (67-8). Appalled by the ‘enormity in these acts’ Nilima devotes herself to a smaller scale of historical being and feeling. In hoping to organize the women she puzzles over the choice of ‘a collective noun for them’. Sreni, class, is not right, the Marxist-minded Nirmal says (widows are not workers). But Nirmala’s “epiphany” takes her beyond language: ‘It did not matter what they were; what mattered was that they should not remain what they were’. And so the Mohila Sangothon – the Women’s Union – and ultimately the Badabon Development Trust (named by Nirmal after the Bengali word for mangrove) are established, leading, in the wake of the abolishment of the zamindaris, to a range of social services. Badabon, it turns out, ‘was a word Nirmal loved’ (this is a novel all about how words inspire love and how love is experienced in words). ‘Our Bangla word joins Arabic to Sanskrit – bada to bon, or “forest”. It is as though the word itself were an island, born of the meeting of two great rivers of language – just as the tide country is begotten of the Ganga’s union with the Brahmaputra’ (69). Island words, it turns out, make no man (and no woman) an island in The Hungry Tide.

The mutating, metamorphic geography of the Sundarbans registers at the level of language and also unfolds multiple modalities of memory. Hindu mythology and local oral legends of forest deities and dangers like Bon-Bibi, the man-eating tiger, are intercut with long fragments from Nirmal’s academic notebook that Kanai translates, Kanai’s own philological speculations, cetological information relayed by Piya as she researches the supposed disappearance of a rare species of river dolphin from the archipelagic waters, and the larger colonial and anticolonial history sedimented into the place itself. The very house that once belonged to a Scottish officer of British imperialism who founded an utopian Marxist community was subsequently inhabited by Nirmal and Nilima, then by Kanai and Piya, whose connection to one another, mediated by Nirmal’s notebook, extends into linkages with many others who live in the community. As so frequently in Ghosh’s writing, the available record of the historical past, the record recorded in and as information, is supplemented by the flows of feeling, flows indistinguishable from language and story with all their ‘many layers of beguilement’.

The introductory fragment from Kanai’s uncle’s notebook concludes with a speculation about the elusive origin of the Sundarbans’ name. Are they the “beautiful forest” of the name’s literal meaning, or derived from the name of a common mangrove, ‘the Sundari tree, Heriteria minor’, or are ‘the record books of the Mughal emperors’ correct to claim the region is named not for a tree but the tide (bhati)? Bhatirdesh, tide country, is how the locals name it, referring specifically to the ebb tide (bhata). This piece of comparative etymology concludes with a telling return to, and displacement within, language, here the German lyric poetry of Rilke’s Duino Elegies imported to adduce the affective sensation of being in the Sundarbans.

This is a land half submerged at high tide: it is only in falling that the water gives birth to the forest. To look upon this strange parturition, midwifed by the moon, is to know why the name ‘tide country’ is not just right but necessary. For as with Rilke’s catkins hanging from the hazel and the spring rain upon the dark earth, when we behold the lowering tide

we, who have always thought of joy

as rising . . . feel the emotion

that almost amazes us

when a happy thing falls. (Ghosh, 2006: 7)

Unlike the untranslated mohona, ‘an oddly seductive word, wrapped in many layers of beguilement’, joy here is not itself a carrier of affect, of sensations, of what Nigel Thrift has called ‘sensed-sensing knowledge’ (Thrift 18). It is not the clearly named ‘joy’ and ‘emotion’ in Rilke’s lines that evoke the soft, wet, slippery sensorium of the Sundarbans or the amazed awe they inspire, but rather the curious process by which such words (joy, emotion) come to change their meanings. Though we have ‘always thought of joy as rising’, the poem describes how affect can short circuit thought so that the reader does not think through definition (joy rises) but rather ‘feel[s] the emotion/ that almost amazes us/when a happy thing falls’. It’s the feeling here that matters, the peripatetic encounter with a knowledge we did not have, nor could not, in the language available to us (joy rises), but instead a feeling knowledge, a knowing feeling (the emotion ‘when a happy thing falls’) that if it makes no sense, nonetheless amazes, affects, by exceeding sense.

This is affect in language. If, as Deleuzean affect theory insists, affect exists beyond the point of linguistic capture, outside the capacity of any naming (for to name an affect is to tame it into emotion), then can Ghosh’s novel in fact be said to traffic in affect? The question is even larger than this. Can literature produce affect? Can the reading of novels affect us? Is there indeed still such a project in the novel (and other generic forms too) as a “sentimental education”? These are old fashioned questions but The Hungry Tide brings them back again. The affect that Ghosh’s novel manages to wrap or wear at the level of the word is different from the traumatic sensation that Caruth and other trauma theorists understand to be inaccessible to language. Affect can touch us in language, as language, and it is in that very zone that we can sometimes touch it.

In a powerful final scene it is language again that catalyzes affect as Kanai curses the local fisherman and friend to Piya who is taking him through the dense mangrove where a tiger has been spotted. Himself a guide and translator, the cosmopolitan Kanai finds himself unmoored in response to the fisherman Fokir’s question ‘Can you feel the fear?’ (265). Kanai declares himself unafraid only to, later, stumbling through the mud and noticing the fisherman’s switch from ‘respectful apni’ to ‘the same familiar tui Kanai had used in addressing him’ as he mocks the former’s fear, burst out in obscenities (268-69).

Shala, banchod, shuorerbachcha.’ His anger came welling up with an atavistic explosiveness, rising from sources whose very existence he would have denied: the master’s suspicion of the menial: the pride of caste; the townsman’s mistrust of the rustic; the city’s antagonism toward the village. He had thought he had cleansed himself of these sediments of the past, but the violence with which they spewed out of him now suggested they had only been compacted into an explosive and highly volatile reserve.

There had been occasions in the past – too many of the them – when Kanai had seen his clients losing their temper in like fashion: when rage had made them cross the boundaries of selfhood, transporting them to a state in which they were literally beside themselves. The phrase was apt: their emotions were so intense as almost to spill outside the physical boundaries of their skin . . . In Kanai’s professional life there had been a few instances in which the act of interpretation had given him the momentary sensation of being transported out of his body and into another. In each instance it was as if the instrument of language had metamorphosed – instead of being a barrier, a curtain that divided, it had become a transparent film, a prism that allowed him to look through another set of eyes, to filter the world through a mind other than his own (269-70).

If in its description of a named emotion – rage – rising, this passage seems not to be strictly speaking affective, it might nonetheless be understood to offer a series of metaphors, like the mangrove topography, for affect’s movements, sensations, and effects. Hence the images of bursting beyond body and skin, of entering the other, the world, via the ‘transparent film’ and ‘prism’ of language, a shimmering membrane at once diamond and silk, like that glistening of the Mysore talc on my sariwrapped skin. What surges up is largely and specifically historical: rural- cosmopolitan difference, caste hierarchy, class privilege. But the passage does far more than render history the content of affect’s form, precisely because of its insistence on language as yet another of affect’s surfaces: as porous and precarious as skin to being pierced through by what is not oneself. Perhaps to say that affect is present in language, in the dancing play of metaphor, in the haunting remainder of the untranslatable, in the deep difference it enfolds, is not in the end to domesticate or tame affect (is affect itself the tiger in that mangrove forest?) but to free up an interpretation from seeking meaning.

In the conclusion to his notebook’s account, Nirmal pauses to apologize. ‘I have gone on at too great a length . . . this is what happens when you have not written for years; every moment takes on a startling clarity; small things become the world in microcosm’ (124). Small things become the world; as Nirmal himself writes in his notebook’s opening, ‘a mangrove forest is a universe unto itself’ (7); and, as Massumi says, ‘affect is the whole world’ (Massumi 43). This passionate condensation, this collapsing in of the large into the small, with the intense shocks it produces, and the narrative pleasures it yields, makes a case for the extent to which affect does indeed find a home in the world, specifically in the novelistic world. Novelistic representation of affect, as I have described it in The Hungry Tide, where it serves to describe the feeling flows of history and language, is not ultimately a capture of affect, a character or plot based correlation of emotion to happenings, but rather something with a flood-life of its own; surging and receding, mutating and merging, producing in the end not only a topoi of feeling but a style of reading that cannot help but itself be moved. Affects such as these registered in language don’t give us history as the content of the novel but rather engage affect as its form. The melancholy of the novel, to recall Lukacs’s description, is precisely not the melancholic kernel of a particular loss (of God, for Lukács, reading the novel as a secular chronic, of anticolonialism’s promise for the postcolonial novel of disillusionment). Rather the melancholy of the novel, its inwardturning, backward looking, orientation becomes, in The Hungry Tide at least, the opening to something much larger, a worldly feeling, a state of compassionate co-being with what is not oneself.


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Inside Out. Dir. Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen. Disney Pixar, 2015.

What does Sanskrit Aesthetics offer the contemporary novel?

What does Sanskrit Aesthetics offer the contemporary novel?

Nikhil Govind

Abstract: This paper will concern itself with a close reading of a novel (Sunflowers in the Dark) by one of India’s most revered contemporary women writers – Krishna Sobti (1925-). Through a reading of this novel, I will try and understand some of the conditions an affective architecture needs to take into account. Sobti’s work is often celebrated for its (sexual) exuberance – I would try and read how exuberance also has its companion in all the other mixed sibling affects of silence, isolation, courage, despair. Indeed the power of the literary might well be the irreducible miscibility of affect. Such a reading of affect as a fundamental axis might also open a new way of re-entering traditional Indian debates on the aesthetics – the background of traditional notions of aesthetics in India will form the initial, necessary background in the first part of the paper, to the reading of this contemporary Sobti novel.

Keywordssanskritic aesthetic tradition, aesthetics, rasa, dhvani, ataraxy

The entire past is conserved in itself, but how can we save it for ourselves, how can we penetrate that in-itself without reducing it to the former present that it was, or to the present present in relation to which it is past? (Deleuze, 1994: 84)

The dominant discourse in India over inherited Sanskritic aesthetic traditions remains largely trapped in the mode of reverence, and a fair number of the papers in this Conference reproduced this mode and tone. A true respecting of these traditions is, however, inseparable from asking hard and creative questions that disaggregate this tradition and see the creation of that tradition (be it in the second century with the Natyasastra, or the climactic moment between the ninth to eleventh century in Kashmir) as fortuitous and contingent. It has been rightly suggested that the Sanskritic tradition has made a fairly extensive study of affects and the relationship and hierarchizing between them, but it would still remain to be demonstrated how much this tradition can speak to contemporary discussions of affect. To speak with regard to the second half of my paper which analyzes a contemporary Hindi novel, I try to see how such traditional notions of relations of affect may be useful today. However, since the picture of traditional univocal aesthetics and its unmediated inheritance is a story that must be resisted, the first half of my paper will use current scholarship to break up the picture of the unified tradition.

Disaggregating the Sanskritic Aesthetic Tradition

Aesthetics, (notwithstanding some classical writers like Aristotle and Longinus), developed as a systematic field in the West only in the late eighteenth century (Kant’s third Critique, Baumgarten, Shaftesbury, Lessing, Coleridge among many others), and in a particular historical and economic configuration. While fairly extensive scholarship has probed this configuration, with its interplay of the historical and epistemological that made salient a new aesthetic, in India, the aesthetic tradition (even more remote in time – Anandavardhana for example is of the ninth century), has not been probed with anywhere near the same extended rigor. This is understandable if there was simply the complaint of there being inadequate information about ancient India – but the danger occurs when the dominant argument uses the supposed paucity of sources to argue for an effectively decontextualized (historically and intellectually), and thus transcendent, aesthetic norm. Such an approach does not allow a contemporary reader to enter the text, and we are simply left with repeating the categoriology of the classical canon. The terminology and numbers remain mysterious – why should there be only eight or nine rasas, instead of any random number? Surely more has to be done than to perpetuate this mystery, especially if the mystery is veiled in an emphatic notion of “Indian” or “tradition”.

Likewise, the whole paraphernalia of determinants (vibhavas, but also the further sub categories of objective and stimulative determinants), consequences (anubhavas), temporary or transient states of mind (vyabhichari), and so on, are useful to give categorial flesh to pragmatic literary analysis, while at the same time, this over-defined model risks becoming static, as has been the case all too often in a lot of contemporary evocations. It is admitted in the tradition that while dhvani itself might be hard to locate, dhvani by itself does not necessarily lead to rasa, and perhaps not all rasa may be considered as having the highest beauty.

As a sample of contemporary work that tries to excavate the tradition in a manner that gives us a foothold in being able to reorganize it, I use Lawrence McCrea’s masterful The Teleology of Poetics in Medieval Kashmir (2008). McCrea’s work derives from earlier scholars such as Devasthali, S K De, Erich Frauwallner, Raniero Gnoli, Edwin Gerow, Ganganath Jha, Kunjunni Raja, Krishnamoorthy, alongside the older classical Sanskrit commentarial literature. These scholars have brought to light the several factors at play in the contested Sanskritic aesthetic tradition, and I will highlight just a few to give a glimpse of the possibilities of the tradition, which was not always as self-enclosed as it seems to have become today.

McCrea makes several points in his Introduction: one, that though there was a dominant theory of affect (roughly translatable here from dhvani, insofar as dhvani privileges non-immediate meaning, a meaning that cannot be captured by simple or complex direct propositionality), many scholars immediately contested dhvani, including the more traditional scholarship which sought to bring dhvani under the rubric of theories of inference – Abhinavagupta insisted on a third dimension of aesthetic meaning beyond the literal and secondary meanings (49). Two, there remained a tension between the more textually grounded tradition of simply attempting to give ever longer and more sophisticated categorizing and examples of rhetorical features, as opposed to the dhvani-theory privileging of a final unitary affect. Three, though the Kashmiri school revived the interest in drama, the genres of drama and poetry do not coincide in clear fashion – the Kashmiri examples are largely drawn from the short poem with its compacted vicissitudes of meaning, as opposed to drama where different questions of identification arise (there are at least the three elements of 1) the character portrayed, 2) the actor, and 3) the audience member) – here identification is not identical to the subtly graspable meaning of a purely linguistic meaning. Four, the question of religious feeling as a type of affect (is it affect at all, is it the highest type of affect, is it only an analog of worldly affect, how do we specify this analogic nature, is religion a sublation of worldly affect especially of the dominant affect (sringara) which comes to dominate Classical poetry etc?). Fifth, how does one make sense of the extra-ordinary debt that the Kashmiri school owes not just to the second century text the Natyasastra but, perhaps more crucially, to the Mimansaka tradition (the Mimansakas being essentially philosophers of language who sought to make coherent the heterogeneous corpus of the Vedic archive). The other immediate rival to the Kashmiri school was the logician school of the Naiyayikas, many of whom immediately disputed the Kashmiri school’s axiom that aesthetic experience is irreducible to forms of inference. The aestheticians countered with examples where the aesthetic (indirect, or dhvani) meaning was not so much implicit, or secondary meaning, but the exact opposite of the explicit meaning – for example, in verses where a lover tells her partner not to come as her husband is away, the intended meaning is precisely an invitation.

If the above paragraph captures part of the external complexity of the text, I would like to spend some time on its internal complexity too. The Dhvanyaloka of Anandavardhana has been translated along with the commentary of Anandavardhana’s student Abhinavagupta by Daniel Ingalls, Jeffrey Masson, and M. V. Patwardhan (1990). One need not dwell on controversies such as whether Anandavardhana actually wrote all of the text and so on, but it may be useful to just note the point, if only to again destabilize the hagiography that grows so prolix around ancient thinkers. From the Introduction by Ingalls, one notes again that the innovation in the Kashmiri school was to move from more textually grounded (and thus, perhaps modest) readings which highlighted rhetorical features (alamkara) but also other modalities such as style (qualities such as sweetness or strength, or in another order, often enough a moralist appropriateness – auchitya) toward a more monist model of indirect meaning that was explicitly signified as being of the same cloth as religious transcendence – Abhinavagupta is known as much as a philosopher/mystic in the Saiva tradition as much as he is known for his contribution to aesthetics. Ingalls cites the discomfort of many classical aestheticians with Abhinavagupta – one of them, Manoratha, says that while a critic might say that a verse is full of dhvani, she will be unable to point out the specific word/sentence/ tone whereby dhvani resides (9). Further, Anandavardhana might have borrowed the idea of suggestion from Prakrit sources, and this has important implications for the relationship of the high Brahminical tradition to the vernacular and the demotic. Other points brought up in the Introduction are: how to make sense of Abhinavagupta, perhaps Sanskrit’s most diversely talented intellectual – how does one reconcile his youthful immersion in Tantra, with his mid-career embrace of literary criticism, with his final immersion in a complex philosophy of reflection? Instead of simply celebrating Abhinavagupta as a unifier (not of just the questions of his own life, but also of the reconciliations he is believed to have effected between the Naiyayikas, the Mimansakas and the grammarians) it may be more productive to read his work as keeping these tensions in play, and then pick up the terms and arrange them differently from what he might have argued. Such would be a truer inheritance, and salvage Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta from being mere historical figures. One must be able to invite them into more contemporary conversations.

It is worthwhile to take a brief look at what is to many people the key text of Sanskritic aesthetics – the Dhvanyaloka of Anandavardhana which has a commentary by Abhinavagupta. This large work has been translated by Daniel Ingalls, Jeffrey Masson and M. V. Patwardhan, who have provided a further commentary on the commentary – this last layer of commentary is helpful in providing clarifications and citations to the dense inter-textual world that the Dhvanyaloka inhabits). One cannot go into much detail of this dense text, but it is worth thinking, if only in an intuitive, impressionist way, of the kind and style of discourse that is being embodied and enunciated here.

A dense “sastraic” style pervades the Dhvanyaloka text with its commentary by Abhinavagupta. Such a book, steeped in an entrenched tradition, full of cross-references, is exceedingly hard to read. Indeed, it is worth dwelling on the phenomenology of reading a classical text, especially in the Sanskrit tradition which often begins with an authoritative, but extremely terse and cryptic aphoristic style (called sutras), which are then followed by commentaries, and there are then commentaries on commentaries, or texts where it is sometimes hard to distinguish commentarial readings from pedagogical intentions and so on. Many texts have auto-commentaries, and it is not always easy to distinguish if there are two authors separated by many centuries, or if it is the same author writing the terse sutra (in a deliberately archaic style, thereby giving it more authority) as well as then writing the more verbose commentary to appear to be contemporary. Is the writer of the commentary as genuinely faithful to the spirit of the sutra as he typically proclaims – for often enough the meaning is fairly stretched – this is clear even in the most revered of commentators in, say, theology, such as Ramanuja and Sankaracharya – both of whom were approximate contemporaries of the Kashmiri school of Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta discussed here.

Let us take one example of the interpenetration of two series in the Locana (Abhinvagupta’s commentary). On the one hand you have the traditional Hindu goals of life – dharma (duty), artha (worldly mastery), kama (desire), moksha (freedom), and on the other hand you have the series of: 1) the didactic (history), 2) pleasure (literature) and 3) authority (Vedas i.e. scripture). Though all instruct, one (history) instructs in the manner of a friend, the other (the Vedas) instruct in the manner of a master, and poetry instructs in the manner of a wife. Here is a whole passage:

In this matter [of the primary goal being bliss, one may make a distinction]: For the poet, delight is certainly his goal, but it may be achieved also by fame, as the verse proclaims: “for they say that fame has heavenly reward”. For the auditors (or readers), it is true that both instruction and delight are goals, for it has been said, “The study of good poetry imparts skill in dharma, artha, kama, moksha, and the arts: it gives both fame and joy” [Bhamaha 12]. Nevertheless, of instruction and joy, joy is the chief goal. Otherwise, what basic difference would there be between one means of instruction, viz., poetry, which instructs after the fashion of a wife, and other means of instruction, such as the Vedas which instruct after the fashion of a master, or history which instructs after the fashion of a friend? That is why bliss is said to be the chief goal. In comparison with [poetry’s] instruction even in all four aims of human life, the bliss which it renders is a far more important goal (71).

An attempt is made to interpenetrate three series which traditionally might not have had much to do with each other – the series of goals of life, the series of genres of text, and the series of the nature of human relationships, which include love, inequality and equality. A synthesis is thus sought over a three-dimensional axis, and it is in such movements that one can understand the semiological cosmos that classical traditions (with their almost infinite self- and cross-referentiality) work with and against.

Below is one more final example, before the paper moves on to the contemporary Hindi novel, of how the Sanskritic tradition (at least in part) allows us a sophisticated canvas of arising, decaying, transient, and interpenetrative affect, all of which might speak to a contemporary literary imagination:

Rasa appears when a stable state of mind (citta-vrtti), constantly directed toward a proper object, is aesthetically relished. Bhava appears when a transitory state is so relished. The improper variety (abhasa) of rasa or bhava appears when either of them is directed toward an improper object, as when Ravana’s [the evil king] love is directed toward Sita [the virtuous queen]. Bharata’s [writer of the Natyasastra, the canonical second century text] dictum that “the erotic leads to the comic,” that stage of realization overtakes the audience only later. Since the relish one experiences in the stage where one is identifying [the portrayed emotion with one’s own] is of love, the rasa will appear to be the erotic rasa as long as we overlook the broader context, as we do when hearing: ”I merely heard her name/and it acted as a magnet or a maddening charm.” This is therefore a care of the improper or spurious erotic, [not of the comic]. An emotion (bhava) which goes to form an improper rasa is an “improper emotion” (bhavabhasa). The cessation or checking of an advanced emotion is especially delightful to the heart, it is separately mentioned [in the list that we just gave], although it is actually included [in the term bhava]. An example is: ”They lay upon the bed each turned aside/and suffering in silence;/ though love still dwelt within their hearts/each feared a loss of pride./But then from out the corner of their eyes/the sidelong glances met/and the quarrel broke in laughter as they turned/and clasped each other’s neck.” Here we have the cessation of a pride which has taken the form of a jealous anger. Now this suggested entity, rasa or the like, is not generated with us after the fashion that joy is generated from [the direct force] of the words, “A son is born to you.” Nor does it come from the secondary power of the words. Rather, it makes itself felt (parisphuti) as something the whole life of which consists in the ongoing practice of relishing and which thereby differs from something like joy or grief that is a finished or frozen state (107-108).

The point worth making is that for a contemporary readership and practice, instead of getting fixated on the number of rasas or their subcategorisations, what one might need to learn is their differentiated analysis of fleeting affect, whereby sometimes an affect is more powerful for being fleeting, or where the fleeting nature may be powerful because the vacuum it creates is so open to further unexpected affect. Literature is a chain of affective, liquid, mixed intensities, whereby diverse ends of the spectrum (the erotic, the comic, jealous anger etc.) can be evoked in a manner that cannot be captured by simple propositional chains of primary and secondary meanings which are the staple of historical or religious discourse.

Ataraxy as Intimate and Monumental Affect

One of the key innovations of the Kashmiri tradition was that it moved from a more pragmatic reading of texts (for example, the influential seventh century Dandin text which itemized categories like the required element of plot, type of hero, types of moral conflict etc.), and moved it to not just affects (love, laughter, courage etc.), but to the centralization of one affect. For Abhinavagupta, this was the affect of ataraxy. Here, peace is not just one affect among many, but the final, distilled affect, an affect that does not merely appear in a sequence of other affects, but is a culmination and final consequence. This sense is congenial to some contemporary literature, and I argue that the text discussed below in this section has this one final affect of ataraxy. The ataraxy in this text does have its elements of peace, but it also has undeniable elements of sadness, grieving and isolation – perhaps this might have been something the Kashmiri school would have well understood, for they were obsessed with the Mahabharatha, a text that has as many moments of violence and grief, as well as understanding, resilience and peace.

So it is keeping the above spirit in mind that I would like to briefly discuss Sunflowers of the Dark, a novel by the prominent Hindi writer Krishna Sobti. As a general statement of Sobti’s oeuvre, it may be said that an overall affective tone glides past the (female) body’s surfaces, and bird-like, shifts its postures of flight as it negotiates the dense interiors of the Indian family. The tone may not always transcend all surfaces – the walls and doors of the house, the male quarters, and the far and many outsides of the house itself. Even when the voice does seem to sail free, it retains the peculiar stickiness of the body – in Sobti’s work, a distinguishing power and rage often emerges from this reciprocity of voice, affect and body, of the insides and outsides of the house. The outside is not a world to be seen as an object (of beauty, or ownership) but, even in the novels where the protagonist is a single, working woman, the claustrophobia of interiors (houses, sexual and aging bodies, mental health, unlit office spaces) mark the world. The world is not a flat landscape that allows freewheeling movement (be it the resistant horizontality of the rural, or the forbidding vertical housing colonies of the metropolitan). Even if a protagonist is alone and economically selfsufficient, her mind is teeming with people’s voices, of chastisements or blandishments, and so what she wishes for is really a pure respite of silence. It is one of the achievements of Sobti that she can write both intensive, heated, busy patchworks of interweaving dialogue (a small room of competing sisters-in-law), but also can create great monuments of silence in her work – her work is testimony to the monumentalizing of the affect of both speech and silence. Though she is most famous for the tumultuous and sexually explicit language of her work Mitro Marjanai (To Hell with You Mitro) in the 1960s, particularly bold as it was in the Indian context, it is to the much less appreciated latter affect of silence that I will turn.

Sunflowers of the Dark, translated superbly by Pamela Manasi (2008) is about isolation, solitude, and loneliness. It ends with an achieved sexual poise, but this too is likely impermanent, and comes after long, arduous years in which the protagonist Ratika, labours in vain for hope and a cathartic touch. Perhaps most strikingly, in comparison with To Hell with You Mitro, it is a quiet work, and the very opening with its thick snow underfoot is far from Mitro’s crowded, talkative, gossipy haveli (the traditional Indian joint family). This novel, much less celebrated than To Hell with You Mitro, is of an order of speech that is much more subtle. It begins with the protagonist staying over at a friend’s house in Simla. Though she is of unclear age, there is a pervasive anxiety with regard to aging throughout the novel. This age is a biological age (which too is clearly marked when the protagonist at various points dwells on her hours of make-up), but is equally the age of a jaded soul, where everything seems ‘a decades-old day. A decades-old evening. The same frosty winter’ (7). Time is always distended in the novel, and people are often confused about how much time has passed – one thinks one has barely shut one’s eyes, but hours have passed, or perhaps it is that hours rush swift as minutes.

Sobti uses the same telegraphic sentences that are characteristic of her oeuvre, but here, instead of the liveliness of a voice and personality, we have a skeletal, abashed self, and a soft voice akin to that of the constant drift of snow. Throughout the novel, time is distended, and it seems that everyone responds to the other only after a long time, as if affect itself slows in the cold air. It is as if much of the action of the novel takes place in the hollow pause after someone has just spoken. As light as voice is the sense of touch – ‘But Keshi [her male friend] wasn’t holding her, his touch was just a luminal presence on her arm’ (9). This sentiment recurs at the end of the novel: ‘Diwakar kissed her closed eyes lightly, as if it weren’t a touch, just a desire to’ (94). Likewise, alcohol also stretches time, and in the last scene Ratika says that she wishes to drink so slowly that the last drop will be drunk at the moment of sunrise, when the sun itself will be that last red ascending drop. There are long descriptions of minute actions, and hushed sounds so atypical of much of Sobti’s oeuvre: of pulling chairs toward a fireplace, of setting trays, of opening cabinets, of the clink of glasses, of feet that do not thud as they are so wrapped in thick socks, of the names not called, of movements that are always quiet so that the children may not wake up, the muffled sound of weeping. Voices seem to take place external to oneself: ‘she was outside this conversation, outside all doors’ (13). Like voices, laughter too has many adjectives – the child’s trill, the muchmarried man’s guilty laugh, the laugh after ‘downing three doubles’, the ‘voice that sieved through instruments [the phone] and touched her eyes’ (88-89). Later, in an almost textbook definition of depression, she says that ‘it is not a question of desiring, Reema [her friend] but of being able to desire’ (18). Reema serves as foil of wifely, and motherly, domesticity: ‘a well-kept kitchen is the pride of a home’ (18). Ratika is not to be merely pathologized however—her qualities of gentleness, stillness, silence, vulnerability suffuse the narrative arc. She watches over the only one more vulnerable than her– Reema’s child Kumu. An ayah (domestic female help) is made to mirror Ratika’s childlessness— the word used, “barren”, recurs through much of the novel (20- 21). In contrast to the strong mother-daughter bonds in Memory’s Daughter and To Hell with You Mitro, here the protagonist is childless, and even with regard to age has neither the insouciance (Mitro) nor will-to-live of the daughter (Pasho), nor the accomplished grit of the mothers in those novels, though she does seem on her way toward the silent, yet inwardly ferocious despair of Balo, the mother of Mitro. In Sunflowers of the Dark, there are few statements on motherhood, only the mockheroic desire to give birth not to daughters but to a five or seven sons – like the earlier reference to tradition and the Gita, here also what is being upended is the traditional Sanskrit blessing “May you be the mother of a hundred sons” (74-75). Childlessness stands in for an aging that is sometimes mature, sometimes accelerated – it is only in the last few pages that Ratika describes herself as a ‘lone working woman’ (105). Perhaps “instead”, or as (failed or successful) substitute, there is a confusing multiplicity in the number of male lovers and friends that populate Ratika’s world. There are many and, except for a few recurring figures, largely interchangeable. Most of them bubble up and disappear in the second section of the novel called Tunnels. But it is not only the men who are interchangeable – the last page has Ratika wryly observing of her lover’s wife: ‘She used to say something like this, to herself about you, and to me about herself’ (107). This second section, unlike the first and last, has noise – the tumult of Ratika’s childhood and girlhood. It also reveals the incident of sexual abuse that surely shapes (though in no deterministic sense) Ratika’s distinctiveness. The ferment and schoolyard violence of Ratika’s girlhood (perhaps the “acting out” of the abuse) is slowly stilled into the quiet that we see of her adult persona. As a girl, she is persecuted by her school friends for being a ‘bad girl’ (38). And in that sense of isolation from her teasing, giggling school-mates, her silence grows.

The time period as she grows is left unclear – the reader is not sure of the chronology, or causation, and there are leaps of years where it is unclear if an incident is in the recent or further past – with reference to the first section, or the chapters within the second section. An early, kind potential mate dies young. Many later men crisscross the narrative voice which seems partly gnarled (if often sensual) in retrospection and partly of a palpable present – they serve the function of revealing how Ratika appears. Despite her quietness, she is fearless, and not coy. But there is also a perceived tinge of bitterness and coldness, of stoniness.

