Endless war

I grew up hating the idea of war. So much unnecessary suffering. So much pointless death and destruction. I still hate it. But my understanding of it has fundamentally altered and it no longer means the same thing to me as it once did.

I grew up during the last two decades of the 20th Century in a household that believed – or wanted to believe – that humanity had escaped from the worst excesses of 20th century violence and destruction. The near constant backdrop of relatively lower intensity conflicts around the wold, only gave the impression that we were just dealing with the remnants of an earlier mess: a few rogue states or whatever that hadn’t embraced the modern imperative for progress in the form of liberal democracy. When I studied colonialism, slavery and racism in history classes at school (which apparently is not the norm), I of course felt outraged at these injustices, but I was also left with the impression that these were somehow history; of the past not the present.

In my teens, the world started to reveal its cracks and inconsistencies in ways that could not be unseen. Music was one of my most important educators. For example, I discovered class war, neo-colonialism and the anti-globalisation movement through punk rock band Propagandhi. I learned about systemic violence, police corruption, and racism through the legendary Rage Against The Machine. War was no longer simply about battlefields, televised images of tanks and helicopters. It was about the daily lives of all kinds of people struggling for survival against historical forces that continued to oppress them, that judged the worth of lives and orchestrated the manner, timing and distribution of their suffering and deaths.

By the time I finished my undergraduate studies, I had a more sophisticated grasp of the history of the 20th Century and a wider range of theoretical points of reference. Everything seemed more complex, but the basic story hadn’t changed a great deal. 9/11 and the war on Iraq transformed the global landscape, but as much as they constituted a rupture, they also displayed remarkable continuity, further cementing a certain ideological and geopolitical formation that was more or less a more advanced version of what had come before. The military industrial complex, capitalist modes of production and neo-imperialism were busy doing what they had, more or less, been doing all along. While my aim had been to study a degree that would prepare me to find solutions to the world’s looming economic and environmental crises, that we were careening irreversibly toward a profound ecological crisis had taken on the form of a fairly stable fact. Was I destined then to a career of rearranging deck chairs on the proverbial titanic?

This schism placed me perpetually at odds with family and friends. Like some warped visionary of doom, the crisis, to me, seemed to be happening now, unfolding in our daily complacency and refusal to break out of the paths that our mostly privileged lives offered us. And everything was interconnected. The relentless and intensifying ravaging of the earth in pursuit of growth was undermining planetary survival systems. The wretched of the earth, the dispossessed, were collateral damage, at best expendable raw materials in the growth trajectory, which no longer even had as an identifiable aim the maximisation of public welfare or well-being. Wars manifested as intensified forms of the same fundamental logic of extraction and appropriation of expendable strategic resources, not some exceptional and remote tragedy.

We find ourselves here in the second decade of the 21st Century in the midst of ecological and economic collapse. Relics of the 20th Century – nationalism, racism and fascism for example – are experiencing an unprecedented resurgence: clearly they had never been buried. Economic crisis is setting in, economies – and the global economy as a whole – are entering recession if not depression. Our great modern institutions – projects of rationality, science and technology – are failing; not fit for purpose, not capable of saving lives, not capable of avoiding elite capture, not capable of halting their destruction of the earth. Their rotten cores are on display and becoming additional fuel in the polarisation of societies that are clinging, ever more desperately, to whatever semblance of stability is put on offer, no matter how far it falls short – under even a cursory glance – of the supposed ideals that were once the rallying cries of progress.

The disconnect between this grim reality and the narrative of progress that lurks at the very core of ‘liberal’ thought and institutions, is enough to trigger a sort of desperate denial/negation of that reality, even as it imposes a perpetual existential anxiety. This appears to me as one of the deep psychological problems of the liberal middle classes: they stand everywhere and nowhere; their values have no teeth in the present context.

While the uncomfortable comfort of anxiety-fuelled denial will persist amongst those who have enjoyed modern comforts, the reality remains the same. We are hurtling toward a collapse that is most likely going to be civilisational in its proportions. The earth that remains at the end of this, will bear little resemblance to the one that any of us alive today were born into. We do not know what survival in this world will entail. What social and economic formations it will sustain. How will they articulate with ecological imperatives, once the cushions that biodiverse biomes, fertile soils, abundant forests and nutrient rich oceans have offered us have been sucked dry?

In my view, it is in relation to this new world that we must define our work. I speak to those who would recognise themselves in this call, for whom the composition of a we, a never ending exercise of recomposition, resonates. This unstable ‘we’ finds itself in the midst of a very serious seemingly all-out war. It is a war over the hotly-contested heterogeneous terrains of existence and the social and economic modes of co-existence that they enable. This calls for a rigorous reassessment of the terrain, the stakes, the investments, the concepts and the practices that are needed for survival. I hope in the coming months to further develop and share my thinking along these lines.

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Reflections on Molecular Red

“For Bogdanov, a political revolution is not the solution to anything. It merely enables the problem of organization to be posed. There can be no victory over the sun.”

