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The ABVP Isn't Fighting A War 'Of' Ideas But A War 'Against' Ideas

"Thou shalt not interpret” is the subtext of their battle cry…

02/03/2017 12:28 PM IST | Updated 02/03/2017 1:26 PM IST
Adnan Abidi / Reuters

In her 1966 book Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag, the Jewish-American writer and filmmaker, proposed the need for rescuing the work of art or text from a zealous excess of interpretation. According to Sontag, instead of appreciating "the thing" that a text already is and the meaning that is right there on the surface, readers and critics are often busy squeezing "maximum meaning" out of the work, trying to understand what its components stand for and determining the range of meanings, allegories and metaphors that it could possibly support. Sontag declares this project "the revenge of intellect upon the world" and recommends "an erotics of art" instead of "a hermeneutics of art"—that will make us "see more...hear more...feel more."

"To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of 'meanings'...The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have."

What is fascinating here is Sontag's declaration that there is indeed a stable meaning associated with a text and her conviction that this meaning is accessible to the reader without the mental gymnastics of deconstructing metaphors, contradictions and allegories. This conviction also anticipates a possible answer to the question asked by a poster seen during the protest march in Delhi University on 28 February: "ABVP ko gussa kyun aata hai (Why is the ABVP so angry)?" Only a week ago, members of the RSS-affiliated student organisation had disrupted an ongoing seminar at Ramjas College, allegedly thrown bricks at the audience, and assaulted the students and teachers participating in a protest march the following day.

The ABVP's anger can be understood as a direct injunction against interpretation, and especially the interpretation of the text that is (Indian) nationalism.

The ABVP's anger can be understood as a direct injunction against interpretation, and especially the interpretation of the text that is (Indian) nationalism. The ABVP is precisely against the mental gymnastics that probes too much and leaves the text, in Sontag's terminology, "impoverished" and vulnerable to a plurality of meanings. "Thou shalt not interpret" is the subtext of their battle cry, "Thou shalt not talk about Azadi, Kashmir or Bastar." For if one started dissecting and interpreting the idea of nationalism, what will be rendered vulnerable to questioning is the ceaseless repetition of practices, metaphors and rituals that support this nationalism (such as the national flag, Independence Day celebrations, official cartography etc.). The questioning and critique of such practices can easily reveal the emptiness pretending to be the solid reality of a stable nation that has always existed and will always exist in the present shape.

The ABVP's anger is a revulsion at the possibility of encountering that gap, that emptiness that takes away any solid foundation for thought and action. It is the fear of the fundamentalist who dreads the lightness of being and fuzziness of ideas in life and craves a solidity supplied by a chosen set of fundamental principles (for example, nationalism or religion). It is also, as Terry Eagleton points out in his book After Theory, the aggression of the individual springing from his death drive (that universal Freudian drive that yearns for a return to an inanimate state of zero animation and conflict, achievable only in death). Death or non-being, after all, is the final instance of the emptiness of content. It cannot be (mis)interpreted because it has no content; it is absolute purity, absolute transparency of meaning. For an individual who detests the fuzziness in the thinking of "postmodernist, forever -chattering Left-leaning" academia, fundamentalism and non-being that stop interpretation dead in its track constitute the only satisfying release.

[V]iolence... provides a relief from the amorphous fuzziness of ideas and interpretation.

The materiality and solidity of the human body, of course, is a reminder and a site for this death drive, the desire for non-being that will stop the exercise of interpretation. The body is the solidity that connects the concreteness and finality of death and desperate attempts to recreate that solidity in life by serving one's fundamental principles in life. The worship of select fundamental principles by the ABVP, therefore, naturally translates into violence upon and by human bodies whenever these principles are questioned. For violence, again, provides a relief from the amorphous fuzziness of ideas and interpretation. Hence the disproportionate violence and vitriol that the ABVP spills every time someone tries to organise a seminar or movie screening that makes the saffron student organisation uncomfortable. Hence the threat of rape and violence unleashed upon the likes of Gurmehar Kaur when they try to question the idea of war-mongering and violent nationalism.

Before Professor Prasanta Chakravarty from the Department of English, DU, was assaulted by members of the ABVP and/or other factions during a protest against the culture of violence in the university, he had promised a small group of his MA students that he would help them organise a seminar on "The Idea of the University." The seminar aimed to investigate the multiplicity and tensions inherent in the idea of the university. It would have invited papers examining the raison d'être of the university—whether it was teaching or research, whether it was ensuring change or stability, and whether the university was a site for critiquing or serving the goals of the community, culture and economy it is dependent on. As the need for such a seminar becomes more urgent, the possibility of its materialising seems increasingly distant.

If the ABVP is disgusted by ideas and interpretations in universities and responds to them with violence, the very idea of the university is set to undergo a change.

If the ABVP is disgusted by ideas and interpretations in universities and responds to them with violence, the very idea of the university is set to undergo a change. Here are a few lines that sum up one set of feelings about this change.

This is Delhi University;

University,

its origin universitas: a whole, totality

that leaves nothing out of its purview

questioning, critiquing, whatever is through and through.

But today you tell me that your nation

is bigger, after all, than any question

that the university might ask,

So I return to the Faculty of Arts and bask

in this cool air before it becomes poison

and I scream before speech becomes silence and thought sedition,

and I walk down Chhatra Marg

and I caress a dream of dissent

before you murder that dream in

cold blood and Creon's* irritation,

forbidding the burial and mourning for its passion.

*In Sophocles' play Antigone, King Creon of Thebes, demonstrating his fundamentalist devotion to the Law of his state, forbids his niece Antigone from burying her brother Polyneices because the latter had waged war on Thebes.

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