The Terror That Is Man: Shaj Mohan

Guest post by SHAJ MOHAN

Manifold is the un-homely, yet nothing is more un-homely than man — Sophocles

The middle of the previous century is understood to be the termination of all kinds of containments of man, having witnessed the worst containment in the Camp[i]. This termination resulted from a crisis that is both philosophical and political: what is the de-termination of man such that he is not the contained? A summary of this scenario is found in a trivial understanding of Foucault’s statements concerning “the end of man” (The Order of Things) and Derrida’s deconstruction of the notion of the “the end” in his essay “Ends of Man” (Margins of Philosophy). As a result of the exigencies of the philosophical and the political, the concept of the state located itself, in the occidental domain, away from the containers. The State would no longer claim to be the clergy and the sovereign of containers such as race and religion. Instead, the State demanded only the right to primary containment—first Indian and then Muslim, first British then White, first Spanish then Basque. The list, the differences, the classification and the management of all the other containers—religion, caste, language, race, public, private—were left up to the new clerics, the new academic disciplines and the NGOs. If all containers were opened up then everything should have flooded out and mixed to form a substance of a new world of people; rather, a substantiality for the in-terminable formation of people. This new people-substance should have dissolved the traces of all the containers, the way science-fiction often imagines the future to be. It should have left for us tales which are the negative of memories, that is, taboos, or myths. For example, the tales that we received about incest from the ancients, the tales of cannibalism in fairy tales, the tales of the world’s resistance to Nazism.

However, we do know that this is not the case. The Camp, terrifyingly, is becoming a vague ancient memory even though it came into the active consideration of everyone only in the 1960s. As the Camp compares itself each day to the camps sprouting everywhere—the Palestinian camp, Moquoble camp, Chinese labour camps, Muzaffarnagar camp, Guantanamo Bay camp, the containers in which people are shipped—the moral force it once exercised appears to be in decline. This decline of the moral force of the Holocaust also indicates that the politics which led to it is permissible again. There is a distinction between each of these recent camps in relation to the states which have instituted them. For instance, the Muzaffarnagar camps in India remain outside the domain of legality in the sense of a common place: “a puppy being run over by a car” is not a matter of law. While we are less than certain about our moral and political responses to the camps in India and the Middle East, we are so certain about most of the camps in the West, including the refugee camps. There is constant questioning of the legitimacy of the Guantanamo Bay Camp by leading intellectuals and the western media. We are in agreement that the shipment of people in containers is outright illegal, even if the many people held in them might have opted to be there. However, from the point of view of the people who are the current residents of all these camps, without regard to the colonial/post-colonial axis, the difference is only a matter of degrees. Are all containments of man the same? Is the membership of a man in a communist organisation the same as his conversion into Islam? Is the membership of a woman into the activist group Femen the same as her conversion into a Christian Consecrated Virgin? Is the conversion of a woman into an actress the same as her conversion into a mercenary? All these questions of containments, camps, conversions and baptisms are global, and also questions of globalisation. But there is something unique to the Indian problem of ‘re-conversion’.

The change of a person from one containment to the next is conversion. Although in India, by conversion we mean the movement of a man from the Hindu religious containment into something unreal. When a man gains in wealth he is converted into a member of the conspicuous sphere of spending which in turn converts him into an upper class; when a man fails to pay back a loan he is converted into a criminal; when an upper caste woman marries a lower caste man she is converted into a shameful object; when a woman kisses a woman in public she is converted into an obscenity. There are many baptisms of men, many more than there are men. This plenitude of baptisms is the sign of the pure convertibility of the human-substance. The fact that when the word “conversion” is spoken in India what is heard is “a Hindu man has been converted into a non-Hindu” tells us enough about the essence of man in India. First, man is not purely convertible in India. There is only one baptism of men in India which is his birth into his caste order and caste is the most codified form of racism. Now, the question is there a man that is not purely convertible or a man that is not the effervescence of infinite baptisms should remind us of Hegel’s thoughts on man in India—“what is the essence of man-substance in India?” Or “is there a man-substance in India?” The weight of this question should not be set aside using the simple machine of postcolonial theory; further, Hegel’s questions concerning the meaning of religion ought to make us ask again what really is religion for us, here, right now. Only then can we re-articulate, in an articulation of the human that is new, what is implied in the “re” of re-conversion and “home” in the command “return home!” Second, religion in any generous consideration should be defined as the practice of faith. Having a faith in something or someone is a convertible event; that is, faith moves a man from one containment into another. When the faith is broken a man moves on to the practice of another faith. When a faith is boring a man changes it to make life a little interesting. However, what this command “return home!” makes clear is that being Hindu is not a matter of faith at all. It is rather of birth, blood, race. Then, the problematic of religious conversion is not universal, since even after a change of religion the Indian retains his position in the caste order, and hence we have untouchable Christians and untouchable Hindus and untouchable Buddhists—be you Jew or Greek of St. Paul means little in India. But then, is the offer of a conversion into the Universal, the ideal envelop of a single containment, possible elsewhere?

