Thinking on Conflagration

It is Holi, 2015. I am reading this.

The nuclear bomb was meant to be a frightening inducement to peace, as if humans as a species could be collectively made to behave peaceably under the overwhelming threat of a weapon-overlord.

The context was near-planetary war, in a century shaken by the fact that war had no limits. New technology had made it possible to reach and destroy without having to go to the enemy and engage them face to face with rules and constraints. The enemy was multi-bodied, the enemy uniform or physical characteristic sufficient to mark and condemn all the people who symbolically shared it. Fear had spilled over the trenches long ago, now it would spill over human life itself.

Perhaps some folks did not like that the implacable fight to live that animated most of what science put under its instruments of examination should be mirrored in whatever humans created. Perhaps the idea was to subdue man with the forces of nature (or science) before the very matrix of human life became a battlefield.

What did those well-meaning men (and they were perhaps men, perhaps not all men) think about who would wield such bombs? Who is or would be benign enough to do so?

Besides, it hardly matters if the overlord himself were benign; it is not in this century’s culture to view the presence of a perceived overlord or more powerful entity as benign. The very existence of such a power would be an affront, an actionable trigger.

Nuclear power was never about ‘right’ (what is right); only about ‘the right’ to do something with it, and about some ideological justification for what any one person or community wants. The existence of nuclear power is not a problem; the pervasive desire to harness it as weaponry instead of a source of energy for human needs is a problem we cannot unmake.

There are studies ( ) that say, given a chance, humans will choose an equal and best common decision for any relational choice. But what is true in societal, individual-to-individual or peer-to-peer relations is not necessarily true for inter-community relations. For the lifetime of a community is longer than that of a single human, and history induces a different sort of calculation of choices, of political justifications for imagined futures. People calculate rewards and punishments in different ways ( A man or woman may invest and sacrifice to build the fabric of the social network he or she lives in, but will not act the same way to extend that network beyond a safe, controllable perimeter. We don’t decide in favor of justice, we decide for ourselves.

I would resist the temptation to speak of schoolyard bullies, of men in their childhood. As long as there is any chance for power, gang war and factionalism, without sufficient overwhelming presence and pressure applied to discourage the bickering and fighting there will be war. There is no other species yet violent enough or powerful enough to subdue the self-sabotaging tendencies of the human race.

Our communication media are full of rhetoric about ‘changing the world’ at every level. We applaud youngsters who deliver inspirational speeches, move us with youthful idealism, or simply speak of things we discarded in favor of stability and security in our life-choices. We elevate and enshrine the idea– at our mundane career levels: work for the underprivileged, for women (while you shop at brand name stores), win a trip to Africa, to India, travel and learn, volunteer, teach the poor, the children (always dark-skinned, by the way), and what a great thing to add to our resumes; at geopolitical levels; at levels of religious or economic empires. And we ignore what it means when our effort and our vision of change or a changed world interacts with everyone else’s. We know better and we mean well, so you better listen, OR we don’t care about you and we have the power so you better listen. What’s the difference? Whose world matters? Whose vision?

This planet is more than the earth of humankind, but in our individual efforts to superimpose one or the other perfect world on it we have reduced its existence to our narrow jockeying for regional power. I watch the roll of history, of the choices being made between possible futures, and wonder how much energy will be spent in opposing one or the other mad ambition before some part of this earth is blighted.

Blood Cry

As long as national and international laws treat the rape of women as less significant than the brutalization and torture of men, I refuse to call either the Delhi or the Rohtak cases rapes. They are cases of mutilation, torture, murder, dismemberment, cruel and pathological premeditated destruction. A woman is first a human being.

Define her any way you want. She is gone. I’m glad she is gone. I hope she went into shock very early, so that some part of the pain I cannot imagine will have been kept from her senses. Oh child, I wish I had had the power to ask for a quick death for you.

Morally, I feel violated. Warring subjective reactions, one almost feral, the other weary of everyday claims to a modern world. Nothing has changed, we still have poverty, disease, brutal and casual death, catastrophes that could have been easily averted, and a miserable existence for those outside the gates of the manor/gates of power.

