Darshana Mitra | Post-Seminar Book Review

By Darshana Mitra

Destitution to me involves the gradual but interminable withdrawal of the self from institutions of the State, and ungovernability is the refusal to let institutions determine and shape the forms of life. That we discuss and dismiss these ideas in the most governable of spaces- the University- surely limits the extent to which we can engage with the Invisible Committee’s ideas. Therefore, I will try my best to present my thoughts in no cohesive structure, but in a series of confused responses to the Committee.


Memory and Destitution

 “Leftists who think they can make something happen by lifting the lever of bad conscience are sadly mistaken. They can go and scratch their scabs in public and air their grievances hoping to arouse sympathy as much as they like; they’ll only give rise to contempt and the desire to destroy them. “Victim” has become an insult in every part of the world.”

Scabs cover wounds. Wounds exist whether we scratch our scabs or not. And some wounds don’t just leave behind scabs- they leave stumps and phantom pains. But the Invisible Committee would rather we hide our scabs away. Their diatribe against victimhood, read with their constant exhortation to act in the NOW, suggests the manner of a college bro’s fumbling attempts at seduction. Why don’t you live in the present, what are you guarding your body against? As if my fear and trauma mean nothing, and in holding my body out against him, I was resisting liberation itself. The Invisible Committee’s rejection of history bothers me less than its rejection of memory. They seem to be hovering on the edge of telling me that the only way to recover from trauma is to reject it, and who wants to be a victim anyway?

Well, for one, I would rather be a victim than a survivor. The term survivor implies a lifetime spent in slow and deliberate actions that help me survive something that was done to me. I find the idea tiresome. The idea of a victim implies that something happened to me- that the world has marked me, and that my scarred body moves through the world. There is something persistently masculine in refusing to acknowledge that your body is marked and changed by the world around you. There is a particular liberation in riots for the man of privilege, who, not being marked by violence elsewhere, desperately seeks out riots to get battle scars.

Let me offer you an alternative. Over the last four weeks, my social media has been exploding with accounts of sexual violence from India. Prompted by the publication of a list of sexual harassers in academia, and galvanized by accusations of sexual harassment made by a Bollywood actress, no one has been spared by the #MeToo movement in India. Editors of leading newspapers, musicians, actors, activists, stand-up comedians, writers, academics have been named. These accounts are not always aimed at seeking institutional responses. And many of us have been accused of scratching our scabs in public, in seeking sympathy. However, these accounts are not always aimed at seeking institutional responses. Sometimes, they are about scorching the reputation of men and everything else that comes into contact with them. To borrow McKenzie Wark’s provocation- this is what a femme riot would look like. It is a violent disruption of peace? Friendships and solidarities are being produced and affirmed online and offline,  as people who have never met each other are sharing and amplifying each other’s voices, flooding perpetrators’ profiles with accusations and forming human chains as they batter down institutions. The men are describing this as lynchings and demanding that due process be followed. Is this a riot?

The Invisible Committee would see this as a scratching of scabs, and overlook the act of destitution that lies in denouncement itself. In doing so, they would ignore the gleeful abandon with which we are sharing notes, anecdotes, and hilarious memes of masculinity in a box marked fragile. In the face of defamation lawsuits, loss of jobs, and years of trauma, we are choosing to use memory and speech to destroy institutions of impunity. Speaking is in itself an act of violence, insofar as it shatters cultures of silence, and the reputations of men who make institutions. This is a riot that uses memory as a battering ram.

This is also what it might mean to be ungovernable- to refuse to submit to institutional mechanisms, and to destitute the elaborate processes put in place to neutralise our anger. Surely the idea of destitution precedes the Invisible Committee, and our imagination is not bound by their schoolboyish examples of rioting. However, neither are we obligated to trim their idea into an idea of being ungovernable as performance- that knowing that the state will constantly govern us, we are obligated to act like children do, acting against authority even as we know that the fatherland will switch off the lights at bedtime. Unless the children take over the household- ungovernability must mean something more than a mere act of resistance to governance. To echo John’s comments during the seminar- what are the practices that constituent destitution? What do we do to destitute?


Forms of Destituent Action

“To destitute is not primarily to attack the institution, but to attack the need of it. It’s not to criticize it—the first critics of the state are the civil servants themselves; as to the militant, the more they criticize power the more they desire it and the more they refuse to acknowledge their desire—but to take to heart what the institution is meant to do, from outside it.”

I think that both the Invisible Committee and its critics suffer from the fetishizing of size and scale of action. The Invisible Committee uses post-apocalyptic aesthetics to imagine destitution, and we respond to those visuals. The Invisible Committee’s own examples, be that of May ’68 or the Occupy Movement, seem to almost fetishize the violence and scale of riots that attract the entire law and order machinery of the state, and inspire a greater desire to destroy and suppress than any scratching of scabs ever did. Criticism picks up (rightly so) on these visuals, and accuses them of being boyish dreams of glory. Let us then take the Invisible Committee’s visualisation of destitution, and strip it of its aesthetics, of its masculinity, and see if anything is left behind.

The Invisible Committee is not merely saying “smash the state”- it is asking, “what need do we have of the state, and how can we fulfill those needs ourselves?” It is unfortunate if we take the endless list of provocations that constitute the text of Now, and allow ourselves to be provoked out of imagination. In the alternative, I would like to retreat to only other visual available- that of Jackie Wang’s imagination of the commune. The commune is not only a physical space, but also a set of practices, and perhaps, most importantly, a set of friendships. As John said during the seminar- if friendship was a relation that everyone had with one another, then you would not need justice. The feminist commune takes the scorched earth visuals of destitution, and replaces them with herbs in the windowsills and fruit trees in the yard. They replace the apparently spontaneous (and often combustible) friendships that emerge in a riot with the slow-burn of friendships created over shared lives. The Invisible Committee often resorts to spectacle and fireworks to make a point, and the only appropriate reaction to it, instead of the same self-seriousness with which it takes itself, is laughter, the great destituent force. After all, what else are men more afraid of than to be ignored, laughed at and ridiculed, and for the rest of us to withdraw to our worlds without them? Jackie Wang’s commune destitutes the very idea of destitution as proposed by the Invisible Committee, and leaves them standing outside.


Self and Love/Self-love

“Love does not bring individuals into relation, it cuts through them as if they were suddenly on a special plane where they were making their way together amid a certain foliation of the world. To love is never to be together but to become together. If loving did not undo the fictitious unity of being, the “other” would not be capable of making us suffer to such a degree. If, in love, a piece of the other did not end up being a part of us, we wouldn’t have to mourn it when separation time rolled around.” 

When I read the Invisible Committee’s description of love as a becoming of one, I was provoked to think of my practice as a lawyer representing survivors of domestic violence. Perpetrators often claim that their violence hurts them more than it hurts the victim herself. “Look at what you made me do” they say. “This hurts me more than it hurts you” say abusive parents. Children and partners in these situations want nothing more than to reclaim their sense of self, and to be able to extricate themselves from these relations of love. When partners emerge from abusive relations, they speak of having found a sense of self. I want to echo Emmanuelle Saada’s question- what if I don’t want to love? What if I want to guard my fragile sense of self, the fictitious unity of my being, against assimilation? There is a tyranny in demanding that in experiencing love you must surrender your sense of self, which anyone that has ever been in an abusive relationship is familiar with. The Invisible Committee offer yet another contradiction by invoking Heiner Muller’ description of communism as “the abandonment of man to his own solitude”. I would prefer this formulation, as it brings me back to the idea of love in a commune, on the other hand, which allows room for solitude and for company.