The mood is set strongly, though not through dialogue, but through Ratika’s perception of herself: ‘a desolate return to her self . . . Who is she? Ratti [the common diminutive of her name in the novel]: An endless road. And her own road’s dead end’ (8-9). Later in that first section (called The Bridge) one hears further characterizations of a troubled, populated internal world, ‘everyone has two selves’, and ‘I feel as if it were my own post-mortem’ (30-31). In the second section the narrator remarks that ‘she seemed to discard one persona and wear another, putting the first one on a hanger’ (65). This may be said with a mordant eye on the Gita which has a philosophy of rebirths, and wearing new selves as new clothes. In the next page, she feels looked at ‘as if at the negative of a familiar photograph’ (66). To list a few more: ‘the dark snow-covered cave where secret life stirs, serpentlike . . . as many darned patches on her self as there were images in her memory . . . her own corpse looming before her’ (77-78). Like the voice, the face is a common metonym for a patchwork self: ‘Every door a face. Every face a body. And every body a room’ (81). Further images include: ‘you too have trained your lens on me and are clicking away mercilessly’, and the image of the self as a reflection in the window pane that one passes (90). Sobti even writes of the face as a telephone dial that never seems to break through to the other voice. It is part of Sobti’s continual investigations in her oeuvre: questions of a selfhood that never quite manages to achieve resolution? Where by the integrity of the “I” is never to be taken for granted. In this novel, in the context of abuse, the split, dissociative, doubling self may be taken as an elementary psychological desideratum. Yet somehow, from deep within the stasis, and the tissue of the novel, there is a line of light and affirmation. Mentorship, and many friendships, carve a faith. The last scene, surely one of the most erotic in Indian fiction, is entirely immersive, and full of hard-earned fealty: “Do you know how much this silk has had to endure to become so fine, so soft?” (100). In line with the dominant affect of the novel, there is, as earlier, the same reverence for a silence that leads to ataraxia, the same distension of time, ‘silence of an aeon . . . for one lifelong moment. Like the earth holding her breath’ (98-99).

What in the Sanskritic tradition can help us grasp this twentieth century novel? Perhaps not the many affects and sub (or transient) affects listed in the texts. But maybe something in the desire to catalogue infinitely (so distinctive of the Sanskritic aesthetic and philosophical traditions as a whole) can teach us not so much of the desire for exhaustiveness, but the opposite, the impulse to minutely observe, as well as to generalize (the Kashmiri’s school understanding of peace as the final affect). Hence, it is all the more imperative to read the Sanskritic tradition as incomplete, as textually open, rather than as a fixed list of rasas. The minutiae of reading is not merely an example of a pre-formulated theoreticism, but rather the desire to keep open the ever more minute phenomenology of reading (where the experience of reading stands metonymically for the richness of a perceptual world), where one does seeks both transcendence and immersion. Thus the silence that may be recorded in the novel discussed above is not to be one more sub or super category to be added to the canon as it pursues a dream of completeness, but should rather be read as another opening, another immersive vista that one has no particular desire to leave. This sense of indefinite inter-subjectivity between the work and the reader is perhaps what the Kashmiri school was also after, rather than the dreams of comprehensiveness or transcendence or to be merely lost in a welter of transitory affects.


I am grateful to have been part of this stimulating conference, and hope that it would be the first of many such conversations. The conference was organized excellently and patiently- I would like to chiefly thank Dr. Sreedevi Nair for this. I would also like to particularly thank Professor Sneja Gunew and Professor Jayasree for conceptualizing the conference. The many other faculty from different parts of India and the world, as well as the attentive participants have given me many new ways to imagine a rekindling of aesthetics, affect and tradition. Finally, I would like to thank the city of Trivandrum / Thiruvananthapuram, the city I was born in and visited often as my much-loved grandmother lived in, till last year when she passed away. It has been a melancholic, yet rich awakening to a city now recognized with new eyes after my grandmother’s passing, and the venture is to try and stay both child and scholar in this city.


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Revolutionary Joy/Infectious Feeling

Revolutionary Joy/Infectious Feeling

Dina Al-Kassin

Abstract:Political solidarity confounds our political theory when the latter is grounded in economies of interest, cultures of responsibility or instruments of rights. The gratuitous materialisation of solidarity might be rethought from the perspective of affect if by the latter we indicate a field of interpretive capacity, sometimes called recognition, not limited to or by personal attachments. This capacity we might liken to a ‘shared situation’ to quote Jean Laplanche (1989, 126). Following this train of thought through the figure of revolutionary joy and ‘adherence’ in Jean Genet’s last work, Prisoner of Love, and its uptake in Mahmoud Darwish’s memoir of the siege of Beirut, Memory for Forgetfulness, this paper envisions an affect studies that materializes modes of affinity and adherence by tracing an example of affect’s echo between two texts, each attunedto the fading of a revolutionary moment as it is forced underground.

Keywordsrevolutionary joy, biopolitics, nihilistic joy, Icarian subterfuge, affective affinity

  1. Revolutionary joy gets no respect. Suspect, evanescent, of dubious motivation, disruptive by nature, chaotic and violent, the joy of collective resistance and large scale manifestations such as we have seen globally since the first surge of civil disobedience in Tunisia on December 18, 2010, presents a problem of naming that remains unresolved. It was impossible to predict that outrage over the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi and his subsequent death eighteen days later would spark a movement that successfully routed a dictator of twenty-three years and inaugurated a new government founded on principles of civil liberty. The ‘Dignity Revolution’ (thawrat al karaamah) in Tunisia set in motion the ‘Revolution of 25 January’ in Cairo yet both were immediately and dismissively renamed in the western press under the sign of flowers and passing season: names like ‘Jasmine Revolution’ or ‘Arab Spring’ reflect a wish that this too shall pass and like all such wishes are symptomatic of a fundamental ambivalence. We might expect such reaction from the political right and its various organs, but the cool reception of Arab insurgency by many on the left still strikes a note of surprise – Alain Badiou’s impromptu comments in the early days of the Tunisian revolution, transcribed by Daniel Fischer sitting in on the seminar entitled ‘What does “change the world” mean?’, register a generalized left discomfort with revolutionary joy (Fischer). That he elaborated his position by publishing in the pages of Le Monde does not change the fact that caution and empathy were prescribed, along with what is read by some as a condescending tone, in the place of jubilation (Badiou).

Vijay Prashad in his Arab Spring, Libyan Winter understands joy to be one of the pitfalls of national consciousness. ‘Libya’s cities celebrated the fall of Qaddafi. But what are the people celebrating? Certainly there is jubilation at the removal from power of the Qaddafi of 1988-2011. That Qaddafi had alienated everyone. It is in the interest of NATO and the neoliberal clique to ensure that in this auto-da-fe the national liberation anti-imperialist of 1969-1988 is liquidated, and that the neoliberal era is forgotten, to be reborn anew as if not tried before. That is going to be the trick: to navigate between the joy of large sections of the population who want to have a say in their society . . . and a small section that wants to pursue the neoliberal agenda . . .’ (Prashad 230). One step from frenzy, the mobility or instability of the mob is quite capable, Prashad fears, of forgetting that before IMF restructuring and neoliberal economics squeezed the nations of North Africa in the vise of global debt, there had been a period of prosperous anti-imperialism. Joy is simply not to be trusted.

Another example, Aijaz Ahmad interviewed on May day 2012 by the online journal FullStop contends: ‘ . . . if you can be inspired into left-wing commitments only by the passing excitement of a transitional historical moment – May ’68, Arab uprising, Chilean student movement – you are more likely to settle back into inertia and nostalgia. If, however, your main motivation is the sense of outrage at cruelty and injustice – fascism, imperialism, what capitalism does to the vast majority of human beings – then you may not need the stimulation of good news to keep yourself going in what then becomes for you an obligation’ (Ahmad). In this assessment, the millions who assembled globally and in public, intermittently yet steadily from December 2010 to May day 2012 are consigned to a ‘passing excitement’ and denied the sense of outrage at cruelty and injustice in a judgment that at minimum must ignore the ample evidence of anti-capitalism and assertion of human rights in the Arab crowds alone. Even from the postcolonial or anti-colonial perspective, Ahmad and Prashad share with Badiou a leftist distrust of popular jubilation when it is inspired by pain and outrage as the Dignity Revolution irrefutably was. In this distrust we hear the legacy not only of nineteenth centrury fears of mobility of the mob – the source of the word ‘mob’ – and bourgeois terror of the popular insurgencies that struck France, for instance, at regular intervals, but also a trace of an eighteenth centrury anxiety over barbarism, which Michel Foucault locates as a leitmotif of discourses on revolution and revolutionary fervor that project a destructive drive on the landless and the dispossessed while retaining a mythology of pre-modern freedoms connected with early mercantile accumulation and commerce. For France this takes the form of Gaulish barbarism celebrated as a pre-political source of the nation that can be recalled against the disorder of the under-classes massing in the streets (Foucault).

Committed to an ethic of exposure and outrage at injustice, recent trends in postcolonial criticism have unearthed the necropolitical shadow of biopolitics and registered grim and truncated accounts of diminished life. Even before the moment of revolutionary foment of this decade, Jean Comaroff lamented the elegiac turn that biopolitics via Agamben has injected in the fields and with it a sense that the clamor of rights extinguishes the imagination or feeling (Comaroff). And if anti-colonial work is or must be written as elegy, what then might postcolonial studies have to say of ‘joy’? With this question in mind, I turn now to three authors entangled by their shared commitment to something like revolutionary joy but refusing the sacrifice of feeling in response and responsibility. They begin the decolonisation of affect by setting feeling to work.

  1. As early as 1929 Georges Bataille saw with clarity the shortcomings and force of André Breton’s surrealism. The essay, ‘The Old Mole and the Prefix Sur in the Words Surhomme and Surrealist’, written that year but not published until 1968 in Tel Quel during the heady days of a student insurrection, lays out the challenge of a materialist approach to revolutionary practice over and against the idealism of bourgeois theorists and artists like the surrealists (Bataille 32-44). Reproaching Breton and through him others, Bataille asserts that revolution demands of the bourgeois son a complete betrayal of his social class and an identification with the ‘old mole/vielle taupe’ of proletarian struggle. Short of becoming a class traitor, he is committed to a ‘puerile’ and oedipal revolt against the mores of the bourgeoisie in forms of transgression that are at once servile yet aspiring to triumph over existing structures of authority and value, which the text represents through an allegory of the son’s desire to vanquish his father. Like Icarus, the bourgeois son in revolt seeks to be more than the father, to meet the maker and defying him, fly higher. Nihilistic joy is a form of this drive to triumph over the triumph of the other; Icarian sovereignty of this kind ends in flames. Opposing the mole with the imperial eagle, Bataille is convinced that this self-consuming joy is the only true rebellion available to the bourgeois son. Without wishing to collapse a metaphor of burning and the real instance of Bouazizi’s self-immolation, we must at minimum note that whereas it is the bourgeois revolution that has been exhausted by 1929, Bataille still holds out a hope for the worker’s revolution in relation to which Icarian excess is merely a sign. In our present moment and despite the essential contribution of Tunisian labour unions to the success of the Dignity Revolution, the successful collective formation lies not in the workers but between the involuntary idleness of entire generations of youth from Morocco to Iran and beyond and a middle class whose call for civil liberties joins the demand of rural and urban poor for basic sustenance. The class betrayal, which Bataille identifies as voluntary in bourgeois unity with anti-capitalism aims, has by now exceeded the in/voluntary choice because it is a feature of the terrain, Fanon’s terrain of socially deformed relations1, while an unworking class of youth, who struggle to be present even in the present, who are being forcibly absented from the present, merges with the present-absence of other figures like the refugee, the Palestinian, the shanty town dweller. Their revolt, emblematized by the outbreak of self-immolations and drownings as young men, in particular but not only they, attempt the crossing from Morocco to Spain in flimsy inner tubes, retains an Icarian dimension though the risk is absolute and suicide sometimes openly avowed (Pandolfo).

Of course, Bataille’s mole harkens back to at least three other moles. Hamlet’s father’s ghost, Hegel’s Spirit breaking the crust of earth to bask in the sun and Marx’s subterranean tunneling proletariat. From an emblem of injured sovereignty to emergent world spirit and intermittent class consciousness the mole has been called upon to figure the ignominy of dispossession in these three distinct imaginaries. For Bataille the mole’s slow labors are distinct from Icarian flight and the eagle’s soaring triumph and thus from the nihilism of a refusal to accept and think through one’s own mortality and base vulnerability. The mole does not need to exhibit his abjection for he suffers oppression in earthly communion with an intermittent, only sometimes possible emergence. Neither the figure of sovereignty nor the emblem of a messianic triumph, the mole digs his hollows and tunnels persistently incorporating both the psychological struggle of subjectivities dominated by normative order and proletarian consciousness emergent in the worker’s revolutions of the early twentieth centrury. The enemy is a drive for homogeneity that refuses the heterogeneous substance of experience and matter, which for Bataille provides indisputable limits to the abstractions of capital and the idealism of philosophy, two forms of the ‘high’ that his writing practice undermines by consistently opposing exalted language and images to base foundations. The nihilistic euphoria of his opponents is ridiculed and delimited as devoted to a hierarchy of ever escalating triumph over the former structure of authority. ‘All claims from below have been scurrilously disguised as claims from above’ (Bataille 39) in an Icarian attempt to preserve class superiority of a kind. For Bataille, another path emerges through his critique: attending to base matter not as waste or loss but as inevitable decay and fragility. Excavating the ‘low’ would allow the bourgeois son to examine, work through, experience and share his puerile rebellion by exposing himself to the affects as well as the judgement of abjection, but this self-examination by means of self-abjection is limited because unassailably framed by class. To ‘betray his social class’ is both possible in the sense that the almost ascetic re-examination of value within subjectivity, his own, is always already a class betrayal, but it is also impossible for the labour of puerile revolution cannot turn an eagle into a mole. The intuition of base materialism is fundamentally that of an edge or limit.

But Bataille does not accept the metaphoric limitations of political philosophy and so steps out of the exclusive fixation on fauna to develop his suspended dialectics in other directions. ‘The Language of Flowers’, an essay dating from the same year, 1929, and also in response to one of Breton’s provocations, offers an example of this therapeutic intervention on resistant idealism:

. . . nothing contributes more strongly to the peace in one’s heart and to the lifting of one’s spirits, as well as to one’s loftier notions of justice and rectitude, than the spectacle of fields and forests, along with the tiniest parts of the plant, which sometimes manifest a veritable architectural order, contributing to the general impression of correctness. No crack, it seems conspicuously troubles the decisive harmony of vegetal nature. Flowers themselves, lost in this immense movement from earth to sky, are reduced to an episodic role, to a diversion, moreover, that is apparently misunderstood: they can only contribute, by breaking the monotony, to the inevitable seductiveness produced by the general thrust from low to high. And in order to destroy this favorable impression, nothing less is necessary than the impossible and fantastic vision of roots swarming under the surface of the soil, nauseating and naked like vermin (Bataille 13).

The ‘decisive harmony of vegetal nature’ finds its echo in the 1939 essay ‘The Practice of Joy Before Death’ published in the journal Acephale where Bataille revives the happy condition of a ‘beautiful spring morning’ to disrupt our serenity with a ‘practice’ of de-sublimation, writing, ‘when a man finds himself situated in such a way that the world is happily reflected in him, without entailing any destruction or suffering . . . he can let himself be carried away by the resulting enchantment or simple joy. But he can also perceive at the same time, the weight and the vain yearning for empty rest implied by this beatitude. At that moment, something cruelly rises up in him that is comparable to a bird of prey that tears open the throat of a smaller bird in an apparently peaceful and clear blue sky’ (Bataille 235).

Cautioning against the affective resemblance between religious mysticism and the practice of joy before death, Bataille warns that ‘only a shameless, indecent saintliness can lead to a sufficiently happy loss of self.’ The ‘joy before death means that life can be glorified from root to summit’ (Bataille 237) by robbing ‘of meaning everything that is an intellectual or moral beyond, substance, god, immutable order or salvation’ (Bataille 237). In more prosaic terms, this practice affirms the confusion of a materially communicable joy that exceeds identity, neither before nor after it, possibly beneath. And Bataille believes this practice to be the only path to a new terrain or map of social discords conventionally disguised by ideological and idealist investments for ‘there is no possibility for any class until bourgeois principles have become altogether and for everyone principles of derision and general disgust – including Icarian subterfuge, even if this subterfuge will be regarded someday as a kind of dawn of mental liberation’ (Bataille 43). Accepting the limitation of its class position, this attitude does not appropriate the mole but understands itself as witnessing another’s revolution, a work unlike that to be done by the bourgeois sons.

As witness to the joy of the other, Bataille’s practice of joy before death respects the division of labor within a joy that aims at resignifying life from ‘root to summit’.

  1. ‘Who will Write the History of the Moss?’ This question is posed by Mahmoud Darwish in Thakira lil nisyanMemory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut 1982, his testimony of the Israeli siege of Beirut; it is in direct communication with Jean Genet’s account of the same events in Un Captif amoureux/Prisoner of Love, which like Darwish’s text, is generally understood as both a personal memoir and an act of cosmopolitan witnessing. That summer Israel laid siege to the city for 88 days, cutting off water, supplies, movement and subjecting the population to constant bombardment, including the use by the IDF of vacuum bombs, prohibited by the Geneva Convention. With simplicity, Darwish’s question digs out an image, one that embodies the division of adherence from witnessing and which circumscribes the problématique of solidarity.

‘Who will Write the History of the Moss?’ is a response to Genet’s text, but though it may be the first such reference for Darwish, it is not the last. Years later when writing another memoir (Darwish 2011) the poet narrates receiving the news of the massacre at Shatila and Sabra by quoting from Genet’s 1983 essay ‘Four Hours at Shatila’(Genet 2004) which details the time he spent in the camps recording the murder and torture of thousands, the numbers are disputed, by the Phalangists and under the watchful eye of Israeli command, which did nothing to stop the slaughter. Far from it. As Genet notes in one of his last interviews, they turned their search-lights on the camps to facilitate the proceedings. This fact is underlined by Darwish when he quotes from Genet’s description of a festival of death. Genet’s essay then reappears segmented with changes in Prisoner of Love where Genet affirms a materialization at the heart of his ‘adhérence’ to the Palestinian revolution over and against the international politics of the image which captures it. Darwish’s question of the moss acknowledges the importance of a Genetian theory of adherence to the necessity of a history of the not-yet vanquished. For Darwish, Genet’s theory and ethics of adherence escapes the economy of tactical sacrifice. For the Genet of Darwish’s citations, direct and indirect, witnessing and adherence are interdependent yet distinct; it is to this figuration of sticky yet rootless attachment, rather than the demanding solidarity of strategic sacrifices, that Darwish turns.

Between Memory for Forgetfulness, 1987, and In the Presence of Absence, 20062, Genet’s ghost materializes again but in a form legible only to those who have been following the moss in Darwish and Genet, and this time as an explanation of Darwish’s resignation from the Executive Council of the Palestine Liberation Organisation where he had been charged in 1988 with drafting the peace charter. In ‘Before Writing My Resignation,’ Darwish offers a poet’s plaint: ‘the creative Palestinian is prohibited from the luxury of vacated and dedicated time for the sake of creativity, because this is bound to a direct cessation from patriotic activity. Yet prisoners grow flowers in their prison yards. And in front of the zinc huts mothers planted basil and mint. The creative person must create his flexible margin between the patriotic, the political, the daily, the cultural, and the literary. But what am I to do? What does a poet do in the executive council? Will I be able to write a book of love when color falls on the ground in autumn?’(Darwish, 2007).

Moss, basil, mint, a prisoner’s flower, a book of love written in the autumn years: so many materializations of an entanglement between two distinct networks of poetic flora. Today I will follow the moss from the question of history and who will write it to the explanation of adherence in Genet.

Genet’s last novel was published in 1949 (Journal du voleur / Thief’s Journal) and for the next 37 years he divided his writing between political essays, interviews and poetic articles and plays. This was a prolific time of diverse interests that culminated in the publication of the dense and complex memoir, ‘commissioned’ by Yasser Arafat. Prisoner of Love weaves political and aesthetic reflections on revolution with detailed memories of his sojourns among the Black Panthers and the PLO. Although he spent less than two years in the camps at Ajloun, Irbid and Beirut, his involvement with the movement and his intimate contacts with individuals continued for 15 years. The text is held loosely together by interweaving acute ideological critiques of French colonialism, American imperialism, Zionism and Israeli violence with an extended avowal of his strong attachment for which he was prepared in advance by his experience of French sovereignty. As a foster child and juvenile delinquent but also, by 1940, a felon and deserter of the foreign legion, Genet’s heterogeneity within France acts as an impermeable barrier between the grace he witnesses and his own fallen state. No mediation is possible and this impossibility is heightened by his status as writer; he observes the union of his nation, but no sublimation of his difference can overcome the distance between the acts of affinity he witnesses and his own betrayals of home. By 1940, the ground had been seeded for a national alienation most palpable in the fictions he produced to excoriate and redress this harm. If France was suddenly homogeneously French by dint of German invasion, Genet was all the more foreign at home because of his desertion. In Prisoner of Love, he recalls this souvenir of youth and war to explain his attachment to Palestinians and their cause, at the end of his five hundred page examination of contemporary and historical imperialism, colonialism and revolutionary affirmation.

By the end reflecting on his years spent in juvenile prison, he is ready to avow his affection for a people as a love of home: ‘as my statement of my position has shown, I’ve never thought of myself as a Palestinian. But there I was at home.’ And it is here that the Genetian flower, signature of his writing since at least Notre dame des fleurs (1943) and commented by Derrida to develop the floral network in Genet’s novels as a counter to Hegel on kinship in Glas (Derrida, 1990), here flora emerges in the text with political force:

It was the Palestinian phenomenon that made me write this book, but why did I stick so closely to the obviously crazy logic of that war? I can only explain it by remembering what I value: one or another of my prisons, a patch of moss, a few bits of hay, perhaps some wild flowers pushing up a slab of concrete or granite paving-stone. Or, the only luxury I’ll allow myself, two or three dog roses (eglantine) growing on a gaunt and thorny bush’ (Genet, 2003: 386).

Genet then embroiders the phrase ‘moss, lichen, dog rose’ into a major meditation on his own status as national abject, which became a basis for his fellowship with the dispossessed and later the attachment to ‘home’.

Between the ages of 6 and 8 I felt like a stranger in France . . . France was all around me and thought she was hemming me in all the time I was there, though really I was far away . . . that foolishly proud empire, never troubled before except by the empire of India, was invaded, almost without opposition by a few battalions of handsome fair-haired soldiers. Whether it was because they had too much beauty, too much fairness, or too much youth, France before them. I was there. Finally she fled, terrified. With my own eyes I saw a whole nation from behind, saw their backs running away, caught between the suns of June, of the south, and of the Germans. And where did that herd of backs and suns make for? For the sun . . . . In that ruined temple, mosses and lichens appeared, and sometimes kindness and even stranger things: a kind of almost happy confusion, elemental and classless. I kept my distance. In the pride I’d inherited from the former master of the world, I watched the metamorphosis with jubilation, but with the carefully hidden distress of being excluded from it” (Genet, 2003: 386).

Genet saw strange acts of kindness and grace among Parisians in flight from the Nazis: a bejeweled woman tended dirty and naughty children. A disheveled dandy festooned with medals cared for an elderly hobo. These signs of the abjection of wealth and luxury are also signs of ‘grace’ growing between the widening cracks of social class opened up by the chance happening of military defeat, which he says, fell like rain. Linking such signs to his own travels to Palestine he writes ‘moss, lichen, grass, a few dog roses capable of pushing up through red granite were an image of the Palestinian people breaking out everywhere through the cracks’ (Genet, 2003: 388).

Political philosophy takes up the question of sovereignty and the beast, as they are entangled within the law and right though assumed to be exterior to both. Genet recasts this couple as a difference between justice and justesse or law and rightness which, though bound up with conventional figures of bestial power allows him to take the leap of invoking flora as a (better) figure for revolutionary serenity and the affirmation of existence.3 Following Bataille’s lead he prefers the sovereignty of the artist for whom ‘poetic expenditure ceases to be symbolic in its consequences’ because its consequences become a material price to be paid (Bataille 120). Professing the need to ‘dig in my own tongue’, Prisoner of Love understands the ‘old mole’ of fundamentalist nationalisms, which he describes as ‘digging up ancestry to justify present political claims’ by which he means Israel/Phalangists et al., as distinct from the revolution practiced by Palestinians. Genet ends his book of “souvenirs” with ‘the most beautiful of all’, likening Palestinians to his most valued memories and therefore a property of that which preciously exceeds himself, the memory of dog roses in granite, ‘breaking out’ all over.

Genet’s readers have often dismissed his politics altogether, and this is a tendency even in friendly encounters. For instance, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri commit the error of instrumental reading when it comes to Genet’s avowal of revolutionary affinity, saying he was ‘enchanted by [the] revolutionary desire’ [of the Palestinians and the Black Panthers] ‘but he recognized that becoming a sovereign nation would be the end of their revolutionary qualities. “The day when the Palestinians are institutionalized,” he said, “I will no longer be at their side. The day the Palestinians become a nation like the other nations, I will no longer be there”’ (Hardt and Negri 109).

These lines taken from an interview, one of his last, in 1983 with an Austrian journalist, circulate infamously severed from their context for Genet goes on to elaborate and even qualify his remarks.

What the Palestinian Revolution will become once it has its territory and is made into an institution, I don’t know. In the camps you can already see the basis of what might become a territorial gain and an institution of the Palestinian Revolution . . . I’m afraid that by becoming a set pattern, this schema will be reproduced again when Palestine has a territory. For the moment, I adhere completely to Palestine in revolt. I don’t know if I will adhere – I will probably, even certainly be dead by then – but if I were alive I don’t know if I could adhere to a Palestine that has been made into an institution and has become territorially satisfied. But is that important? I wonder (Genet, 2004: 251-2. My emphasis).

He pauses to consider whether his personal sovereignty should trump that of the people he loves and with whom he has made a home both in writing and in memory. And in wondering this he accepts another surprising property of national belonging: serenity.

I think that for the Palestinians . . . there is a certain serenity despite the violence they experience, despite the living conditions, I think that the reason for this serenity lies precisely in the fact that the Palestinians, before becoming warriors –that is, before their expulsion from Palestine and the beginning of the organized military rebellion, from 1948 to about 1965 – they lived as a very calm, well-behaved people, with no arms or military operations, with no PLO, no Fatah, no hijackings, without disturbing the well-being of Western citizens, without filling the pages of the press. And I think that during this period you didn’t see a lot of serenity in people’s faces (Genet, 2004: 251-2).

When directly queried about his commitment, Genet speaks of the singular affirmation of existence rooting a collective and political struggle:

I think that there is an affirmation of existence in the very fact of rebelling. . . after the birth of the political movement . . . there was a physical transformation of the people . . . and beginning at that moment, they felt that they existed. Without a national territory. But they existed nonetheless. And I think that this was, this is what is most important for them. To continue to feel that they exist. In their actions, even if their final objective is the liberation of their national territory: but the most important thing is that while they are on this road they continue to have the freedom to exist precisely in their actions (Genet, 2004: 251-2).

As he begins to write his memoir in 1983 and in a race against his own imminent death Genet remembers a material transformation of the people written on their faces and legible in their actions, comportment, hospitality and laughter. The expression of serenity as palpable evidence of freedom to exist in our actions repeats Bataille’s insistence upon the unity of high and low or freedom and materialism that he persistently figured by highlighting such dialectical images as the radiant rose, whose roots lie in base matter “seething” under the earth’s crust. Revolutionary serenity derived not from the justice of the cause but from its “justesse” or rightness is another such figure of a dialectic that foregrounds Marx’s industrious mole while refusing to sacrifice Hegel’s luminous spirit. What is a suspended dialectic in Bataille and what we might call ‘dialectics at a standstill’ to quote Benjamin is for Genet a dilation, gaining time, creating the conditions of life.4 Very different from a notion of state sovereignty as the authors of Empire rightly note, yet inescapably linked to it, Genet’s serene image of the moss, lichen and rosa canina, drawn from childhood but recognized as Palestinian, affirms his adherence or as he chose to name his tribute to a people, his captivity in love.

  1. In her reading of a founding text of the enlightenment, The Critique of Judgment, Gayatri Spivak notes that Kant quickly dispenses with the aboriginals of Tierra del Fuego and New Holland (Australia) as representing the limit of man’s free will. This “raw man” or wild man is a mere detail for Kant, one that in Spivak’s critical strategy emerges as more than minor for it inaugurates a tradition of aesthetic thinking through a foreclosure of the Aboriginal, one that leaves a trace of Aboriginality to be followed through literary and philosophical texts haunted by the spectre of the minor and the marginal. She argues that in drawing a distinction between culture and nature, reason and sentiment, the enlightenment enacted a foreclosure not only on a figure but also cut off an affective connection and affinity between western and Aboriginal men. This loss of feeling is disguised as identitarian difference – the difference between Kant and an inhabitant of Tierra del Fuego – with the result that identity becomes in the present moment the basis for human rights talk. Against the reduction of ethics (which in her accounting surely depends upon something not yet inter-relational, not yet a matter of subject and object, but of being affected by the other “before” identity and difference establish dominion) to identity Spivak proposes the ‘ethical move of deconstruction, where the body’s metapsychological script … is a figure of the alterity that defines the human as being called by the other – to responsibility – rather than as a repository of an ‘unique and essential quality’ that can only clamor for rights’ (Spivak 389). Retrieval of lost affinity is one result of reading Bataille, Darwish and Genet together, and certainly affective affinity or ‘love’ is a major element of Genet’s politics.


1 In A Dying Colonialism Frantz Fanon elaborates the idea that before social transformation can come about, the monstrosity of social relations must first be felt and perceived. ‘For Fanon, political transfiguration of the social field happens through the intercession of affective factors that challenge and shift the boundaries of intelligibility.’ (Al-Kassim, 128).

2 These are the original publication dates in Arabic.

3 Jacques Derrida situates sovereignty and its bestiary as a question of right and law in The Beast and the Sovereign, Vol. 1 (Derrida 2009).

4 Limitation on time and space prevent full development of this argument here; what is at stake in the triangulation of suspense, halt and dilation where these temporalities stand in for Bataille, Benjamin and Genet is an argument over the legibility of power and injustice and what can be articulated through that legibility. A suspended dialectic promises to thwart the triumph of sovereign power; dialectics at a standstill apprehends the sudden visibility of a historical connection or conjunction such that the cost of the present shines forth in high relief as the “waste products” of the past or experiments that were destined to fail become newly visible and potentially accessible. Genet offers a different reflection on the intrusion of the past in the present and by writing he sets to work reminiscence to yield new life. The paradigmatic reference for the phrase “dialectics at a standstill” can be found throughout Benjamin’s The Arcades Project: “Ambiguity is the appearance of dialectic in images, the law of dialectics at a standstill. This standstill is utopia and the dialectical image, therefore, dream image. Such an image is afforded by the commodity per se: as fetish” (Benjamin, 2002: 10).


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Tiedemann, R. “Dialectics at a Standstill.” In Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2002. 929-945.

The violence of Caste and Sexuality : P. Sivakami

The violence of Caste and Sexuality : P. Sivakami

Kiran Keshavamurthy

Abstract: The Tamil writer P. Sivakami’s sequential novels The Grip of Change (Pazhaiyana Kalithalum, 1989) and Gowri: Author’s Notes (Gowri: Aasiriyar Kurippu, 1999) were written in the wake of the Bodi caste riots in Tamil Nadu between Pallars (a Dalit caste group) and Thevars. Dalits mobilized themselves around a Dalit leader when she was raped and killed by upper caste landlords for demanding higher wages. At a protest meeting, a Dalit political leader is reported to have said, “What would happen if all Dalit men were to marry upper caste women?” This led to a violent backlash resulting in the loss of Dalit lives and property. The reasons for raping the Dalit leader lay in suppressing a Dalit woman who was overstepping her subordinate status by publicly demanding higher wages. Thus caste functioned in markedly gendered ways in public spaces.