They speak of arrests and fast-track courts. Nine men safe in cells. Thus speaks the red mist of pain and anger.

And the mist asks: why should we distrust a subjective response, or hand over our moral trials to slow, plodding courts? Justice can be serene only when it has transcended both pain and joy, of all peoples. But in the moments of every event, every time, the public must feel, must respond viscerally, affectively, subjectively, for such response is the surest condemnation of whatever threatens the human (cruelty, violence, inaction). By refusing to feel the pain of others we become less than fully human ourselves.

In the wake of such response it will be easy to hear the blood cry for justice. Inevitably, someone will ask for the death penalty, and most others will cry against it.

Let’s think for a moment — and separate the legal and the moral codes, and then again the archetypal ones.

I cannot comprehend the psychology of this much fear, rage and revenge, all for the chance occurrence of a female body. What sensations are such creatures after? Had they done it before? Who are the men and women who know them, shelter them? Such impotence, that it took many to hunt one, it took many to attack one mentally challenged female stranger, it took sharp and hard objects to invade her, it took violence to make her submit to what they had to say. They calculated–a stranger, a woman with difficulties, a place where her cries and struggles would not be heeded or her body found for days, a plan of ambush, tools for their task, the willing participation of each. They depersonalized her, dehumanized her, obliterated what remained. Nine men for one woman? But these are not men. Nor are they beasts. Animals have a primary motivation — survival. These perpetrators had no purpose other than gratification in the moment.

Cries against feeble manhood and an impotent nation could be taken in the context of increasing brutalization of women by men all over the world. A body perceived as weaker is still an easier and more horrifying target for the rage of man. Why? What causes a man to wish to rape whatever is ‘not like me’? What causes a human male to split off from the part of him that is common to the species? Shall we blame it partially on womanhood and the raising of wayward, entitled, sociopathic sons in societies enamored of ‘traditional ways of living’? Shall we say Delhi and Rohtak reveal the pathology of Indian society, and the psychopathology of several million specimens of the Indian male?

Do you see? I cannot reason this through. I cannot thrust this from my body, take pleasure in my body’s life when my cells twitch with an anguish they cannot remember.

Oh child, I wish I had had the power to ask for a quick death for you.

Endless calculations

It is an accepted, if debated, truism that terrorism is the answer of oppressed people, meeting endless illegal violence with illegal violence. Notice the ‘endless’? Acts of sudden death counter the perception of endless oppression by moving the counter from ‘what has been tolerated’ to ‘the intolerable’ and answering endless acts with nothingness and erasure. In case of pitched war (good old days of battlefields), acteurs erase each other, as expected. In the ideological spectrum of disorder into which terror falls, the impact is the element of the unexpected, and acteurs erase someone else entirely.

Terror is outward directed violence; self-immolation is violence directed inward. Both are part of a spectrum of responses to oppression and traumatic disruption. Not all acts on that spectrum are tactics of ‘resistance.’ Both can be claimed as a political gesture by actors. Both harness spectacle, and use the law of unpredictability. They are also still on the edge of the incalculable in expected responses, for the usually accepted ideology is not to cause irreversible harm to self or unrelated others. Death, that ‘horror’ is still a sin in most religions (of faith or materiality). No one expects you to kill yourself in pursuit of your ends; to them, to end yourself leads nowhere, so the calculation of gain or loss that precedes self-annihilation is outside the normally charted territory of probabilities of expected responses to pressure. And, because this is ‘off the charts,’ acts of self-annihilation as well as their acteurs are seen as cowardly for their refusal to continue to fight along the same lines as their baffled opponents who stand waving the red flag when the others have left the field.

In cases of terror randomness, difficulty of prediction of target and timing, and the fact that the affected persons are not related directly to the acteurs contrive to take the events ‘off the charts’ of calculable responses. However, the steady rise in calculated acts of terror against similar targets in the last decade has brought terrorism into the narrow spectrum of global public consciousness (and therefore the narrow spectrum of expected political topics in all nation-states).

