Ethical Self and Anthropological Challenges

Muhammed Shah | April 9th, 2018 | Hyderabad

Saba Mahmood at The University of Florida’s Center for Global Islamic Studies

The death of two important personalities, Saba Mahmood and Rohith Vemula, in a span of two years, has brought out the most pressing question of ‘self’, in action — or actionable self.

Currently, as the academia is undergoing a tremendous overhaul, one needs to encapsulate these questions of self to build a future framework in the academic paradigm.

Saba Mahmood, whose work focused on the intersection of Islam and feminist theory died on March 10. In her works, she constantly addressed one of the major concerns regarding the privilege and positionality of academicians.

Saba has been often marked as an important figure in contemporary anthropology to think about ethics and every day in Muslim lives. Her work on piety movements made a tremendous influence on the anthropological assumptions of religion and politics. She used to lament on the pre-given notions of anthropology in studying certain communities and call upon us to reposition our own selves in relation to our understanding of such communities.

This ‘speaking to the self’ pushed them out to the street

This ‘ethical turn’, if one can call it so, has in fact posed some challenging questions to the prevailing anthropological practices as well. In that sense, it has larger implications as far as the academia, in general, is concerned. However, Saba’s concerns have been reflected upon by a recent students’ uprising in India which was invigorated by the sacrificial death of Rohith Vemula.

Rohith Vemula, through his writings and activism, reiterated Saba’s anxieties that contemporary academia by and large has been configured around certain pre-given categories of knowledge. This anxiety is legitimized by the fact that ‘self’ is always distanced from the knowledge that it acquires. That is, the object of knowledge was always subordinated to the ‘knowing’ subject. This relation was coordinated around certain norms dominant in academia which was challenged by the emergence of piety movements into the scene.

Saba, in the light of her studies of Egyptian piety movements, has been highly concerned about the question of positionality, therefore. Thus ‘knowing’ subject/positionality came under the critical gaze as far as anthropology is particularly concerned.

Rohith Vemula, HCU

Rohith made the similar impact on Indian academia as well. The movement that he set in motion after his death, was deeply troubling to the conscience of the upper caste dominating academic domain in India.

This trouble particularly put the question of positionality at stake. The dominance of ‘knowing’ subject has been challenged. The subsequent events invoked and questioned the privilege of ‘knowing’ subject. Thus the invisible power embodied in the subjects were unveiled.

One of the major social factors which constitute the power of ‘knowing’ subject is undoubtedly caste. An object of knowledge, (lower) caste always has been subordinated to the power of ‘knowing’ subject (which is supposedly casteless). But Rohith brought back the question of power to the shadow of ‘knowing’ subject.

Remember the many guilt narratives from the academia in the wake of his death and the louder and wider appraisal of his legendary final letter across the universities of the world. This, in fact, points at the destabilization of the power of ‘knowing’ subject.

Putting the ‘self’ at center, Rohith troubled the centrality of the power and other in the discourse of politics. To put it in another way, Rohith challenged the conventional notion of political and reoriented the gaze to the very self itself. In his final letter wherein he claimed that no-one else is responsible for his death, he erased all the possible marks of enmity and antagonistic other from his narrative and reinstated the ethical self that he has been confronting in himself for the past few days before his death.

This confrontation with his own ‘self’, has been modeled and followed by a larger academic community. Thus, everyone started to speak to himself/herself. This ‘speaking to the self’ pushed them out to the street. The ‘self’ has come to the center in order to push itself to the periphery. Which is to say, the ‘self’ thus places itself to the center in introspection and becomes pushed away to the periphery as an ethical sequel.

This double spatial movement of the ‘self’ has exactly been reflected in his letter wherein he articulated his constant exchanges with his own ‘self’ by not being obsessed with an antagonistic other. In that sense, in an anti-Laclauian way, he realized the objectivity of himself, maybe only in death, but, in the moments proximate to the death, to say in other words, in the anticipation of death.

The anticipation of death is what constitutes the existential time of the life. That is, ‘to be in the world’ in the anticipation of the death. Death renders the ‘being’ complete. While the life in political remains incomplete, the life in the anticipation of death becomes complete. If we mean death as negation, we could conclude that the ‘negation’ makes the ‘being’ complete. Negation is the ultimate form of completion.

Rohith negated himself, as an ethical act, by manifesting the completeness of the being. The ‘being’ becomes complete only outside the relation of the self-other which never allows the objectivity of the self to be accomplished. ‘To be completely in the world’ by the permanent negation of the self-other relation which is political. Rohit has gone beyond the political.

Or perhaps,

Rohit Vemula has gone beyond the political, as he has really gone ‘forever’.