The assumption in the command “return home!” is of a kind of betrayal—that those men who converted have betrayed their home, the home which set rooms on the basis of racial lines and assigned them distinct labours which are castes. At the same time, this command reminds the men that those who strayed have never lost their essence which keeps them as the men of their home: their racial lines are not erasable and they carry them visibly no matter which new homes they find to hide in. Hence, they are allowed the chance of a return. This sense of a betrayal, of straying far from home, is a feature common to the other ‘time-pass’ or entertainment that we call “honour killings”. The essence of the woman is to keep herself in the containment of her caste home. Her change of home is decided according to the caste laws of the home. The betrayal by the woman of the domestic caste laws by loving the men and women of her choice is the dishonour of the home. This betrayal and its taint can be removed, and the home purified, by blood alone. This game of impurities, accumulating into the pure and their sanguine purification, is inherent to the Hindu socio-political system. What would the Hindu socio-political system be without this game? What would India be without this game? Gandhi acknowledged time and again that he was opposed to a legal abolition of caste since there can be no Hinduism without caste. The refusal to think of an Indian subcontinent without the games of purification is the effect of the conception of man in India. The essence of Man, as we found, is the infinite convertibility across the containers that are always more than there are men. The political fight waged today for the right to kiss in public as an expression of love and the fight against the closure of conversion (through the command “return home!” and the legal measures proposed to prevent conversions) are meant to keep the essence of man as a practical condition available to all men in India—the fight to bring the essence of man to all men or to render man unhomely. Derrida’s questions in “Ends of Man” concern the name of this being that is unhomely: man or overman? Even though Foucault was opposed to a certain kind of teleology, of perfection or an actualisation without remainder, he set an end for man—a substance capable of enduring the terror of his unhomeliness, such that “man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea”.

The purely convertible substance that man is grounds all politics. But the actual practice of politics is distinct from this ground. Then, we have two different kinds of politics—a politics for access to the essence of man and, opposed to it, a politics to condemn men to a particular container. Each political unit of the latter kind fights for a certain containment of men. Either this fight is waged by posing as the sentinels of a containment—such as Nazism fighting for the right to maintain the purity of Aryan blood; or by posing as the scaffolding for a future containment—such as the Indian nationalist movement which proposed to liberate men into one single containment, that is, of being an Indian. The command “return home!” states that there are containments of men that are not convertible. The inconvertibility is birth, bloodlines, genetics. Since those who converted to Christian and Muslim faith were of the Indian subcontinent they are condemned to be Hindus forever. Rather, their conversion is not real. Their “re-conversion” too is not a real conversion, but an illusion, maya. It is their obedience to the command “return home”. That is, man is not convertible in India. The converted are currently being led from the unreal into the real—from the maya of the pure convertibility of men into the brahman of inconvertible condemnation. It is not difficult to see that the really real that is understood here is not religion, but racial lineage; the politics of birth, blood, and soil. The notion that man is inconvertible in ‘the Hindu geographic region’, that his containments are immutable within the caste order, and that his deviations from the containments are measureable and punishable, resembles the Nuremberg Laws very much. But the millennia old laws of containment have gained an extra legal force which a recent invention such as the Nuremberg laws could not have access to. We have come to accept that electoral politics in India (and soon everywhere else) is the game of creating immutable containers that arrest the conversions of men. Rather, the politics of the sub-continent is defined as the terror before the essence of man as the most unhomely. In this peculiar sense the question “what is man” is alive in India. As these inconvertible men fight for their rights to be inconvertible the decisions that concern everything else are held away from men. We must note here that the herding of the unhomely into a determinate home defines fascism.