As a response to this event, Sivakami’s novels focused on the body of the Dalit woman as a fictional and rhetorical figure for the fraught relationship between caste, gender and sexuality. The novel centers on the exploited and supposedly violable body of the Dalit woman, which is inscribed with inter-caste struggles for power even as it is constituted as a site of resistance. Over the course of the narratives, it becomes impossible to articulate caste and gender and sexuality at once. Caste turns out to be the overarching structure that regulates gender and sexuality primarily through the body of the (Dalit) woman. There is no space in this structure to articulate questions of sexual violence, that are clearly elided by caste violence, which subordinates the Dalit woman to the male interests of the Dalit community. The second novel is the author’s reflection on the possibility of re-imagining the inter-sectionalities between caste, gender and sexuality.

Keywordsuntouchability, caste system, affect, caste, gender, sexuality

Contrary to scholarly opinions that until recently have thought of Tamil Dalit literature as a post-Marathi phenomenon, modern Dalit consciousness in Tamil can be traced back to the late 19th century writings of Pandit Iyothi Thas (1845-1914).1 His imaginative and rather subversive etymological inversions of Shaiva and Vaishnava literature reveal the Buddhist leanings of early Tamil literature and an interpretation of Dravidians as casteless Tamils. His readings merely point to a prevalence of inequality among persons of the same religion and the protest against such discrimination. This is significantly different from the totalizing operations of the hierarchical varna system that institute and perpetuate a structural form of graded inequality and injustice. The Dalit scholar Ravikumar who based his interpretation of inscriptional evidence on caste, traces the practice of untouchability and the spatial segregation of caste settlements to the 12th century where enhanced court patronage to Vedic Brahminism led to its spread and the violent expulsion of Jainism and Buddhism.2 According to the historian Burton Stein, the Brahmin- Non-Brahmin alliance has remained intact till 1800 and played a crucial role in the institutionalization of untouchability and the caste system in Tamil Nadu.3

The formation of the South India Welfare Association in 1906 and the launch of the non- Brahmin manifesto were crucial events in the formation of the non-Brahmin, a virtual category that did not end up representing all non-Brahmins. The Justice Party launched in 1917 formed the first non-Brahmin-led ministry in the 1920 provincial legislative council election following the British administration’s introduction of diarchy. The ministry issued a communal government order reserving jobs for various non-Brahmin communities in 1921 but this did not include Dalits and religious minorities. The Self-Respect Movement led by the iconoclastic anti-caste leader E.V. Ramasami Naicker ‘Periyar’ was a radical phase of the Non-Brahmin movement that attacked the social elitism that characterized Justice Party politics. Other prominent Dalit leaders like M. C. Rajah petitioned the government demanding a 30 percent reservation for the depressed classes in government jobs. Another response to this was the mobilization of those caste groups that had numerical strength and yet did not get a share in the political pie like the Vanniyars and later the Thevars who emerged as a strong political force in the 1950s and 60s and later again in the 1980s.4 The Thevars became an unintended beneficiary of the creation of a category by the government called most backward classes among the backward classes. The implementation of the Mandal Commission however limited the growing political power of the backward classes. But Dalits, despite their numbers, and other religious minorities remained excluded from this powerful non-Brahmin non-Dalit bloc by a combination of religious and economic factors that maintained their subservient position in society.

The emergence of modern Dalit literature in the late 1980s coincided with the rise of small- scale Dalit movements in the state as a response to state patronage for the Ambedkar centenary celebrations. This led to the consolidation of Dalit forces and opened up a space for their cultural expression. The early writers who thematized the discriminatory practices of the caste system in the nineteen-seventies had a Marxist background and largely subsumed caste to class struggle. Many of their stories were published in the leftist little magazines of the time.5

  1. Sivakami’s novels emerged in the wake of the Bodinayakanoor riots that rocked Madurai district in September 1989. Before turning to a discussion of the novels a historical engagement with the Bodi riot, as Bodinayakanoor is popularly known, is only in order. The Bodi riot is not an isolated event whose occurrence is either gratuitous or unexpected; there are a host of economic and social factors that have orchestrated instances of caste violence like this one across the Tamil-speaking region over centuries. There are however, I wish to suggest, a set of social, political and economic factors that make the Bodi riots a reiteration of a pattern of inter-caste and intra-caste violence characteristic of southern Tamil Nadu.

In his analysis of the Bodi riots, S. Ganeshram makes three important observations – firstly, there has been an economically driven history of deep-seated resentment and hatred in Madurai district between the upper-caste Thevars (primarily Kallars) and the Dalits that mostly comprise Pallars. The inter-caste violence that erupted in 1989 is therefore not unexpected. Secondly, during the riot the upper castes united and conspired to attack Dalits, despite their inter-caste differences, while the Dalits were unable to overcome their inner divisions and hierarchies and stand united against this onslaught of upper-caste violence. And thirdly, the Thevars enjoy the support of political parties and state institutions like the police where they have a large presence. This perpetuates a culture of casteist violence where the state and the upper castes are complicit in reducing Dalits to a state of powerlessness. Thus it becomes necessary to be sensitive both to the ways in which Dalits are discriminated against and oppressed and to intra-Dalit fissures that preempt any monolithic understanding of Dalit identity.

There are certain socio-economic factors that have fueled the enmity between Thevars and Dalits in Madurai district. Dalits, many of whom work on cardamom farms mostly owned by Thevars, have been exploited. Untouchability, reserving menial forms of labor like grave digging and scavenging for Dalits and other discriminatory practices like the separate tumbler system at tea-stalls are factors that have exacerbated Dalit resentment. The failure to implement anti-caste laws like the Civil Disabilities Act, the Untouchability Offenses Act has only emboldened Thevars to act with impunity. The violence against Dalits that unfolded in the Bodi riots was part of a nationwide phenomenon of inter-caste violence that in 1989 led to the enactment of the Prevention of Atrocities Act that addresses both particular and systemic forms of violence and exploitation against Dalits. Anti-caste state legislation thus produced the legal category of the caste atrocity that was driven by both symbolic and economic forms of dispossession.

The sparks of the riots were lit in Meenakshipuram, a village close to Bodi where the death of a Pallar woman and the disparaging and provocative remarks by John Pandian, a Pallar mass leader, created tension between the upper castes and the Dalits.The upper castes were unwilling to accept a Dalit as panchayat leader and the Dalits were unable to settle their internal differences and agree on a common representative. Soon after this a Dalit woman was found murdered with her tongue slit in September 1989. The police suspected her husband was responsible for her death and when a group of Dalits tried to file a complaint the police refused to intervene and asked them to approach a police station in the neighboring district as they claimed the site of the murder did not fall within their jurisdiction. When an upper caste man confessed to committing the murder the police pronounced him mentally unsound and released him. Anticipating trouble from the Dalits, the police approached John Pandian, the leader of the Devendira Kula Vellalar Mahasabha, a Pallar organization and a politically influential man with a long criminal record. He agreed to defuse the situation and no picketing took place.

Affective Narratives

Dalit literature, in its representation of pain and humiliation, calls for an affective reading. What an affective reading entails is an understanding of how affective states of shame, anger or indignation condition not just perceptions of the world but also action. This is not to suggest however, that there is a direct or necessary correspondence between affect and action or the textual representation of affect and its reception. Any serious work of literature may on the contrary, reveal the distinct or even contradictory affective responses of a character or reader to a scene of violence. So for example, the function of describing ritualized enactments of violence in a Dalit novel from the perspective of the Dalit narrator, may serve to constantly evoke the reader’s shock and sympathy. But whatif the reader is shocked not by the scene of ritual violence, but by the narrator’s apparent indifference – to what risks becoming a banalized form of violence? Or what seems to be a harmonious image of a Dalit subculture may evoke anger and sympathy precisely because its existence is vulnerable to a modern world transformed by money and technology. An affective reading can thus complicate or defamiliarize the relationship between affect, its representation and action.

An affective reading of Sivakami’s sequential novels for instance, reveals the spectacular enmeshments of sexual and caste violence that are embodied in the Dalit woman. And yet within the narrative scope of the first novel, Pazhaiyana Kalithalum (The Grip of Change, 1989), there is no unambiguous resolution to the Dalit woman’s plight, exploited as she is by upper-caste men and men from her own caste community. The only available option is to exchange her body for relative safety and power. So the initial sympathy that the reader (or the other Dalit characters) feel for the Dalit woman may by the end of the novel, turn to disappointment due to the fact that the Dalit woman’s exploitation is not avenged or redressed by a court of law. The second novel, Aasiriyar Kurrippu: Gowri (Author’s Notes, Gowri: 1997), takes the form of the author’s self-reflexive reevaluation of the first novel that foregrounds the simulative status of the fictional imagination, which complicates an affective correspondence between the author, the narrator, the reader and the characters.

Sivakami’s two novels were written and published eight years apart. The first one Pazhaiyana Kalithalum (translated by the author as The Grip of Change, 1989) draws attention to the Dalit woman as a fictional figure for the fraught relations between caste, gender and sexuality. The novel centers on the exploited and supposedly violable body of the Dalit woman, which is inscribed with inter-caste struggles for power even as it is constituted as a site of power and resistance. The female protagonist Thangam’s battered body frames the opening scene; her past is constituted by her widowhood that makes her a ‘surplus’ woman; the harassment by her brothers-in-law when she refuses to submit to them; the sexploitation by her caste Hindu landlord and the assault on her by caste Hindu men owing to her apparent sexual misdemeanor only reinforce her abject status. Even the struggle for land is linked to her body and fertility – she does not have children and so her brothers-in-law refuse to give her a share in the family land. When she is given shelter by Kattamuthu, a Dalit Paraiyar patriarch and ex-village headman, her vulnerability is exploited; she is forced to physically yield to his desires. However, the same body, through which she is oppressed and subjugated, also grants her the power to gain ascendancy in Kattamuthu’s house granting her dominance over his wives (Kandasamy 194). But, as we shall presently see, any access Thangam has to power is compromised by her sexual and economic exploitation, first by an upper caste landlord and then by a Paraiyar panchayat leader.

Something dark loomed in the corner of the verandah. Slowly, asKathamuthu’s eyes grew accustomed to the shadows, he could make out a person crouching there, groaning in pain.

“Who is it? What…?” Kattamuthu asked fearfully.

“Ayyo…Ayyo…They have butchered me…Ayyo…” The figure cried like a wounded animal and finally fell down…

“You woman…you…why are you here wailing so early in the morning? What is the matter? Get up and explain your problem without such a fuss.” Flanked by both his wives, Kattamuthu recovered from the shock he had experienced and questioned the shrouded figure.

“What can I say? May they be hanged. May they go to hell. The ground will open up and swallow you. You’ll eat mud. Bastards! You abused a helpless woman. You curs! Come now! Come and lick…”

What should have been an explanation turned into a torrent of abuse against those who assaulted her…

Weeping she removed the sari wrapped around her head. The whole of her torso, visible because she was not wearing a blouse, bore terrible bruises. Dried blood marked the flesh of her back.

[Thangam] “Sami [Lord]. Not only this, Sami. Look at my arms.” She showed her swollen arms.

“Look at this Sami.” The woman lifted her sari above her knees.

The skin of her thighs and knees was scored and shredded as though she had been dragged over a rough surface.

[Kattamuthu] “Where are you from? What is your caste? And your name?”…

Kattamuthu took her to be in her thirties, tall and well built. Thoughher face was swollen from crying, it was still attractive…

[Thangam] “Sami, I come from the same village as your wife Kanagavalli. Kanagu, don’t you recognize me? You know Kaipillai from the south street who died? I am his wife.”…

“Oh, where shall I begin? You know Paranjoti from the upper caste street?” she appealed to Kanagu.

[Kanagavalli] “I don’t know anyone from the upper caste locality…”

[Thangam] “True. People like you living in towns don’t know much about the villages…Paranjoti from the upper caste street is very rich. His lands go right up to the next village, Arumadal. After my husband died I began working in Paranjoti’s farm. My husband’s brothers refused to hand over his share of the family land as I didn’t have any children. How could I fight them? I couldn’t go to court. Who can spend that much money? Even if I had won, I wouldn’t be able to take care of my share of land in peace, not without everyone hating me. I am a single woman now…But at least I have a thatched roof over my head.

“My husband’s relatives spread the story that I had become Paranjoti’s concubine. That’s why Paranjoti’s wife’s brothers and her brother-in-law, four men, entered my house last night. They pulled me by my hair and dragged me out to the street. They hit me, and flogged me with a stick stout as a hand. They nearly killed me. No one in the village, none of my relatives, came to help me…They abused me and threatened to kill me if I stayed in that village any longer. They called me a whore.”…

[Kattamuthu] “Okay, okay.”Kattamuthu studied her, “Now tell me the truth. What did you do? Nobody would have assaulted you like that unless you had done something first.”

[Thangam] “I didn’t do anything wrong…”

[Kattamuthu] “That’s enough. Take your story to someone else who might be fool enough to believe it.”…

[Thangam] “…How can I hide the truth from you? Paranjoti Udaiyar has had me…true,” she said, with a mixture of fear and shame. [Kanagavalli] “Why do you have to spoil someone’s marriage? Is that good? You’ve hurt his family”Kanagavalli stressed the last part for the benefit of Nagamani [Kattamuthu’s second wife] who had come to the verandah with hot water. Nagamani directed a scornful look at Kattamuthu.

[Thangam] “Sami, is there anywhere on earth where this doesn’t happen? I didn’t want it. But Udaiyar took no notice of me. He raped me when I was working in his sugarcane field. I remained silent; after all, he is my paymaster. He measures my rice. If you think I’m like that, that I’m easy, please ask around in the village. After my husband’s death, can anybody say that they had seen me in the company of anyone, or even smiling at anyone? My husband’s brothers tried to force me, but I never gave in. They wouldn’t give me my husband’s land, but wanted me to be a whore for them. I wouldn’t give in…I’m a childless widow. There is no protection for me.”

Kattamuthu interrupted her, “All right, it happened. Now tell me, why didn’t you go after someone of our caste? It’s because you chose that upper caste fellow, that four men could come and righteously beat you up. Don’t you like our chaps?” Hesitating at the crudity of his remarks, she answered, “Sami, how can you ask me such a question? I didn’t go after anyone. I am not a desperate woman. I feel so ashamed. It was wrong, horrible…_____I gave in to Udaiyar…You should abandon me in some jungle. I never want to go back to that village. But before that I want those men who beat me up to fall at my feet and plead.” She angrily grabbed some mud from the front yard and spat on it (Sivakami 3-8).

The novel opens dramatically with Thangam’s battered body – a spectacle to be witnessed by Kattamuthu and his two wives. She is initially shrouded but then removes her sari to expose her mutilated body. She claims she has been raped by her upper caste Udaiyar landlord Paranjoti and assaulted by his brother and brothers-in-law for her rumored affair with him. Although she swears she never desired or encouraged Paranjoti, Kattamuthu is incredulous and suspects Thangam’s sexual reputation while his wife Kanagavalli accuses her of ruining a married man’s family. Note that Kattamuthu reads her assault and rape as punishments she deserves for violating the sexual integrity of caste that forbids sexual relations between upper-caste men and lower caste women. The above passage also suggests Kattamuthu’s own desire for Thangam.

Thangam’s alleged sexual indulgence effectively fictionalizes her rape by making her complicit in the loss of her own reputation. She is deemed an unreliable witness to her own rape, which is invalidated by her past acquiescence and presumed consent to what in reality is an exploitative relationship. While Kattamuthu interprets her sexual relationship with an upper- caste man as a threat to the integrity of caste patriarchy – a threat that has to be regulated and controlled – the double standard that governs the caste regulation of sexuality is made evident by Kattamuthu’s marriage to his younger wife, Nagamani, a poor upper-caste widow he took under his care. A sexual hierarchy thus coincides with a caste hierarchy when Thangam’s alleged affair with an upper-caste man preempts any claim to her own desire and body. Her widowed status is interpreted by men as a sign of her sexual availability, which ostensibly justifies potential threats of rape.

What is of particular interest and this becomes the focal point of the novel, is the elision of sexual violence by caste violence. Although both these forms of violence are implicated in Thangam’s raped and battered body, it is the visible signs of physical assault that are privileged over her rape. Her battered body is perceived purely as an instance of casteist violence and not as a rape, which in any case, is an unverifiable event ostensibly legitimized by her past acquiescence. Kattamuthu dictates a petition to his daughter Gowri on Thangam’s behalf that is addressed to the police. In the petition he overlooks Thangam’s rape and distorts her account of her brutal mutilation by upper-caste men in the Dalit locality by accusing her assailants of assaulting her for walking through their street. The misrepresentation is thus not merely the elision of what was also the sexual violation of an individual Dalit woman, but the politicization of Thangam’s battery as an incriminatory instance of upper-caste aggression. By relocating Thangam’s body from the secret confines of sexual assault to a caste-encoded space like the upper-caste street, Kattamuthu’s distorted petition strategically diffuses Thangam’s victimhood to implicate the entire Dalit community. Thangam’s sexed body is thus displaced by her caste body, which materializes the brutal effects of an unsolicited expression of upper-caste violence. In what follows, Thangam’s caste body becomes the site where the inter-caste struggle for political power plays out.

At the police station Kattamuthu urges Thangam to tearfully remonstrate at the inspector’s feet. Kattamuthu has faith neither in his own caste community that lacks the solidarity to confront upper-caste violence nor in the impartiality of the upper-caste police. He tries to win the inspector’s trust and sympathy by strategically drawing attention to his own status as a perpetual victim of casteism. Kattamuthu bitterly recounts his past as a bonded labourer who against all odds got educated to become a village elder. He claims he would have become a member of the legislative assembly had it not been for the jealousy of his own community. The inspector is quick to assert his and by extension, the law’s indifference to social distinctions of caste in the delivery of justice. Kattamuthu immediately switches strategies to remind the police inspector of the contradictory role of the modern democratic state that on one hand has to arbitrate social conflict while remaining above all forms of partisanship and on the other, has to intervene by introducing affirmative measures to ensure equal access to all resources. Kattamuthu warns the inspector of the possibility of ruining his career if he is accused of colluding with upper caste culprits and fails to arrest them. Caste, Kattamuthu says, is both pervasive and invisible, ‘it is something that exists even if they do not recognize its existence’ (Sivakami 22). The ideological presence of casteism is so pervasive that it cannot always be recognized by the law and its representatives particularly when they are potentially implicated. The inspector, as Kattamuthu anticipates, is provoked into opening an enquiry and prepares an arrest warrant lest the investigations prove the veracity of Thangam’s complaint.

During the police investigation, the attack on Thangam gives rise to further fabrications, which become the pretext for new inter-caste feuds. The police inspectors appointed to carry out the inquiry interrogate Thangam’s in-laws who first spread rumors of her illicit relationship with Paranjoti. One of Thangam’s in-laws corroborates Kattamuthu’s distorted version of Thangam’s assault to ensure the Dalit quarters are not accused of being complicit in the attack. He claims he saw Thangam waking up to a stomach-ache and walking to the village tank behind Paranjoti’s house where the Padaiyachi street begins. She is spotted by Paranjoti’s wife Kamalam, who abuses her by her caste name for entering the upper-caste street. She is later assaulted by Kamalam’s brothers. The Chakkiliyars, another Dalit laboring caste, confirm the rumors to the police believing them to be true and accuse the Padaiyachi men of assaulting Thangam for her affair with Paranjoti. While one of the investigating constables assumes Thangam’s rumored affair is true the other dismisses the possibility that Thangam may have coerced Paranjoti into a sexual relationship when his wife Kamalam is clearly ‘not being smart enough to keep her husband’ (Sivakami 29). Both the constables blame the women for Paranjoti’s infidelity.

ocked to discover Thangam’s police complaint. He is embarrassed by the possibility of his affair becoming public knowledge. He realizes he is unable to use his financial power to turn the case to his advantage now that he has been accused of a criminal assault. He silently curses Thangam for being ungrateful to him,

Ungrateful whore! Even if she was hurt, she was hurt by the hand adorned with gold! A Parachi could have never dreamt of being touched by a man like me. My touch was a boon granted for penance performed in her earlier births! And then the dirty bitch betrays me! How can I face the world with my name thus polluted? (Sivakami 31)

Paranjoti’s patronizing reaction reflects his anxiety concerning caste pollution and the consequent loss of reputation rather than guilt concerning his rape.

During the inquiry there is a meeting of laborers and farmers at Kattamuthu’s house. Kattamuthu announces his decision to constitute a panchayat or village council of elders to punish Paranjothi, his wife and his in-laws if they are proven guilty. His intention is to charge Paranjoti with casteism that would lead to the loss of his Dalit voters and undermine his political power. Kattamuthu is convinced Paranjothi will neither confess his relationship with a Dalit woman nor permit his wife to be taken to court and consequently beg him for mercy. When the police inspectors give Paranjoti a copy of the complaint, he realizes the complaint has been framed as a caste related assault that has nothing to do with rape. Paranjoti appeals to the inspectors and offers to pay them if they promise to rescue him. One of the policemen suggests he lodge a counter-complaint against Thangam by secretly planting a transistor and a large sum of money in her house and accuse her of theft. He encourages Paranjoti to file a complaint before Kattamuthu files a report.

But Kattamuthu spots one of the inspectors at a toddy shop, getting drunk on arrack. He discovers the inspector has been bribed by Paranjoti. The inebriated inspector reveals Paranjoti’s plan to press charges against Thangam. Kattamuthu immediately sends his men to guard Thangam’s house through the night as she convalesces at a hospital. Paranjoti’s men fail to place the transistor and money in Thangam’s hut although they manage to escape from Kattamuthu’s guards. Paranjoti, anxious that the counter-charge of theft against Thangam may backfire for lack of evidence, decides to accuse all the Dalit men of attacking his brothersin- law when they entered their street to recruit laborers. Soon, there are rumors of the Paraiyars’ (Dalits) attack on the Udaiyars (Padaiyars). The Paraiyar women laborers who work for the Udayars, discover to their anger and desperation, that they have been replaced by Chakkiliyar women. Paranjoti is determined to let the Paraiyars starve to force them to relent and withdraw Thangam’s complaint. He threatens to burn the Dalit locality if she refuses to take back her charges.

The attempt by wealthy upper-caste farmers to entice workers from neighboring villages with higher wages fails because of the political support that Kattamuthu enjoys in these villages. Other smaller farmers desperately in need of workers to plant their crops before the end of the planting season direct their rage towards the Paraiyars. A large part of the Paraiyar slum and some huts on the Chakkiliyar street are set on fire by some Udaiyar men. The moment the Dalit locality is set on fire the wealthy Reddiars join forces with the Udaiyars, the two castes being equal in status. They are also united by their shared allegiance to the ruling political party to ensure that no land reforms are implemented or land holdings registered under false names. The Paraiyars, the Chakkiliyars and the Padaiyachis are divided not just by caste but by their struggle for survival, which preempts any solidarity in the face of caste aggression. Kattamuthu tries to prevent the Paraiyars from potentially destroying themselves by controlling their desire for revenge. A gathering of the tahsildar (the revenue officer), the inspector, Paranjoti Udaiyar and some of his men, and Kattamuthu, is organized to settle the dispute.

What was initially a case of rape and exploitation is politicized into an issue of caste and class oppression. At the gathering, Kattamuthu argues that the Dalits have been relatively underpaid for the time they spend planting paddy when laborers in the surrounding villages are paid much more. He accuses Paranjoti of burning the cheri or Dalit quarters as the Dalits refused to work for lower wages. The Udaiyars and the Reddiars are embarrassed by his accusation and as per Kattamuthu’s demand are made to compensate the Dalit victims with money and clothes. Kattamuthu is clear that the Dalits and the upper castes need each other for their own survival and negotiates an agreement with them ‘I have been telling you from the beginning that the relationship between us should not break down. You have to take care of the Harijans (Dalits) as if they are your own children’ (Sivakami 69). Generously quoting from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and Gandhi’s autobiography My Experiments with Truth, Kattamuthu urges the upper caste men to cooperate with the Dalits and foster a mutuallybeneficial relationship.7 He assumes the Christian/Gandhian position of expiating caste prejudice by internalizing its pain and suffering to spiritually transcend the bane of caste. He tries to convince them that their conflicts can only be resolved and their solidarity renewed if they ‘bear their suffering in patience . . . [for they] will ultimately rule the world’ (Sivakami 73). Kattamuthu’s Gandhian position clearly does not suggest the dismantling of the caste system; on the contrary, it upholds the caste system and the interests of all its (male) stakeholders.

Unable to settle on a suitable compensation for the affected Dalits, Paranjoti begs Kattamuthu to settle the dispute in a panchayat meeting. When Kattamuthu informs everyone of his decision to join the Ambedkar Association’s protest against police inaction in the Thangam case, Paranjoti grows anxious that his relationship with Thangam may be settled in court. Finally Paranjoti and Kattamuthu agree on an outof- court settlement and Thangam receives monetary compensation. Thangam gives Kattamathu her compensation out of gratitude and offers to cultivate and harvest his land in return for his protection. Kattamuthu’s desire for Thangam empowers her over his wives. Her disputes with his jealous wives often end in violence. Thangam is transformed from being a poor and emaciated widow to an adorned and healthy woman who enjoys Kattamuthu’s patronage (Sivakami 87). She assumes the responsibility of paying the laborers who work on Kattamuthu’s land and receives people who come in search of him (Sivakami 93). She gradually becomes a part of the family and the household. Kattamuthu’s wives who are initially hostile and jealous later have no choice but to befriend and accept Thangam. But Kattamuthu’s protection and his sense of responsibility for Thangam come with a price – the sexploitation of her body. Although the text does not voice Thangam’s concern for the loss of her bodily integrity, her silence suggests this loss for her is clearly not primarily a matter of reputation. She seems to come to terms with her loss that for her is, I suggest, an unfortunate but necessary compromise to secure relative power and protection. She acquiesces to Kattamuthu’s sexual advances and continues to work for him even after she wins the case in court and regains her land from her in-laws. That she is represented as a victim of caste rather than sexual violence enables Thangam greater access to public spaces of legality like the court and the village council of elders that are exclusively occupied by men who possess legal authority and political power.

Towards the end of the novel we see the emergence of a new generation of educated young men and women of different castes who are united in their attempts to transcend social and sexual hierarchies – Kathamuthu’s daughter Gowri refuses to get married and becomes the first Dalit woman in her village to complete her college education. Her cousin Chandran becomes a worker at the rice mill and joins the workers union that unites Padaiyachi and Paraiyar workers whose shared labor concerns enables them to potentially overcome their caste differences. He gets married in a secular ceremony that does away with the Brahmin priest and rituals. He promises ‘his wife would be an equal partner in the marriage’ (Sivakami 117). Rasendran, a Paraiyar youth who is entrusted with the responsibility of guarding Thangam’s hut, protests Kathamuthu’s conciliatory attitude towards the upper caste Udaiyars and Reddiars at the gathering of elders. Elangovan, a young Paraiyar banker has an open affair with an upper caste woman, Lalitha who defies her mother’s injunctions.

Aasiriyar Kurippu: Gowri (Author’s Notes: Gowri) (1997)

Sivakami’s second novel Author’s Notes: Gowri is the author’s revisitation

of her earlier novel, The Grip of Change. This novel initially sets out as a revisionary critique of the earlier novel and explores the tension between the fictional world of the novel and the social circumstances that enabled the creation of the novel. The novel dramatizes the author’s anxious urge to constantly question and justify the premises of her earlier work. But the more she tries to eliminate the disjuncture between social reality and the representational claims of her earlier work, the more she is confronted by the irreducibly simulative quality of fiction that is neither false nor representative of any absolute or inclusive notion of truth. She discovers fictional writing is a deliberate process of selection and omission that is always already informed by experience, which is itself not innocent but socially and politically constructed. Her conflicted identification with her earlier autobiographical character/self, Gowri, for instance, enacts the author’s attempts to question and legitimize the truth of her fictional representations. The author returns to visit her home town Puliyur where she meets among her several relatives, her mother’s cousin whom she calls uncle. In her conversation with him, he reminds her of something she had done as a child,

[Uncle] “Do you remember, during school break you would come and ask for five or ten paise? Once you got the money, you’d leave bright and happy, playing with the coin.”Such petty memories. What else was he going to trot out?

[Uncle] “Your Kalimuthuperiappan once said that you had stolen a four anna coin from his pocket. His wife went around announcing that to everyone in the street. I told them, she’s just a child.” Is that why Gowri, the girl in the novel, had such a poor opinion of Kalimuthuperiappa? The novelist and the character in the novel, Gowri, must be one and the same person.

[Gowri] “I don’t recall that. Did I take money from Kalimuthuperiappa’s pocket?” she asked in a shocked voice.

[Uncle] “You can’t remember that, you were too young. You know, your father Kathamuthu liked me a lot. He would insist that I sit next to him and tell him stories. He had so much love and respect for me.”

In the novel, Gowri’s father was never shown expressing respect to elders. In describing Kathamuthu’s character, why had she paid so little attention to rudimentary truth?

…If Kuttaiappan could enthusiastically narrate stories without ever questioning their premises, why did she have to try so hard to justify her work? Look at her! Here she was, analyzing her novel trying to fit all the pieces into logical patterns. To whom did she owe explanations?(Sivakami 133-134)

Sivakami devotes most of the novel exploring her ambivalent relationship with her oppressive father. She acknowledges her father’s fictional representation is informed by her bitter memories of his sexual insinuations and authority. Like her autobiographical character Gowri, she remembers being humiliated by her father for supposedly dressing up like a whore and that heat tributes her arrogance and rebelliousness to her college education. She is rendered impotent by her father’s financial support, which is an unfortunate necessity for her to attain any kind of freedom. Although her initial impulse is to offer a more dispassionate perspective of her father, she ends up presenting literature as a way of challenging and trivializing paternal authority and as a form of selfempowerment. Fiction for the author redeems her memories of her violent and abusive father; her father’s fictional representation is ‘a revenge of sorts . . . [that] at the end . . . reduced her father to a counterfeit coin . . . she and her cousin had been transformed into revolutionaries. Family squabbles made for restricted politics’ (Sivakami 144-145).

She is particularly put off by two of her father’s qualities – his polygamy and his coarseness.

. . . She had to provide answers to some questions. Was a polygamous man a sex addict? What was the novelist’s opinion on fidelity and morality? Why were her male characters betrayers of women? Disgust seemed to inform her attitude to sex. What was the truth? (Sivakami 147)

But she also acknowledges certain facts about her father’s life had been deliberately omitted. She betrays her admiration for her hard working father who ‘worked on his farm with enthusiasm’ even when he was well off. He even established the first women’s hostel in their town to encourage female education and employment (Sivakami 148). He had also helped the poor and fed them. Sivakami realizes ‘The author of Grip of Change had constructed an effigy of her father and burned him in her novel. It was the author’s perspective rather than the whole truth. She wanted to prove that there was no such thing as the full and complete truth’ (Sivakami 148). Sivakami seems to suggest that the truth can acquire value of any kind only when it is clearly offered from a particular perspective.

Although Sivakami begins by reevaluating the premises of her earlier work she ends up reasserting them. She admits a writer can never avoid ‘subjective conclusions’ that invariably determine any fictional work (Sivakami 148). She affirms her literary representation of the contradictory dynamics of casteism not only disfavors lower castes but is endemic to the lower castes. She argues that casteism and corruption are so constitutive of inter and intra-caste relations that they have to be acknowledged if a democratic ideal of equal opportunity is at all possible to achieve. By making such a claim, Sivakami anticipates potential criticism from Dalits who may accuse her of betraying their cause.

