Vivek Bhandari (Hampshire College)

In Search of Sovereign Selves

 

I have been teaching at Hampshire College, a liberal arts college in the US, for the past eight years. It is a place where issues surrounding activism and political engagement are taken quite seriously, both in and outside the classroom. Over the past few years, I have increasingly come to feel that discussions about the nature and scope of activism are intimately tied to the idea of sovereignty, a concept that opens-up rich discussions on the location and nature of power.  This realization has been stimulated partly in response to the ways in which people have been debating issues surrounding what, rather euphemistically, gets called “globalization.”  There are numerous reasons for this, but the most obvious is that the idea of the nation-state, and indeed, statist forms of authority in general, are being challenged with growing levels of stridency.  People are raising numerous doubts about the degree to which “sovereign nations,” as territorially-bounded and ideologically stable entities that supposedly protect the rights and liberties of individuals are truly capable of fulfilling their promises, or legitimate in their use of power.  As the world struggles with the vagaries of transnational capital and cultural flows, people are questioning whether nation-states have the right to exercise sovereign power over their citizenry—as legal experts argue—or whether individuals possess sovereign autonomy over and above the state’s claims.

 

Such interrogations are important for activists who, by their very nature, are the kinds of people who seek to change the way their world is ordered.  Activists are regularly confronted with questions that pertain to where power is located within the institutional arrangements that they inhabit.  It seems self-evident that in any activist’s mind, a theoretical understanding of the world’s disciplinary regimes (such as nation-states, corporations, even NGOs), which variously employ statist, capitalist, or communitarian institutional arrangements, usually precedes the acts of political engagement.  (Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, articulated such an understanding in his text Hind Swaraj, one of the most powerful assertions of autonomous sovereignty.)  At their most fundamental level, acts of agency in support of, or against these arrangements, are built on claims of personal sovereignty.  This is because activists are political agents who question the existing configurations of authority by claiming a certain degree of autonomy (and by definition, therefore, undermining existing claims to sovereign power).  As agents of structural change, they chip-away at the authoritative (hence sovereign) pretensions of statist or corporate power by asserting their own sovereign autonomy. 

 

For these reasons, understanding activism in terms of competing notions of sovereignty seems particularly appropriate in our “globalizing” world because in many ways, what we have been witnessing in recent years is the dispersal of sovereign power through the networks being created by what the philosophers Antonio Negri and Tony Hardt evocatively describe as the “multitude.”  This unstable “multitude,” people of the world who are increasingly networked, restless, cacophonous, and as such have the potential to overthrow imperial and hyperdisciplinary regimes, have succeeded in de-centering sovereignty, dispersing power, and potentially, unleashing regenerative forces on an extraordinary scale.  These dispersed forms of sovereignty are, at their core, emancipatory and regenerative.

 

As someone on the verge of returning to India after fifteen years in the US, I have struggled with my professional location, my cultural values, and the ways in which I connect with people around me in different parts of the world.  In many ways, the act of leaving India years ago opened me up to these questions in ways that may not have happened had I stayed-on.  Because I cannot, in complete honesty, claim to belong to “India” or the “US,” I am very self-conscious about the specificity of the professional norms and practices that set the parameters of my life, or the contingent nature of the cultural values I practice in different locations.  In the US, I work at Hampshire College, which makes no bones about its location within the institutional culture of American higher education, an ivory tower establishment if ever there was one.  This has been an enduring concern for me, because even as I applaud Hampshire’s pedagogy, I struggle with many of its norms and practices (such as the need to work towards a big endowment, something it needs to fulfill its aspirations.).  Even though I have no illusions that the mainstream India I am returning to is attempting to emulate the world that I am leaving, I am heading back with a deep appreciation of the need to seek alternative sovereignties, communities and networks that have not yet been cowed down by hyper-modern forms of disciplining.  I know such communities exist in large numbers.  As an aspiring activist, I have an enduring respect for the power of such sovereign groups and spaces — of the kind that shape the creative impulses of the “multitude.”  This appreciation has become an integral part of the issues I raise in the classroom at Hampshire. Over the years, I have come to use my courses as invitations to a friendly dialogue in which we address, with as much a sense of urgency as can be mustered, the demands of the political present by experimenting with alternatives and/or modifications to the political arrangements currently available to us. 

