A Tangential Addition to the Great Auto Debate

I want to go off on a bit of a tangent here. Just to open a different discussion in the spirit of thinking, and muddling along together. It seems to me that one of the axis on which the debate has turned is on the question of desire and its representation. Who is the desiring subject, towards whom is this desire directed, who represents this desire in what way, what are the slippages therein, who has the right to speak about whom.

I was wondering if we can approach this from a slightly different angle by taking this question of desire beyond the individual subject (variously defined). And in fact nameless did gesture to this in one of her responses where she raised the question of the appropriation of what she termed subaltern practices by elite intellectuals where certain practices and forms, in this case autos, are made to stand in for certain values – in this case progressive, ‘left” etc – which says more about the locations of the intellectuals and their insensitivity to their own class-caste positions, in a move which is patronizing at best and exploitative at worst. I think inherent in this critique is the shadow of a kind of objectification of a certain experience, so that a symbol becomes alienated from the actual life practices in which it is located to circulate as some empty signifier, to be appropriately filled as per requirement.

When it comes to autos, Kafila is actually in glamorous company, which includes personages no less illustrious than Manish Arora and his designer auto-rugs, the Spice Girls who came onto stage in their first (and only concert) in India in a pink autorickshaw with fur-covered seats, and Jitesh Kallat’s anatomical excursions in sculpture – Autosaurus. From the prehistoric in “contemporary” Indian art to British pop-stars I wish were extinct, the autorikshaw seems to have been a strangely compelling symbol of Indian urbanity, peculiarly amenable to appropriation.

And I am saying this only half in jest. A friend long ago described this as an MTV aesthetic of “urban cool” – of searching the city for signs of vitality, which are then mined as representative of something “gritty” and “urban” and familiarly exotic.

Nor is this new. In the twentieth century, capitalism’s relationship to “subaltern”, “alternative” practices of all sorts has been a cannibalistic one. So punk and goth which begin with a working-class D.I.Y trash aesthetic of the street make their way into high fashion (think Westwood, Gaultier). Cayce Pollard, the main protagonist of William Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition, is a market-research consultant who spends her time trawling the streets of London looking for ‘trends” that corporates can build into fashion lines, and its clear that Gwen Stefani of No Doubt (“rebellious” fashion icon to millions) keeps track of whats going on in and around Harajaku. We all know this, we all must have at least once owned a Che T-shirt ;) I think when speaking of subjectivity and of politics we need to think about how we are actually formed through culture, and in this case, a global commodity culture.

Certainly this says something about how capitalism functions, but also I think there is something here beyond “exoticism” or how the market consumes, packages and thereby de-radicalizes.  Or rather that by simply saying that something, say the auto, becomes an exotic symbol hides more than it reveals. Because then we would have to ask the further question, namely exactly what is the fantasy that is stored in this material object that is being hailed? Walter Benjamin might be of some help here in thinking about desire and the commodity form.

(Speaking of which it might be interesting to think about why the bourgeoise needs to search for vitality by hailing a working-class experience of the city (like “designer” kitsch composed of appropriating and adorning articles of daily use such as petro-lamps, dhaba chai glasses, horn ok please truck signs as door-plates etc etc. But that is a different discussion.)

The trouble is, the assumption that there is something pristine about “subaltern practices” as if these practices are somehow insulated from commodity culture and the practices of the market. Note here I am using “market” loosely to denote also traffic in discourses and ideaologies.

The reason I am taking the debate in this direction is to ask if it is possible to fashion political languages and vocabularies drawing precisely on this re-iterability of the sign across several contexts at once. For this does not relate only to the logic of commodity form, as the women’s movement found in the early 80s when slogans like “Hum Bharat ki nari hain, phool nahin chingari hain!” were deployed by pro-sati demonstrators on the streets of Delhi. I realise I am not saying anything new, much of this has been said in the conversation underway.

But the small point I wanted to make was that this question of whether the use of the autos corresponds to the perspectives of the auto-drivers themselves or not might not be the best way in which to frame a discussion on the transaction of signs. Which is in no way to say that we enter some ultimately relativistic space where we cannot debate the use of symbols in certain contexts. Because the auto acquires different valences in Kafila’s masthead, in Kallat’s show and Manish Arora’s rugs. And the test for its appropriatness cannot be its proximity to an “authentic” lived experience, which in any case can never be accessed. Maybe we can think of each instance as being only contingently and tangentially connected to autos on the road.

I am not suggesting that anyone in the debate so far has appealed to some essentialist idea of experience. Everyone is too sophisticated for that. And of course the production, and thereby silencing, of others on whose behalf then the upper-class/caste intellectual speaks is something we have to always be watchful about.

But this question of how we think about our subjectivity on the one hand, and our participation in a global commodity culture in which the iterability of the sign means circulation has to be thought through as a distinct process with its own political ramifications, is very complicated. At least it has concerned me a great deal. Just wanted to add my two pice worth ;)

One thought on “A Tangential Addition to the Great Auto Debate”

  1. Aarti,

    Mulling over what you wrote… it strikes me that it may not be difficult to acknowledge objectification/commodification ( each of those terms signaling a different political orientation).

    The painful part is ‘piercing the veil’… and I use that expression with the full awareness of its connotations which can be read either as sexist or Marxist or both or neither — to make the point that revealing the social – the material – that the object/commodity obscures is perhaps necessarily a painful and confusing experience. It threatens the cherished selfhood.

    The contentious question is/was whether the choices we make of the tools, concepts, words to reveal to ourselves and others what is hidden necessarily and directly and only reflect our various social markings ?

    If that is indeed the case, then there is really no cause for optimism right ? But if we grant that this may not be the case, then we can muddle along together in some spirit of hopefulness and togetherness whatever that ‘we’ may mean.

    “And of course the production, and thereby silencing, of others on whose behalf then the upper-class/caste intellectual speaks is something we have to always be watchful about.”

    The only web archive of Adrienne Rich’s Notes Towards a Politics of Location is here

    Reading it on the web – as a continuous essay is a terrible experience – the original, first delivered as a speech is actually composed of several bits of text, connecting with each other quite like so many pieces of a jig saw puzzle.

    But it is still something – when the book is not at hand.

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