The fulcrum of both types of acts of annihilation is the sense of responsibility and the nature of the social/public/civil contract that binds each person in human community, whether they believe in it or not. By harming ‘brethren’ one harms the target. The element of spectacle ensures that many bear witness to the disruption of order, and the public’s sense of self-protection and imaginative horror (what if it was me?!) put pressure on the target–the one most visible and therefore obliged to act–in both offense and defense.

We see, and serve both terrorist and target by witnessing and bringing our responsive horror into the public space. Something has threatened the edges of our ordered world, and we think if we bring it to light it might be dealt with. But acts of spectacular rupture are dealt with only by enlarging the spectrum of responses to them, as much as by enlarging the observers’ capacity to tolerate the new types of acts and acteurs. Quite an immunization process, these exposures. For the public, reeling with horror, quite quickly finds one narrative or another to contain and explain the range of previously unthinkable acts.

The whole is an interesting perversion of the idea that ‘there but for fortune, go you or I,’ each act the fine split between ‘you’ and ‘I.’

Update: March 30, 2015. Continuing the conversation on terror as spectacle, this article by Yuval Noah Harari in _The Guardian_.


All outcomes are trickster justice, all histories trickster narratives. Choice interfaces the dual and ambivalent components of ‘what is’ and ‘what will be.’

Choice itself is both volition and consent. To foreclose on one set of possibilities is to set another unseen few in motion; to control for the other later on is to choose to ignore yet others. And so on into multitudes of choices and sieves.

The serious figure of the clown presides over the momentary revelations of chance. To insist on its absence is to ask for the obliteration of ambivalence, and thus to foreclose the possibility of proportionate justice by long division. For the loss of chance is the loss of unreason, and that makes bewilderment out of history.

Dualities must not be understood as contrasting things, unintegrated, oppositional, even if it is considered ‘modern’ (not ‘primitive’) and enlightened to regard human persons and behavior as arranged around principles rather than the ‘concrete ambivalence’ that constructs most of our material reality.

Neither should dualities in their material examples be considered ‘point and counterpoint’ in an intellectual chorus. For that would not question the order of the small world in which the duality manifests, only argue about its order of things. And in their fixing of the problem (abstract morality and moral exceptionalisms) they would leave out all the world of ambiguity, thus confirming other-worldly power and this-worldly reason.

There is no order, no one Reason, nor even a given moral code. “All antinomies are bound into the ritual cycle” of choice. Choice interfaces the dual and ambivalent components of ‘what is’ and ‘what will be.’ All outcomes are trickster justice, all histories trickster narratives.

–Ref: Paul Radin. The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology.

Changing the World

When we say we wish to change the world we merely mean that we want to fix it in a form of our own making. For the world is always changing, and we enthrone shadows in the end.

All our battles of work and love come to mean the preservation of what we wish the world to be. We suspend it between this or that heaven or hell and try to chastise it into being.

When it is not to our liking, we punish it, or ourselves. We die when we punish what we love in the name of something else we would love. Utopias (nowheres) are by their definition the projections of our desires.


Ask me for the shape of things and I shall pick you up a pebble. Let the wind answer for me. This bit of hair, this dust of skin. After the communiqués, I shall take courage and be wrong.

Ask after the old and the new and I will find you some soil, my sandbox to play in, some knitting, there will be no albums. Money, photographs, leaves, they all fall slowly. I cherished them once. And I will tell you of the span of ten fingers, all dreams and air, and the desperate need for record-keeping.


You said, “No more walls.”

What did you see after you threw yourself against the ropes? Launched yourself from them? Did you find anything? Did they crawl over your wrists, the ropes? Tie you in knots, your knees bent climbing them? Did you meet that other body you raged against?

Were you subdued before you hung from them?

Did you find it, what you were looking for all the time you were using the perimeter of the ring, the stage, the self, the world?

Did you look up?

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