A week or so back I got myself a copy of Molecular Red by McKenzie Wark and basically just worked my way through the whole thing. I found the book tremendously stimulating, though not without reservations. I think my favourite parts were those about Bogdanov and Platonov (definitely get to know about them if you don’t already!), probably because they were completely new to me. I wasn’t as enthralled by Wark’s treatment of either Donna Harraway or Karen Barad (perhaps because I am already familiar with their work), but appreciated the move of trying to tease out a common tektologial kernel (if not thread) spanning almost a century (a century that witnessed some very dramatic changes in scientific knowledge and practices and the overall development of capitalism). Perhaps it’s also because I couldn’t help feeling that Isabelle Stengers was missing from the mix (particularly considering her work on articulating an ‘ecology of practices’ and her ongoing thinking-with Donna Harraway)! Moreover, I found the book resonated with and made me ponder many aspects of my experience of living collectively over the last couple of years or so.

In this post, I share a few highlights and reflections that Molecular Red has triggered for me.

“Part of Bogdanov’s originality was to insist that the central tenet of Marx’s work is not dialectics or materialism or the critique of political economy, but the labor point of view.”

Central to Bogdanov’s thinking, as Wark presents it, is the idea of ‘the labour point of view’, something which he takes to be the condition of possibility of Marx’s exposition of capital (which, incidentally, Bogdanov translated into Russian though his name was later deleted as he was a rival of Lenin). Here ‘the labour point of view’ is not (as I understand it) taken to mean ‘how all members of the working class see the world’. Rather it reflects a critical engagement with reality that shifts away from the traditional bourgeois class seat of theory-production and instead asks what it would look like from the position of the working class – i.e. not as parts to be organised in a production process but as people who must live and struggle in and against an order that is, more or less, hostile to them. Bogdanov believed that Marx’s work only began the work of advancing the labour point of view. He was convinced that the high-theoretical dogma of dialectical materialism that framed the dominant trajectory of Marxist theory-production, smothered the more ambiguous, open and sensual development of social organisation based on the labour point of view.

Based on this, Bogdanov proceeds to develop two key concepts: tektology and proletkult. Tektology, in brief, is Bogdanov’s conception of the potential articulation between diverse fields of knowledge-practice through a kind of anological experimentation. Concepts abstracted from one field of knowledge-practice can be transferred to another to permit the enactment of new knowledge-practices which may give rise to new possibilities of technical knowledge-practices. Proletkult, more or less, was the name given to a form of organisation amongst labourers through which tektology could be put into practice. It imagined knowledge-practitioners engaged in close experimentation, learning and co-labor-ation to stimulate exchanges and strive for the incorporation into forms of organisation of ever more advanced/sophisticated incarnations of the labour point of view: a sort of praxological inter-disciplinarity moving toward trans-disciplinarity…

Platonov, was someone whose thinking was formed by his experience of being involved in one of the proletkult ‘schools’ of learning. Besides the absolutely fascinating themes of his proto-‘sci-fi’ work and its accounts of lived/ground realities of the early Soviet period, he really unpacks a very critical question.

What Platonov will add to this persona of the worker [i.e. from whence the labour point of view originates] is the persona of the comrade. He does not simply assume a universality of the worker point of view, as is sometimes the case in Marx and Bogdanov. He is interested in the struggle to become comrades together. For Deleuze, personae carry with them possible modes of existence. While Platonov writes both appealing and terrifying comrades, they are all integral to his thought, which is precisely the thought of the space between these various incarnations of the comrade. To understand Platonov, then, is to understand what is between comrades as a plural but not universal point of view.”

At least one of the challenges before us, then, is that of becoming-comrades. Once we factor in the odd assortment of idiosyncratic cranks that we all are, and the differences that multiply in profound and seemingly incommensurate ways as we move across cultures, classes, theoretical commitments, disciplines, ‘personae’ (as in Deleuze) or ‘psycho-social types’ (as in Stengers), becoming comrades proves harder than we thought. To become comrades abstractly in the domain of theory production, or the shared exercise of digitally enabled communication is one thing. To do so under the pressures of bodily proximity, the negotiation of emotional ups-and-downs and who will sleep on which bed, of childhood traumas and adult complexes, of the dystopian realities of the unfolding crises (now in the foreground, now in the background), of basic necessities of reproductive labour: of getting food in the fridge/cupboard, of cooking, eating, cleaning, caring for each other, of paying rent and earning money and navigating our own extreme economic disparities, our respective privileges (or disadvantages) of race and gender, our perplexing caste and class composition, and our not-always-convergent views on what constitutes meaningful political engagement… that is quite another. It is in this, that Platonov’s work, as relayed by Wark, resonated with me so strongly.

Some snippets:

“Praxis starts and ends with the struggle for life; everything else is just useless duplicity or dangerous theology.”

“Dreams separate us, even when they are dreams of communism. Or rather: communisms, since in Platonov, actual communisms are never a stage in a molar narrative, but are at best proliferating situations in which comradely love prevails, if just for a time.”