What does the Grip of Change reflect for its readers? It wasn’t simply that the upper castes exploit the lower castes. A lower-caste leader might exploit his own people. It is not only upper caste men who prey on lower-caste women. Men like Kattamuthu are perfectly capable of taking advantage of vulnerable women. The overall picture presented by the novel is that rich or poor, upper caste or lower caste, the seeds of corruption exist at all levels.

Did the novelist have to write about the caste system to prove this? If she had really attempted to write about the caste system, she should have talked about equality of opportunity rather than the universality of corruption. She had acted like a self-appointed judge delivering a verdict.

Could the two aspects – her father’s polygamy and his coarseness – alone give her the right to judge and condemn him? In the novel, her father intervenes on behalf of a widow. Once he has sorted out her problems he forces her into having sex with him, though she pleads, “You are like a brother to me.” Did the novelist witness this scene? Or did she hear someone narrate it to her? (Sivakami 149)

Sivakami puts herself through intense self-examination as she explores her own identity in relation to the text. She considers the possibility of being criticized for protecting her own identity as a Dalit writer and betraying the Dalits by attacking the Dalit leadership. She dramatizes such criticism through a series of imaginary conversations where she alternately occupies the position of author and critic. In a series of rhetorical moves, Sivakami both submits to and resists her critics’ charge of hypocrisy and social elitism and ends up complicating identitarian politics. She is accused of reinforcing the stigma of being a Dalit while pretending to be sensitive to casteism. She resists such accusations by exhorting all castes to join forces in the fight against casteism. More significantly, she draws attention to her critics’ impulse to collapse the social world of the text with social reality as though the text were an unmediated reflection of the world. She continues to justify her representation of the ethical ambiguities that characterize the fraught relations between caste and gender and sexuality. Sivakami seems to be suggesting that the text’s claim to truth lies precisely in these ambiguities that resist any notion of absolute truth. For instance, she recounts an incident she heard from an aunt who was raped by an upper- caste landlord, following which, the author’s grandfather threatens to punish the landlord. The incident, Sivakami, suggests may only partially explain Kathamuthu’s motivations in the novel where he interprets Thangam’s rape merely as a caste-related atrocity that demanded revenge and justice. Thus Sivakami’s fictional representation of Thangam’s rape not only does not correspond to her aunt’s rape, it complicates any understanding of rape by situating the rape within the power dynamics of caste that underwrite competing and contradictory interpretations of the rape.

Sivakami poses certain crucial questions that address the function of literature. Unlike her readers and critics, she takes pains to emphasize that literature is neither a direct reproduction of social reality nor restricted to a realist or moral function. She is also sensitive to her own present position as an English-educated professional and the resultant sense of estrangement from her family. She poses questions that are ultimately unanswerable.

When I believe in monogamy and refinement does my emancipatory modernity then seek to civilize Kathamuthu? In doing so what are Gowri’s prejudices? On the other hand hasn’t modernity been always taken up as an issue by upper caste women? Or when Gowri refuses to get married is it because she is a victim of her mother’s experience? Or is it a brave assertion that she is walking away from the victimhood of her mother? Or is it merely independence? (Sivakami 189)

There are no clear answers to these questions and Sivakami does not bother to answer them. But she does acknowledge the need to contextualize certain cultural values that determine notions of gender, sexuality, independence, modernity and so on. Although Kattamuthu and Gowri are antagonistic characters, Sivakami suggests that they embody competing ways of addressing the same vexed question of casteism, ‘They fight on the same side and are prepared to fight the same enemies… Kathamuthu may dislike communism or Gowri detest his manipulation and weakness but they both envision a common end to atrocities against Dalits.’ (Sivakami 177)

In conclusion, Sivakami’s novels are an exploration of the continuities and shifting affordances of the Dalit woman. Inscribed by multiple intersecting vectors of caste, gender and sexual oppression, the body of the Dalit woman signifies the experience of social stigma and the only means of resisting oppression. Unlike many of the Dalit writers who preceded and followed Sivakami, Sivakami’s works remain crucial critiques of caste patriarchy.


1 Iyothee Thass (1845-1914) was an early anti-caste activist and a practitioner of Siddha Medicine. He was known for his conversion to Buddhism and exhorted Paraiyars, a Dalit caste, to do the same to escape the folds of Hinduism. Many of his social and cultural writings harked back to a glorious Dravidian Buddhist past and satirized Brahminism. See V. Geetha and S. V. Rajadurai, 1998 and Iyoti Thas, Works (Palayamkottai Valakkariyal Ayvu Maiyam, 1999-2003).

2 See Ravikumar and R. Azhagarasan. Eds., ‘General Introduction’. Tamil Dalit Writing. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2013. p. xv-xxxiii.

3 See Burton Stein, 1980.

4 1989 is the year for the rise of autonomous Dalit movements; 1988, early generation of Dalit writers started the Scheduled Caste Liberation Movement, many of whom were ex-members of dominant political parties. They protested against the attacks of Vanniyars on Dalits in Villupuram against the non-implementation of the Illayaperumal Committee Report and held a public meeting condemning the Bodi riots.

5 See K. Sathyanarayana and Susie Tharu, 2011. Manavosai, (CPI-ML), Pirachanai (CPM), Manitham (CPIML), Palam were little magazines founded by Tamil nationalist groups open to Dalit writers while the ones founded by Dalit writers and critics were Dalit MurasuPuthiya KodangiDalitBodhiManusanga, ThaimanAdi Thamizhan.

6 Meenakshipuram had seen mass Dalit conversions to Islam in 1981 that, however, did not guarantee their freedom from casteism.

7 See MK Gandhi, 1983.


Kandasamy, M. “And One shall Live in Two…” P. Sivakami. The Grip of Change and Author’s Notes: Gowri. Trans. P. Sivakami. Hyderabad: Orient Black Swan, 2006. 5193-97.

Gandhi, M. K. An Autobiography, or, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Canton, Maine: Greenleaf Books, 1983.

K., Sathyanarayana and S. Tharu. eds. No Alphabet in Sight: New Dalit Writing from South India. New Delhi: Penguin India, 2011.

P., Sivakami. The Grip of Change and Author’s Notes: Gowri. Trans. P. Sivakami. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1999.

Ravikumar and Azhagarasan. Tamil Dalit Writing. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2013.

S., Ganeshram. “Communalism in Tamil Nadu: A Study of Bodi Riots.” Economic and Political Weekly. Volume XXIV. March, 1989.

Stein, B. Peasant State and Society in Medieval South India. Delhi, New York: Oxford UP.

Thas, I. Works. Palayamkottai Valakkariyal Ayvu Maiyam, 1999-2003.

V., Geetha and S. V. Rajadurai. Towards a Non-Brahmin Millenium: from Iyothee Thass to Periyar. Calcutta, Mumbai: Samya; in association with Book Review Literary Trust; Mumbai: Distributed by Bhatkal Literary Trust, 1998.

The Scene of Humiliation

The Scene of Humiliation

Sanil V

Abstract: Embarrassment, shame and humiliation form a spectrum of negative emotions that are both self-conscious and other-regarding. This paper studies this spectrum to understand humiliation. Conventional studies on humiliation presuppose intersubjective mediation between the self and the other and a visceral disapproval of humiliation. This negative or symbolic relation between emotion and ethics has its root in the inability of modern practical reason to propose a theory of ethics. Based on Abhinavagupta and Damasio this paper proposes to look at emotions as impersonal, ownerless and desubjectivised. Emotion is the management of the supplementary nature of the self. Fandry, a Marathi film reveals the scene of humiliation as that of the hunt where intersubjective relations remain suspended.

Keywordshumiliation, decolonization, emotion, shame, embarrassment, self-respect, ethics

Humiliation is a political emotion. It involves asymmetry in power or status and immediately raises the question of justice. Exploitation and domination set the stage for humiliation. Humiliation isolates the victim but often makes reference to dimensions of social existence like caste, race and gender. It is a self-conscious emotion and the humiliated suffers a global denigration of the way in which the self appears to itself. However it also involves the self’s appearance to others – exposure of one’s vulnerability or defect - to others. Humiliation can ignite indignation and can also leads to the proud assertion of identities and efforts to form non-humiliating collectivities.

Humiliation may be viewed as part of a spectrum of negative emotions including embarrassment and shame.1 Normally, we do not want to see ourselves as experiencing these emotions. They are not happy emotions. They involve a negative evaluation of the self or the appearance of the self in front of others.2 Often they are seen as forming a continuous spectrum. A lot of conceptual labor has gone into exploring the continuities and breaks in this spectrum of negative emotions. Some may see humiliation as an extreme form of shame and distinguish both from embarrassment. It is also possible to put embarrassment and shame together and distinguish them from humiliation. Embarrassment is the result of our perceived inadequacy in the light of social mores or etiquette whereas shame involves strong moral evaluation. In embarrassment one suffers from diminished self-esteem whereas in shame we lose our self-respect. On this scale, humiliation involves global destruction of self-respect. In embarrassment and shame we hide our face and wish to disappear. However, humiliation does not leave us with any such escape routes. Humiliating stereotypes and nicknames immobilize us. We shall stay away from these debates on classification and try to follow the labor of the negative that is at work in these emotions.

The negativity associated with these emotions is not prescriptive. This negativity could be the harbinger of positive relations with the self and others. Having a sense of shame may be seen as necessary to a moral life by way of a critical attitude towards our shameful conduct. We are concerned about our appearance to others because others and their views about us matter to us. We endorse those standards and evaluate ourselves according to these standards. In shame I avert the looks of others by covering my face and not the face of others. I cover my face because I am hiding from myself too. I am not hiding from the hostile reactions of others but from an attitude that I have internalized. In a caste-ridden society we may expect an oppressed caste to recognize their condition as humiliating in order to break free and establish a decent society. So negative emotions harbor the potential for positive transformations.

Ethics aims at the transformation of emotions. Such transformation involves one’s relationship with one-self and also with others. How does humiliation come to be, create indignation, and lead to resistance? What is the locus of emotion if we were to track this transformation? How does a self-deprecating emotion which makes you want to disappear from the world form solidarities to resist and change humiliating situations?

Decolonising Humiliation / Shame

Humiliation and shame occupy pride of place in the emotional world of de-colonization. The project of decolonising theory has its root in the European experience of shame about the involvement of its concepts and discourses in colonialism. Humiliation suffered by the colonized is also one of the triggers of decolonization. The shame felt by the western academic in responding to this humiliation, using the very western categories whose deployment was instrumental in generating this feeling, also drives the project of decolonizing theory. Paradoxically, it is the same western theory that enabled the colonized to feel their situation as humiliating and respond with indignation. For example, conversion to Christianity and English education have enabled the lower castes in India to recognize their living conditions as humiliating. However the self-critical decolonizing mind looks at Christianity and English education as part of a colonial imposition. A revisionist decoloniser may claim that the very idea of caste is a colonial construct. Such radical decolonising criticism can undermine the very experience of humiliation experienced by the lower castes. Thus the decolonizing critical discourse can, on the one hand, trivialize the emotional response of the colonized and thereby humiliate them further, and, on the other, create a sense of shame within themselves for its emancipatory theoretical impulses. While the west makes it imperative for all other provinces to celebrate their difference it is ashamed of its own difference. The critical discourse from the west tries to undo its own binaries, but, ‘without being bruised by the fragments’ (Visker 145).

It is often said that the west privileges reason while the east celebrates emotion. The fear that emotions and sensations could cloud reason is perhaps universal and was shared by all traditions of thought. Even in the west philosophers from Spinoza to Damasio are concerned with the potential of emotions to transform themselves and those who experience them thereby acting to augment resources for the powers of reason. It is true that, both in the cognitive and moral domains, the rational modern subject is expected to maintain autonomy from the turbulence of emotions. However, as modern western thinkers such as Kant have shown us, in the aesthetic domain, emotions, even when given a free play, indirectly or symbolically indicate our moral destiny and the resilience of our cognitive powers. The idea of the autonomy of the aesthetic domain comes from a certain interpretation of western modernity. This interpretation has been questioned by philosophers from Gadamer to Rancière.

The project of decolonizing emotions that starts with an alleged denigration of emotion in the west and then proceed to search for the celebration of emotion in the east will continue to play out colonial anxieties about difference. It is equally presumptuous to expect the availability of an emotion-dominant theory in the east. Critical history has shown that some well-known candidates for such a theory such as the theory of rasa, were given a theoretical status and brought into relation with aesthetic practices as part of the colonial nationalist project of inventing a national art and heart.

How does the shame of the colonized encounter the shame of the decolonizing western academic? Can these shames come face to face? The contemporary revivalist tendencies in Indian theory demand extreme vigilance from western decolonisers and their Indian comrades. For example, the rasa theory of Abhinavaguta is an obvious choice for those who look towards Indian ideas on emotion to decolonize western theories of emotion. However, we now hear that Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) the Hindu nationalist organization, has decided to celebrate Abhinavagupta as part of its cultural and political maneuvering in Kashmir (Pathak). RSS glorifies the brahminical image of the past and legitimizes caste. Should we here appeal to the western binary between thought and its context and isolate the thought of Abhinavagupta from its political appropriations? How do we respond to the humiliation of the Dalits that may be worsened by the brahminical appropriation and denigration of their emotional universe?

Shame: Self and Other

Sartre describes a paradigmatic situation of shame. Someone who peeps into a hotel room through the keyhole will be ashamed when he is caught unawares by approaching footsteps in the corridor (Sartre, 2003: 301). To feel ashamed he need not directly encounter the other. The look of the other is always on me. Shame is at once a self- conscious and other-regarding emotion. A phenomenologist like Dan Zahavi sees this Sartrean situation of shame as attesting to the interpersonal nature of the self (Zahavi 214).

We matter to ourselves, and to others. Our self-regard conceptually involves the regard for others. We feel ashamed because others’ attitude towards us makes us realize our defects. It has been argued that embarrassment is caused by one’s failure to meet social expectations. Those embarrassed need not have accepted the values implied by the expectations. However, he is concerned about his appearance for others.Shame, it has been argued, involves a stronger moral evaluation and deeper sense of the self. Here, one sees oneself as falling short of a moral standard that one has acknowledged as valid. Dan Zahavi has vigorously argued against seeing shame as being based on an entirely intrapersonal evaluation, independent of the evaluation of others. Even someone who is ashamed in his own eyes has the look of an implied other casts upon him.

However, Sartre’s description of shame does not wholeheartedly endorse an intersubjective account. The look of the other fixes me as an immobile look stuck to the keyhole. I am fixed to a point of view that I cannot assume as my own. Shame reveals a mode of consciousness that is mine, but not a being-for me. I see myself as this being for the other. It is not that his look fixes me as an object that lacks freedom. It is my nature to be that thing fixed by his look. The other’s existence is my fall. It is not the look of the other that matters but the other as look. This ‘me’ fixed by the look does not belong to my possibilities. ‘It is the limit of my freedom, its “backstage” in the sense that we speak of “behind the scenes”.’ It is given to me as a burden which I carry without ever being able to turn back to know it, without even being able to realize its weight.’ (Sartre, 2003: 262). I am separated from this background-being by the nothingness of the other’s freedom. By my shame I claim the other’s freedom as mine. The look of the other embraces everything in my world. My world flows towards the other and I fall into this flow along with the door and the keyhole. Thus the look causes an internal hemorrhage of my world. Along with the world I flow out of myself.

For Sartre, the existence of the other is my fall. The other is hell. Zahavi who insists on the intersubjective relation between the self and other views this as an extreme position and rejects it. It is in humiliation that the other is hell. The violence that remains contained in shame and embarrassment hits without reserve in humiliation. In shame one covers one’s face. The humiliated is totally immobilized. In humiliation, one is subjected to an insidious control by others leading to a destruction of one’s self-respect and self- control. We shouldn’t be surprised if the humiliated join the obscene laughter of the perpetrators. It shows the collapse of mutual understanding that triumphs.

In shame one takes the evaluation of others seriously. It acknowledges our shared moral life where others matter. One endorses the other’s evaluation about one’s deficiency. This does not mean that we need to accept any specific moral value of the other. Zahavi discusses the case of a secular woman who wears a niquab because she respects the feeling of others in the community. She feels shame if she happens to come before others without the niquab. This does not mean that she accepts the value of wearing the niquab. She values the recognition of others. However, her humiliation as the stereotyped ‘muslim’ target presupposes a disruption in inter-subjective mediation between the self and the other. The names hit and wound instead of addressing her self.

The humiliated need not accept the evaluation of those who humiliate. One may think that the shame one experiences is a welldeserved one. This is unlikely in the case of humiliation. There seems to be a clash between one’s self-assessment and the perception of others. One is degraded to an unacceptable level. The shared moral values and moral life collapse. Humiliation is felt as unfair. It may lead to revenge and hatred towards the humiliating other. For Zahavi, humiliation is a transitory state that would either induce shame or lead to hatred. Both these are expected to reestablish the intrapersonal and interpersonal status of the subject destroyed by humiliation. The violence of shame that causes an internal hemorrhage in the self and the world is missing in Zahavi’s reading of Sartre.

Recollecting an experience of humiliation from the past brings out the disjunction in the subject. “How could I be the one who underwent that experience?” is the question through which one recollects a past experience of humiliation. I could not have been the subject of that experience. The experience was undergone by me. The experience I recollect has the feature of being experienced by a self. I know what it meant to undergo that experience in the past. However, I can fit that experience into my autobiography only as already always disowned. Borrowing a distinction from Galen Strawson between the episodic self and diachronic self (or narrative self), we may say that the episodic self which underwent the humiliation in the past may not fit in smoothly with the narrative self (Strawson, 2004). (This resistance to narrativisation brings the memory of humiliation close to déjà vu in which I have the experience of a past which does not belong to my autobiography. I have the memory of an experience that does not belong to my past.)

Here we may note efforts ranging from Max Scheler (Emad, 1972) to Martha Nussbaum (Nussbaum, 2004) to theorise shame as an intrapersonal affect. According to Nussbaum we are susceptible to a primitive shame that is prior to the acquisition of any sense of normality or shared moral values. Based on object-relations psychoanalysis she argues that shame manifests our vulnerability to the pressures of reality. It has its origin in our primary narcissism that entertains aspirations and ideas regarding us. Shame is a response to our deficiencies and our dependence on transitional objects that are external and unpredictable. The association between sexuality and shame is also seen as evidence for this primordial vulnerability. Zahavi is correct in not taking this account as an exclusively intrapersonal theory of shame. The lesson from object-relation psychoanalysis is that our sense of the self is dependent on exteriorization and dependence on transition objects. Our response to our imperfection is prior to any sense of perfection. As psychoanalysis clarifies, the transition object does not exist. It has no ‘fact to the matter’ that fulfills or supplements any preexisting lacuna. A theory of shame that misses this point mayfind its ground either in an innate sense of self worth – as in Nussbaum – or in the availability of an implied other – as in Zahavi. Inter-subjectivity and a visceral refusal of evil remain the horizons for such theorizing.

Avishai Margalit argues that if humiliation involves a total destruction of self-respect for the victim then it could be self-defeating (Margalit, 1996). A humiliating situation renders the victim’s selfrespect to justifiably plummet.3 Only those who have self-respect can be humiliated. Even the perpetrator has to minimally acknowledge the value of self-respect. If the victim loses self-respect totally, he/she will no longer be humiliated. Margalit sees the situation of humiliation as unfolding within a master – slave dialectic. The humiliator is an aspirant to omnipotence. He wants his absolute superiority to be recognized by the victim. Such recognition has value only if it comes from a free human being who is minimally in control of himself. The victim sees his impotence in comparison with the inflated self-importance of the perpetrator. The perpetrator behaves as if the victim is non-human. However, at the ontological level, it does not deny humanity to the victim. The freedom of the victim is curtailed in order to show that he is not treated as a human being. Though humiliation is possible, it is self-defeating. However, its success is its failure too. Conversely, in every humiliating situation we can see the promise for a non-humiliating society.

However, Margalit acknowledges that this master-slave dialectic of mutual recognition may not be available in institutionally conducted acts of humiliation (Margalit 181), for example, the acts of humiliation conducted by clerks, policemen and officials who act under the cover of an institutional framework. Such perpetrators, or institutions, do not demand any recognition from the victim. Margalit tries to reformulate the wounding of self-respect outside the demand for mutual recognition. He identifies three important features that provide justification for the victim to feel humiliated – exclusion from the human community, loss of human control, institutional practices that treat human beings as subhumans. These features are aspects of a symbolic cruelty which violates self-respect. An act by which a human being is humiliated in one of these features represents a cruelty which ought to be morally avoided. One may feel justifiably humiliated even by a worthless person. One may find one’s own living conditions humiliating. Here, the humiliator is not an individual. The victim’s reasons for feeling degraded need not refer to the value of the one who degrades.

Margalit begins his book on the normative foundations of a decent society with a detailed analysis of humiliation. This negative beginning is based on the hope that the normative principle to avoid humiliation will offer a foundation for a decent society. Negation of decency will provide moral percepts to move towards a positive account of a normative society. It is not easy to provide a positive account of decency. But no one disputes the claim that any society worthy of a future should not allow humiliation. Human reason’s ability to pursue positive values may be weak but it hasn’t lost the ability to turn away from evil. This move at once acknowledges the impossibility of ethics and also its indirect or symbolic availability at the heart of our visceral disapproval of evil.

Modern moral philosophy locates the sources of normativity in our reactive attitudes towards others or in commitments implicit in our communicative interactions. Even though morality no longer seeks its ground in substantive notions of good, acts of apologizing, addressing, avoiding humiliation, etc. reveal our implicit normative commitments. The non-availability of substantive ideas of the good is not seen as a lack. Our ignorance of the moral law makes freedom possible. By submitting himself to a law whose content he does not know, the moral agent contracts the possibility of guilt even before committing himself to any action. Such is the negative relation that characterizes the respect of moral law.

Emotion and Ethics: Limits of the Ontology of Finitude

According to Foucault, the modern west is unable to produce a positive ethics. He attributes the impossibility of a positive ethics to the primacy of practical reason endorsed in modernity.

Modern thought has never, in fact, been able to propose a morality. But the reason for this is not because it is pure speculation; on the contrary, modern thought, from its inception and in its very density, is a certain mode of action. Let those who urge thought to leave its retreat and formulate its choices talk, and let those who seek, without any pledge and in the absence of virtue, to establish a morality do as they wish. For modern thought, no morality is possible. Thought had already ‘left’ itself in its own being as early as the nineteenth century; it is no longer theoretical. As soon as it functions it offends or reconciles, attracts or repels, breaks, dissociates, unites or reunites; it cannot help but liberate and enslave. Even before prescribing, suggesting a future, saying what must be done, even before exhorting or merely sounding an alarm, thought, at the level of its existence, in its very dawning, is in itself an action – a perilous act (Foucault, 2001: 357).

At least since Kant, modern western philosophy has accepted and celebrated the primacy of practical reason. The facticity of man – often called the human condition – becomes the condition of the possibility of knowledge and action. The three foundational questions of modern critical thought – What can I know? What should I do? What can I hope for? – presuppose the question “what is man?” Man is at once the ground of all positivities and an element in empirical things. The conditions of possibility of his object of experience are the same as the conditions of possibility of his experience. Man cannot know the world independently of his relationship with the world. He cannot get out of his representations and know the thing in itself. He is destined to gather himself from his own limits. His limits open him to freedom. Such is the ontological finitude of man. Finite reason oscillates between transcendental and empirical employments. The moral law does not tell us what we ought to think about what we should do.

In many ancient traditions of thought, ethics was the achievement of theoretical reason. They did not privilege action nor gave primacy to the question, “what should one do?” There were rules of conduct to guide actions. The good was not necessarily ascribed to actions. The task of serious ethical reflection was to free oneself from the bondages of action. Aristotle is often seen as the liberator of western thought from the speculative haven of Platonism. He is credited for bringing reason closer to the empirical world, and to everyday moral concerns. However, even his Nichomachean Ethics takes up action as an end in itself and his theoretical accounts do not always aim at action-guiding. However, for modern western philosophy, Aristotle is the source for a practical ontology of being (Sanil, 2013: 409).

Theories of intersubjectivity that are elaborated in terms of communicative rationality, dialectics of mutual recognition between the self and the other and the phenomenological chasm between the visible and the invisible are extensions of this ontology of finitude. Neither the linguistic turn in Anglo-American philosophy nor the hermeneutical turn in phenomenology escape what Foucault diagnosed as the interminable oscillation between the transcendental and the empirical. Thought is incapable of an immanent relationship with being. Thought can access being only by getting entangled in history, body, language etc. Vain attempts to master this entanglement lead either to positivism or to the Kantian criticism of limits. Both make ethics unknowable. Theories of humiliation that are based on intersubjectivity and mutual recognition appeals to the good that is in principle unknowable. They can only count on our visceral or juridical disapproval of humiliation conditions.

This does not mean that Foucault’s diagnosis implies a total dismissal of the entirety of modern philosophy. He was detecting traps, monstrous possibilities and fault-lines within modern thought as part of pointing out routes of escape that open to an outside. Sartre, by placing the transcendental structure of existence not in consciousness but in ‘the look’ offers a way to formulate shame outside the phenomenological consciousness. However, this way of thinking is unavailable within existentialism as humanism. Sartre’s most radical insight may not be available within the unified philosophical view ascribed to him. Existentialist ontology uses irony and the absurd to propose the absence of ethics as ethics.

Agamben explicitly poses the question of shame as a question about the impossibility of ethics in his study on the paradigmatic case of Auschwitz. He has shown that after Auschwitz, the self-other relationship modeled on tragedy can no longer furnish an ethics of shame/humiliation (Agamben 95). The Muselmann, the inhabitant of the camp, disrupts the link between humanity and dignity. He belongs to a zone of humanity where notions like dignity and self-respect have no place. ‘This is the specific ethical aporia of Auschwitz: it is the site in which it is not decent to remain decent, in which those who believed themselves to preserve their dignity and self-respect experience shame with respect to those who did not’ (Agamben 60). An ethics which sees in humiliation only a juridical command to turn towards the ideal of decent society or a theological self-humiliation of god, refuses to address the grey zone of the Muselmann who has shamefully survived the undignified death of victims. This shame in figure of the ‘autistic’ Muselmann makes no reference to dignity or decency. Modern ethics which is contaminated by juridical notions such as guilt, responsibility, pardon etc. cannot see the shameful situation in the camp where the perpetrator and victim do not map onto notions of the self and the other.

Fandry: The Scenes of Humiliation

Fandry (2013), a Marathi film directed by Nagraj Manjule, constructs vivid scenes of caste-based humiliation where all social or human ties are suspended. This film tells the story of a family belonging to a lower caste whose traditional occupation is catching and maintaining pigs. Jabiya the youngest son of the family goes to school and is fascinated by a girl, Shalu, in his class who belongs to the upper caste. He tries out fashionable clothes, new hairstyles and black magic to appear decent to the girl and get her attention – but in vain. A pig pollutes a temple procession and Jabiya’s family is asked to capture it. The film ends with a long sequence where Jabiya and family were made to hunt for the pig outside the school wall and were watched by his schoolmates and other villagers who ridiculed the pig hunters. Shalu was also among spectators of the scene of humiliation. After the hunt, while walking away with the captured pig, a group of boys follow the family and continue to make fun of them. Finally, Jabiya, turns around, and throws a stone at the humiliators, breaking the lens of the camera that has always been the spectator of the scene of humiliation.

The movie sets up the scene of humiliation as a scene of the pighunt. The family that chases the dirty animal degrade themselves in the eyes of the onlookers. The hunters become the victims in the eyes of the laughing crowd. The hunter-victim relation between the family and the crowd is also reversed in front of the camera which in turn becomes a victim of Jabiya’s stone. This is not the only hunting scene in the film. From the beginning Jabiya hunts for a mystic black bird whose ash is believed to have the power to attract the attention of a woman across caste boundaries and skin colors. In some sense his pursuit of the girl is also a hunt.

What is the significance of making hunting the stage for humiliation? Chamayou has argued that the manhunt is an ontological situation of our social existence (Chamayou, 2012). This is irreducible to war, struggle for recognition, or communicative interaction. Hunt is the operation of what Chamyou calls a cynegetic power. A hunt is not a confrontation; it is a chase. The relation between the hunter and the prey is unequal and asymmetrical. The prey is not an enemy who demands recognition as an equal. The hunt does not belong to the war of nature or the cultural conversation of mankind. The hunt is not a duel and involves a third party – the Muselmann in the Nazi concentration camp, or the dog in royal hunts. Hunt characterizes the situation of colonial regimes, slavery and refugees.

According to Chamayou the hunt does not obey the dialectic of master-slave (Chamayou 34). The latter shows how the unequal power between the master and the slave unfolds as a struggle for the mutual recognition of their equality which they achieve through the labour of the negative. The master risks his life while the slave who is scared of taking risk accepts unfreedom. However, the master comes to recognize his dependence on the labour of the slave and the slave rises to the awareness that he has nothing to lose but his chains. The master-slave dialectics presupposes that the option of risking life was available to the slave. The slave who is already a prey does not have that option. He is on the run and survival is his only option. The prey with his intelligence might reconstruct the movement of the hunter in his own body and thereby invert the relationship with the hunter. The hunter could be turned into a prey, chased, trapped and killed. However, at no point does the hunt appeal to any shared normative presuppositions of mutual interaction or collective existence. The hunt offers no sign of moral progress or any value orientations for a future coexistence. It could offer the proper scene for humiliation.

Fandry shows that humiliation takes place in a scene where the ethical is suspended. All members of the family are engaged in the pig chase. However, the chase causes the family to disintegrate. The father throws stones at Jabiya who is reluctant to join the chase. During the chase, the sister runs into men defecating in public and is shamed. While they try hard to drive the hiding pig into the open, the hunters – individually and collectively – are on the brink of a humiliated disappearance. The camera shows them in this disgusting disappearance. In the focused and intense physical activity of the chase they are revealed as being on par with the hunted animal. Having lost all control of the dignified postures of their human bodies, they cannot even cover their faces. Jabiya acts from this vulnerability and blinds the camera.

As we said earlier, hunting is a subhuman situation that pervades human existence from slavery to the surveillance state. Humanity is not involved in an ongoing cultural conversation or defined by an avoidance of bestial (?) war. It is said that the victims of Nazi humiliation and extermination did not offer any visible resistance. Humiliation paralyses the body and denies self-control. Humiliation is not a justified response to this loss, but the loss itself. A prey on the run cannot be expected to hold its ground, strategize and fight back. Hitting back at the humiliating crowd and breaking the camera lens is not a calculated action to put an end to a humiliating situation. In that act, Jabiya, who is unable to hide his face, blinds the eye of the other.

In an earlier scene, we see the family standing at the mouth of a cave throwing stones inside to drive out the hiding pig. This scene is shot from inside the cave, the camera taking the point of view of the pig struggling to escape the stones. Here the camera too is a potential victim of the hunter’s stones. By luck, the camera survives this attack. The camera can now face the world only with the sense of shame of the lucky survivor. It witnesses the rest of the scene as a shameful survivor. It can no loner occupy the point of view from which it has been viewing the world. Jabiya’s stone, like the Sartrean look, attempts to fix the camera to its point of view. Here, the directorial decision to end the film coincides with destruction of the camera. This is also the moment where Jabiya transforms the prey-hunter relationship to that of enmity toward the humiliating crowd. Humiliation transforms into hatred and destroys the scene of humiliation. The film ends with humiliation turning into hatred and hunt into resistance. However, this cannot be represented from any standpoint – neither that of the humiliated, nor the perpetrator, nor from the neutral position of the camera. An emotion in motion is not housed in any of them.