 

For reasons outlined above, I often find it useful to distinguish between two, radically different kinds of assertions of sovereignty among activists.  One, fairly mainstream type of activism tries to challenge existing forms of authority by subverting it’s logic internally (by proposing, for instance, the replacement of capitalism with socialism, or authoritarianism with democracy). In this kind of thinking, activists seek to subvert and modify the locus of power, but not the systemic, or structural logic of the institutional apparatus in question.  They claim sovereignty, yes, but not, in my opinion, of an enduring variety, since their assertions are premised on the notion that a redistribution of power within the existing worldview (statist, corporate, and so on) is adequate.  A second, more diffused group of activists attempts to undermine power with a spirit of humility, by interrogating the fundamentals of the structural logic at the heart of the disciplinary arrangements they inhabit, with a clear awareness that they do not have a monopolistic understanding of how the world functions, or ought to.  Experimental in spirit, this second kind of activism is fundamentally regenerative, allowing each individual to claim sovereign power over his or her thoughts and actions.  This form of engagement stems from a deep appreciation of human creativity, and a courageous recognition of the need to resist totalizing, “one-size-fits-all” forms of power (of the kind we associate with governmental power and consumer culture in contemporary society).   Even though this second kind of activism may seem less “revolutionary” or dramatic, it is more effective at revealing the ways in which people, including the activists themselves, have been inscribed with power, how they have been conditioned to think and behave, indeed to live their lives.  Such activists don’t lack a “program” or agenda, as some critics argue; they simply view their program as a work-in-progress, whose goals are contingent, and indeed, grounded.  To my mind, this kind of thinking is conducive to a richer and more meaningful activism because it is based on a deeper understanding of where and how power operates, and an imaginative appreciation of the need to think outside the box.

 

Examples of the second kind of activism, of the kind that I would describe as truly sovereign, are to be found in everyday life, in the subtle ways in which people create meaning for themselves outside of the gaze of hegemonic structures and ways of thinking.  As a faculty member, my classroom experiences have been most meaningful when my students and I have been able to move, autonomously, beyond the conventions and power relationships fostered by a “typical” classroom.  This is a small thing, but within the classroom, I have found that rules about who gets to speak, when, where, and so on should be determined collaboratively by individual members of a learning community.  Over time, these interactions have been enormously liberating for me personally.  More fulfilling for me, however, has been watching my co-learners make choices about their future that are clearly based on their deep understanding of how power works, and how they must militantly protect their humanity from its predatory nature.

 

We live in an interesting world, in which the terms “liberalism,” “globalization,” “capitalism,” and “imperialism” are increasingly coming to be used interchangeably.  At times confusing, this muddle has also clarified the degree to which the conceptual vocabularies normatively employed in the academy are profoundly limited.  Conversations about such matters open windows into explorations of new alternatives to these sometimes stifling ways of thinking, and I believe, leave an indelible imprint on the imagination of all those who participate in them.  As a participant in the classroom, I have tried hard to raise questions, and as Rainer Maria Rilke put it, to “live the questions,” not to seek easy answers.  In this, I remain hopeful that the young men and women passing through Hampshire engage with the world with a spirit of humility, and a sense of political responsibility.

 

I have recently finished teaching a course entitled “Locating Resistance in a Globalizing World.”  The questions that we address in the course are:

 

·  What does it mean to be political?  How is power dispersed in society, and in what ways is it embedded in economic relations, culture, and the institutional apparatus of modern governance?  In what ways do institutions of the state and corporate capital limit the political choices available to individuals today?  How does a critical assessment of the conceptual vocabulary associated with modern societies (citizenship, civil society, the “free” market, liberal democracy, the nuclear family, etc) help us to understand the tensions that trigger acts of resistance?  To what extent is our very language, the words and registers we use to construct meaning, a hindrance in our ability to imagine emancipated futures? What, in other words, is the location of power—and how do we subvert it without unleashing new tyrannies?

