15 June, 2005Issue 4.3Asia & AustraliaPolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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Legitimate Transgressions

Rahul Rao

Monica Narula et al, eds.
Sarai Reader 05: Bare Acts
The Sarai Programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Studies, 2005
592 pages
ISBN 819014295X

Navigating Sarai’s latest annual Reader, Bare Acts, is a bit like making my way through an anarchist festival: there is no one place to begin or pre-defined route to take, the constituent pieces interpret the central theme in such varied and original ways that I am almost immediately sceptical of their juxtaposition (how does this all hang together?), and the overall effect seems one of intelligent and exciting dissonance that takes more than a little while to sort through (fortunately, one has an entire year). Those of a left-libertarian persuasion will take the anarchist analogy as a compliment, but in common parlance the term has pejorative connotations: chaos, disorder, incoherence. The editors appear acutely aware of this possibility, clarifying that theirs is an eclecticism by design and defending it as a ‘commitment to a variegated and democratic universe of discourse production’, as a refusal to ‘make any one “voice” feel more entitled to expression than others’. Noble words that must be judged against the standard they set for themselves: that of making a ‘series of coherent but autonomous and interrelated arguments’, of making ‘different registers of writing, the academic, the literary, the journalistic, the autobiographical and the practice-based, speak to each other’.

The Reader brings together an assortment of voices to consider the fraught relationship between ‘Bare Acts’- the textual essence of legal codes, or the very letter of the law – and ‘bare acts’ – the range of acts of interpretation, negotiation, disputation and witnessing that reinforce or subvert the law. It is an ambitious attempt to map the relationship between words that seek to exert normative force (whether in the guise of formal legal codes or otherwise) and the worlds that they address. In a collage-like rendition, it off ers incisive accounts of this ceaseless, mutually constitutive dynamic in a staggering variety of contexts-urban studies, media, technology, environment, gender, migration, social movement politics, etc.

A recurring theme through which this dynamic is revealed is that of transgression. A number of pieces provide fascinating glimpses of the ways in which bare acts of transgression of existing Bare Acts, decisively reshape the relevant technological, commercial and/or normative contexts (sometimes necessitating a revision of the supposedly authoritative Bare Acts themselves). One sees this, for example, in the role that piracy plays, in creating new markets where none existed before (Lawrence Liang, ‘Porous Legalities and Avenues of Participation’), and in driving innovation to which ‘legitimate’ industry responds belatedly and grudgingly (Menso Heus, ‘Innovating Piracy’). The impact of transgression is also evident in the startling revelation that regularisation of violations of urban master plans typically constitutes the dominant way in which cities are built (Solomon Benjamin, ‘Touts, Pirates and Ghosts’). The idea that transgression creates ‘facts on the ground’ that alter the context in which regulation must operate, offers a descriptive, value-agnostic rationale for studying transgression.

But the editors are keen to highlight that there are strong normative reasons for the focus on transgression. Specifically, ‘the growing constriction of the domain of the doable by the letter of the law…leads to a situation where those committed to a modicum of social liberty, to expanding the territory of what may be creatively imagined and acted upon, have to invest in knowing and understanding an ethic of trespasses’. The Reader brings to light multiple contexts in which the constriction of the doable renders those already on the margins of society into trespassers on their own lands. I am drawn here to Anand Taneja’s account of the increasing limitation of avenues for non-elite entertainment – thanks to crackdowns on piracy and the growing stringency of safety regulations (which the more affordable cinema halls inevitably fall afoul of) – even as high-end shopping malls and multiplexes proliferate (‘Begum Samru and the Security Guard’). In a similar vein, Awadhendra Sharan describes how the middle-class environmentalism of India’s Supreme Court, with its particular conceptualisations of ‘nuisance’ and pollution, have often threatened the employment prospects of economically marginal groups (‘New’ Delhi). Under such circumstances trespass begins to look like an imperative of survival thrust upon subaltern groups.