Ownerless Emotions – Abhinavagupta and Antonio Damasio

Emotions are supposed to be felt and owned by a feeler. You cannot have an emotion without feeling it. The assumption is that you can only feel those emotions that are your own. Having an emotion is necessary for feeling and knowing and also expressing it. However, the aesthetics of Abhinavagupta and the neurobiology of Damasio allow us to think about ownerless emotions. Emotions may be generated in a scene before they are ascribed to any subject.

In a novel or play, who is the owner of emotions? – Is it the author

or the character, actor or the reader/viewer? Both in western and classical

Indian aesthetics several arguments have been produced to deny that

any of the above is the owner of the emotions. This answer is partly

motivated by the enigma of aesthetic experience where we relish even

unpleasant and negative emotions.

In an insightful interpretation of Abhinavagupta, Arindam Chakrabarti shows that for the former, aesthetically relishable emotions are ownerless (Chakrabarti, 2009). The object of aesthetic relish is an extra-worldly emotion that combines feeling-exciters (vibhava), expressive consequents (anubhava)and transient feelings (vyabhichari)Rasa is the experiencing of this stable sentiment produced by the mechanism of determinants, consequences and supports. In order for this to be relishable, the sentiment should be delinked from the personal or depersonalized.

Neither the actor nor the audience is the seat of emotion. Emotion is taken in through a distinct mode of apperception. This involves universalization and is distinct from experience, memory, or appearance. Universalisation is a process of de-subjectivisation. We can experience love without ascribing it to a bearer as ‘I am in love’ or ‘he is in love’. We may relish the beauty of Parvati seen through the eyes of Shiva. The relishing is neither Shiva’s nor mine. The experiencing self is at ease with this impersonal experience. (There is no need for us to understand this easiness along the lines of a disciplined spectator of modern western theatre who sit glued to the paid seat with minimal expression of appreciation or even a couch potato in front of the home TV.) This relishing is not a subjective act at a deeper level. Instead, it is the accomplishment of a de-subjectivisation. It is not that emotions are produced and then relished. It is in the act of relishing that the essence or juice of emotions comes to be. The experiencer sees himself not as the subject but as woven by the strands of emotion. He identifies with the emotion but not as its bearer. To make this possible he has to leave behind his personal and worldly concerns as he steps into the theatre.

We do not run away while relishing a fearful movie scene. This is not because we merely entertain the thought of the fearful without asserting its reality but because we delink the tie between the emotion and our ego. The fear we experience is not my fear or the character’s or actor’s fear. It is a de-personalised fear in general. This fear dwells in an opening which is the logical space of infinite becoming.

According to the myth of the origin-drama, the art is created as a pedagogy to bring the emotion-driven people to the right path through play. However, as Chakrabarti clarifies, this is not an apologia for a didactic play with a message. It may be argued that the conception of depersonalized emotion is applicable only in the aesthetic domain. Only aloukik or non-worldly emotions that we experience in art have this feature and not the mundane or laukik feelings. As we indicated earlier, after Gadamer and Rancière, we are under no compulsion to accept the thesis about the autonomy of the aesthetic domain. If we give up the idea of the autonomy of art we could hold that what we experience in art is our original relationship with any emotion. Art puts us in touch with the origin of emotions in a desubjectivised space. Art teaches us what it means to be in a state of emotion. It is an apprenticeship to feeling emotions while overcoming the obstacle of having it. One relishes the emotion not as its subject; one can feel it only through desubjectivation.

We learn from Damasio that feelings are not mental residues of our real life encounters. He distinguishes between emotions and feelings. Emotions are the body’s response to certain stimuli. This is an unconscious and automatic response. When we are afraid of something, our hearts beat faster, mouths go dry. We experience the feeling of fear when we become aware in our brain of these physical changes. The brain records in neural maps what is going on in our body. Feelings occur when these maps are read. These records are compiled in many somato-sensory centers in the brain.

The proto-self is a coherent collection of neuronal patterns which map, moment by moment, the state of the physical structure of the organism in its many dimensions. This ceaselessly maintained first-order collection of neuronal patterns occurs not in one brain place but in many, at a multiplicity of levels, from the brain stem to the cerebral cortex, in structures that are interconnected by neuronal pathways. These structures are intimately involved in the process of regulating the state of the organism. The operations of acting on the organism and of sensing the state of the organism are closely tied (Damasio 169).

The experiencer of the emotion is a decentered proto-self. When I say I am afraid, there are many proto-selves which need not share a causal or narrative identity with me. It is not necessary for the brain to have external stimuli to feel. As well, the brain may ignore signals and hence need not feel all the emotions. Emotion is a reflexive structure through which vital regulations are affected.

We might then conclude that the foreignness of the inside to itself born of the intensity of excitation from internal sources, would be, in reality, managed from within the nervous system in a functional and interactive manner, thanks exclusively to the collaboration of several cerebral agencies (Malabou, 2012: 39).

Emotion is the management of the foreignness of our interior. It arises from the play of several agencies internal to us. The brain is the scene of this play. It is the scene and not a substrate of emotions. Damasio insists that this proto-self is not a little person inside us. It is a dynamic interaction between various centers at different parts and orders of neural activity. It is not an interpreter. ‘It is a reference point at each point where it is.’ It is unlocalisable, dynamic and dispersed.4 Such is the neural basis of our impersonality.

Abhinavagupta and Damasio show the way for generalizing the lack of self-coincidence we located in the experience of humiliation. Emotion in general is a management of this non-coincidence. Externalisation and supplementation are constitutive of the self. It is through emotional learning and management that the feeling subject gets access to the self. This lesson enables us to think about shame and humiliation outside the dialectic between the self and other and their mutual recognition. Emotion is learning and one needs to learn one’s way into emotions. One of the tasks of a theory of emotions is to furnish a manual for this learning.

Let me clarify that our effort to learn from Abhinavagupta and Damasio is not based on any revivalist claim that the former anticipated the latter. Nor do I hold that the modern neurobiologist provides physical explanation to the claims the ancient aesthetician made about the mental life of emotions. Each supplements the other without anticipating or providing fulfilment. These theories come from different traditions with their own intellectual contexts and objectives. An ancient aesthetic theory with tantric ambitions remains as alien to us as modern neurobiological research with its investment in cumulative growth in knowledge. However, we can use fragments of the one to illuminate fragments of the other and hope to form a constellation of concepts that could bring some intelligibility to our problem at hand. Abhinavagupta and Damasio help us to think about the ideas of de-subjectivisation and universalization both on the mental and neuronal registers with a focus on emotions. This enables us to study humiliation without presupposing the availability of intersubjective interaction between the self and the other.

The idea of impersonal emotion denies the victim any immediate or privileged access to the emotional world of humiliation. This will also challenge the claim that members of a community or caste have privileged access to certain experiences. Such claims are made to celebrate Dalit autobiography as articulating experiences which are lived and hence can be narrated only by Dalits. Gopal Guru has strongly criticized such celebrations and denied autobiography its exclusive access to Dalit experiences (Guru, 2012). He expects theory to claim Dalit experience. His criticism of autobiography and art in general is directed against their claim to internal access to experiences. Once autobiography, like theory, acknowledges the impersonal nature of emotions and works with disjunction between the episodic and the narrative self then it could also make claims on the symbolic misery of humiliation. Then literature andMart become part of our apprenticeship to play on the scene of emotions – experiencing and also transforming them.


1 Theories of emotions often privilege one emotion as paradigmatic and see others as derivatives or transformations. For Heidegger anxiety has an ontological primacy. In the classical Indian tradition we find debates about the primacy of one emotion over others. Abhinavaguta took santam (peace) as the primary emotion whereas Bhoja privileged sringaram(love), Bhavabhuti karunam (compassion) and Naraya Pandithar, adbhutam (surprise). This paper examines the spectrum of embarrassment, shame and humiliation to bring the last into focus.

2 Fear, disgust and hatred form another spectrum of negative emotions. I have explored this spectrum to study the composition of hatred in (Sanil, 2010). We negatively evaluate those whom we hate. It is not merely that we see at least some characteristics of the object of hatred as unacceptable. The hated one suffers a global denigration in our eyes. We wish the object of hatred to die. In shame we wish to hide from others. In hatred we wish to rebuild the world without the hated. However, the negative labor of hate can break with the escalating logic of revenge and open up the possibility of love. The Greek tragedy Medea unfolds this trajectory of hatred.

3 An epistemological approach to emotions focuses on the justifiable grounds for a rational subject to have those emotions. Accepting the evaluation of others that one is lacking in some significant aspect could justify one’s feeling of shame. That one is not counted as a human being by others could justify one’s feeling of humiliation. These reasons could also furnish the grounds for a non-humiliating society. An ontological approach, on the other hand, uncovers the existential conditions for the emotions. Intersubjective relations between the self and the other could be the ontological ground for shame and humiliation. Shame and humiliation attest to the fact of being human and cannot be avoided. They hide in every nook and corner of human existence. This study would like to address the epistemological issue after a critical appraisal of the ontology of human finitude and intersubjectivity. We need to learn to enter the scene of emotions and to experience them. However this learning is not undertaken from the standpoint of the subject.

4 ‘The story contained in the images of core consciousness is not told by some clever homunculus. Nor is the story really told by you as a self because the core you is only born as the story is told, within the story itself. You exist as a mental being when primordial stories are being told, and only then; as long as primordial stories are being told, and only then. You are the music while the music lasts’ (Damasio 191).


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Chakrabarti, A. “Play, Pleasure, Pain: Ownerless Emotions in Rasa-Aesthetics.” Amiya Dev. ed. Science, Literature and Aesthetics, PHISPC, XV3, Center for Studies in Civilizations, New Delhi: PHISPC, 189-202, 2009.

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Damasio, A. The Feeling of What Happens. San Diego: Harcourt, 1999.

Emad, Parvis. “Max Scheler’s Phenomenology of Shame.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 32. 3 (1972). 361-370.

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Strawson, G. Against Narrativity. Ratio (new series) XVII 4, 2004. 428-452 Visker, R. Truth and Singularity: Taking Foucault into Phenomenology. Dordrecht: Springer Science+Business Media, 1999.

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Fandry. Dir. Nagraj Manjule. Marathi language. Produced by Navalakha Arts & Holy Basil Productions, 2013. 104 mins.

Extinction affect and the case of the Polar Bear

Extinction affect and the case of the Polar Bear

Margery Fee

Abstract: The paper connects affect studies with Indigenous Studies, Science and Technology Studies, and the emergent field called extinction studies or climate change studies. Claire Colebrook’s two 2014 Deleuzean books on extinction argue for a “theory beyond theory,” where affect would have no place: theory would think beyond human extinction. The paper examines two important categories of discourse around the polar bear, that poster creature for climate change, those of Inuit hunters and elders and those of scientists. The Inuit freely express emotions, the scientists do not. The Inuit see themselves and the polar bear as kin; the scientists’ concern for the bears not articulated. Nonetheless, for both of them, the bears are what the science and technology studies scholar, Bruno Latour, calls a “matter of concern.” Non-Inuit artistic responses to the possible extinction of the polar bear reveal a strong affective response, unlike the scientific accounts. Perhaps Latour’s suggestion for a “parliament of things” where non-human entities that have become “matter of concern” are represented might help connect these disparate discourses. Although Latour may be too optimistic, Colebrook’s stance seems require an impossible denial of human affect. Even the rational scientific accounts evidence concern based on affect, however buried. One approach that seems useful is that of Theo van Dooren, who looks at how threatened species and humans are connected in an account that examines affect as part of a study that also draws on science.

Keywordspolar bears, Inuit culture, extinction affect, posthumanism

I want to focus my general topic ‘Extinction Affect,’ on a case study about the relations between Western scientists and Inuit people with respect to polar bears. Polar bears have become poster creatures for global warming, and so discussions of their fate provide a useful source for considering how the discourses around them carry affective intensities as well as facts and figures.

I confess I am not capable of wading into definitional controversies over the meaning of affect. However, I do view affect as entangled with cognition and emotion, and here focus on its relational qualities, as ‘intensities pass body to body (human, non-human, part-body and otherwise’ (Siegworth and Gregg, 2010: 1). Carolyn Pedwell suggests that ‘emotions – such as “empathy”, “shame”, or “happiness” – are the names that we have come to identify with certain (momentarily stable, though highly variable) collections of thoughts, feelings, affective intensities and physiological responses’ (Pedwell 43). The affects and emotions connected to polar bears are not the same for all cultures. Examining the differences between an (admittedly over-generalized) Western scientific viewpoint and that of the Inuit in northern Canada as expressed in oral accounts and stories makes this point quite clearly.

I am working on orienting my ideas derived from Indigenous studies and Science and Technology Studies not only to affect studies, but also to an emerging field variously named extinction studies (as in the name of the Australian Extinction Studies Working Group, or critical climate change studies (the name of a series edited for Open Humanities Press by Tom Cohen and Claire Colebrook). This series contains twenty-four books, all open access, which focus on rethinking life in the face of impending and possibly already inevitable mass species death on earth. As the publisher’s description of one of these books points out, ‘today the future of a viable biosphere, and thus the purpose of our present activities, is put into question. A disappearing future leads to a broken present, a strange incoherence in the feel of everyday life’ (Open Humanities Press, 2015). This incoherence is not just rational, but, as the reference to the ‘feel’ of everyday life suggests, affective.

How do these fields intersect then? Deborah Bird Rose, a member of the Australian Extinction Studies working group, suggests that a change of emotions from fear of nature to love of it might be a way to counter the current planetary extinction disaster that has been called the Anthropocene (Rose 2). Carolyn Pedwell further suggests that engagement with the empirical and the affective can provide ‘flash points for social change’ (Pedwell 150), despite her caution that affects often are co-opted for a variety of state and commercial purposes. Indeed, one might imagine that if slowing climate change becomes a serious economic or political project, affects tied to new ideals of sustainability, say, might be deployed to engage citizens.

Humans have long known that all of us, both good and bad, will die. The end of the world features in many religions. It was, perhaps, for some a relief to hear from scientists that the sun will not blink out for around five billion years. To be forced to return to a millenarian sense of impending catastropheis unsettling, to be sure. This revised timeline brings a renewed urgency to thinking how we might change a species that devotes a great deal of its time to killing other human beings, destroying plant and animal life, and contaminating the land and waters on which all organisms depend for life. Bird proposes not simply a shift from fear to love, but also an epistemological shift from an anthropocentric worldview to a non-anthropocentric one similar to those widespread among Indigenous cultures world-wide. This epistemology is variable in that it is grounded locally in a particular ecosystem, but at a general level embeds humans in a web of relationships, relationships that include all organic and inorganic life, and that includes the dead and a host of supernatural beings. This relationality carries not only obligations, but affect, I would argue.

Bird’s proposal leaves aside the question of how those without her privileged long-term access to Aboriginal Australian elders might shift their thinking. The history of colonization shows us that dominant societies become so by appropriating – stealing, if you will – Indigenous land and cultures, material and immaterial. Colonial development first depletes a resource, often recruiting Indigenous hunters, fishers, and resource workers and then turns to regulate the resource for ‘the general economic good’ in ways that limit or exclude Indigenous people. Thus conflicts break out over preservation of habitat or a species and the continuation of key traditional practices: a famous example is the controversy in the US over the successful application of the Makah, a north-west-coast whaling culture, to assert their treaty rights by killing one grey whale in 1999. They had discontinued whaling after the settler whaling industry had drastically reduced their numbers, but were frequently condemned nonetheless for killing one whale (Ellingson, 2001).Whales, like polar bears, as so-called charismatic megafauna, have become loci for strong affects in the dominant society connected to animal rights and conservation movements.

In Canada, alliances between wilderness advocates and Indigenous people are often fragile, because wilderness advocates often see nature as separate from human activity, while Indigenous people do not (Braun, 2002; Tsing, 2005). Often, ideals of animal protection or the preservation of pristine wilderness clash with Indigenous struggles to claim their land and the rights to live on it by hunting, fishing and gathering. That said, of course Indigenous cultures do not remain in a time warp; conflicts over how to deal with issues related to development, the hunting and trapping of animals, and resource use more generally also break out within Indigenous communities.

Such clashes are legal, political or economic; a more interesting question is what it would mean in affective terms to shift away from an anthropocentric view of the universe. To make this shift will not be easy if we follow the Deleuzean arguments of Claire Colebrook’s two 2014 volumes on extinction, Death of the Posthuman and Sex after Life. How can we think about a world in which humans are not the arbiters of final value or indeed, not even present? And more specifically for this paper, what kind of affective relationship can those of us who live far away from the Arctic have with polar bears or those others who live in the North?

Colebrook suggests that we need to imagine how to think otherwise than from a human or even an organic perspective. This situates her argument beyond posthumanism – to after the posthuman. She points to the paradox that human beings have been consistently destructive while managing to maintain a vision of humanity as the highest form of life. Our lack of control over the large systems that threaten to destroy the planet, including global capitalism, global nuclear terror, epidemics, and climate change coupled with the impossibility of allocating blame for the creation of these systems further complicates the issue (Latour, 2011). Apart from denial or melancholic fatalism, one common response constructs a discourse of sustainability, focused on the idea of a planetary ecosystem named for a Roman goddess, Gaia (Lovelock and Marguilis, 1974). The ideas of sustainability and the Gaia hypothesis, according to Colebrook, return us to a human perspective where we believe we can manage the planet and live on in a human-centred cosmos. Colebrook remarks that ‘If our only value and horizon is that of life, then only one path is permitted: that which saves and survives’ (Sex, 2014:19).

The word ‘sustainability,’ Colebrook argues, implies that we can impose a regime of bourgeois common sense through technological change, thereby circumventing climate change, ‘living on’ rationally through this and other disasters. For her, this is a kind of futurist mass hallucination. To what degree would changing this discourse by invoking multiple discourses of failure work to improve ethical relations in the now, rather than pushing them on to the (possibly foreclosed) future? Colebrook would argue that instead of the humanities, we need a shift of discipline to the ‘inhumanities’ that will allow us to squarely consider the viral and the malevolent, forces that cannot simply be wished away (Colebrook 177). She writes, ‘Let us accept that humanity is and must be parasitic: it lives only in its robbing and destruction of a life that is not its own’ (Colebrook 178).

This notion may have some parallels in Inuit culture, albeit without the connotations of the word ‘parasite.’ An Inuit man, Ivaluardjuk, explained to the part-Inuit explorer Knut Rasmussen in the early 1920s that ‘The greatest peril of life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls’ (qtd. 1929: 56). Despite their ability to survive in one of the world’s most inhospitable environments, this man’s brother, Aua, said ‘We fear what we see about us and we fear all the invisible things that are likewise about us, all we have heard of in our forefather’s stories and myths. Therefore we have our customs, which are not those of the white men, the white men who live in another land and have need of other ways’ (Rasmussen, 1929: 55-56). Aua’s warning of incommensurability should be kept in mind: the relations between the land and the people is central in Indigenous cultures and those epistemologies that derive from it are not necessarily comprehensible to those who do not live there (see Armstrong, 1999). Further, there is a difference between cultures that consume to destruction and cultures that consider future generations of both humans and animals, and thus promote an ethic of preservation.

To the extent that Inuit world-views can be seen simply as ‘anti- Cartesian’ they fail for Colebrook: ‘As we, today, are confronted by more and more of the sense of our utter contingency – that there might have been a world without humans and there might soon be a world without humans again – perhaps being shrilly anti-Cartesian and insisting on the intimate bond between mind and world is a profoundly rigid instance of self-important subjectivism’ (Colebrook 64). We also need to be wary that a turn to looking at Indigenous epistemologies may risk nostalgic romanticization or colonial appropriation.

Here I want to move from theory to my case study. Like Colebrook, another member of the Extinction Studies group, Thom Van Dooren, argues that ‘The brand of holistic ecological philosophy that emphasizes that “everything is connected to everything” will not help us here’ (Van Dooren 60). He continues, ‘Rather, everything is connected to something, which is connected to something else. While we may ultimately be connected to one another, the specificity and proximity of connections matter – who we are bound up with and in what ways’ (Van Dooren 60). Interestingly, given the site of the workshop, he makes this point in the context of a study of the Indian vulture. This species has been inadvertently decimated since 2000 because the vultures were feeding on the bodies of animals treated by a new veterinary drug, diclofinac. The resulting near-extinction of the vultures, for whom the drug is a poison, has left a space open for wild dogs to feed on these same bodies, but this has led to a corresponding increase in rabies in humans, particularly those who cannot access medical treatment. To reverse this situation sometimes requires expensive choices. The banning of diclofinac requires enforcement and rearing vultures in captivity for later release requires the assurance that this same problem will not recur. Van Dooren’s careful study of specific human-animal interactions and their economic, social and affective consequences might be a way to illuminate my topic.

Indigenous affects with respect to animals do not follow mainstream categorizations. Many Indigenous cultures see animals as superior to humans because they can survive unaided (Laugrand, 2015: 9). A Dene man comments that ‘Animals have special abilities which they depend upon to live, giving us only the powers which they no longer need . . . An animal chooses someone to receive these leftover powers, a person who has treated the animals with respect’ (Moore and Wheelock, 1990: 7). The Inuit believe that they cannot remain Inuit without eating animals; Peter Okpik commented in 1975: 'A person is born with animals. He has to eat animals. That is why animals and a person are just like one’ (qtd. Laugrand and Oosten, 2015: 34). Some animals are more human than others; polar bears have ‘isuma, the capacity to think like humans’ (Laugrand 184). Indeed, Keavy Martin’s analysis of a story where a man marries a polar bear suggests that he both demonstrates and advances his isuma in a contest with the largest polar bear in the community of his new parents-in-law (Martin 47-58). The Inuit say that polar bears taught them to hunt seals, for example by attracting the seals to their breathing holes in the ice by scratching on it and by using a screen behind which to hide while waiting for the seal to surface (Laugrand and Oosten, 2015: 184-85). As in many other Indigenous stories about animals, polar bears transform into humans, marry humans, adopt humans and provide humans with the food they need. The reverse is also true. These transformations mark the dependency of the people on the animals to survive; although the hunted animals might not agree, this relationship between hunter andprey is represented as affective, familial and profoundly reciprocal.

Polar bears are not a major prey for Inuit hunters, who live off caribou, seals, walruses, musk oxen and whales. However, Inuit have hunted the bears for a long time, and polar bears have long had commercial value in the fur trade. It is estimated that 60,000 bears were taken by white whalers and white and Inuit hunters between 1890 and 1930 (Crockford, 2015). An accelerated decline in the population after World War Two led to the 1973 International Agreement on the conservation of polar bears signed by five circumpolar nations, Canada, the US, Norway-Svalbard, Greenland, and the Soviet Union. This agreement provided a foundation for scientific studies of polar bears.

A primary difference between scientists and Indigenous hunting cultures is that Indigenous people believe that humans do not control the hunt, animals do (Berkes, 2012: 98). Further, the Inuit believe (as we saw above) that animals have souls and provided their bodies are properly treated in ritually respectful ways, they are an infinitely renewable resource (Laugrand and Oosten, 2015: 9). Obviously, scientists do not agree; for them, animals can and should be managed by humans. To facilitate this management, polar bears are marked with paint, tracked by radio collars, filmed by robot cameras, tranquillized for study purposes, and airlifted to new locations when they intrude on settlements.

In a recent documentary film directed by Zacharias Kunak, an Inuit whose feature film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner received widespread acclaim, Inuit men and women discuss the changes they have observed in recent years in the north. Inuit have consistently faced the mysterious absence of regularity in the seasonal return of animals like caribou. However in this film they remark on the failure of a larger regularity, that of the climate and weather system itself, which they are no longer able to read as they once could. Some of their comments are clearly a response to suggestions that their traditional knowledge is inaccurate or that they are interested only in killing polar bears rather than preserving them. They argue that scientific interference with bears has made the bears more aggressive towards humans and that radio collars have caused the bears to starve. Scientists have persistently accused the Inuit and other Indigenous hunters of over-harvesting (Lemelin et al., 2010: 805-06). Ian Stirling, often described as the doyen of Canadian polar bear scientists, comments that “Inuit hunters in the areas of four polar bear populations in the eastern Canadian Arctic . . . have reported seeing more bears near settlements during the open-water period in recent years. . . . These observations, interpreted as evidence of increasing population size, have resulted in increases in hunting quotas” (Stirling and Parkinson, 2005: 1). Despite the provisional nature of his finding (signalled in the title, ‘Some Possible Effects of Climate Change’) and the advice to limit hunting as ‘precautionary’, Stirling figures the Inuit as antagonists whose traditional knowledge is deficient in comparison to his own. Further, his concern for the polar bears does not include concern for the Inuit, who, as we have seen above, see polar bears as close relatives. Unlike Stirling in his publications, the Inuit in the documentary speak often of their feelings. They say ‘Wildlife biologists make hunters unhappy,’ ‘We treasure our environment,’ ‘We feel powerless to stop climate change,’ ‘Inuit do not mistreat animals,’ and ‘We love our animals’ (Qupirangajuq, 2010). The scientists, although they take climate change as a given and clearly see polar bears as threatened, don’t talk about their feelings.

Even I can quickly find scientific accounts that counter Stirling’s argument. His is based on examining how long the bears must wait on land for the ice to form, when they typically go out on the ice edge to hunt seals. The assumption is that they do not eat during this period,1 and are therefore endangered by the failure of ice to form at around the same time of year. However, Cree hunters point out to scientists in one paper that does investigate traditional knowledge that polar bears do not necessarily sit idly around waiting for the ice to form, but eat a wide variety of plants and prey on fish, birds and animals, including beavers (qtd. in Lemelin et al., 2010: 808). Susan Crockford, another scientist, argues that the investments of fellow scientists like Stirling in a certain model of climate change has meant they have ignored or understated evidence about ice formation and have exaggerated the threat to polar bears as a consequence. For her, tying large arguments about climate change tightly to the fate of polar bears is perhaps intended to involve a popular audience that finds polar bears more interesting than many other entities, like ice, studied for signs of climate change. Although she does not deny climate change, she refuses to make predictions or recommendations about polar bears. She writes on October 13, 2015, that ‘the latest study on Western Hudson Bay polar bears reveal the population has been stable since 2004 and there has been no significant trend in either breakup or freeze-up dates since 2001’(2015) countering Stirling’s prediction of decline and recommendations against hunting made in the 2005 paper that I cite above.

To follow these scientific arguments is tempting, but this debate doesn’t deal with the issue of affect or the feelings of the Inuit, who see the treatment of the polar bears as disrespectful and physically and psychologically harmful to the bears. In stories, such disrespectful treatment leads to the refusal of the animals to give themselves to be hunted (Laugrand and Oosten, 2015: 9). Crockford notes that the Inuitdominated government of Nunavut, a northern territory of Canada, refuses to grant field research permits for the typically invasive research of scientists that involves ‘chasing bears with helicopters, drugging them, extracting a tooth, tattoo[ing], and attaching satellite radio collars or ear tags’(2015). That the Nunavut government felt this act was necessary proves that few polar bear scientists have not made the leap into an anti-Cartesian epistemological position despite their inevitable contact with Inuit people.

To focus on scientific studies alone would be to continue to track the bears as objects or, as the professor in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein outlines the mission of science, to continue ‘to penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places’ (Mary Shelley, 1818). This pursuit, as Shelley suggests, takes us away from familial affections and ethical obligations into a flight across the ice after a creature representing the scientific desire to both create and control life itself. Such flights are the result, Bruno Latour suggests, of reducing the world to an object. Unsurprising in a science studies scholar, he suggests that empiricism is not the problem, but that we need a renewed empiricism (Latour 231). He points out that one of the problems with the climate change debate is that waiting for scientists to decide implies that they can know the truth and ignores the fact that scientists also disagree, that they are situated in a tangle of interests and relationships as much as all of us. Science has rendered the polar bear an object – Latour would argue we have to turn it back into what it always has been, a thing, that is (after the Icelandic word for parliament), a gathering of all those whose relationships and affects hold it in the world as a ‘matter of concern,’ that is, a matter of affect as well as reason (Latour 1993: 144-45). Thus, we connect disputes over how many polar bears there are or how much they weigh to studies of their relationships and how these relationships – including affective relationships – should concern the Inuit, the polar bears, and us.

It is safe to say that despite their differences the Inuit and the scientists, not to mention the wider public, want polar bears to survive. Indeed, one could argue that the accusations that fly between them measure the strength of this desire. But Colebrook suggests we ask at least two questions: does our desire to see polar bears survive construct a fantasy that somehow we can save them and us without a radical shift in how humanity itself is theorized? Secondly, are we denying the reality that ultimately, the majority of human beings would prefer polar bears to go extinct to facing up to the possibility of human extinction? After all we have managed to get along without dodos for quite some time.

Colebrook argues for ‘theory after theory.’ She says that ‘This would not be a return of theory to life, and certainly not a return of theory to the body, to affects, to living systems, living labor or praxis’ (Colebrook, 2014: 36). One of the problems with her interesting analysis, as it goes beyond the human, beyond bare life, past extinction and on to thinking with the inorganic forces of the cosmos, is that it does not take into account that life struggles to survive. Organic life is, it seems to me, affectively tied to living on, and the notion that we can think beyond that may well also be a denial of human affect itself. Although I suspect her position is not as far from Latour’s as this quotation suggests, I prefer his and Van Dooren’s emphasis on the specific, the local and the contextualized, a contextualization that includes a decolonized notion of how affect affects us.

Well, what now? you might be asking. Obviously, I think the perspectives of Colebrook, the Inuit, and the scientists are all worth canvassing. I tend towards Latour’s idea of a ‘parliament of things’ – an idea that is not purely theoretical. The Inuit have their Circumpolar Council, the polar bears their NGOs, and even rivers, valleys, mountains and ecosystems their heritage designations and human champions. That said, Sandra Harding has pointed out in her Sciences from Below that Latour’s suggestion overlooks the ‘difference which the absence or presence of women and other “minorities” does and could make in the production of scientific [or other] knowledge’ (Latour, 2008: 45). And both Harding and Latour also ignore the ways in which art might provide insight into the ways in which extinction might affect us. Polar bears figure largely in Inuit art, including the sculptures of the ‘dancing bear’ that reference shamanism and the Cape Dorset prints that show bears in both naturalistic and human forms. Two recent British art projects highlight the threat, not just to the polar bear, but to the planet and of course, to the human beings living on it. Nanoq: flat out and bluesome recounts how two artists found, catalogued and photographed thirty- four taxidermied polar bears in the UK and then exhibited ten of them in glass cases without labels in a white gallery (Snæbjörnsdóttir and Wilson, 2006). These bears, life-like but dead, were collected in a range of colonial ventures and then displayed in museums and stately homes. Another project, a film titled “It’s the Skin You’re Living In” (dir. David Harradine, 2012), shows a bear on the ice that transforms as the camera moves closer into a man in a bear costume. He takes off his headpiece and his paws exposing his naked head, arms and torso to the bitter cold. He becomes a hybrid creature, walking first in the Arctic, and then along the verge of highways, his costume becoming ever more bedraggled and dirty. Finally, he is shown at home, making a cup of tea. Both pieces convey an uncanny realization of the mix of violence, sentimentality, and wonder involved in human-animal relations and the quandary that we, and they, are in.