“Comradely love and the production of a material surplus, like clay and top soil, rest on one another but are separate achievements.”

And across all of this, our collective’s theoretical commitments, which often inflect our positions in arguments over the forms of protest that we should pursue, or the positions we should fight for or against in public lectures, or what to make of the multiple dramas that constitute the life of heterogeneous left in our little corner of Delhi…

Many, if not all of those who share our collective space, have spent the last several years engaging with philosophy and political theory in one form or another. I, for one, have spent some time now flitting about in the various tunnels of speculative realism. I think I fell in love with the liberating effects of speculative fabulation on my mind. As though I could all of a sudden inhabit a dozen or so make-believe worlds – one, some, many or all of which – or maybe none – might be real, might hold a key. At the very least, I have given my mental and writing muscles a good work-out, made myself a whole lot more cyborg and found myself connected to collections of faceless others who are out there doing similar things. But where has this flirtation with ontology left me? To a large extent it has shown me that there are holes in almost every grand conception of the real. So, has it been a waste of time? Not at all! Each new corridor has been lined with gifts, gems that I have savoured, perspectives that have enriched me, tools that have helped me think and play and do a little differently, accompanied as I by new questions and new hypotheses.

And, perhaps, in a sense, this is why I have felt most comfortable grappling with practices, with the meso-political, with the molecular, with situations and with composition. This is, perhaps, why Stengers’ ‘ecology of practices’ has resonated so strongly for me: rather than attempting to explain once and for all the ultimate nature of the real, it begins from the position of those who are enmeshed as a result of their practices in complex material relations of interdependence that are, at the same time, creators, sustainers and destroyers of myriad jostling cosmoi. It is in the making – with and against others – of our respective yet interconnected corners of the world that anything we think can really come to matter. Our ideas – rousing as they may be – are just temporary (and often flimsy) crutches in our more visceral work of grappling with complex material and social realities that ceaselessly defy us and exceed our simplistic forms of organisation.

“The idea is a sort of impossible crystal, dead and inert, without which boredom and grief weather us. But the idea on its own is only the concept of death, as if it could be outside of the entropy, inertia, and forgetfulness of life in time. Ideas are there as material for experiment and substitution.

Better to live then on a secondary idea, which mediates between the idea and labor, keeping the dead ideal from direct contact with life, where either the idea of death will live and kill life, or life itself will kill the deathly idea, but leave only boring emptiness. The secondary idea should be practical, attaching itself to the problem of life and inert matter, rather than life and soul. The secondary idea is usually a design problem, and hence, in principle, soluble.

There is only one hope, and it is in eternal life, but this endless life has nothing to do with spirit or even the idea. It isn’t universal. It exists only in the sensation of shared existence. Living things are each other’s comrades, even in their struggles against each other. Our species-being is lost from shared life when we make a fetish of a particular idea, a particular love, or a particular labor, as Bogdanov might say. Platonov shows the deadly consequences of fetishes of this type.”

If so, let us return to our fields of labour – of social and political work, of social reproduction and care, of technical production (acknowledging the so-called material in immaterial labour and the immaterial in material labour) – and let us struggle to include an ever wider set of potential comrades in our endeavours, particularly those who occupy more precarious positions, with whom a sharing and co-producing of knowledge unsettles the comforts of our class, our sexualities, our aesthetic sensibilities and our theoretical refuges.

Comradely life, devoted to its secondary ideas, is a homeless, rootless nation, in which each labors for another who labors for another. It is a life done with the death-image of the absolute outside and beyond itself. Comrades are orphans by choice. It is not the parent who has abandoned them, it is they who drift away from the spirit of the paternal idea, and who accept the poor truth that nature is no mother but at best a “step-mother nature”— or even no kin at all. Let’s have done with these Oedipal substitutions.”


There’s a whole lot more I have to say about the book than all this, but I’ll have to save it for another time.


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Some quick thoughts on concepts

A fascinating conversation has been unfolding between Adam of Knowledge Ecology and Mike of Archive Fire about the ontology of concepts. You can follow up on them here, here and here (and follow more links on their sites to see what else they have been saying!). I’m a bit of a late-comer to the conversation, but I felt stimulated to write down my own thinking – even if it is a little half-baked – for what it’s worth.

Concepts are representations of real abstractions (hopefully you will see what I mean by this as the piece continues). If we can concur that reality is composed of material entities and the relations between them and that this basic formula has a temporal, becoming-X, unfolding quality to it, and that there are vast, countless combinations and permutations of interactions, modifications ceaselessly unfolding, we arrive at an account of a vast writhing reality, which exceeds us (humans, for example) and within which we find ourselves inextricably tangled, and inextricably enmeshed in going about our day to day grapplings with the material and relational aspects of existence. As we do so, we notice that we are not bumbling along in a state of pure disorder or formlessness where indistinction reigns but in a complex, even chaotic, whirlpool of forms with varying degrees of stability, playing out on a variety of temporal scales. Sure, we cannot grasp the whole (or even any particular form) in its entirety – either physically or mentally – even though we (humans) often strive to do so.

