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Panopticon: A Trojan Horse from Civil Society

June 27, 2011 9 comments

“People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” Michel Foucault.

Jeremy Bentham conceived of the panopticon as an efficient prison wherein a few jailors would be able to watch over, control, and mold a large number of prisoners at minimal cost. It was a highly successful institutional model that has been copied over into such things as schools, hospitals, military barracks and prisons. It’s chief virtue is an omnipresent, and a somewhat omniscient, overlord – the jailor.  But if it were just that, then Anna Hazare’s project to build a panopticon around the higher levels of our civil service and politicians would not be half as bizarre as it is. For who are members of the panopticons in institutions such as schools, hospitals, military barracks and prisons?  These are people who are there to be taught, trained, cured, molded or disciplined. They are in some way deficient, and in need of rectifiying action. Do our civil service and political leaders belong to this category of people?  There is need to understand this bizarre proposal in all it’s implications before it further harms our polity.

The panopticon begins by making everybody uniformly and completely visible to the jailor at all times without the subject being able to determine if he is being watched. Hazare would have every bureaucrat and political leader under such a surveillance system where his phone can be tapped, emails read, records of his decisions scrutinized at will, financial transactions prized open, personal life put under a scanner. That’s the panopticon’s eye that never blinks even if it isn’t looking at you. The nature of the jailor’s gaze is such that you are forced to assume he is watching you. The effect of the gaze is such that you begin to internalize what is expected of you by the jailor in terms of the discipline that he ordains.  The purpose of the discipline  is to produce docile bodies that do as they are told.  If you obey success is not guaranteed but you avoid further punishment. Success still depends on the subject himself.  All that the panopticon does really is minimize the cost of pervasive surveillance and produce docility in it’s subjects. Is that something we want or need from the highest levels of our leadership?

In the panopticon the power of the jailor over subjects is absolute. The Jailor is judge, jury, executioner with no higher appeal because the subject has already been tried, found guilty and condemned. Are our leaders, bureaucrats or politicians, to be presumed guilty as soon as they hold an office? It may be popular to mandate so but the fact remains that these are among the brightest & the best we produce in terms of talent and character. How well will a model designed to manage a prison sit with such talented people?  What would be the consequences of forcing such a structure on the civil service and the political leadership? Who would exercise leadership and initiative under such a system without an incentive to stick his neck out?

Politicians and mandarins are indispensable to the functioning of a modern society – whether it is an open democracy like ours or the authoritarian panopticon that Anna Hazare would put us in. What we need is better, brighter, more talented, and far sighted politicians than we have now.  Did I leave out honesty from the list of attributes? Yes because keeping them honest is our job. This isn’t a problem peculiar to politicians. Businesses have an inherent conflict of interest with their customers despite the mutual dependency between them.  Businesses wield considerable power over their customers as well. Yet the panopticon has never been the solution to management of these conflicts. You cannot legislate away inherent problems. The only solution to such problems has been competition.  Societies set up markets and market rules that make businesses compete so that peer pressure keeps exploitative instincts of businesses in check. Democracy itself works better than a authoritarian government precisely because it compels politicians to compete for our votes & favor forcing them to come up with better solutions to problems than they otherwise would. Competition among politicians is what we need most.

Why is our system unable to apprehend, prosecute and hand out exemplary punishment to corrupt officials and politicians? The answer is a lack of competition between them and an perverse incentive to collude and collaborate in corruption. Since the 1990s, we have had fractured verdicts and coalition Governments. Furthermore, state elections are no longer synchronized with those at the center. We now have a situation where Congress rules at the Center but a variety of regional and opposition parties rule at the state level.  But if you look closely, there is no opposition party! Whether it is BJP, BSP, TC, or whatever, every party is a ruling party somewhere or the other. Every ruling party has skeletons to hide, elections to fund, party workers to pay, and poopgandaists to motivate. So what has happened?  Competition between and among politicians and political parties has diminished. That is the key which enables them to cut cozy backroom deals with each other and to connive at each other’s misdemeanors. It is the absence of competition that we must address to reform the system rather than put everyone in an panopticon.