1 They have the ability to fast for very long periods (Derocher, 2012: 174). However, the length of time they fast does affect their reproduction rate, and no bear can fast forever.


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Braun, B. The Intemperate Rainforest: Nature, Culture, and Power on Canada’s West Coast. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

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---. Sex After LifeEssays on Extinction. vol. 2. [n.p.] Open Humanities Press. Critical Climate Change, 2014.

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Latour, B. We have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

---. “Why has Critique Run out of Steam: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004): 225-48.

---. “Waiting for Gaia: Composing the Common World Through Art and Politics.” Lecture at the French Institute, London, 2011 November.

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Lemelin, R. H. et al. “Wabush of the Omuskegouk: Cree Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) Interactions in Northern Ontario.” Human Ecology 38.6 (2010): 803-15.

Lovelock, J. E. and Margulis, L. “Atmospheric Homeostasis by and for the Biosphere: the Gaia hypothesis.” Tellus. Series A 26.1–2 (1974): 2–10.

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Moore, P. and A. Wheelock. Wolverine Myths and Visions: Dene Traditions from Northern Alberta. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

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Qapirangajuq: Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change. Dir. Zacharias Kunuk with Ian Mauro. [online] Montreal: IsumaTV. 2010. Available from: [Accessed 16 Dec. 2015].

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Atanarjuat the Fast Runner. Dir. Zacharias Kunuk. Igloolik Isuma Productions, 2001. Feature film.

It’s the Skin You’re Living in. Dir. D. Harradine. Fevered Sleep Productions, 2012.

Expressing body, experience of emotions

Expressing body, experience of emotions


Abstract: This paper argues that in naatyam (dramatics) the actor’s body produces aesthetic cadence that peaks as emotional experience for the sahrudaya. The affect that a Kathakali performance produces is a state of sublimity of the mind, unattached to the cares of the world. It is the experience of supreme bliss or Ānanda. There is no emptying of emotions on the stage with the words spoken to which the audience might relate. This paper approaches the issue with reference to Kathakali, Kerala’s own theatre.

Even as there is a lot of theorizing that emerges about the emotive content and communication in theatre, specific emphasis on the body of the actor, modulating in relation to the many accompaniments, merits a closer understanding. Emotions take form in the varying intensities of those modulations that vibrate in relation to the timbre of the dominant aesthetic state the actor’s body establishes.

The paper theorizes the body of the actor and the emotional affects and discusses the implications of the rigorous training that prepares the body of the actor. To develop the proposed argument the paper discusses in some detail the tradition of the training of the actor in Kathakali and then examines the complexities involved in the productions with special reference to Kottayam Tampuran’s Kirmeeravadhom, Balakavi Ramasastrikal’s Banayudham and P. Venugopalan’s Krishnaleela.

Keywordsbody, emotional affects, body-consciousness, training, sahrudaya

In Kathakali, Kerala’s traditional theatre, the medium of the mind, body and word (sound) come together to actualize the performance. This paper is an attempt to argue that in naatyam (dramatics) the actor’s body produces aesthetic cadence that peaks as emotional experience for the sahrudaya. The word sahrudaya does not indicate a passive viewer or audience or the collective response of a mass audience; it describes, in the words of D. Appukuttan Nair an aesthetic sensibility termed pratibha or imaginative insight (“Rasabhinaya” 153). The nature of the sahrudaya needs emphasis here for Kathakali hinges on sookshmabhinaya (acting that involves every living atom of the body). The affect that a Kathakali performance produces is a state of sublimity of the mind, unattached to the cares of the world. It is the experience of supreme bliss or aananda. Obviously, there is no emptying of emotions on the stage normally made possible with the words spoken to which the audience might relate. For what Kathakali exemplifies, is the simultaneity of experiencing the sum total of the affect of the training of the artiste manifest as prana (life breath).

In Natyacharyante Jeevithamudrakal, the biography of the legendary Pattikkanthody Ramunni Menon who shaped Kathakali into what it is today, Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair and Njayath Balan recall an instance that illustrates best the tenuous link between performance and life breath:

By the time his Kichaka finishes the ‘Harinakshi’ padam and leaves the stage, his disciples would be in the green room with a fan and a cup of coffee. He was very particular that his disciples hold the flaming torch [illuminating his face] for the ensuing death scene. He would indicate this while his disciples fan him. Sometimes he would add:

“Do you think that I ask you to hold the flaming torch so that my appearance on stage will be brilliant? No, (pointing to his body)when the life breath in this body ceases, you may not be able to see another like this” (47).

The passage that follows asserts the truth of what Pattikkanthody had told his disciples. ‘It can be asserted that no one else has enacted this scene with such exactitude. When we saw his Kichaka draw his breath in the throes of death, it created fear. When Pattikkanthody Asan was on his deathbed, the breathing was not much different. Science does not err. Kichaka dies not with his eyes closed; they bulge’ (47). To understand this performative complex it might do well to turn to the kind of training imparted in Kathakali.

In his book on Kathakali, Phillip Zarrilli has commented on the training of the actor and its bearing on the performance. He writes,

Perfection of the body is necessary to gain the flexibility, balance, control, and strength to shape the body to Kathakali’s unique and difficult style of movement, and to acquire the ability to perform vigorous roles and dances for periods of up to two hours or more during all-night performances. Only when the fundamental techniques have been so well embedded into the neophyte’s bodymind that such techniques are part of his performative body-consciousness, ready-at-hand to be used in the performative moment, can the maturing student eventually create characters, and be ready to give his individual artistic signature to a role’ (Zarrilli 66). This specific emphasis on the performative body-consciousness of the actor expressive of the tauryatrikam (dance, music and instrumental music collectively) that embodies Kathakali grammar merits a closer understanding. Not surprisingly, emotions take form in varying intensities with respect to the resultant modulations that vibrate in relation to the dominant aesthetic state the actor’s body establishes and maintains. The body-consciousness or the establishment and sustenance of an emotional or aesthetic state in a performance requires years of training and conditioning of the body. Even a cursory glance at the nature of training for the actor provides insights into the way the body is prepared to breathe life into the performance. In this regard, Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair’s biography of his father is insightful about the rigour of training that shaped not just the performer but the whole system and structure of Kathakali training that followed.

For a sensibility that believes in the axiom that to spare the rod is to spoil the child, the rigorous training that shapes the aspiring student into a promising actor might be harsh and even cruel. The rigour of training and the punishments had once even led the young Ramunni Menon to contemplate suicide. And yet, it is the same training which enabled him to learn to use concepts like Rasabhinaya from Natyasastra and the art of breath control from renowned scholar-practitioners like Cheriya Kochunnithampuran and Bhagavathar Kunjunnithampuran of Kodungalloor Palace making his art even more expressive. The biography notes that this changed the grammar of Kathakali performances for such knowledge shaped the structure of Kathakali training at Kerala Kalamandalam and set in place a norm for the different dimensions of training and performance.

Phillip Zarrilli recognizes the very nature of such a training programme and the way it shapes the actor. He argues that ‘the training, structure of performance, and assumptions about the body, bodymind, and character or role which inform what it means ’to become’ reveal a process and set of assumptions with some similarities to but also many differences from, that of most contemporary Western actors’ (65-66). The method of training and the underlying assumptions about the body, mind, acting, or even the idea of theatre recognizes the importance of conditioning the body in specific ways. The basic training, for instance, extends close to ten years. As part of continuing the training one starts doing kuttitharam (small roles) and it is after doing all the small roles, and idatharam (medium roles), that one gets adyavasanam (full-length roles) in a production. A full-length role will be the achievement of a lifetime ‘where one’s technique has become second nature, and where one’s artistry in playing important roles is recognized as one’s own and is appreciated as such’ (66).

The kind of training of the body like kalsadhakam (footwork training), kannusadhakam (training of the eyes), body exercises with its roots in Kerala’s martial art tradition, and uzhichil (body massage) ensure physical health and help in breath control which, in turn, facilitates control over even the slightest twitch of the eyebrow or the management of energy levels with body postures. What breath control does is channel this vital energy to the specific part of the body used to render the word visual. The way the actor brings to life different gestures with the hands, for example, will depend on the energy levels he brings to bear in the formation of the gesture. The sahrudaya experiences here the reverberations of the word in the gestural mode only because of the activation of the energy spots in the body of the actor in relation to the tauryatrikam. This contributes significantly in Padarthabhinaya (elaboration of the meaning of each word in such a way that the sahrudaya sees the word). The root meaning of the word abhinaya (abhi – nayikkuka) is tobring that which is enacted in front of the beholder.

In her discussion of sattwikabhinaya, Sudha Gopalakrishnan draws attention to how the actor gives breath to specific parts of the body depending on the different kinds of expressiveness in demand. This mode of enactment has its precedence in Kerala’s theatre tradition in Kutiyattam. Sudha Gopalakrishnan explains how vital breath energizes different nodes of the body to create specific effects: ‘For facial expression, the vital breath, rasa vayu, is infused. For expression through other parts of the body, arakkuvayukodukkal – meaning directing vital breaths to the hips in hip movement; viralilvayukodukkal – directing vital breaths to the fingers in hasta mudras (symbolic hand gestures); kannilvayukodukkal – applying vital breaths to the eyes for various expressions, are employed’ (“Sattwikabhinaya” 146). The centrality of this training in breath control is the crux of the observation made earlier regarding the enactment of Kichaka’s death. The eyes bulge in death because the actor focuses his vital breath there. The sahrudaya watches such a performance not for the content of the story, but relates to what the actor does on the stage with his body.

And so, unlike watching plays governed by the rules of the Proscenium stage in which we listen and recognize the meanings of what characters utter, and thus identify the nature of the utterance and understand the development of story and plot, Kathakali offers a different experience. Here the actor reveals in its fullness the multiple layers of artha (meaning) of each word, both manifest and latent, building on the padam and the music. The level of energy brought to bear on form, and to sustain the gestures creates a continuum of connotations for the sahrudaya, which informs the aesthetic experience. In padarthabhinaya as the sahrudaya sees the word in its entire context-shaping dimension creating emotional complexes, the actor maintains the sthayibhava (enduring emotional state). The challenge for the actor here is not to lose the sthayibhava even when he brings out the bhava of every word appropriate to the padam (dialogue) that he performsThis is testament to the way good Kathakali actors are bound to the citta-prakaram (acting grammar) knowing fully where they can have their own interpolations, their extent and when they should not be done.

Not surprisingly, it is only after the body has internalized the grammar and structure of expression that the actor gets ready for the stage. Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair aptly sums this up in his “Author’s Introduction” to the two-volume book Colliyattom. He writes, ‘The progress of the training is not from the mind to the body; it is from the body to the mind’ (Colliyattom np). In Colliyattom (colli means to sing and attom means dance) the actor learns the choreographed texts that lay down the kathakalicitta or foundations of the grammar of Kathakali acting. In an interview that is in the press, Margi Vijayakumar, who is today perhaps the most accomplished actor essaying female roles in Kathakali, had this to say about what the training in the kalari gives the actor and the sahrudaya: ‘If we see a Kathakali actor perform without the kalari 1 grammar on stage, the character will not emerge. We ask for and do not see the character’ (“The Actor’s Body is a Screen”). The plays of Kottayam Tampuran (17th century) (also known as Kottayam Plays) provide the citta-prakaram for an upcoming actor, as he must strictly adhere to its precise choreography. Zarrilli rightly observes, ‘It is the precise details of the complex performance score that teachers so severely correct, and “fix” during colliyattom classes’ (83). A discussion of this acting grammar will be incomplete without reference to rasa and bhava.

The oft-quoted sloka 37 from Nandikeswara’s Abhinayadarpanam serves well to describe the experience of rasa and bhava while theorizing art experience. The same sloka is very useful to understand how the body expresses and experiences emotions even as Cartesian notions imbibed over the years set limits on our ideas of bodies in performance. ‘Yato hasta stato drishti yato drishti stato manah / Yato mana stato bhavo yato bhava stator asah’ (Abhinayadarpanam 23). The literal rendering of the lines in English is as follows: ‘Where hand there eye where eye there mind / Where mind there bhava where bhava there rasa’. The verse does not indicate a cause and effect pattern or situation-response sequencing; it is neither deliberate nor conditional. As Zarrilli puts it, this summarizes the ‘nonconditional state of accomplishment or being/doing-in-performance for both spectators and actors – the bhava of the actor and the rasa of the audience are ideally non-conditional states of being’ (91). He rightly contends that the ‘state-of-being is possible only for an accomplished master, while the conditional is typical of the neophyte’ (92). When the actor ‘is what he does at each moment’ (92) the expressive body co-ordinates, the mind, and the expression ‘are simultaneously present within the performer. The fifth element, rasa, applies to the audience’s state of engagement, and at an ideal performance is simultaneously present’ (91).

One cannot describe limits for such a state of engagement in terms of bhava leading to the creation of rasa; it is not oriented or functions as a causative towards the sahrudaya leading to an emotional response. Bhava is the breath-vitalized body expressing the dominant emotional state of the character. This is why the actor has to maintain the sthayi of the character even as he enacts the qualities of objects or qualities of other characters or their emotions in the course of bringing alive every word in the text. The sthayi establishes the quality of the character that the actor embodies in the course of the performance. The sahrudaya’s recognition of and engagement with this embodiment is rasasvadana leading to aananda. As D. Appukkutan Nair sums this up in “The Philosophy of Kathakali,” ‘The action of the Kathakali performer is called karayit, and is helped by the imaginative and retentive capacities of his mind. The imagination of the performer brought out through action is karayitripratibha. This is met by the bhavayitripratibha, the imaginative insight of the connoisseur. The aananda so derived is more enduring. It is manasikananda, mental delight’ (4).

The challenge for the actor is to vitalize the performance channeling his breath at precise expressive surfaces of the body. At the same time, the sahrudaya reciprocates in an imaginative continuum the moment of living the experience of this non-conditional state-of-being. It is a challenge for the actor because the body has to become supple enough to internalize the attakkathas and bring into play suitable bhavas that put in place the conditions for the range of affects associated with the aesthetic experience. Based on a Sanskrit verse beginning ‘acaryatpadamadathe’ Kalamandalam Gopi Asan sums up the growth of the artist, ‘ “A disciple gets one fourth [of what he learns] from his teacher; the second quarter from himself; the third part from his classmates; and the last quarter in the long run of one’s life.” The maturity of an actor is expected only in the last stage’ (Qtd. in Zarrilli 89).

Kottayam Tampuran’s (1675 – 1725) attakkathas that include BakavadhomKalyanasougandhikamKirmeeravadhom, and Nivatakavacha Kalakeyavadhom provide a firm foundation for the Kathakali student to aspire to reach this level. There are other attakkatha as well which the student learns in the colliyattam kalari but gives some freedom for the actorThere are also attakkathas not taught in the kalari. This is a very broad three-fold classification for the purpose of the argument made here. The Kottayam plays provide a sound foundation for training the actor as these plays equip them to master the basic techniques in Kathakali. Tampuran himself had set the performance grammar for these plays so much so that ‘even the interpolations are specifically set’ (Zarrilli 83) In the second category, one has such works like Irayimman Tampi’s KichakavadhomUttaraswayamvaram, Dakshayagam or even Balakavi Ramasastrikal’s (1745 – 1801) Banayuddham. In the third category, there is Unnayi Varrier’s (1665 – 1725) Nalacharitam in four parts. This is perhaps the best example that tests the mettle of an accomplished actor. P. Venugopalan’s popular 21st century text Krishnaleela is a contemporary example of this type of attakkatha. One can substitute many other texts but this selection provides a useful model to illustrate the argument here as it identifies a broad spectrum over three centuries within which all the human emotions play out their dramatic moments in the flickering light of the traditional brass lamp.

Now I propose to take up for discussion a few scenes from KirmeeravadhomBanayuddham, and Krishnaleela to show how the cumulative effect of the training of the artiste manifests as prana (life breath) in the performative complex that completes the aesthetic experience of the sahrudaya. There are three parts to Kirmeeravadham. A detailed presentation of the incidents, the dramatic sensibility and art of Tampuran or discussion of the entire performance is a paper in itself and so inappropriate here. The first part of the play focuses on the dilemma of the Pandavas who are in exile and the major players are Dharmaputra and Panchali. The second part focuses on Panchali, Krishna and the arrival of Sage Durvasa. The last part focuses on the Pandavas’ confrontation, deforming of the rakshasi (demoness) Simhika and killing of her brother Kirmira.

In the opening scene, Dharmaputra enters with Panchali. The sthayi for the dhirodatta (noble and brave) hero Dharmaputra here is sorrow as it recalls the deceitful game of dice that lead to the present state of exile. The opening verse ‘Baalekel nee’ (‘Listen, my beloved’) (Kirmeeravadhom 229) is rendered in a very slow tempo (patinhapadam) and the performer enacting it has to maintain the quality of the dhirodatta heroes. The challenge is to sustain the sthayi during this enactment as it prepares the emotional complex for the subsequent actions that unfold. After losing to the Kaurava princes in the game of dice, the Pandavas with Panchali enter the Kamyaka forest; the scorching summer heat drains all their energy and they are fatigued. The performance opens with Dharmaputra trying to console Panchali with these words. This is a scene marked by great poignancy as it expresses Dharmaputra’s pity and compassion for his tired wife as he tries to console her.

The remarkable quality of the scene is that his karunam (compassion) mixes in it slight strains of sringara (love) to establish the stayi. A discerning sahrudaya would be quick to recognize that the verse and the very slow tempo marks it apart from other verses that create sringara like that of Bhima addressing Hidimbi in Bakavadham which is still different from Bhima addressing Panchali in Kalyanasougandhikam. The onus is on the “corresponding” sahrudaya to recognize these “corresponding” nuanced stayi in order to experience bliss in the performance. The demand made on the performer is obvious, for only if the actor has achieved the precision that is required to play out this scene, will it be possible for him to render, for instance, the sringarappadam of Rugmangada in Rugmangadacaritam, which is not taught in the kalaris.

To return to the opening verse, the actor plays out the agony of Dharmaputra who sees his wife suffer. Panchali’s agony is that eighty thousand Brahmins have followed them into the forest and there are no means at hand to satiate their hunger. Obviously, the sringara acquires a different bhava that comes out in the not so emphatic dance steps, and do not express gaiety. On the other hand, the tenderness in the stayi expresses compassion that establishes Dharmaputra’s mental makeup that understands and responds to Panchali’s distress. Kalamandalam Balasubramaniam aptly sums up how the actor presents the hardships of exile and sympathy for Panchali in these words: ‘The actor should feel [the suffering they have experienced] inside, and the audience should feel it by looking into his face; however, the actor playing Dharmaputra should not overtly show any bhava in his face. He should only use his eyes to reveal the bhava. The inhering (sthayi-) expression is enough. No overt outside display of bhava is required’ (Qtd. in Zarrilli 89).

The drama of the whole scene hinges on the life breath invested on the playing out of the word baale that is transformed into an utterance in the sense that it encompasses the actions, consequences and feelings in strict compliance with the citta-prakaram. It thus transacts the Pandavas’ moment in the forest. The performance of this word becomes an experience of this expressive moment for the sahrudaya as it reveals the emotional make-up of Dharmaputra that runs as the thread binding the “plot” and the emergent bhavas. For, the karunam in Dharmaputra’s sringara encapsulates the memories of deceit, anger and thoughts of annihilating the Kauravas and the righteousness of the truthful hero. The actor communicates this complex psychological state with naturally coordinated bodily gestures in tandem with dance, music and instrumental music bringing in variations in breathing pattern. The performance of this scene is very challenging as the psychophysical state of Dharmaputra emerges fully in the expressive body.

What happens to the communication of complex psychological states with naturally coordinated bodily gestures when the male actors appear on stage as a young virginal woman and her maid? Banayuddham provides useful insights to address this question as this is a text taught in the kalari but it provides much space and freedom to the actor for interpolations and innovations. The question becomes even more interesting when we note that there is no separate training in the kalari to perform male and female roles. There are only minor changes to some hand gestures or steps and movements on stage for female roles. Margi Vijayakumar remarks that ‘it is the way in which what is acquired is modulated to present female characters on stage. The Aangikam (gestures) here thus comes fully from the practice. The body is shaped to present female characters when one decides to become an actor who does such roles even though the basic training at the kalari is the same for both male and female roles.’ In the same interview, he says it is important to ‘mould, fine tune the training in the Kalari and make it suitable to enact female characters. And this is done very consciously’ (“The Actor’s Body is a Screen”).

Balakavi Ramasastrikal was in his late teens when he composed Banayuddham. A brief outline of the text will help to set the scene for the discussion. Banasura is the son of Mahabali and he is looking for a suitable groom for his daughter Usha. Usha dreams of sporting with a handsome young man and recounts this to her maid Chitralekha. The maid had sketched the portraits of many kings and princes and shows these to Usha to help identify her dream lover. Usha identifies her lover Aniruddhan who is Lord Krishna’s grandson. Chitralekha with her art brings the sleeping Aniruddhan from Dwaraka to Usha’s bedchambers. Bana comes to know about this and he imprisons the young prince. What follows is a fight between Krishna and Bana, Krishna defeats the King, and Usha marries Aniruddhan.

The fourth scene of the play opens with a sari dance of Usha and Chitralekha introducing the pair, which sets Veera Lasyabhava as the sthayi and this may be because a male actor dons the role. Unlike Kirmeeravadhom, in the sari dance that establishes the dominant emotion, the actors do not necessarily present the full dimension of all the words in the padam but create and sustain the sthayi. The renditions of music using different instruments, and the ball game that follows this reveals not just the flexibility of the male actors as they establish the relationship between two women, it shows how the actor’s body thinks and remembers what it means to be woman. To create this world of make-believe the actor prepares consciously, telling himself about the female role. It is a natural conditioning that is in place by the time the actor enters the stage and is ready as the female character. Obviously, this comes with years of practice. A sequence as in this scene becomes possible again with modulation of breath and energizing, for instance the hands, facial muscles and the feet transforming them to speak of a female bonding that sustains sringara. At the same time, it draws attention to the conditioning of the body that makes it possible to emote across the gender divide to present not the conventional figure of a woman. As Margi Vijayakumar says, ‘What the actor shows is not at all related to our assumptions concerning woman. If an actor who performs a female role is employing the Lasya Bhava, he will be in practice showing Veera Lasya. It is not just Lasya, or an exposition of femininity’ (“The Actor’s Body is a Screen”).

It is much more than the femininity of Usha or Chitralekha that emerges in the scene. The actor who presents Chitralekha captures youthfulness and tenderness with gestures and movements that visualize sringara in Usha. At the end of the game in which the two engage, Usha tires and Chitralekha advises her to sleep and rest. Usha wakes up suddenly and Chitralekha prods her to speak. What follows is a very exquisite padam that brings out the psychological state of a young woman who dreams of the man of her dreams. The padam opens with the words ‘kamoparoopankamananvannunidrayil’ (‘Into my dream came a youth like Kama’) (Baanayuddham 700). The actor does not actualize the words of the padam with mere hand gestures; he evokes the psychological state of a young woman living in the presence of the divine who has received blessings from Goddess Parvati. The goddess had assured Usha that she would marry a handsome young man who would appear in her dreams.

In fact, the Angikabhinaya externalizes the dream as Usha lies down on the lap of Chitralekha and sleeps. The challenge of the scene is that as the actor presents a young girl who is dreaming in her sleep, the sthayi has to remain. It is here that the actor gives breath to the body to ensure the sustenance of the dominant emotional state. The sahrudaya, for instance, recognizes how the legs arch back as though in love making and it is after this that Usha suddenly wakes up. The flushed face indicates the fullness of the erotic as the actor has to show it and pretend to hide it from Chitralekha. The padarthabhinaya completes the meaning that emerges in angikabhinaya as the actor simultaneously breathes life into the surging emotions of a young girl who has her intimations of sexual awakening in a dream and suddenly wakes up when the young man in the dream is about to unfasten her waist-knot. A fully mature actor dramatizes the interior life of a young girl who looks forward to the first flush of love and confides the same to another actor who takes in that interiority and completes the discourse of love in this sequence.

The sahrudaya experiences another dimension of love in P. Venugopalan’s Krishnaleela. In the words of Kathakali performer Ettumanoor Kannan, ‘Krishnaleela’s text and performance is capable of affecting the heart and intellect through the eyes and ears’ (135). The attakkatha develops a potential for story in the Bhagavata, which has Balarama and Krishna freeing their parents Vasudevan and Devaki from prison. In the Bhagavata, there is only a hint of Krishna’s lament that he was not able to take care of his parents. The attakkatha dramatizes this in the first scene and in the second, introduces a meeting between Yashoda and Devaki. Such a meeting is not there in the Bhagavata. A meeting between the mother and foster mother prepares the ground for a flashback rendering of Krishna’s many childhood leelas resorting to the citta-prakaram of pakarnnattom (multiple transformational acting).

The flashback in the second scene comes alive with the enactment of Krishna’s many childhood pranks and adventures that form the dramatic core of the actor – sahrudaya interface within the production. For Devaki is the sahrudaya and Yashoda the actor in this play within the play. The theoretical discussions in the preceding pages about manasikananda of the sahrudaya get a theatrical space in Devaki’s responses to Yashoda’s elaboration of Krishna’s leelas in pakarnnattom. Only an actor who has matured into what Kalamandalam Gopi Asan refers to as the fourth phase will be able to perform in the pakarnnattom a whole range of stories centred on child Krishna’s cosmic games in the world. The actor keeps returning to the sthayi of Yashoda after rendering each story reminding the sahrudaya in the performance and in the audience about the impending maternal grief of separation as every story unfurls to elicit maternal feelings. The stories narrated include Poothanamoksham, Yashoda seeing the fourteen worlds inside Krishna’s mouth, breaking pots filled with milk, butter, Ulukhalabandhanam, the complaints of all the women about his pranks to Yashoda, KaaliyamardanamGovardhodharanam, and Rasakreeda linking them as narrative responses to Devaki.

In a sense, in Devaki we see the ideal sahrudaya who responds to Yashoda’s performance, as she experiences the alaukika (otherworldly) in the midst of recognizing the anguish of Yashoda who is aware that she will not see Krishna again. Devaki relates to it, as she knows the anguish of what it means to live without the son. Devaki’s padam beginning ‘Mathavuneeyathre’ (You are his mother’) (Krishnaleela 133) captures verywell the intensity of the response of the ideal sahrudaya. A discussion of emotional experience in Kathakali that began with acknowledging the body in naatyam conceptualizes what may be termed natyaleela.1


1 The translation would be “dramatic amusement.” This word is my coinage.

The translation here does not account for the element of play indicated in

the word ‘leela’ that quotes part of the title of the last text I discuss.


Aangikam Gestures

Adyavasanam Full length roles

Alaukika Other worldy

Ananda Supreme bliss

Attakkatha Literary text for a Kathakali performance

Cittaprakaram Acting grammar

Colliyattom Colli means sing and Attom means dance

Dhirodatta Noble and brave hero

Idatharam Medium roles

Kalsadhakam Footwork training

Kannusadhakam Training of the eyes

Kathakalicitta Foundations of the grammar of Kathakali acting

Kuttitharam Small roles

Naatyam Dramatics

Padam Dialogue

Padarthabhinaya Elaboration of meaning of each word in such a way that the

sahrudaya sees the word

Padinhapadam Dialogue rendered in very slow tempo

Pakarnnattom Multiple transfomational acting

Prana Life breath

Pratibha Imaginative insight

Rasa vayu Vital breath

Sahrudaya One capable of emotional response

Sloka Verse

Sookshmabhinaya Acting that involves every living atom of the body

Sthayibhava Enduring emotional state

Tauryatrikam Dance, music and instrumental music collectively

Uzhichil Body massage


Appukuttan Nair, D. (Rpt. 2009).”The Philosophy of Kathakali.” Kathakali: The Art of the Non-Worldly. Ed. D. Appukuttan Nair and K. Ayyappa Paniker. New Delhi: Marg. 1993. 1 – 4.

---. “Rasabhinaya.” Kathakali: The Art of the Non-Worldly. New Delhi: Marg. 149 – 156.

Gopalakrishnan, Sudha. “Sattwikabhinaya.” Kathakali: The Art of the Non-Worldly. New Delhi: Marg. 145 – 148.

Hariharan, B. “The Actor’s Body is a Screen.” Forthcoming interview in Nari Bhav: Androgyny and Female Impersonation in India. Ed. Tutun Mukherjee and Niladri Chatterjee. Kannan, Ettumanoor.”Aranginde Vyakaranam Thettathe.” Harichandanam:

Souvenir. Trivandrum: Drisyavedi, 2009. 137 – 138.

Nandikeswaran. Abhinayadarpanam. Trans. with Commentary. V. S. Sharma. Kottayam: National Book Stall, 1999.

Padmanabhan Nair, Kalamandalam. Colliyattom. Vol. 1. Ed. P. Venugopalan. Vallathol Nagar: Kerala Kalamandalam, 2000.

Padmanabhan Nair, Kalamandalam and Njayath Balan. Natyacharyante Jeevithamudrakal. Kottayam: Current Books, 2004.

Ramasastrikal, Balakavi. Baanayuddham101 Attakkathakal. Ed. With Introduction S. K. Nair, Anandakuttan Nair and Akkitham. Kottayam: SPSS & NBT, 1979. 693 – 712.

Tampuran, Kottayam. Kirmeeravadhom101 Attakkathakal. Ed. With Introduction S. K. Nair et al. 227 – 248.

Venugopalan, P. KrishnaleelaHarichandanamSouvenir. Trivandrum: Drisyavedi, 2009. 126 – 134.

Zarrilli, Phillip B. Kathakali Dance-drama: Where Gods and Demons come to Play. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Note: The English translations from Natyacharyante Jeevithamudrakal, Ettumanoor Kannan’s article, Padmanabhan Nair’s Colliyattom, and Abhinayadarpanam are by the author.

Sahrudaya – a resonant heart

Sahrudaya – a resonant heart

Srinivasa Murthy

Abstract: The paper explains the concept of ‘Sahrudaya’ by drawing on the principles of Kashmir Shaivism and Rasa-Dhvani. The discussion does away with some of the misconceptions regarding ‘Sahrudaya’. Rasika, Buddha and Vibuddha are some of the words used in lieu of Sahrudaya. A person, who is sensitive to as well as critical of what is received, challenges the creative mind, extends the experience and completes it. The act of aesthetic appreciation is not passive, but an active one, with the ‘Sahrudaya’ completing the range of possibilities suggested in the text. The importance given to audience/ reader is sought to be extended to all arts, in fact to all creative work including scientific discoveries, an idea elaborated by S. Chandrashekar in his work Truth and Beauty. The paper also briefly touches on the notions of Pratibha and Siddhi, the talent or gift of a creative mind.