Dealing with all of this complexity (understood here as having both epistemological and ontological dimensions) means that we are continuously having to simplify, represent and somehow make accessible (even if sub-consciously) the realities that we encouter, so that we can navigate them with some degree of skill and competence; essentially to muddle along more or less effectively. In this sense, then, concepts are tools for thinking and doing, for orienting ourselves in a world. They are simplified representations of abstractions of complex realities (i.e. of what we might describe as ’emergent forms’). Right now I am sitting in a garden. I am surrounded by chairs (ok, I admit, there are other things here too). I am sitting on a chair. I remember other chairs. I can tell you that a chair (if it’s not completely broken) is something that you can sit on, usually with legs and a backrest. I can whizz throug my mind and imagine countless chairs I have seen in my life and think of people across the world buying, making, sitting on and carving their initials into chairs. I can imagine all manner of situations involving chairs that I have never myself experienced before. Somewhere amidst all of this is a generic notion of ‘chair’ that transcends its specific instances, and even language. Let us call it a codified abstraction.

Now, codification can just as well be the outcome of a rationally pursued objective as it can be of of gradually sedimented experience. And, of course, the way that various human societies caught up in distinct ecologies through their various and particular histories have undertaken this codification matters tremendously, creating local nuances between concepts to the point of them not actually being the same thing at all. But whichever way we look at it, these codified abstractions, albeit modified substantially through language, all seem to come back to our attempts to grasp hold of a slippery and complex world that generally exceeds us. All this applies as much to the academician, busily studying ‘the social function of religion’ or ‘the role of incentives in behavioural economics’ as it does to peasants negotiating ‘government policies’ in rural India, indigenous communities in Ecuador navigating their relationship between, life, death, jaguars and manioc beer or a manager trying to come up with ‘key performance indicators’ for their enterprise.

None of this means that concepts function as cohesive, autonomous units floating independently around the world. Their circulation is always human mediated, always existing in their articulation and reassembly. Concepts can be decomposed into their partial parts and are as liable to fly apart as they are to hold together. Indeed, I would venture that holding them together is a very labour intensive task and is more akin to a work of art in the making (who’s identity is yet to be affirmed) than to something fixed and stable. Having said this, I think concepts do gain a certain kind of autonomy – one that operates somewhat in the mode of Latour’s factishes. Once released into the world, concepts do acquire something of a life of their own. They are taken up again and again, in a form of relay, that keeps them in circulation, keeps them contested, keeps them reinvented, modified, expanded, multiplied and so on – and no-one can quite keep control of them, a bit like a virus that relies on a human host and is spread by people sneezing – except that it has to be reassembled again and again, each time it is made to work.

If reality is both material and relational, and if materials and relations take on certain temporal forms, and if conscious beings (I include animals) are to navigate these diverse forms more or less successfully in order to survive, the capacity to represent these forms in some manner becomes key. In the language laden world of humans, we have reached a point where we cannot navigate our reality without all manner of taken-for-granted understandings. When someone says the word Enron, I don’t need a 101 on what an organisation is to grasp it, because I have already acquired enough codified abstractions  (concepts) for it all to make quite a lot of sense to me. But more than this, more than just ‘understanding’ (however rightly or wrongly getting enough of a sense to be able to move on), these codified abstractions can equip me with new ways to orient myself in the world, novel ‘understandings’ that reveal hitherto unknown features of Enron, possibilities for action, for getting a grip on the beast and even a sense of urgency about destroying it.

If someone asks me the question: ‘are conecpts real?’ I would reply: ‘what is real?’. Of course concepts are real. Can they exist without humans (I’m pretending there is no animal equivalent for now)? Of course not! But nor can human babies! Dependence on humans is absolutely no basis for deciding what is real and what is not. Surely that’s not what de-centering the human is about. If you have been able to understand (even if only to disagree) anything that has been written here, you have just relied on a whole host of concepts. Concepts that you and I share. Concepts that have been transfigured materially into the electronic device through which you are reading this article. Concepts (more than just the words) that this article is based on, and that cause you to summon up or deploy multiple related concepts and let them have a fight in your mind (if you can be bothered). Perhaps there is a fuzzyness to concepts that is very much at the heart of their existence. Just because most of our conceptual struggles play out through words (actually, many very serious ones play out in a deadly and very material way), it does not mean that they reside ‘in’ the words or are ‘just the words’ – words (and art of course) are just one of the best ways we have of getting our conceptual muscles to flex and grok the massive complexity that we are living through as best we can (which is very imperfectly indeed!).