So long as elections need to be funded, party workers rewarded, party machinery to be run, poopganda bills to be paid, no matter what you do, corruption will persist. Politics is an extremely risky business. If you don’t understand this go take a look at Kashmir or Ghadchiroli.  Politicians put their lives on line. We need to shed hypocrisy that pretends these noble souls are there to serve us out of the goodness of their heart. We need to recognize the need to pay them properly, not only in office but also when we boot them out. Our failure to be realistic about election and party funding lies at the heart of corruption.  The State, society, we the people – all of us need the politicians, no matter how ugly they are. So let us find a transparent, open, legal way to fund them.

The collusive and convivial nature of present politics has created a space for a new breed of politicians that partly supplants that which used to belong to the opposition. We must welcome the new players because it means more competition for existing players. However, that doesn’t mean we must change our system. It does mean we must examine their new ideas closely but insist they play by our rules. We don’t belong in their panopticon. We must not compromise our freedoms to be rid of corruption. Their panopticon is not our solution. Democracy works well enough.

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M.F. Husain: Horses and Horse Sense

June 13, 2011 14 comments

“… that our reason is the difference of discourses, our history the difference of time, our selves the difference of masks.”                        Michel Foucault on archeological analysis of history.

Horses and Horse Sense.

Art is not only creative but also disruptive. So was MF Husain’s art.

The unconscious & conscious scripts that run our lives come embedded in intricate ways in everyday reality. The discourse that sustains our world view is not in any one place that is easily located. It is pervasive. It is in the people you see around you. It is in the significant others who introduce you to it. It is in those that reinforce it through ever so subtle systems of reward and disapproval. It is in our books, in our mores, customs and beliefs, in the laws that we live by and in the moral code by which we judge ourselves and others. It is also in our politics, in our conflicts, in our debate & discussions. Its ubiquity is such that most of us forget it is even there!  This discourse is sustained by an equally pervasive power structure that both creates & evolves with the discourse – be it the power of the Sate, the education system, religion, personal influence, whatever – each reinforcing the other.

If art is disruptive it is because it challenges the power that backs the discourse as much as the discourse itself. When Husain rendered the Gods in the buff he hit upon a singularity in our discourse that exposed multiple fault lines.

Husain showed our discourse is flawed.  We could not fully accept that an artist has the right to inspect the metaphor in which we represent our mythology. We treat our Gods as near human but cannot accept their humanity. He showed our basic social contract embodied in the Constitution is flawed.  His art was banned on grounds of a religiosity that has no place under a secular constitution. He showed our fundamental right to expression wanting. We were unable to honour his right to free expression. He showed our commitment to rule of law wanting. We were unable to protect his fundamental right to liberty & property. He showed we were a flawed State that could be subverted by a handful of people who didn’t care either for our system or its laws. Above all he showed us up as an effete State that lacked the gumption to stand up to its professed ideals. The list could go on. Did he intend all this?  One doesn’t know and in the final analysis it doesn’t matter.  What matters is the reality of the fault-lines he exposed, with & through, his art.

How do we discover and map a discourse? We are a part of the discourse, an object that itself is created by the discourse and known to us only through that discourse. How do we then rise above it or make it accessible to ourselves? Why is the point of singularity, where our discourse dissolves in face of its own logic & inconsistency, that important? Singularities in a sense are gaps in the fabric of the discourse where the discourse reveals itself to us by its sheer absence – through it lack of logical consistency. It is at these points we realize that the invisible hand of an unseen master is no longer available to guide us through the maze. These are points at which we are forced to think about our options & possibilities.  It is at these points of discontinuity that we not only meet our discourse but also become aware of the ubiquity & pervasiveness of the power that backs the discourse. It is here that we face the power which was all along there but of which we were blissfully unaware. A few individuals in a given population have the mental make-up to rise above the discourse, to get a bird’s eye of the entire discourse & to identify which strands of it have got hopelessly entangled as we learn more & more about reality that the discourse represents to us.  For the discourse is not the reality; nor is it the only possible representation of it. Indeed there is no reality independent of our discourse. But we can experience reality only through our discourse and when we do, it is our discourse that parses and organizes reality for us.

