Is anyone listening?

ANTHROPOLOGY / A study revealing that systematic torture is part of contemporary democracies

Slum Acts
Author: Veena Das
Publisher: Wiley, USA

Slum Acts is an outstanding book that is also highly illuminating and unpleasant to read. Veena Das, a research professor at the Johns Hopkins University, an award-winning anthropologist, and a long-time researcher of extreme violence, has focused on the urban slums of contemporary India this time. Celebrated as «one of anthropology’s most distinguished ethnographers», Professor Das meticulously presented her explorations, leading to conclusions that seriously differ from common beliefs. Extreme violence is not an exception but a rule, not an interruption of life but a part of it. It is not a totalitarian excess.

On the contrary, Das has convincingly demonstrated that it is tightly interwoven into contemporary regimes of democratic governments. Torture, as the most abhorrent form of extreme violence, is all but the very last resort in preventing extreme events from taking place, as its advocates would like to believe. The police commonly use it to extort confessions for the events such as terrorist attacks that already took place. And these confessions are false most of the time, as their main scope is to satisfy the public demand that police do their job and find those responsible.

All you know is wrong

The consequences of this insight are immense, as it shows that practically everything we knew was wrong. The political philosophers of the previous Century claimed that contemporary mechanisms of power are becoming ever more distant from immediate physical violence, relying instead on sophisticated «dispositives of power» (Foucault), and that the state apparatus is replacing physical violence as the means of domination with ideology (Althusser). So strong was the belief in this progressive distancing from the violence that Western social sciences and humanities developed their notions of human nature, agency, and subjectivity in direct relation to the outbreaks of extreme violence—the event of murders with no apparent motives during the 19. Century incited the development of psychoanalysis (as recently represented in the TV series The Alienist, 2018-2020), the atrocities of WW1 inspired the work of Baudelaire and Lacan’s theory of subjectivity, while the WW2 and Holocaust prompted Hannah Arendt to define «the banality of evil.» The regular use of extreme violence outside Europe, often by Europeans themselves, such as the genocide of black Africans during the slave trade and of American Indians during the colonization of the Americas, have been excluded from this reasoning, and Das is well aware. She has identified a similar bias in contemporary discourse on violence and the distinction between «civilized violence of state-initiated wars and barbaric violence attributed to others, whether colonial subjects or Islamic fighters…» (p. 9). The notion of «the banality of evil» permitted the scale of killing in genocide to be attributed to the machinery of totalitarian regimes – but democracies have devised their own machineries to tolerate the fact that torture routinely occurs within the legal apparatus itself, writes Das (p. 113). Could the absurd distinction between so-called civilized and barbaric violence be part of the answer to her question, «why are we less haunted by the apparatus of a democracy that carries on systematic torture than the apparatus of the totalitarian state» (ibid.)?

Inordinate Knowledge

The truly fascinating aspect of Slum Acts is that Das is in no hurry to provide answers or draw conclusions. It is well known that she is «passionately interested in the question of how ethnography generates concepts», and in this book, too, she established a rare balance between empirical and conceptual. Acknowledging the particular importance of knowledge in her field of research (for several reasons, starting with the fact that Western democracies developed the techniques of «clean» torture that leaves no visible wounds on the body), she wrote a book that is equally important as an ethnographic study and as an epistemological guide on studying violence in the contemporary world. She presented a plentitude of empirical material and voices that would otherwise never be heard. But she also ensured a conceptual rigour that warrants the credibility of her findings and creates possibilities for new ones. Her central concept is the «inordinate knowledge», defined by Stanley Cavell as «dangerous not because it is hidden but because we don’t dare to acknowledge it» (p. 35). Das carefully presented her approaches to collecting this knowledge, starting with the question of «how catastrophic events produce forms of knowledge that might circulate in the slums but are usually handled with euphemisms, evasions, and even silence.»

Indira Ghandi

Innocent Victims

As an anthropologist of extreme violence, Professor Das is known for examining case studies such as the Partition of India in 1947 and the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 after the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In Slum Acts, she investigated more recent events. In the first place, the bomb blasts that took place in Mumbai in 1993, 2003, 2006, 2008, and 2011. She focused on the stories which «remained understated», stories of the minor characters who faced charges of being accomplices in the terror attacks (p. 37). They might have been involved in a plethora of small acts of cheating and smuggling, writes Das, but regarding the bomb attacks, they were innocent. One of them, Wahid Shaikh, was arrested in the case of the train bomb blast in 2006 and spent nine years in prison but was eventually acquitted of all charges. A victim of torture, he started writing a book while in prison. The Innocent Prisoner (Begunah Qaidi, 2017), memories of a torture survivor, is «written as a pedagogy of the oppressed», «a manual for how to behave under torture», and, according to Das, demonstrates the importance of vernacular literature for informing social theory (p. 30). Another victim whose case is thoroughly analyzed in this book is an anonymous girl who, as an eight years old living in one of the shanty settlements around Delhi, was abducted, forcibly restrained, tortured, and raped till she was rescued four months later.

Among her written sources are also documents about the USA, showing that «torture has been regularly used in disproportionate numbers” against African Americans to obtain «confessions known to be false but used to legitimize torture by claiming that its techniques yield success» (p. 145). Andrew Wilson, one of the victims, was arrested in 1982, long before the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, which, according to general belief, was the cause for the introduction of torture.

This book, relevant way beyond its main research field, is an essential reading for all who want to know better the contemporary world.

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Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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