* * *

As an aside, I’ve been meaning to write something on Eduardo Kohn’s ‘How Forests Think‘ (HFT) for a while now but I’ve been so swamped with work that I couldn’t. So I’m going to very briefly mention some highlights which in no way do justice to the book. HFT is basically about more-than-human semiotics (signs). Building on the work of proto-pragmatist Charles Pierce, it lays out three types of sign: the indexical, the iconic and the symbolic. The indexical and the iconic have no need for language. A simple example is a jaguar. When a peccary sees a jaguar it has no need for the word jaguar for the visual encounter to trigger a flight reaction. It will not have this reaction when it sees a squirrel (unless it’s really very timid like Piglet from Winnie the Pooh). This is undeniably part of the non-human semiosis of tropical forests. Indexical concerns that which can be inferred through the senses. A twig snaps in the undergrowth and the peccary’s ears are pricked, its silly little tail freezing for a moment. Clearly also semiosis. All of this entails representation, understood here in a somewhat counter-intuitive sense, as the taking up in a subsequent step of a received sign. Sitting ‘atop’ all of this non linguistic semiosis is the symbolic, which hinges vitally on language. Kohn argues that the symbolic has received far too much attention at the expense of the indexical and the iconic and that this amounts to an erasure of the continuing human dependence on these forms of semiosis for day-to-day existence.

Moreover, he asks the question: what would it mean to think thinking in continuity with non-humans? And this exploration leads him to the notion that the loci of all this semiosis, are selves. We can, therefore, think the forest as an ‘ecology of selves’, all living and dying in an interdependent manner, and, therefore, all mutually implicated with each other in a very heterogeneous sort of way (from the archetypal predator-prey relation, very central to day-to-day life for forest dwelling selves, to all manner of others). I’m now whizzing through much of the book, through which Kohn builds up his ideas, because I want to dwell a little on the notion of form. For Kohn, form is something that we are in and for this reason it is mostly taken-for-granted and invisible. When things happen within ‘from’, they are ‘effortless’, like rubber tapped in the tributaries floating down-river to market towns. Of course, they are ‘effortless’ for those who have mastery over the forms – not for all those who are having form imposed upon them. There we find sweat and blood in ample amounts. In this sense we can consider early colonial forms as having laid the groundwork for the (relatively) smooth functioning of global capital in the modern era. Such forms are multiple, intersecting and often add odds with each other. Grasping these complex formal multiplicities that replicate patterns (e.g. of resource extraction, expropriation, concentration of wealth as one example, the giving and taking of life in the forest) is a necessary activity for those who find themselves caught up in these forms.

I would just add here that in reading, writing and actively living within (and against) these forms, we are producing knowledge about them, we are gradually waking up to the decimation that our species has unleashed and we are also generating conceptual tools that can help us gain new footholds in reality. These concepts (codified abstractions) have a semiotic mode of existence. They are representations of forms and are full of potential to overflow into action. These can be actions that perpetuate the power hierarchies inherent in existing forms but they can just as well be actions that sabotage, undermine, invent and create against these forms.

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url change

Just a little update to let you all know that the url of this blog has changed and is now https://intrabeing.wordpress.com

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Blip from the void

Well, hello there! It’s been a while. And the blogging has been thin on this here patch of the interweb. Not that I haven’t had things to say or write. Not that I haven’t been reading aplenty. The work does take its toll though. I shifted back to 5 days a week (hopefully a temporary arrangement as I’m eager to get back down to 4). I recently got promoted. I’ve been doing a whole lot more technical backstopping for my colleagues and have taken on a few bigger-than-usual projects. I’ve also had the chance to do some interesting fieldwork and have travelled far more than I feel comfortable even describing.

The reading has been good though. Since I last reported on something I’d read (Muriel Combes on Simondon’s philosophy of the transindividual), I’ve made my way through a few books: Erin Manning’s Always more than one, Morton’s Hyperobjects, David Colling’s Stolen future, broken present, Eduardo Cohen’s How Forests Think, and, most recently, Stengers’ Thinking with Whitehead. Each of these books, some more than others of course and in very different ways, have pushed and pulled, which is to say complicated and shifted, my thinking, inflected my habits of thought, the concepts I have at my disposal, the ideas I can use to think ideas with, my sensibilities and my affective and perceptual attunement to the world around me. They have helped me not to lose sight of, which is to say also to nurture, that glimmer of hope – the one that lurks on the far side of despair – in these times of violence and destruction.

This accounts for one part of how I’ve sought to use that little sliver of time outside the erratic and demanding rhythms dictated by my status as globe-trotting consultant in the international development sector, a so-called immaterial labourer, plugged in to the knowledge economy… riding, of course, on the back of a very material global infrastructure, an infrastructure that makes it possible for me to do what I do, for better or worse… and which is part and parcel of the injustices and crises that make me rage…

The reading does percolate, one way or the other, into my work life, albeit in only the thinnest of trickles. But it does, nonetheless. And I take advantage of the few opportunities I find to share my perspectives with my work colleagues, with those I interact with in client organisations, to cast the net more widely while doing field work, to present a paper that asks that we resist the recent redefinition of ‘impact’ (a key word in the development industry) that has no time, space or money for – let alone the interest in – unintended consequences, and to take on more work that focuses on vulnerability and resilience, in the hope that this offers some scope for problematising, for asking the right, difficult, technical – if not cosmopolitical – questions… But I remain mostly cynical, though I somehow find it within me to be sincere. Perhaps it helps that my field is evaluation, and so the space to ask – and seek answers to – questions is not completely eroded.