But the Reader also offers multiple illustrations in which the directionality of this relationship appears to be reversed – where trespass is explicitly intended to expand the realm of the doable (or ‘be-able’). The use of civil disobedience in struggles for the expansion of rights is perhaps the most obvious illustration of this. In this context, Preeti Sampat and Nikhil Dey provide a highly instructive account (‘Bare Acts and Collective Explorations’) of the manner in which acts in explicit defiance of long-honoured caste norms-petitions for land allotment, forest festivals, rallies, labour fairs, sit-ins, hunger strikes – successfully create the political impetus for Right to Information legislation. I am struck not only by the constitutive role of bare acts in the writing of (new) Bare Acts, but also by the extent to which the bare acts of transgressing caste norms rely on legal rights ostensibly guaranteed by (existing) Bare Acts. One sees here, more clearly than anywhere else, the bi-directionality of the relationship that is at the core of this Reader. The overall message seems to be that some choose transgression as a means of expanding realms of liberty, while others have transgression thrust upon them as a result of the constriction of their agency. In the latter situation, if it is the case-as Benjamin points out-that subaltern transgression relies for its success on ‘quiet politics’, I wonder about the ethics of analysing and publicising mechanisms of subaltern agency. Once subaltern agency is rendered visible in the manner accomplished by many of the contributions to the Reader, it is no longer ‘quiet’. Does making subaltern transgression explicit simultaneously strip it of its most powerful weapon? Whom does such knowledge benefit?

I also wonder at the very occasional lapse into unthinking relativism, in which there is a reluctance to judge the legitimacy of particular transgressions from any vantage point whatsoever. In this context one looks in vain for any acknowledgement, from Zainab Bawa, of the serious (class-neutral) implications for road safety, of her driving instructor’s ability to obtain licences for clients without the slightest demonstration of their competence (‘My Driving Master’).

One strength of the Reader is that despite its central preoccupation with the promulgation of legal norms and their social reception, it is ‘interested in looking not only at what happens in law courts but also at customs, conventions, formal and quasi-formal “ways of doing things” that are pertinent to communities’ and more specifically at the ‘relationships of conflict, coexistence and accommodations between different kinds of codes that make claims to our idea of what is right, or just’. 1 is interest in a broad range of normative codes focuses attention on the crucial issue of the limits of the law: what sorts of considerations are and/or ought to be part of the judicial process? In this context, Clifton D’ Rozario brings to our attention the Supreme Court’s deafness to the normative claims of adivasis (forest dwellers) fighting against their displacement from the Narmada Valley on the basis of their traditional customary and modern citizenship rights (‘Bolti Band (SILENCED!)’). (He might also have mentioned the Court’s ready acceptance of the state’s arguments regarding the financial implications of halting dam construction-itself surely an extra-legal consideration.) Attention to the relationship between different kinds of codes also enables Aarti Sethi to reinterpret the notorious Nanavati trial and its convoluted political afterlife through the prism of an honour killing: from this rather intriguing perspective, Presidential Pardon becomes an act of state intended to allow compliance with a state-sanctioned honour code that contradicts the state’s avowed commitment to punishing murder.

Finally, the Reader brings together between its covers a mind-boggling melange of rhetorical and argumentative devices-the printed word is supplemented with photographs, sketches, cartoons and even a tantalising discussion on the use of videologs in documenting the production of ‘trans-localities’ through the daily migrations of people in the border zones between Spain and Morocco (Ursula Biemann, ‘On Smugglers, Pirates and Aroma Makers’). Occasionally, a single piece does so many things as to defy categorisation-Kai Friese’s ‘Marginalia’ is a case in point. Part travelogue, part autobiography, part activist intervention, this is a delightful and depressing meditation on identity, nationality and the consequences of border transgression in both a literal and metaphorical sense. While marginalia can sometimes detract from the value of a book, Friese’s piece is a jewel.

Like visitors to an anarchist love-in, no two readers will navigate this volume in quite the same way. Indeed, the editors’ classification of contributions is likely to appear rather arbitrary, given the potentially fruitful connections begging to be made across sections. In this sense – more than with most texts – the relationship between readers and this Reader might also be seen as mutually constitutive.

Rahul Rao is a DPhil student in International Relations at Balliol College, Oxford. His research interests encompass normative theory and postcolonial politics, and he is currently writing about the international relations of postcolonial social movements. He lives in Bangalore and Oxford.