 

· Are non-violent forms of resistance effective in an age in which people have acquired a morbid taste for the surgical cleanliness of electronic warfare?  If not non-violent, then what form should resistance take?  If violence begets violence — as has been the case for most of human history — does non-violence beget understanding?

 

· How have the forces associated with “globalization” altered the shape of modern societies?  In an age in which the stridency of technological determinism (in fields like biotechnology, information technology, etc.) has reached unprecedented levels, what is the place of humanistic values and sensibilities?

 

· What, fundamentally, are the political choices available to individuals today?

 

* * * *

 

Partly in response to these questions, one of my students, Siena Mayers, composed something that, with her permission, I would like to share.  She wrote it at the end of the semester, and it articulates not just a cluster of ideas, but a deeply humanistic sensibility and optimism that I find inspiring.

 

 

rough draft of a never-ending process1  

 

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” 2

 

so let us Begin: 

 

to disbelieve in any system claiming to have a “monopoly on the truth”3 

to make Noise     and to listen

to Eat great food  – but not too much

to Work    but not too much 

to make Art without limit

to have a place to Sleep    and someone to keep us warm

to be Untiringly Human 

 

we refuse to be embarrassed about hope or to have dreams about checking our email

we refuse to continue to see the world in the black and white stark contrasts of Manichean design

we refuse to confuse Education with Capital, in which:

Chemistry is for Hotdogs

History is for War

Writing is for Contracts

Language is for Free Trade

Physics is for Bombs

Math is for Surveillance

 

we want to be free from the weapons of sugar and fat that they load into our food to make us too groggy to notice the newspaper

when we go to the doctor we want to be free from the paper-work that entangles us in the dirty details of bills and suing

we want to go to Farmers Market and know that they do not have to throw away their greens at the end of the day

 

we will resist        

then build                

                                                a not TOO perfect utopia

 

a space to share with others and a space to go back to on our own,     

to think thoughts that no one else has put in our heads

constructively changing together

daring to use imagination to invent alternative rationalities (instead of just buying them at the mall) 

to agree to disagree, to share an understanding to be misunderstood

 

that we may drive out guilt and replace it with social responsibility 4

that we may experience all there is to experience

that we may triumph over the doubts that cause us to not share a piece of chocolate with someone else

that we may know what it is to have children because we are not afraid to burden them with our mistakes

that we may enjoy a January thaw but not forget its disturbing implications

that we may experience what it is to be in control and outside of control

that we laugh        

            and laugh at ourselves

that we will go outside not just to talk on our cell phones

that we may make bread and eat art together

that we may absorb something other than ourselves

that we may have someone to protect us

                                                from those who are trying to protect us5 

that we may not have followers

                                           for everyone needs to write their own manifesto 

 

we will do this through militant humanism

by looking at how power operates and functions

we will break down the facade of an all-encompassing “ism”6

government is only able to operate as long as we continue to consent to be governed

by recognizing the emperor is wearing an invisibly sweat-shopped suit   

we will find the state merely “an abstract concept, one that we cannot shake hands with”7 

 

by using humor and the politics of listening                                                         

            caminamos preguntando8                                                                                    we will walk while questioning

 

Endnotes

1. This piece which resembles a manifesto however incomplete, was not written so much as a call to action as a reflection on new thoughts and ways of thinking that I encountered during a class I took with Vivek Bhandari in January 2006.  Inspired by readings and class discussions about resistance and social change, I felt compelled to set out in my own words, in simple language, what my own political vision was, what I was fighting for and against, what is important to me?  What kind of world would I like to see?  May it inspire my reader to ammend, elaborate, collaborate, and/or write their own!    

2. Martin Luther King Jr.

3. Mahatma Gandhi

4. Jessica Benjamin from “Terror and Guilt Beyond Them and Us”

5. A quotation from Banksy, an underground street artist from the UK who challenges the ever-increasing boundaries of privatized spaces.  http://www.banksy.co.uk/

6. A reference to an in-class comment made by Vivek Bhandari

7. A reference to an in-class comment made by Vivek Bhandari

8.  A Zapatista saying, which means “walk forward, but while questioning.”