The reality, I believe, is that much of the ‘good work’ that I do through my job lies in the informal conversations I have with the people alongside whom I work. The sharing of frustrations, the exchange of ideas and perspectives, the critique of the status quo, the delicate balance between intensely sharing apocalyptic visions of our common future (or lack thereof) and the necessity – perhaps beyond what is rational – to find within and with others an energy that can keep us thinking beyond the tired institutional routines that deliver us our jobs. In this sense, it’s in the shadows that the magic lies, hidden from the light of official discourse and the performances and rituals that accompany it.

Perhaps one of the reasons I’ve been blogging less of late is that a great deal of my remaining energy has been invested in a set of relations that are explicitly established independently from, or at least in opposition to, the cloying, permeating, grip of capitalist logics. I’m talking about the house where I live, the people I live with and the collective we sometimes think and say we are trying to create together, whose ontological status remains obscure. Our rented flat, in the north of Delhi, a space we all (variously) want to serve as a place of residence, a place of work, a safe – or even a healing – space, a creative space, a transformative and political space and an open, communal space, has witnessed a fascinating, gruelling year (perhaps not surprising given all the expectations we have placed on it).

Since the start of the year we have been through more trials, tests of our ability to hold ourselves and each other together, than anything I have known for a while. We have been forced to engage with a variety of questions that pushed our boundaries: questions about care, questions about feminist practice and the line between the personal and the collective, questions about maintaining the house as a liveable space, about our needs and our limits (which we only discover once we come up against them), about mental health (grappling with depression and more), about the way we perceive and construct each other, about negativity and resentment and its destructive effect on our relationships, about power and friendship and the very simple question of how to live together. So a good deal of what I have written has been addressed to my fellow housemates, and quite some time has gone into trying to have the conversations that we felt were required to deal with the problems and the questions that this becoming-collective has entailed. At some point, I will try to pull some of the insights from this experience together, perhaps once all of us who have been through it have vetted it.

Besides that, I’ve kept myself involved very peripherally in a few of my friends’ projects, out and about in Delhi and beyond (more about the son I hope). We live in terrifying times and the greatest terror of all, I think is the paralysis, the psychological damage, that what we are all living through inflicts. When all is said and done, I look to those struggling relentlessly against injustice on all fronts, in the forests, in the fields, in the slums, in homes, in factories, in occupied territories, in schools, on the internet. I look to these people with awe and admiration for putting their necks on the line and I look to them with the hope that they will be capable of hesitating just enough to let themselves be perplexed when the situations they confront challenge their habitual ways of thinking and perceiving, that they will allow themselves to be provoked into creativity, into feeling the bubbling multiplicity of becomings that lurk beneath the surface of the hard world of political organisation, militarisation and police repression, petty or profound factionalism and the party-line.

When blind rage and hatred seem like the only way out, it is the kernel of love – not for some God, a distant future or any transcendent Truth that might unify us – but for our fellow creatures, for the ecology of selves with whom we share this planet and all that sustains them that must be protected and nurtured at all costs. We have so much to learn about what it means to put all this into practice and it is only by putting it into practice that we stand a chance of learning anything about it… and of avoiding the danger of turning in endless theoretical circles.

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Stengers on pharmakon, anticapitalist struggle and creation in the face of the ecological crisis

The following is a passage I just translated from Stengers’ Au temps des catastrophes: Résister à la barbarie qui vient. Looking back over the last few years, since I have been engaged in some more serious explorations of philosophy and politics, this is a book that I have returned to again and again in those times where my energy is low, my work-life seems to have taken over and I’m struggling to make time for the theoretical, practical and praxical engagements that matter to me. I’m honestly not into hero worship, but Stengers seems to offer such militant wisdom that it’s hard not to feel a certain sense of admiration. In this passage, Stengers brings up the question of the pharmakon and its relation with both struggle and creation in the face of the ecological crisis, which she invokes through her own twist on the figure of Gaia. Systematically anti-capitalist, I feel she speaks to the need of the hour with a lucidity that begs us to slow down and think and create even as we intensify and proliferate our struggles. What more can I say. There is so much work to be done!


Pages 129 – 137, Isabelle Stengers. Au Temps des Catastrophes: Résister à la Barbarie qui Vient. Les Empecheurs de penser en rond, Éditions La Découverte, Paris, 2009


I uphold that the question of the commoners needs – crucially – a particular version of the art of ‘paying attention’. In particular, the art that the Greeks called pharmakon, which can be translated as ‘drug’. What characterises the pharmakon is at the same time its efficacity and its lack of identity: depending on the dose and the use, it can just as well be a remedy or poison. It is thus for the attention that can be called forth by the movements of usagers (users who also have an active/creative engagement with what they use): the type of attention that their ‘milieu’ lends them is capable of either nourishing or poisoning them. And the same pharmacological incertitude applies to what these movements can themselves produce. That they ‘can be dangerous’ goes without saying – all pharmakon can be dangerous. Rather, it is a matter of putting in suspense, by referring to the instability of the pharmakon, remedy or poison, the objection implicit in this utterance.