Keywords: Shaivism, Rasa-Dhwani, Pratibha, Siddhi, Shaastras, Prajna

Brahma the Creator creates the world on the principles of karma and niyati1. Saraswati, the wife of Brahma creates the other world of words. The world of Saraswati can and does explain the phenomenal world created by Brahma, but Her world is to be known through itself, i.e., the word. The concept of creation and the knowledge of the same are an essential part of any philosophical system. After Vakyapadeeya, the study of language acquired a new philosophical status, which also influenced the study of poetics or the creative force and creative process. It is only from the time of Dhvanyaloka and the commentaries thereon that philosophical enquiry has become focused on the creative process and the epistemology of art. While the two Meemamsa shaastras and all six darshanas accepted ‘shabda’ as a valid means of knowledge (pramana), the knowledge of the shabda itself and an enquiry into it became important for grammarians like Bhartrhari. There was the concept of shabda brahma as mentioned in Maitrayani Upanishad (vi-22). According to Bhavabhuti, the poet is the knower of shabda brahma. Kalidasa speaks of parents as a united entity, like the word and its meaning, who must be saluted to know the word and meaning.

The speaker has an idea to express, which he does through words, and when it is heard/read by another, it creates an idea or a mental image in that person. This means that the word-meaning process is in the reverse order in the listener/reader as compared to the speaker. There is a whole lot of past in the speaker that goes to form the speech and a whole lot of future that is created in the listener. Both the past in the speaker and the future in the listener are samskaras or impressions. It can be represented thus:

Samskaras – Idea (Artha) – words (spoken) — words (heard) – Idea - Samskara

As far as the functional aspects are concerned, as explained by the Meemamsakas, this leads to an action in the listener as a response to the word. Alternately, as explained by Vedanta, a statement can just lead to a knowledge that ‘this is it’. In both the schools, mental energy in one is converted into mental energy in the other, and thus the function of the language is served. There are three shaastras viz, Pada, Vaakya and Pramana referring to Vyakarana, Meemamsa and Nyaya which are pressed into service for the study of language. Kuntaka in his Vakrokti Jivita says that Saahitya, that is, literary sense is a fourth dimension of this study. The only difference is that in Sahityashaastra, shabdaartha jnana is not only a means but also an end, a thing to be experienced and enjoyed. To continue the analogy of the parents, not only the word and the meaning are closely connected, the poet and the reader or the artist and the connoisseur too are intimately related.

What is said of shabda and artha is equally applicable to all art forms where shabda would stand for form and artha for the content. The poetics relating to the spoken word is applicable to all performing arts, where the artist and the connoisseur are in immediate contact, and that relating to the written word is applicable to all plastic arts where there is no immediate contact between the two. In fact, the entire process of the creation of art and the experience of art was first studied in the context of natya or theatre. In all art-related shaastra, art is seen as something to be known or understood as well as to be experienced. While understanding art depends on other shaastras, experiencing it is a contemplative act. In this, the experience is good to be chewed. It evokes a feeling, mixed with a series of other feelings and develops into an emotion, which one can identify within oneself but not as of oneself alone. The artist expects the connoisseur to be a conundrum in whom there is the confluence of experiencing, understanding and criticizing all at once. Even the greatest of the artists expects the audience to respond and, prferably, to respond favorably. The response to a performance is immediate and is indicated by applause etc. as enumerated in the Natyasastra. The success of a performance is siddhi. The rasa siddhi is of two kinds – daivee and manushee. The audience are called prekshaka and they are expected to be good-natured, calm, dharmic and honourable, clean, level-headed and well-informed about the art. They should be able to follow the rhythm, know about the costumes etc. be well-versed in language, especially the local language, know about acting and, more than anything else, understand the subtlest (also subtleties of) rasa and bhava. It is an added advantage if they know about shabda and chanda and are proficient in different shaastras. They must also have their senses intact and have a deep and abiding love for art. Finally, they must have the ability to guess and construct (what is suggested), and ignore (unwanted presentations).

Apart from the regular and invited audience, there were also praasshnikas drawn from learned people, from harems, different professionals and sevaka. This was the parishat to whom the ‘sutradhara’ and the poets appealed, in classical Sanskrit drama. For example, the sutradhara of Shakuntalam says that a poet may or may not have success in his own time. So a poet like Bhavabhuti writes :

My efforts are not directed towards those who slight my efforts; one who is of the same nature as myself shall certainly arise, for time is boundless and the earth is not barren. [Prologue, Malati Madhava].

There could be vighnas or ghaatas or obstacles that hinder the performance. The very first performance of Malati Madhava, for instance, was obstructed by the demons who were disturbed to find the victory of gods over demons portrayed in the play. The vighnaas might come from unknown forces (gods), from oneself or from opponents. Without going into its details, let us discuss siddhis. The maanushee siddhi is expressed by a smile, a laugh, a word like saadhu or kashtam or by applause. This is vaaksatva. Alternately, there can be thrill, horripulation, standing ovation, expression of appreciation by raising hands, nodding, or gesturing with fingers. This is angasamudbhava.

Subtler than this is the daivee siddhi which entails an exuberance of sattva or the spirit with a surge of emotions, without sounds, without disturbance, without applause. In other words, in the daivee siddh, the audience is simply spellbound. This kind of siddhi or rasasiddhi is the hallmark of an aesthetic experience. The performer feels the energy throb, and the experience brings delight to both the performer and the audience. Any art should evoke a similar kind of experience.

As for art criticism, it has two parts, one regarding the details of the form and the other, those of the content. What is meant by content is not just the plot but the experience of a given artform as a whole. While knowledge and skill termed ‘nipunataa’ are an important aspect which the learned may value, their real value lies in converting the nipunataa into an art experience that brings a samskara which is distinct from knowledge or that which is usually known. This is ‘shakti’ otherwise called ‘pratibhaa’. Bhavabhuti says in the Prologue to Malati Madhava that when one speaks of samaana dharma, one does not refer to the scholarship and knowledge of form, though these factors are taken into account in criticism. The samaana dharma essentially refers to the capacity to feel in a similar measure with the artist, which makes one a ‘sahrudaya’ literally meaning ‘one who is connected to the heart’ or ‘one who shares the heart’. ‘Heart’ here, of course, refers to the ‘seat of emotions’ and ‘focus of feelings’. Sahrudaya is a similarly tuned heart that resonates first with the artist and then with the co-audience, like a well-tuned veena resonating in synchrony with another equally well-tuned veena.**********

The word sahrudaya was first used by Ananda Vardhana, and was explained by Abhinava Gupta. Since then, it has been used by many butthe origin of sahrudaya refers to its context, along with some related terms such as pratibhaa and vimarshaa in the Tantra philosophy, especially the Kashmira Shaiva. Abhinava Gupta, the author of Locana on Ananda Vardhana’s Dhvanyaloka, has also written an exhaustive commentary on Natyasastra. Apart from this, he has written more than thirty works including some stotras and they all deal with tantrasTantraloka is his magnum opus that synchronizes many Tantras. The conceptual framework of explaining the art experience starts from there. Unlike other so-called classical darshanas, it is in the Tantra that the concept of beauty and art experience becomes important. The Purva Meemamsa had explained the ritual effect as apoorva and adrshta, i.e. rare and invisible. Tantra explains the rituals as apoorva anubhava, an experience not found before, through a construct that is new.

Both the world outside and the artist’s world of words are constructs from an idea, but the poet’s world of words is superior, for it does not simply follow the world but helps transcend the visible world. Both the world and words reveal only one fourth and the rest is hidden. The construction of speech and that of the world have the same basis and follow the same method. While the world seems to pose the Shiva aspect, word represents more of the Shakti aspect. The poetic speech should sublimate [upasarjana], and the conventional sense should lead to a subtle sense, a higher meaning. This happens because of the participation of the sahrudaya. This is the main thesis of Dhvanyaloka. Abhinava Gupta ends each chapter with a stanza dedicated to one stage in the construction of speech namely paraa, pashyanti, madhyamaa and vaikhari. The world itself is a reflection in three stages and words reflect or, more precisely, refract them back to the original or pure forms. The five principles, four stages of evolution and three levels of creation are telescopic in nature; one is an extension of the other. It may be briefly shown thus:

Creation or Construct – Shuddha and MayiyaMayiya Samashti and Vyashti



Shiva Chit [Consciousness]


+Shakti Spada Speech as Paraa


Icchaa (Intention) Sadaashiva {Concepts of I and this}



Jnana (Knowledge cum {identifying as This is me}

experience) Ishvara



Kriya (action) Shuddhavidya {I do this} Vaikhari

or sadvidaa

Maayeeya Kanchuka



Kalaa Spanda


Vidyaa Bindu


Raaga Naada


Kaala Swara

The Individual creation

Niyati (Laws) – Purusha + Prakruti


Buddhi (repository of Samskaras) – Ahamkara – Manas


Jnanendriya (Sattva guna) Karmendriya (Rajas) Tanmatras


PanchamahaabhutaaH (gross material world)


Shakti, maya and prakrti are the three powers reflecting one another and all are essentially the same. Shakti has two important aspects – prakaasha (revealing) and vimarsha (critiquing). Maya limits and projects. Prakrti reveals and hides. Shuddhavidya, vidya and buddhi are similarly related.


The communication through speech is in the order of:



Buddhi (Samskara)=Prajna - Ahamkara – Manas-Vaak (Karma) Indriya- Words(speech)



Words (heard)- Shravana (Jnana) Indriya- Manas- Ahamkara- Buddhi (samskara)=Prajna

Prajna is the sum total of memory, immediate cognition and projection for the future (smrti, buddhi, and mati). By this, one is able to cognize and recognize, which is also the ability of intelligent guessing both positive and negative (ooha and apoha, spoken as prerequisite of a good audience).

The prajna which is ever new and opens one’s eyes to new ideas is pratibhaa (prajnaa navanavonmeshashaalinee pratibhaa mataa (Abhinava quoting Bhattatauta). [Dandin calls this shakti in Kavyadarsha]. Rajashekhara clarifies further that pratibha is of two kinds – karayitri pratibha in creative artist and bhavayitri pratibha in the connoisseur. While the poet’s karayitri is constructing something new, bhavayitri is able to receive by recognizing this. Even if the poet makes some mistakes, the pratibha prompts the connoisseur to understand what is meant, as a mother understands the indistinct speech of the child. It is this very ambiguity in art that makes one reach out for a meaning other than the conventional one. This unconventional meaning is dhvani, which explains the magic of language as ‘the ineffable’. No amount of explanation can equal the experience of art. The dhvani artha is the one that forms the common ground for the artist and the connoisseur. Rasa and Bhava – the emotions and feelings - can only be communicated through the process of dhvani. The mere word sringara cannot evoke love. Various actions and reactions in an interesting depiction lead to an impression which is called rasa and bhava. This is the resonance that lingers even after the first cognition of a work of art. The epistemology of this is discussed at length in the shaastras. Here, one needs to understand that it is not like direct perception, nor is it an inference. It is a simulation of experience.

The process of artistic cognition or more correctly the recognition, is again explained by the philosophical framework of Abhijnana [or Pratyabhijnana as Kashmir Shaivism calls it]. The best poetic explanation of this is found in Abhijnana Shakuntalam of Kalidasa. On listening to the music of Hamsapadika, the hero Dushyanta exclaims in Act V- 2: ‘On seeing the beautiful and listening to the melodious, even a happy creature is disturbed.’ That is because, the spirit remembers what is not known before, the friendships (sauhrudaani can also mean good-heartedness) linger on in the feelings through other lives (janmaantara is not only different lives of one but also lives of different creatures).

To remember what is not known is an illogical proposition. So is it important in understanding the feelings? In the logical sequence, what is felt by oneself can be remembered. In matters of feelings and emotions, what is not directly experienced by oneself is not known but remembered. This means that what is happening is a matter of recognition. In recognition or abhijnana there is both cognition and memory and there is the sense ‘this is it’ or ‘he is that’ [soyam]. For this to happen, the artist presents himself as ‘I am that’ [soham]. In both the artist and the connoisseur, the experience has to be liberated from the individual self. This is the process of saadhaaraneekarana. It is not that in saadhaaraneekarana the plot or the form itself is generalized, for it can never happen in matters of feelings; it is in the presentation and grasping that the saadhaaraneekarana takes place.

This is best explained in the case of an actor presenting a character and the audience responding to the portrayal. In ritualistic theatre, an actor totally gives up the aham (self/ self identity) and the audience see only the saH (the god or the spirit invoked). A popular actor presents himself (aham) through different characters (saH) as most of our matinee idols do. Here, the audience worship the actor himself. A good actor consciously presents saH without losing his aham. Now, the audience praise the actor as also experiencing the emotions presented. Thus, a conscious sublimation of aham leads to experience, though primarily derived from senses to transcend, to be the experience of all or the experience plausible in all. The experience of this at the maayeeya level, on further contemplation, also leads to the shuddha or pure level where the experience is liberated from both the agent and the object. While in the creation of the world, there is a reflection of the world from inside out, in artistic creation there is a reflection back to the pure form and pure experience.

The anubhaava (emotional reaction to a situation termed as acting) itself leads to a vibhaava (a situation); the vyabhichaari bhaavas (surroundings that lead to some or the other feelings) make sense only because they are in continuous flow from one to another and are always dependent on others. Emotions are emotions only because they can be shared. The experiences rooted in one’s senses are only triggers to that. In a work of art, the rasa arising from vibhaava anubhaava vyabichaaree samyoga is shared not only with whom we know but also with those whom we do not know and those who do not know us. What is communicated is not merely the physical and cultural details of pleasure, pain etc., but also that intensity of emotion rasa-bhava which touches the heart of the unknown. The shakti or pratibhaa of the artist is in that kind of a samyoga or composition which facilitates an emotional feeling beyond one’s own limitations. This is how some art from Timbuktu would be known in Tokyo, a Noh play received in New York. However the art does not reach out automatically. Like the efforts of the artist, the abilities of the connoisseur are equally important. The sensibilities of those who transmute the art are also important and they too need be sahrudayas.

One may hear of the concepts of individual experience and community experience in art. The view that a community communicates its experience through its art forms ignores the ability of others who do not belong to the community to communicate and thereby dubs the experience communicated by an artist/artists not belonging to that community as inauthentic. In ritualistic theatre, a community congregates before and interacts with a performer, recognizes the spirit beyond the individual, but presses the spirit to solve individual problems and sometimes, those of the community as well. Hardly does one find a simulation of the emotions of that spirit. It is only in non-ritualistic art that the audience go beyond their individual self. It is here that saadhaaraneekarana becomes possible. The saadhaaraneekarana ability is the core of a sahrudaya. If a great artist is one who can express beyond one’s community [even while depicting the community experience], a sahrdaya is one who can simulate an experience without caring for authenticity. If the community of demons felt offended by the first stage production of the gods, the onus was both on the gods and on the demons. Not all art can be equally great. There are works of art that cater to the community, to a nation or a section, and the sahrudayas are restricted. As said in Natyasastra, there are fundamental dispositions of the audience because of which they choose a kind of artwork or a particular piece of art. Once the choice is made, they become sahrudayas to it. The problem of authentic expression seems to be a hangover of realism. The beauty in real objects and experiences is just as important as the one derived from a fancied world. A sahrudaya is one equally open to both these kinds of

art. To conclude with the salutation of Kuntaka:

Some poets draw the beauty subtly hidden in things; some others create the fancifully beautiful by their words. I salute them both. But I salute him more who being aware of their labor, unburdens them by understanding them (II- 107).


Adrshta Unseen

Aham self / self-identity

Ahamkara The sense of ‘I” [Aham is I]

Angasamudbhava Responses which include thrill, horripiulation, a standing ovation, raising hands or showing fingers or nodding the head

Anubhaava Emotional reaction to a situation

Anubhava Experience

Apoha Negative speculation

Apoorva Rare

Artha Meaning. One of the four goals of life accrding to Hindu philosophy.

Bindu A drop/ A dot

Buddhi repository of Samskaras

Buddhi Thinking mind; that part of the self that causes discretion, decision and motivation. Presence of mind is also called buddhi

Chandas Metre/Vedas which are necessarily metrical

Chit Conscious spirit/ Consciousness

Daivi Divine

Darshanas The Shad-Darsanas or the six schools of Hindu philosophy are, nyaya, vaiseshika , sankhya, yoga, purva mimamsa, and uttara mimamsa or vedanta. Drawing from the Vedas, they attempt to explain the nature of tranacendental and individual self, emanation and extinction.

Dhvani Suggested meaning / resonance

Hamsa padika Name of one of the wives of Dushyanta who sings a song in the play Shakuntalam.

Iccha Intention

Indriya Organs; this is of two kinds - Jnana (sense) and Karma (motor)

Jnana Knowledge

Jnanendriya Sense organs - eye, ears, olfactory, taste, tactual

Kala Particle / Digit/ Time

Karma Action. Result of action of the previous births, latent in the soul

Karmendriya Motor organs - speech, hands, feet, excretory, sex

Kashtam Pity/Difficult

Kriya Action / Movement

Madhyamaa Madhyama corresponds to Swapna or the dreaming state, representing mental consciousness.

Manas Focal point of sense experience; what is generally called the ‘mind’

Manushee Human

Mati Intellect

Maya Illusion / misconception

Mayiya Those in the grip of maya, and hence in a binary world

Meemamsa See meemamsaka

Meemamsakas Meemamsa means critical enquiry. Meemaamsakas arethose who reflect on the essential principles of life andframe philosophical theories on the nature of dharms, based on a reading of the Vedas. Those who studied the first (ritualistic) part of vedas are called Poorva Meemamsakasas as against is Uttara Meemamsakas who concentrated on vedanta .

Naada Sound

Niyati Law

Nyaya One school of darshanas that depends mainly on logic.

Ooha Positive speculation

Pada Word fit to be used in a sentence

Panchamahaabhutaah gross material world of five elements

Para According to the Vedas, there are four stages of

speech - Para, Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari.They correspond to four states of consciousness . Para corresponds to Turiya or the the transcendental state, representing transcendental consciousness.

Pashyanti Pashyanti corresponds to Sushupti or the dreamless state, representing intellectual consciousness.

Prajna the sum of memory, immediate cognition and projection for future. The thought process that follows three fold time with the sense of past present and future.

Prajnaa navanavonmeshashaalinee

pratibhaa mataa the Prajna which opens eyes to things new is thought to be pratibhaa

Prakaasha Revelation

Prakruti Objective world that is prone to change; it includes the psychological

Pramana A valid means of knowledge

Pratibha Intuition / inspiration

Pratibhaa Keen intellect

Prekshaka Audience

Purusha The spirit / The embodied one

Raaga Melody / Passion / A tune

Rasa-Bhara By the force of Rasa

Saadhaaraneekarana universalisation

Saahitya Literature

Sadhu Holy person

Sahrdaya Hrdaya is heart; one with a heart responding to the arts is called sahrdaya

Samashti Whole / Encompassing all / Macro

Samskaras Rites of passage in a person’s life.In the theory of karma, samskaras are the nature and character of a person perfected over a lifetime.

Satva The spirit / Mind

Shabda Sound; in the Shastras it is that definite sound which has sense

Shravana Listening

Shringara The rasa of love

Shuddha Pure; not in the grip of maya or illusion

Siddhi Achievement

Smrti Memory

Soham I am that

Soyam this is it / he is that

Spanda Throb / Vibration

Swara A note / Vowel

Tanmatras unique properties of elements – form, color, taste, smell, tactual, sound

Upasarjana Subordinating

Vaak Speech

Vaaksatva Mind expressed through words

Vaakya Sentence

Vaikhari Vaikhari corresponds to Jagrut or the wakeful state, representing physical consciousness.

Vakyapadeeya A 5th C work on the philosophy of language by Bhartrihari; mainly deals with the way words (pada) and sentences (vakya) make sense.

Vibhaava Situation

Vibhaava anubhaava

vyabichaaree samyoga A good combination of vibhaava anubhaava and vyabhichaari bhavas

Vidya Knowledge / Learning

Vighnas / ghaatas Obstacles in the performance or in way to success

Vimarsha Critique

Vimarshaa Ability to assess critically

Vyabhichaari bhaavas Transient emotions

Vyakarana Grammar

Vyashti Partial / Individual / Micro


Anandavardhana, and Abhinavagupta. The Dhvanyaloka of Anandavardhanacharya.: With the Locana and Balapriya Commentaries by Abhinavagupta and Ramasaraka. Ed. Pattabhirama Sastri Pudukottai Nattar. Varanasi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1940. Print.

Bharata. Natyasastra. Eds. R. S. Nagar and K. L. Joshi. New Delhi: Parimala Publications, 2003.

Bhavabhuti. Malati Madhava. Trans. M. R. Kale 1913. Reproduced by Motilal Banarsidass. Delhi: 1967 (3rd ed).

Dandi. Kavyadarsha. Ed. Prakashvala, (commentary by Acharya Ramachandra Mishra), Varanasi: Chowkhambha Vidyabhavan, Second ed 1972.

Hiriyanna, M. Art Experience. Mysore: Kavyalaya, 1954.

Kalidasa. Abhijnana Shakuntalam. Ed. Arthadyota, Bombay : Nirnayasagar press, 1927) Ed. & Trans. M. R. Kale, 1898 (10th edition). Reprinted by Motilal Banarsidass, 1969.

Kuntaka. Vakrokti-Jivita. Trans. Krishnamoorthy, K. Dharwad: Karnataka University, 1977.

‘Maitrayani Upanishad’. Upanishattugalu (in Kannada 1956). Trans. Max Muller. SBE1884 reprint; MBS 1965. (Paul Deussen’s German translation to English by Bedekar and Palsule). Part 1, MBS, 1980.[

Aesthetic Sensibility – an Indin perspective

Aesthetic Sensibility – an Indin perspective

V S Sharma

Abstract: Indian rhetoricians, dramatists and poets have in the course of the last two thousand years drafted theories of aesthetics and literature. The paper briefly examines, re-considers and enumerates some of the principal ideas that highlight the understanding of emotional transformation and aesthetic pleasure. The essential considerations in the Alamkara and the Dhvani schools, and those of rhetoricians who followed Abhinavagupta in the tenth century, figure in this narrative along with the variations that the bhakti school effected in the discourse.

Keywords: artistic experience, artistic creation, vyabhicharibhavas, theories of Suggestion, aesthetic sensibility

Indian epics have a long history of representing intense emotions in an unparalleled mode. This representation is often carried out with a fine understanding of the consciousness that informs emotions. The Ramayana, one of India’s most celebrated epics has been subjected to diverse readings because of the complexity of emotions as well as the excellence of poetic craftsmanship. Valmiki, who authored the pioneering epic poem in Sanskrit, narrates the story of the protagonist Sita, daughter of Janaka and wife to Rama, the Prince of Ayodhya. The tale moves through tides of highs and lows in terms of circumstance, sentiment and expression. The Ramayana plays upon the emotions of its characters but dwells steadily only on two marked emotions – pity and grief – from the beginning to end, thereby opening up new ways of understanding affect in literature.

Anandavardhana, the distinguished 9th century aesthetician, wrote a verse on the composition of the Ramayana which draws our attention to the essence of the epic. He writes in Dhvanyaloka that Valmiki had been inspired into writing his magnum opus at the sight of a hunter killing a crowncha bird with his arrows. They were male and female birds and when one of them was killed by the hunter, the other bird lamented over their separation. The sorrow of that bird moved the poet and he became grief-stricken. The depth of emotion behind this incident inspired him to compose the epic narrating the story of the separation of Rama and Sita who lived in the age of the ThrethaYuga. Anandavardhana is of the view that artistic creation results from deep emotion. Valmiki’s poetic outpouring born out of deep sorrow enabled Indian aestheticians to understand the nature of poetic inspiration. Anandavardhana’s doctrine of dhvani, plays down the denotative sense of the word and raises to dominance the power of suggestion. The role of dhvani contributes to the audience’s entire outlook on the dynamics of emotions in the Ramayana.

It is believed that when an artist experiences an emotion, it results in an artistic creation which suits his/her will, taste or any other affective factor. This problematizes our understanding of artistic creativity. The emotive experience” that which is viewed or witnessed by the artist”- becomes causative of artistic creation. The major emotions or rasas, classified into nine by Indian aestheticians are Sringara (Love), Vira (Valour), Hasya (Humour), Raudra (Anger), Bhayanaka (Fear), Karuna (Compassion or Sadness), Adbhutam (Delight or Wonder), Bheebhatsam (Disgust) and Santa (Peace or Calm). The word rasa means aesthetic relish or enjoyment. In the beginning, every feeling or emotion is experienced at the level of the human. When that human experience is transmuted to an artistic experience, it becomes transpersonal and moves beyond the limits of time, place and the particular individual concerned. In this transformation of an emotive experience to an artistic experience, the creative self of the artist gets erased from the picture. When it thus moves from the particular to the universal, it provides matter for aesthetic enjoyment to competent readers, spectators, audience or sahrudaya or rasika (the one who enjoys). Sahrudaya or rasika is a person who is endowed with the necessary faculties to cross over the obstacles he/she may encounter during the course of aesthetic appreciation.

In the past centuries, poets, dramatists and other artists composed thousands of works depicting the stories of epics from different perspectives, in various media. Such secondary creations inspired still others to imagine the story of Sita and Rama in multitudinous ways in poetry, drama, music, dance and so on. In Ramayana, Sita and Rama experienced a deep sorrow occasioned by separation. Valmiki narrates their story in a touching manner. The artistic experience that is universal and eternal, nullifies the distance of the original characters of Sita and Rama, to a contemporary or future audience.

Sage Bharata in his masterly work Natyasastra, brought forth the theory of rasa which is the pivotal concept of aesthetic enjoyment in India. This was laid down in the famous aphorism “vibhava anubhava vyabhichari samyogad rasa nishpathih” which means that Vibhava (the cause), anubhava (expression), vyabhicharibhava (the transient or changing emotions)in combination with one another, evokes rasa. Each of the terms of this aphorism was interpreted and re-interpreted, annotated and re-annotated by various scholars in later times. Anandavardhana brought forth an extended concept of rasa-dhvani in Dhvanyaloka elaborating the idea of rasa. He explained the concept of rasa and argued that suggestive meaning (dhvani) is of the highest importance and value. Arriving at the suggestive meaning is determined by the imaginative capacity and refinement of the person involved. For a word, there can be three levels meaning: 1) Vachya (surface level meaning); 2) Lakshya (intended meaning); and 3) Vyangya (suggestive meaning). The experience of rasa effectively culminates in rasa-dhvani, where the suggestive meaning evokes several resonances. In certain contexts, the first and the second levels of meaning disappear and the suggestive meaning gains greater importance. Artistic enjoyment is derived from the comprehension and appreciation of this third level of meaning.

According to Sage Bharata and his followers, any kind of artistic creation should lead to the aesthetic experience of rasa. That leads to another question: in whom does the rasa exist or act – is it in the original writer or in an imitator or in the reader/spectator? Though it is not easy to answer, we can say that the emotion at the personal level cannot be an artistic, transpersonal experience, and hence an object of enjoyment. Only when a human experience is elevated and transformed into an artistic experience, does it become an object that is capable of inducing aesthetic experience. Another issue that props up in this context is this: which rasaanubhava or emotive experience is important and which is unimportant? Some experiences are transitory and some others are permanent. The temporary emotions will come and go according to the situation and personal temperament. Permanent emotions are more enduring and effective. The temporary emotions are called vybhichari bhavas, and the enduring ones are termed sthayi bhavas. The temporary emotions complement the permanent emotions. Permanent emotions, eight in number according to Bharata, were later enhanced to nine. Temporary emotions are thirty-three in number. The thirty-three temporary emotions will complement the nine sthayibhavas or permanent emotions. In a literary work, for example, in a drama, there will generally be one permanent emotion which is expressed throughout the play and the temporary emotions will support the expression of the main emotion. All the four types of acting (vachya or oral, angika or gestural, aharya or through dress and appearance, and sattvika, that which is related to personal expression) will be suited to the permanent emotion or sthayibhava. For generating sthayibhava two factors (vibhavas) are necessary: 1) alambana vibhava (the cause) and 2) uddipana vibhava (factors which heighten the cause).

The 33 vyabhichari bhavas are as follows:

1) Nirvedham (Calmness or state of being withdrawn)

2) Glaani (Sadness)

3) Shanka (Doubt)

4) Asuya (Jealousy)

5) Madam (Mad Urge)

6) Shramam (Tiredness due to work)

7) Alasyam (Exhaustion)

8) Dainyam (Helplessness)

9) Chintha (Thought)

10) Moham (Desire)

11) Smrthi (Remembrance)

12) Drithi (Courage)

13) Vrida (Shyness)

14) Chapalatha (Unsteadiness)

15) Harsham (Joy)

16) Avegam (Enthusiasm)

17) Jadatha (Inactivity)

18) Garvam (Ego)

19) Vishadam (Depression)

20) Outsukyam (Inquisitiveness)

21) Nidra (Sleep)

22) Apasmaram (Fitness)

23) Suptham (Sleep)

24) Vibhodham (Alertness)

25) Amarsham (Dislike)

26) Avahitham (Hiding)

27) Ugratha (Fearfulness)

28) Mati (Intelligence)

29) Vyadhi (Disease)

30) Unmadam (Madness)

31) Maranam (Death)

32) Trasam (Shivering)

33) Vitarka (Hesitation or Doubt)

Among the later theoreticians, the great author Bhoja, an emperor who lived and ruled the kingdom of Dhar around 1000 AD, brought forth a new concept beyond Natyasastra and other works on rhetoric. In his work Sringaraprakasha, he put forth the idea that love (Sringara) is the basic rasa. The Sthayibhava (permanent emotion) is not capable of producing rasa whereas, bhavas are generated from rasa. Thus various bhavas are produced. He lists 49 bhavas produced from rasa as follows.

He lists 49 bhavas produced from rasa as follows.

  1. Rati (Love or erotic Love)
  2. Harsha (Joy)
  3. Romancha (Horripilation)
  4. Dhriti (Courage)
  5. Garva (Ego)
  6. Nasa (Destruction)
  7. Mada (Mad Urge)
  8. Utkantha (Anxiety)
  9. Chintha (Thought)
  10. Smriti (Remembrance)
  11. Mati (Intelligence)
  12. Vitarka (Hesitation))
  13. Utsaha (Enthusiasm)
  14. Krodha (Anger)
  15. Amarsha (Dislike)
  16. Asuya (Jealousy)
  17. Irshya (Angry attitude)
  18. Ugrata (Fearfulness)
  19. Jugupsa (Aversion)
  20. Vismaya (Wonder)
  21. Ninda (Disrespect)
  22. Supta (Sleepy nature)
  23. Prabodha (Alertness)
  24. Chapalata (Unsteadiness)
  25. Alasya (Exhaustion)
  26. Bhaya (Fear)
  27. Sanka (Doubt)
  28. Thrasa (Wavering)
  29. Vepathu (Trembling)
  30. Vreeda (shyness)
  31. Avahittha (Hiding)
  32. Stambha (Unfettered)
  33. Glani (Sadness)
  34. Sveda (Sweating)
  35. Vyadhi (Illness)
  36. Unmada (Madness)
  37. Srama (Tiredness due to work)
  38. Soka (Sorrow)
  39. Vishada (Depression)
  40. Vaivarnya (Paleness)
  41. Dainya (Helplessness)
  42. Swarabheda (Speechlessness)
  43. Avega (Enthusiasm)
  44. Asrumoksha (Tearfulness)
  45. Moha (Desire)
  46. Pralaya (Unconsciousness)
  47. Jadya (Inactivity)
  48. Nirveda (Disinterested, calmness)
  49. Sama (Peacefulness)

Some of these bhavas originate from Rati (Bodily Love) and according to Bhoja, Sringara is the basic and fundamental bhavaIt will generate rasa and the rasa will generate some of the emotive states among the 49 bhavas. It is termed the ahankara-abhimana Sringara. The word ahankara means the feeling of individuality, that is ego, and abhimana means self-esteem. According to Bhoja the aesthetic element –aesthetic sweetness – the Sringara rasa, is generated from self-esteem and the sense of ego. From this concept of rasa, many other rasas can be derived at or generated. Out of the 49 bhavas listed, any may culminate in an aesthetic experience or be cultivated as an aesthetic experience. For the feeling of Rati (Love) there should be a basic cause, Ratyalanbana vibhava. Similarly for all rasas, there should be a definite cause and any may develop as a rasa, like anuraga (Love of youth) or another corresponding rasa.