Those few that are able to spot the singularities we call intellectuals.  Artists, writer, journalists, scientists, philosophers other individuals who can, and do, point out these anomalies in our world view & look at how we may modify our discourse or stitch together a new one. Over the recorded history of the past 6500 years, our discourse has changed profoundly, not once but many times over. Nor has it been a case of continuous development of the same set of ideas – a sort of orderly evolution. Far from it. Changes in our discourse have been exceedingly disruptive; have been accompanied by many wars & revolutions.  They have turned existing paradigms on their head, rubbished prevailing wisdom & but invariably led us to a richer, more subtle appreciation of what makes up our world.  And those who made this possible are these very people – the intellectuals – who in their own lifetime were rarely understood in their totality because at any given time the totality of our discourse or archive of knowledge remains inaccessible to us by its sheer ubiquity & imbeddedness.  Husain was one such artist who rose well above circumstance & discourse to bring us another perspective on who we are as a society. His art is important because it not only holds up a mirror but also points to something in & beyond the mirror that we cannot see on our own!

The difference between the episteme of the Greeks circa 450 BC and that of ours that took hold circa 1800 AD, and many in between as yet unexplored, is reason & a willingness to use it when faced with a problematic in our discourse. That difference was made by intellectuals. The reason we don’t kill sheep to read their liver to divine the future is reason itself.  There is no discourse without power just as there is no power without a discourse that grounds it. Every little thing that we have discarded as wrong involved a struggle not only with discourse itself but also the ubiquitous power that backed the discourse. Very little change was openly welcomed.  It took generations before even a manifestly beneficial practice was adopted. Such is the hold of the prevalent discourse & the powers that back it. Good art must necessarily spill over into politics. That we find MF Husain disruptive & offensive should therefore not surprise us.

Like all intellectuals Husain was a Parrhestic figure, his truth telling falling under the practice of Parrhesia. Parrhesia comes with three underlying constructs – the obligation to tell the truth, the right to tell the truth and the right to protection against harm while telling the truth.  It is a concept that arose out the discourse of Greeks around 450 BC when it was realized that telling the truth was no simple matter.  Every existing verity accepted as truth in a society has its own power backing the verity. While power pervades all through society it also has visible structures by way of priesthood, an aristocracy or a sovereign. Truth telling not only disrupts the existing verity but also diminishes & harms the powers that exist. Powers that can hit back at the truth teller in a variety of ways including death.  On the other hand, truth was recognized as being the basic virtue that drove a society towards greater wealth & prowess.  The city needed to know the truth.  And so the concept of Parrhesia evolved whereby the city & its power structure guaranteed that the truth teller would not be harmed when he rose to tell the truth.  That however, was not enough to encourage enough truth seekers to actively seek out the truth & render it visible. So the city actively promoted a certain category of people, the intellectuals of merit, as Parrhestic figures who were given the privilege of Parrhesia in return for an obligation to tell the truth.

The Parrhestic contract is the lifeline of an intellectual. Its purpose is not so much the protection of the intellectual as the encouragement of production of truth and the telling of it. We need the truth because it is fundamental to the growth of our society, its knowledge base, its power, wealth and prosperity. Without the Parrhestic contract intellectual activity diminishes, intellectual are discouraged, if not killed off, and society as a whole stagnates. The most fundamental of charges against a rigid interpretation of Islam, for instance, is the fact that it gave no space to its intellectuals and therefore, the Muslim world still awaits its renaissance. A Parrhestic contract is therefore one of the most fundamental and sacrosanct contracts without which the production and telling of truth grinds to a halt with deleterious consequences for society. It is a contract that should never be violated because it not only harms the one individual but sends out a message to all those capable of producing and telling the truth to cease and desist. That then was the tragedy of Husain’s exile from India. We grant Parrhesia not just to a class of people, the intellectuals, but also to ordinary citizens, anyone of whom may speak his or her mind to tell the truth. However, when the crunch came, we proved incapable of honouring the contract in respect of one of our most celebrated artist & painter. What does that tell ordinary citizens?

Husain’s rehabilitation in our society and discourse brooks no delay. We require an emphatic reaffirmation of the sanctity of Parrhesia in our society.  We need a deep, profound and loud commitment to the production of truth no matter how inconvenient that might prove to be.  We need a demonstrable commitment from State & society that Husain was an aberration in a young democracy that will never be repeated. Without these the noble principles enshrined in our constitution are merely empty words.

M F Husain challenged us -as a people, as a nation, as a person.  And found us profoundly wanting. How we deal with this challenge creatively going forward will make or mar the National project that we launched at Independence. In his death he leaves us with legacy resolving which will take years if not decades. That is the hallmark of a true artist.

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