When a ‘responsable’ cries (and it is by this cry that we can recognise that he thinks himself ‘responsable’) “but that could be dangerous!”, he inherits with this “but” a history in which the instability of the pharmakon has ceaselessly been used to condemn it. A history that has ceaselessly privileged that which presents, or seems to present, the guarantees of a stable identity, making it possible to do away with the question of the appropriate attention, of learning the doses and the manner of preparation. A history in which the question of the pharmakon‘s efficacity has endlessly been subjugated, reduced to the question of causes believed to explain their effects.

The hate of pharmakon goes back a long way. One can, if one wants, bring it back to Plato, who defined philosophy by the requirement of such a stability against his rivals, the sophists, capable of the best and the worst. Or else to Christian monotheism, the invention of an intrinsically good God. Or else to the question of the power of judgement, which needs to abstract from its circumstances. Or again, to the passion to recognise the true contender from the imposters, a passion which nourishes a certain hunger for the truth. Our history is, in the end, saturated by multiple versions of the same obsession: that of doing away with pharmakon to the benefit of that which offers the guarantee of escaping from its hateable ambiguity. And isn’t such an offer the very seduction of that which, invoking the imprudence of use without restraint, would have the efficacity of a poison?

Let us return, from this vantage point, to the contrast between the response that the (open source) computer scientists (informaticiens) knew how to give to the operation of enclosure that threatened them, and the passive ressentiment of the majority of those, among the scientists, who have not already embraced the cause of the knowledge economy. This contrast is all the more intriguing because the cooperative character of scientific research served as a reference for the software developers. Why did the computer scientists succeed not only to defend their capacity to cooperate but also to think and invent links with users, like me, who count – from now on – on the possibility of freely downloading a program that responds to their needs? Why did the scientists preferentially link themselves with the State and industry, and why did they define the rest in terms of a lack (of knowledge and rationality), in such a manner, that at the moment where their allies began to make servants of them, they found themselves incapable of imagining a possibility of resisting?

Thinking in pharmacological terms, here, is to ask the question – not of the identity of the sciences – but of the difference of the ‘milieus‘ of these two practices, milieus which are not only ‘external’ but include the manner in which the practitioner evaluates his relations with them. The event which constituted the “birth of the modern sciences” is, from this point of view, significant. Today, we still find authors, although often interesting, who repeat this nonsense: if Europe was able to carve out a difference, notably from China, it’s because she discovered the power of scientific rationality and was thereby able to identify the laws obeyed by nature. The success of the propaganda operation initiated by Galileo, which continues to infect the imagination of both scientists and non-scientists, could well hold to the notion that the propaganda is virtually without designer. The practical novelty effectively associated with experimental proof would have found a ready-made milieu, capable of giving it this kind of echo. As rare as the so-called ‘experimental’ facts are (capable of bearing witness to the manner in which they must be interpreted), this capacity would have reactivated the old hate of pharmakon, of unstable opinion, of undecidable interpretations. A finally rational relation to the world had been created!

The constitution of this event would then have been less the novelty of the experimental success than the satisfaction of a much more ancient requirement, the requirement that a truth impose itself, which is to say that it be capable of manifesting its difference from its rivals. No surprise then that the “it hasn’t been proven” came so easily to coincide with “it’s not worthy of consideration”, and that the suspicion of irrationality came to weigh on those who took an interest in “that which has not been proven.”

In contrast, one could say that the practice of software developers was marked, from the outset, by the knowledge that what they were producing could be remedy or poison, notably by a possible future ruled by Big Brother. And this contrast has as its correlate the singular innovations of the computer science. It is a matter of a rare case where the technical, cultural, social and political enjeux (stakes) were intimately knotted. An all the more remarkable case given that its history is anchored in a military development. It should not be forgotten that software is linked with war and that today, more than ever, it is an instrument of control, repression and exploitation. But that it is not only this, we owe it perhaps to the particularity of the practitioners who never considered their technology as innocent, who never handed over the responsibility of the choice of whether to make a good or bad use to politicians (consider the well-known argument used ritualistically by scientists: is it the fualt of the person who invented the axe that it was used for killing?).

The pharmacological approach does not permit the posing of the question “whose fault is it?”, to proceed with the distribution of guilt and innocence. The software developers who knew how to resist are not ‘better’ than the scientists who couldn’t. Rather, it requires thinking “by the milieu”. And the case of the scientists shows that a milieu that is obsessed with establishing a stable distinction between remedy and poison, is a milieu that poisons, which destroys. How many attempts were disqualified because they could not offer guarantees that none should have been able to offer?! How many brutal judgements were passed against that which, fragile and precarious, was asking to be nourished and protected!