The Sringara rasa which Bhoja considered as the only basic rasa (aesthetic sweetness) is related to the four basic human purposes in life according to Indian thought, namely the Purusharthas – DharmaArthaKama, and MokshaDharma is the sense of duty, artha is the pursuit of wealth, kama is desire and lust, and moksha, liberation from human bondage. In Sringaraprakasha, he writes that the Sringara between man and woman or any human being is nourished by the Purusharthas since they are the foundation of philosophical rootedness in man.

Many Indian aestheticians are of the opinion that only a person who is a sahrudaya or rasika can enjoy rasa or have an aesthetic experience. As far as Bhoja is concerned, the mind of a sahrudaya is not the only primary seat of rasa. He proposes the principle of ahankara (sense of ego) which underlie all feelings through which characters may imbibe various moods: the poet portrays them, the actor enacts them, and the rasika (viewer) is enabled to feel and enjoy them; the seat or aesthetic pleasure is the soul of a cultured person.

Not all persons are real sahrudayas or rasikas – they cannot enjoy the artistic experience or they may not be equipped for aesthetic enjoyment. Everybody cannot have the rasa of ahankara (the sense of ego) which helps aesthetic enjoyment or to experience Sringara or any other rasa. A person’s genius at birth, knowledge acquired from life, contact with persons like teachers and self-training help a person to become a sahrudaya or rasika.

Anandavardhana, a major aesthetician in the post-Bharata period, put forward the theory of suggestion (dhvani). According to him, the suggestive meaning of a word is the most important. There are three levels of meaning for a word: the sense gained when a word is heard – vachyartha; the intended meaning or lakshyartha; and the special meaning which is perceived by each reader, audience or spectator which is the vyangyartha (the suggested sense). We can relate the experience of rasa to the suggestive sense of a word or an artistic object. That meaning may be purely personal as well. The works of the great writer Kalidasain Sanskrit are cited by the aesthetician Anandvardhana to prove the presence and importance of suggestive meaning.

Abhinavagupta, the unique interpreter of the theory of Suggestion of Anandvardhana pointed out seven impediments which may obstruct aesthetic enjoyment. They are: ill equipment of a person to imbibe the rasa (Yogyathaviraham); the influence of a particular place and time (desakalaviseshavesam); indisposition caused by one’s own mental state – joy or sorrow (Nija Sukha Dukhaadi Vivasaibhava); lack of clarity (Asphutetva); ignorance concerning important and unimportant emotions (Apradhanata); uncertainty about the feeling (rasa or any object) conveyed (Samsaya Yogam); and the limitation of imagination related to the perception (ignorance about the story or character whether historic or newly generated) (Sambhavanaviraham). When all these obstacles are surpassed or removed, only then may the viewer have aesthetic pleasure in full measure.

According to Bhoja, the real enjoyment of an aesthetic pleasure is as premam – i.e. ultimate aesthetic enjoyment. This aesthetic pleasure is related to dharma, artha, kama, and moksha. Dharma, artha, kama, and moksha are human goals or purposes in life, as suggested by the great sages of ancient time. Aesthetic enjoyment or the concept of rasa is close to the philosophy of Samkhya or theory of causation. The one who enjoys, the sahrudaya or rasika, gains aesthetic pleasure from an artistic creation through a suitable medium such as literature, music, dance, action etc. Sage Bharata in the famous aphorism of rasa sutra, indicated that the blend of vibhava (the cause), anubhava (expression) and vyabhicharibhava (the unsteady or changing emotions) with sattvikabhavas, generates rasa as aesthetic enjoyment. For the generation of this aesthetic pleasure, all factors should mutually complement each other. Aesthetic enjoyment is related to the soul of a person though the causes are worldly objects. The poet who has an experience of an emotion (anubhavana), tries to convey his emotional enjoyment through his favourite medium – word, music, dance, painting or sculpture. The anubhava is thus transmitted to the preceptor or the sahrudaya for anukarana (to imitate). At this stage, the reader of the literary work or perceiving artist (either a dancer or musician or actor or a rasika) also have anubhava or aesthetic pleasure and as a mediator he/she transmits the feeling or emotion he/she enjoys to a third person. This is the third stage and it is anuvarthana where an artist of this century imbibes the emotions expressed by the master poet in some early period, and conveys this to the contemporary rasika or viewer.

For example, the love of Sakuntala or Dushyanta which was depicted by the poet Kalidasa thousand or more years ago, becomes an object of aesthetic enjoyment for a rasika or artist who lives in the 21st. century or future times. Any poet, musician, dancer, actor or any other artist can imbibe the emotion which was an artistic object of enjoyment. In ancient times, it was a personal object and for the poet it became an object of aesthetic experience. It is so for the viewer or rasika of any future period. The aesthetic sensibility and artistic form can be influenced by time and place. The content will be the same but the expression may differ. The value of aesthetic pleasure is at the highest level and hence it is the paramount experience (Sringara). According to Indian aesthetics a theory of rasa and rasa dhvani, aesthetic suggestion or suggestive sweetness, is the supreme level of aesthetic experience one can have from all artistic media.

The infusion of the bhakti element into Indian rhetorical discourse inspired by Anandavardhana’s writing, effected a dynamic tangent to the understanding of rasa. Unlike all previous theoreticians, he lent supervalence to santa rasa founding the emotion behind the rasa as the parasamvit or the prime universal consciousness. He argued that the bhava behind the santa rasa was the output of pure consciousness within the Self which he referred to as atman. This critical linking of consciousness via the atman to aesthetics within literary output was integral to the later validation of the role of santa rasa. Abhinavagupta draw on this and writes in Locana that true aesthetic enjoyment or bhoga can be equated to the joy of eternal bliss- the state of Brahman (2.4) and since the santa rasa was nurtured out of the parama-purushartha or the highest goals, it ought to be considered the most significant of all rasas, for this rasa alone would lead down the path to liberation (3.26).

To sum up, given below are some salient points about Indian aesthetic sensibility, as portrayed down the centuries in all fine arts including literature.

  1. Sage Bharata, the pioneering author of the science of Natya, was the one who brought out the philosophy of aesthetic sensibility and artistic enjoyment. His aphorism, the well-known ‘rasa sutra’ (“vibhava anubhava vyabhichari samyogad rasanishapathih”), was analyzed by many later-day aestheticians who gave various interpretations to each of the words in the aphorism. Anandavardhana shed new light on the theory of rasa with his concept of Dhvani or suggestive meaning in relation to any literary or artistic presentation. A refined mind’s sublime state of perception is the mental condition conducive to aesthetic enjoyment. Bhoja, the author of Sringaraprakasha, defines the state of enjoyment as something that fits any human emotion; the enjoyment is sringara rasa or ahankara-abhimana-Sringara which is closely allied with not merely his external, peripheral or even worldly self but also to the soul of the man, his spiritual and mental existence.
  2. Aesthetic experience or the aesthetic sweetness, be it at the level of the original poet/artist, or at the level of an artist of a later period who imitates, and the one who perceives (rasika) it in any time and place, is an experience of a higher order. The artistic or aesthetic experience that the artistic creation affords determines its aesthetic value. According to Indian theoreticians, the aesthetic experience is sublime and close to a spiritual experience (Brahmanandaaswadasama) and unworldly (alaukikaanubhava). The artist, the poet and rasikas of all time and place are expected to gain the rasanubhava, which is a transcendent experience arising from artistic creation. The essential purpose of artistic creation is fulfilled successfully when an artist and a rasika or viewer reaches the same point of aesthetic enjoyment.
  3. To God Almighty the greatest of all artists, the entire universe is a theatre, in which He stages his plays from time to time. The human artist also creates for universal appreciation, so that a well-equipped rasika or viewer can have a transcendent aesthetic experience, Brahamanada sahodaranubhava. In aesthetic experience, a kind of transformation of human emotions from a worldly plane to the level of the soul happens. According to Bhoja, it happens because of the ‘I’ consciousness, and he termed it ahankara – abhimana – sringaraanubhava. A true artist has such an experience and the artistconveys the experience to a qualified viewer. The aesthetic sensibility of the artist, poet, and rasika or viewer represents the apotheosis ofall artistic activity. It results from the search for the ultimate truth and a unique pleasure in human life that is beyond worldliness or alaukika.


1 The Hindu mythology lays down that there are four ages or periods of time. They are the ‘Krita Yuga’ or ‘Satya Yuga’ ( the fourth age); ‘Treta Yuga’ (the age of three parts); ‘Dwapara Yuga’ (the age of two parts); and ‘Kali Yuga’ (the age of conflict); the four together constituting a ‘Maha Yuga’ or Great Age.


Anandavardhana, and Abhinavagupta. The Dhvanyaloka of Anandavardhanacharya: With the Locana and Balapriya Commentaries by Abhinavagupta and Ramasìaraka. Ed. Pattabhirama Sastri Pudukottai Nattar. Varanasi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1940. Print.

Bharata. The Natyasastra; a Treatise on Ancient Hindu Dramaturgy and Histrionics. Trans. Manomohan Ghosh. Calcutta: Asiatic Society, 1961. Print.

Bhojaraja. Sringaraprakasa of Bhojadeva. Madras: n.p., 1926. Print. Sharma, V. S. Rasa. Trivandrum: 2015.

Presenting emotions and absenting bodies? A Glance back

Presenting emotions and absenting bodies? A Glance back

Priya V

From as far back as I can remember, there was a replica of the heroic green Kathakali face1 mounted on the living-room wall of our single-storied middle class Nair home in central Keralam. Today, if one travelled by train from Thiruvananthapuram, its capital city, to any of the northern districts of the state, the Kathakali face would greet one repeatedly from signboards that announce the respective station. For a certain generation of modestly privileged Malayalis who have had their childhood located in the pre-liberalized world of the 80s, growing up had a number of inflections that disappeared from everyday significance later. It would be years later that the Kathakali face would morph into a quasiofficial touristy insignia of a “uniquely ethnic” Malayali identity, featured with remarkable frequency in government sponsored commercials of the tourism department in its aggressive campaigns; as the inevitable masthead of websites of tour companies selling “authentic” culture trips and green hideaways; as the prime highlight of flex boards of any kind of political party gatherings and so on. However, it had already made possible the transition from art to artifact.

When I look back now to that phase of my childhood, this artifact seems to step down from the wall in some surreal manner and encapsulate some of those specific experiences. If, as Arjun Appadurai says, the meanings of things ‘are inscribed in their forms, their uses, their trajectories’ and it is ‘only through the analysis of these trajectories that we can interpret the human transactions and calculations that enliven things’, one needs to wonder what relationship this artifact had to the human agents around it (5). Resonating from a time and place where the words “picnic” and “pilgrimage” need not have had a lot of difference in experience, where a long drive to the popular Guruvayoor temple was the most exciting adventure accessed annually, the Kathakali face is inextricably linked in my memory to the much anticipated late night visits to a nearby temple during its annual festival. As a multi-sensorial event, which afforded tangible delights – gastronomic and leisurely aesthetic events included— consisting in little leaps of joy like a deep fried piping hot plantain baji or a plastic bracelet in eye-smiting fluorescent colours you could wind around your wrist like a spring, it also carved out a time and place out of humdrum routine. It was suddenly possible for little girls to be out on nights that changed colours from pale purple to thick indigo against the twilight hues of temple lamps. It was okay to sleep on the bare stone floor right in the middle of nowhere while noble heroes played out their valour or a lalitha2 morphed suddenly into a dark skinned kari3 character. It was, in other words, a respite from the usual norms that governed one’s upbringing.

At the back of the wall that exhibited the Kathakali face there was a little puja room in which clay figurines and framed photographs modeled both from Sivakasi calendars4 and Ravi Varma5 paintings of deities sat along with austere looking black and white studio snaps of deceased ancestors. Evening prayer rituals in this claustrophobic but lavishly populated room meant lighting a lamp and somewhat mechanically, though studiously, mouthing three or four barely understood Sanskrit hymns taught by my father and addressed to specific deities. One did of course gauge some meaning from Sanskrit words which had flown into Malayalam as well. My father has had no official training in Sanskrit, but availed himself of a working knowledge of a number of Sanskrit hymns from Malayalam devotional books that printed these hymns in the Malayalam alphabet, followed up with paraphrases of individual hymns. On certain auspicious days like a Krishna Jayanti6 for example, this meagre ritual would be extended to include a few common devotional songs addressed to Krishna in Malayalam which my mother would sing while preparing the offerings for her favorite deity or arranging them in the puja room. She would also croon them on long power-cut nights typical of the 80s, as she braved the humid heat, moving musically as it were, on a cane swing. One of these songs written by the 16th century Malayalam poet Poonthanam Nambudiri, a beloved name in Keralam’s devotional canon titled “Anjana Sreedhara”, narrated the life of Krishna while also aiding in the teaching of Malayalam vowels. Another song I clearly remember titled “Ambadithannilorunni” was a popular piece written by Vayalar Rama Varma, poet and lyricist, for the 1972 movie Chembarathi. This song starts with a head-to-toe description of little Krishna and proceeds to lilting refrains where an unidentified motherly voice calls out to him to come and have his meal and lie down by her to sleep. In performance, the song affords an expressive expansion as the singer has the simultaneity of being both the mother and the devotee who addresses the god directly in rapturous affection. Moreover, though addressed to the divine kid, in practice, it could easily glide through its soothing refrains typical of lullabies to refer to any kid who is gently coaxed by a parent to retire to sleep. None of these songs, as far as my memory goes, including the Sanskrit hymns somewhat unwittingly recited, were written down though they came from the archive; rather, they imprinted themselves in a child’s memory through repeated listening. Similarly, the epics swept into our imagination first through bedtime stories with a moral finale, (where the gods were always just, the demons harboured ill will, but were pliable through repentance to be deemed worthy of salvation and the truthful, ultimately rewarded for their sufferings), then through the Amar Chitrakatha graphic story series followed up with the hugely popular television adaptations aired on Sundays. In each of these re-tellings, the content shape-shifted to suit the grammar of the performance in question, certainly imbued with its political leanings.

At some uncertain point during this phase, my mother, who has had a long training as a Bharatanatyam7 dancer, but whom I had never seen dancing, apart from poses she might suddenly strike in response to a piece of music that appealed to her or while critiquing a certain dancer’s posture, apprenticed me to a somewhat impoverished Mohiniyattam8 dancer who never married and made a living out of dance classes conducted from her home. Long before the 80s, both these women’s dances had become “respectable”9 enough to be considered as extensions of appropriate gender socialization for young girls. (“Good girls don’t sit with their legs open, nor do they cross them” and the like.) I persisted for a year and then wailed myself out of the training sessions in which caning for body taming was a norm and which also meant I had to stay back with my maternal grandparents during summer holidays while the rest of my family went to wherever my father was currently posted. Years, or perhaps a lifetime, later and as part of my research work after having dug out certain unexplored insights into the genesis of this dance form and bowled over by the passionate eroticism, in particular of the Swati Tirunal10 padams11 composed for this dance, I have been harbouring a yearning to re-apprentice myself to understand the emotions unleashed through a “Poonthennermozhisakhi…”12 or a “Panimathimukhibalee…”13 and have just started taking baby steps in this direction. When I became a mother, along with other lullabies, I went back, perhaps inadvertently, to my mother’s rendering of “Ambadithannilorunni”; as if the body could reproduce forgotten lyrics located in one’s own childhood simply by repeatedly trying out the remembered tune. Years later I realized it was an old movie song and that the original version is somewhat different in rendition to the way my mother sang it. Perhaps, it would perturb some that a movie song could slip in and out of the familial and the religious realms, but such dynamics, it needs to be stressed, have always been the mark of embodied practices in its relation to the archive.

I use this haphazard collection of remembered experiences to articulate certain questions that had assailed some of us while participating in the “Decolonizing Theories of the Emotions” Conference at Thiruvananthapuram. How does one talk about what one understands as one’s heritage? Is it assimilated by human agents mutely and without complication? Can there be an abstract notion of heritage severed from the all too human question of inheritance? Can there be “intangible heritages” as UNESCO proclaims?14 How does one put into words the unease that stirred in some of us as a fair amount of papers continuously evoked the reverential approach to old texts, as if the very act of talking about them demands another evocation of their auratic values? Are our inheritances as democratic and ahistorical as we suppose them to be? If the past is to be thought of as no longer a singular monochromatic entity and heritage itself a matter of selection, articulation and repetition, how does one make space for a political reactivation of the archive now attempted in order to decolonize western theories of emotions? How certain are we that this doesn’t lead to epistemic violence or a recolonization of vernacular cultures yet again through a re-privileging of Sanskrit texts? Raising these caveats is by no means a pessimistic denial of the archive or of the possibilities of the conference, but we need something more than a reappraisal of old texts. In probing these concerns, I would also like to suggest what I see as a more critically expansive means of dealing with the ancient texts.

If our disciplinary training and reflection on accumulated experiences inform our reading, viewing and listening, it cannot be out of place to wonder why certain elaborations of high Sanskritic wisdom harping on transcendence, as if by default, tags along an erasure of the body. Is the assumption that staged emotions have nothing to do with ordinary human emotions as innocent a claim as it purports to be? In other words, do the multivalences of embodied performances and everyday practices warrant such a claim? I would like to briefly go back here to the performances staged as part of the conference: Sitara Balakrishnan’s unforgettable staging of Radha’s heart-wrenching complaint in “Yaahimadhava” drawn from the Gitagovinda15 affords us a case in point. In this performance, is the nayika’s (heroine) desire for Krishna completely separate from her growing disenchantment towards him? As she bitterly enumerates the marks left on his body from the previous night’s lovemaking with a different partner, does she also hint at a possible shaming of the lord who after all emerges here only through the exceptional effulgence of Radha’s array of complex emotions? Even as such behaviour corresponds to the bodily idiom Natyasastra allots to the enraged heroine, it needs to be asked whether such reciprocation is all that happens in expressive communication. If the enumeration of the nayika’s own adornment of her body in anticipation of her lover with which the song begins is a part by part creation of her exquisite wholeness, can the opposite attempt at pointing out leftover signs of infidelity be removed from her mounting (though temporary) disdain towards him? Within the dynamics of performance, do such partby- part evocations, first of adornment and then stages of desolation, comment on and mirror each other? Perhaps, it is in such ambivalence – the contradictions and confusions in which desire itself is mired and released through embodied communication – that Radha stands closer to her human counterparts and their vacillating emotions.

A related point that demands attention here may be problematized again from the vantage point of the Koodiyattam play performed at the conference. This concerns the sudden and dramatic cleaving of the female self into two separate bodies in particular plays wherein they are on the verge of bursting out in anger, pain from being spurned or plain hatred. The fleshing out of the demonic female being that resides at first in a beautiful/seductive lalitha guise is a common device employed in Koodiyattam and Kathakali plays as well as in the yakshi16 tales of Keralam. How does one culturally locate the relevance of such a schism in practice? How is a female spectator meant to respond to such dramatic bifurcation of the female self typically followed up with mutilation and taming of the abjected self? On the other hand, are ironic humour and satiric commentary a trait that marks the dark-skinned abjected self and an element never accessible for the noble heroines in Kathakali and Koodiyattam? If so, in what way does it respond to the controlled bodily registers of the idealized nayika especially when it comes out in the broken Malayalam interjections of the demonized body?

History certainly affords one some clues to address these questions. We may go back to the charged initial half of the 20th century when as part of the nationalist project, performative arts from various geo-cultural terrains of the sub-continent were both classicized and standardized, a process which involved a detailed distancing from what got to be defined as “folk forms” through such standardization programmes. One only needs to revert to the sringara controversy17 at the heart of the reformation of both Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam, where the debate consisted not just on how much sringara could be allowed, but what bodies should appropriately perform them as well. Here is a reminder for us that even the choicest of rasas has time-place coordinates and has been through historical acculturation processes. In other words, instead of assuming the relationship between the archive and various performance traditions to be a one-way process, reading the archive alongside and in tandem with embodied performance practices of historically situated performing communities or the repertory of a particular individual performer would emerge as a more democratic and insightful practice as it helps us to understand how performance talks back to the archive and plays with it. A work that immediately comes to mind is Rich Freeman’s exemplary essay on Teyyam18 performed by a number of lower caste communities of Keralam titled, “There upon Hangs a Tail: The Deification of Vāli in the Teyyam Worship of Malabar.” His reading explains how the performance of Teyyam makes use of the puranic character of Bāli and infuses it with elements drawn from heroic folk tales rampant in the south to voice both a collective sense of experienced stigma of caste as well as felt resistance to the same through the deification of the human-miscegenated apehero. Characters from the puranic lore become malleable in such cases to stage a more respectable past and are used to deal with present stigma even as caste (as a dehumanizing apparatus itself) can be questioned. The human nature of Bāli articulated here works not as some abstract contrast to divinity, it carves out instead a reflective space paradoxically located within puranic performance itself in which his killing by the upper caste Rama becomes a timelessly repeated staging of upper caste violence and the hostility it breeds. The following lines from a Teyyam that commemorates the very low Pulaya caste may be cited here:

You gather in great temples, Lord;

We gather only in our clearings.

In temples your offerings are in blazing cauldrons, Lord

In clearings ours are in bark buckets.

You go out wrapped in fine foreign silks, Lord;

We go out with our coarse waist-towels.

You go out adorned with sandal paste, Lord;

We go out daubed in mud…

Your domain ranges over several territories, Lord;

Our domain is the irrigation ditch…

You will come mounted on elephants’ backs, Lord;

We will come mounted on buffaloes’ backs…

Why, O Lord, do you rant over caste?

If you are stabbed will not blood flow?

If we are stabbed will not blood flow? ...

We will all one day gather in the temple of the Great One,

There you and we shall be together.

Then why, O Lord, do you rant over caste? (qtd in Freeman 208).

These impassioned lines seem to act out the complex possibilities of performance in its relation both to ancient myth and present human concerns. That they come from a character ironically named Pottan or “the Dumb” reveals both the possibilities and the politics of performance in its complex linkages both to lived trauma that strikes out experiential affiliations across time and the cleared, charmed circle of actual space with all its delimitations wherein the enactment enfolds.

In a similar vein, it is somewhat disturbing to listen to scholarly readings that explain away the potentials of even Bhakti poetry traditions19 as uniformly exemplifying high Sanskritic notions of the merging of the feminine bhakti (devotee) in the paramatma (supreme self) conceptualized as a male. Uma Chakravarti’s engaging study of the bhaktins (female devotee poets) would tell us that unlike the cases of the male poets, the bhaktins retained their femaleness and that their hagiographies are filled with the many ways in which the young female body itself is negotiated at times through instant and wished for demonization or a sudden visitation of old age or through actual ritual marriage to god (2006). Perhaps the 13th century poet, Janabhai explains the centrality of the body – in this case of a lower caste dasi (servant)female body— better than anyone else in the entire range of emotions signalled by bhakti thus:

Cast off all shame,

and sell yourself

in the marketplace;

then alone

can you hope

to reach the Lord.

Cymbals in hand,

a veena upon my shoulder, I go about;

who dares to stop me?

The pallav of my sari falls away (A scandal!);

yet will I enter

the crowded marketplace

without a thought.

Jani says, My Lord

I have become a slut

to reach your home (Tharu and Lalitha 83).

The god to whom Jana thus speaks is at once divine and human; he is a constant companion and helper who eases her domestic chores, makes the unwashed vessels gleam and even scratches her scalp when the lice bite her (82). There is hardly a need here to separate the everyday and the mundane from soul-stirring devotion. Moving from poet to performer, we may yet again see such intertwining of apparent opposites. Lakshmi Knight, the daughter of renowned devadasi20 performer Bala Saraswati has this to say about her mother-teacher’s approach; the padam she cites here was a prominent item in Bala’s repertory and was composed by the 17th century Telugu poet Kshetrayya:

It has been so long since I last saw you.

My sari is soaked with tears; in my sleep I am weeping.

After dreaming of you, it seems you are here.

I wake seeing the curtains move and think it is you.

Feeling your presence, I thought I saw you in the shadow.

When I felt a breeze on my cheek I thought it was your breath.

A fragrance was only a flower.

And I arise, sensing your presence…

I haven’t seen you, Krishna, for so many days…

That was Bala! When she was dancing or when she was in her room talking to me about this, she’d just forget herself. This is not devotion, not yearning for bhakti. But when she performed this, as a song, as an item, you would never think of it as a love song. The audience would not think that way. They would think we are all longing for the Great One to come and see her. That is how she projected such material . . . She transformed it into an altogether different subject (Knight 172-173).

Rather than attempting to see how far our performance traditions show fidelity to the emotional categories and explanations in ancient aesthetic texts, it can be a richer exercise to study how repertories, written and performed, historically talk back to the old texts as well as keep alive the tensions experienced and archived on the bodies themselves. Such a critical scrutiny would differentiate itself from both the salvage ethnography of the colonial enterprise as well as UNESCO’s reification programmes of “intangible heritages” of the Global South which are it seems, at least in practice, closer to the former than generally acknowledged. Charting out such a mutually dialectical framework and critical enquiry seems closer to the potentialities identified by Dr. Sneja Gunew in her insightful article (2009). Decolonizing theories of emotions in that sense, may be seen as a viable and far reaching exercise.


1 The green face-paint in Kathakali typically refers to noble, upright heroic characters.

2 Female characters in Kathakali tend to fall between two contrasting types: the beautiful, idealized, dutiful wives/virgins/lovers embodying the satvika (pure) quality and the dark-skinned demonesses who are portrayed as lustful, hysteric, ugly and dangerous and are tamasa (dark) in nature. Between these two categories figure the seductress lalitha who appears in disguise in the make-up otherwise meant for idealized heroines to entrap a noble hero and soon reveals her concealed demoness nature. Marlene Pitkow remarks that ‘this role type is completely uncontrolled, always appearing alone, widowed or otherwise unmarried’ (223).

3 Kari refers to the dark-skinned demonic female characters of Kathakali.

4 Sivakasi in modern Tamil Nadu has been a prime centre of India’s printing industry; the calendars mass produced from its many printing companies helped in popularizing a distinct visual idiom in the conceptualization of Hindu gods and goddesses.

5 Ravi Varma (1848-1906) was a celebrated painter and artist from the erstwhile princely state of Thiruvitaamkoor in modern Keralam. The lithographs of his paintings based on figures from the epics and the puranas printed from his own press and elsewhere had a massive reach and somewhat standardized their visualization.

6 Krishna Jayanti or Janmashtami marks an annual celebration of the birth of Krishna.

7 The name Bharatanatyam is of relatively recent origin and refers to the post-reformation form of the diverse kinds of dances that were performed in the temples of Tamil Nadu for centuries by devadasis or women attached to temples for ritual performances. Its earlier names include Sadir, Chinnamelam or simply Dasi Attam (“dance of the dasis”). The current name is understood as linking it back to Bharata, the sage who is believed to have composed the ancient aesthetic treatise, The Natyasastra.

8 A dance performed by Nair women of Keralam that has gone through reformation like Bharatanatyam. Its genesis is traced back to the 16th century; the repertory of this dance still shows marked connections to the repertories of devadasis as well as to other performing traditions of Keralam. I have argued in my research dissertation that recuperates a history of the devadasis of Keralam that it is only through the performance practices of devadasis and what got carried over from their repertory to Mohinyattam that any temple connection can be established for this dance and that critical readings that try to deny such associations do so from a felt need to distance Keralam’s performance heritage to any devadasi association.

9 The reformation, in particular of women’s performance practices, was a major part of the Indian nationalist movement. Starting in the early decades of the 20th century, this programme made its presence felt along with the disenfranchisement of devadasis, now cast under the blanket category of temple-harlots, as well as a puritanical bowdlerization of the erotic content and kinaesthetic registers of particular dances. In Keralam, this programme marched along with the step by step dissolution of matrilineal connubial practices and the gradual shift to patriliny.

10 Swati Tirunal (1813-1846) was a ruler of the erstwhile princely state of Thiruvitaamkoor. He is also regarded as a celebrated musician and poet credited with hundreds of compositions.

11 Slow lyrical songs mostly imbued in sringara (erotic) love.

12 Both padams are addressed by the lady to her female friend and confidante; this is a typical tradition in Mohiniyattam and helps unravel the mind of the heroine. -”Oh, my honey tongued forthright friend, /I’m suffering the agony of separation [from my lover] thus…”

13 “Oh, moon-faced girl, /Padmanabhan [the deity of the Padmanabha Swamy temple Thiruvananthapuram] now has no mercy left for me…”

14 “Proclamation of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity 2001-2005”, proclamation-of-masterpieces-00103, accessed in December 2015.

15 Literally “Song of Govinda”composed by the 12th century poet Jayadeva and depicts the love of Radha and Krishna, his frequent infidelity and eventual return to Radha.

16 Yakshis in mythologies obtained from the subcontinent are generally understood as counterparts of male yakshas and attendees of Kubera, the god of wealth who figure in some Hindu puranas. Mentions of yakshis have also been linked to ancient fertility goddesses and some early Buddhist and Jain monuments and texts; in certain tantric texts, they are depicted as voluptuous deities who are to be propitiated in order to get one’s desires granted. However, in folklores of Keralam, they figure almost exclusively as malevolent, seductive demonesses who lure men with their charms and kill them. In most cases, yakshis are seen as victims of violent deaths and narrative conclusion mostly revolves around her taming by a male (mostly Brahmin) priest, who would conjure her into a stone or an idol and make her worthy of collective worship like any other dark power.

17 The debates concerning the reformation of both Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam sought to retrospectively differentiate “actual” sringara from what it designated as “obscenity”; such problematization itself was imbricated in what behaviours could be allocated for female bodies within the incipient public sphere of the nation. In other words, the reprogramming of performing bodies paralleled the larger programme of gender streamlining as women were now asked to extend their domesticity and soft power to chosen domains designated for them in the public realm.

18 A ritual form of worship and performance at kavus (sacred groves) or open fields prevalent for centuries in the Northern districts of Keralam wherein the performer arrayed in colourful costumes metamorphoses through performance into the deity of a particular shrine.

19 The Bhakti tradition refers to a theistic devotional oeuvre that developed around particular deities spreading from the south to the rest of the subcontinent approximately around the 7th century. It is considered as having afforded an alternative individualistic path to spirituality and beyond the constraining ambit of gender or caste. Certain recent studies have questioned the rebellious readings made of the texts.

20 A blanket term that refers to disparate communities of temple dancers, ritual

priestesses, women who have historically been associated with temple service as employees, donors, patrons and so on.


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