Not all conversions are the same, as we have seen. The conversion of a man through the baptism of an automobile collision is permanent. Even if he comes through alive out of critical care he would not be the same; either he would be less capable than what he was or more. The conversion of a girl programmer into a hacker activist through the baptism of anonymity is reversible. The conversion of a group of men into a new ethnic group through the baptism of sex and centuries is irreversible. Then, there are conversions that are impossible. The conversion of a Nigerian into a Hindu Brahmin; the conversion of a Shia girl into a Sunni cleric; the conversion of a man of the Church of South India into a man of the Mar Thoma Church; the conversion of any woman into the Sabari Mala temple priest in Kerala. There are no baptisms for these conversions. Then, the politics for the access to the essence of man must be the production of as yet unknown baptisms. There are more baptisms for man than there are men. It is not an easy task to invent new baptisms. The great conversions were effected by the labour of the invented baptisms. Great baptisms were also revolutionary: the conversion of Siddhartha into Buddha, the conversion of nature into mathematics by Galileo, the conversion of the foundations of mathematics into computing machinery by Turing, the conversion of God into Truth by Gandhi. As we can see, men are converted not merely by the conversion of their faith. In fact, man-substances are converted into revolutionary contagions when a thought is converted into another in the case of the Buddha, a containment of matter is exchanged for another in the case of Galileo, or when a problem is converted into a technology.  The invention of new baptisms is again evident around us—Anonymous, FEMEN, synthetic biology, Pussy Riot, Kiss of Love movement in Kerala, bionics. But is the essence of man available to all men for these baptisms to form new contagions? This is perhaps the question that would find it difficult to travel in a dinghy and cross the border into the terrain of postcolonial theory where historic (a very inconvertible sense of history) containments of men are held away from the possible contagions; that is, postcolonial theory and the protection of the interests of “nativeness” are not easy to distinguish from one another. To bring the man-substance into a practical condition for all men today would require the formation of a Conversionist International since the national and nativeness are opposed to the essence of man.


 Shaj Mohan is a philosopher based in India

[i] A shorter version of this text was translated into Malayalam and published in “Ghar Vapasi: Jathiyilekkulla Madakkam”, Ed. J. Reghu, DC Books, February 2015



5 thoughts on “The Terror That Is Man: Shaj Mohan


    Centuries have passed in search of a queer being called ‘MAN’! In the quagmire of this profound quest, HE even forgot the base of his life–‘WOMAN’. Even bible proclaimed (wo)man is borne from the backbone of a ‘man’.
    Man might have converted and reconverted into umpteen religions and philosophies, but did he ‘convert’ into a ‘woman’ to at least have a glimpse of her philosophical way of life?
    Manu made a woman secure in her father in childhood, husband in youth and (male)child in old age. So that a woman could stop thinking!! Philosophy starts from ‘woman’ not from ‘man’…

  2. C Sharma

    This is Macaulay education. Author cant see why caste is there. Caste is there because the British made it document and law. Hindu unity is getting rid of caste formula. Pseudo philosophers should leave politics out to raj dharma.

  3. Jayaram

    The point of this piece is not very direct considering that this kind of Anglo Saxon prose style is usually good at making the point. Anyone can make out that it is a sort of like preaching to the converts in most parts of it. There is something cocky about saying some of the stuff in there that is not exactly to the point. Like why talk about Hegel? The author must be referring to ‘man was never thought in India’. Hegel is the same guy that also said that there is no man in Africa and so on. In Hegel’s opinion there was no religion in India when we see only religion and all over the place really. You might as well look at Balagangadhara, that is obvious. Then there is potshots at postcolonial theory with no basis. For one postcolonial theory is not a grand narrative sort of thing like Hegel as it has many different points about its arguments and those thories might somewhat agree with all this piece is arguing out. Interesting thing is the use of words like terror and conversion that is way out of the common statist and standard usage. It is a good thing to do this considering how perverse the Indian use of words like communal are now. May be man and substance are also used in this style but all that is not obvious how. The last para is gets us good as it is time to think about the point of ideas making great changes to society compared to what religion is doing now.

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