In all cases, the time of guarantees is over, this is the first sense conferred by the intrusion of Gaia. Which does not signify that everything has the same value, resigned sigh or horrified cry expressing again and always the search for a value endowed with the power to denounce rivals who would be mere imposters. Which signifies that, that which has value must first be defined as vulnerable, and that the dynamics of creation of knowledges, struggles and experiences that can respond to this intrusion are by definition vulnerable – each insufficient in its own right but important in terms of its possible repercussions, because it can incite other creations.

An answer is not reducible to a simple expression of conviction. It is fabricated. Successful or failed. No manner of responding can just proclaim a legitimacy that transcends the circumstances, which demands recognition by all, that dreams or requires that all will accept it as definitive But neither can any be condemned because it is vulnerable to a dangerous (mis?)use. The art of pharmakon proposes, on the contrary to those who pose the diagnosis “it could be dangerous” to recognise that the objection engages them, makes them an integral party to the process of fabrication. If they were to ignore that they are an integral party, they would nonetheless be so, as judges, and would contribute to a hostile or ironic milieu. But they can also be so as allies, by posing questions such as: “How can we contribute to avoid this danger?”; “How to cooperate against that which will lend itself to confirming our diagnosis?”; “How can we ‘create milieu’ on a mode that would help that which risks itself in existence?”

There exists only one certitude – that the process of creation of possibles must protect itself like the plague from a utopian mode, which appeals to the surpassing of conflicts, which proposes a remedy whose interest should, finally, be respected by all. The only generality that holds is that all creation must incorporate the knowledge that it does not risk itself in a friendly world, but in an unhealthy milieu, that it will have to deal with protagonists – the State, capitalism, professionals – who will exploit all weaknesses, and which will activate all processes capable of poisoning it (“recuperating” it). And doing so, for example, by recognising the usagers in a mode that transforms them into stakeholders, by creating situations which divide those who are seeking cooperation, by demanding inappropriate guarantees, or by creating infernal alternatives which dismember that which seeks to create its own position.

I have already emphasised that the intrusion of Gaia throws temporalities into disorder. The pharmacological art is required because the time of struggle cannot be deferred for ‘afterwards’ (when there will be no more danger), the time of creation; the time when humans could deploy – life, thought and joy – their creative capacities and combine their efforts for the benefit of all. But it is also required because those who seek to create cannot do so innocently, accusing those who struggle of wanting to “take power” while they themselves would have turned their back on such an ambition. The time of struggle and of creation must learn to conjugate themselves without confusion, by a form of relay, prolonging and reciprocal learning of the art of paying attention, under pain of mutually poisoning each other and leaving the terrain free for the coming barbarity.

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Catching up

I went to a screening of ‘5 broken cameras’ put on at Delhi University by a group of politically engaged students. The film was intense, disturbing and in many ways problematic. In the background, probably at that very hour, rockets were being fired into Palestine and footsoldiers were on the ground, raiding homes. Meanwhile, the prevailing allegiance in India is with Israel, a country with which it has deep political, economic and military ties. The exchange of strategies and tactics, the use of shared training grounds, the exchange of weapons is also a part of the Indian nation’s war on some of its most marginalised people and their struggles of resistance. When the film came to an end the room was silent. Everyone was just sat staring blankly, affectively disturbed, unable to do anything but let the images, the story and the horror gradually sink in. Eventually the silence was broken – it seemed premature – by a question: “Does anyone want to share a reflection?” An answer came, raising questions of violence and non-violence and the question of Hamas. The usual polarised positioning ensued, with details of the first and second intifada being used to bolster arguments. Unresolved disagreement: perhaps this conversation should be continued at another time. Eventually new questions: What can we do? Pressure the Indian state? Spread the truth? Sure. But has anyone seen what is going on in India? Has anyone observed the reconfiguration of power? How do we situate the question of solidarity in the context of a globalised capitalism that is in crisis and a producer of multiple crises? How do we negotiate the almost seamless chasm between discourse and deed that characterises the media-sphere of the state-capitalist nexus? When the whole capitalist-state apparatus speaks of ending poverty and yet is set on fast-tracking the wholesale plunder of the country’s resources, the destruction of its ecosystems and the further marginalisation and impoverishment of its people, what does one do?

There is a thesis that the capitalism has reached or is close to reaching rock bottom. It has penetrated to the places with the cheapest labour force and the most remote and inaccessible resources. It has nowhere left to fly to when confronted with obstacles – striking workers, laws, protesting indigenous people, militarised revolutionary groups. This leaves it with little option but to mobilise what could be called brute force: the deployment of its agents: the army, the police and the mafia – groups who physically violate those who resist: killing, torturing, massacring – even burning down entire villages. Meanwhile it wages a superbly orchestrated war of soft power – through control of the media, through gaming the legal system, through bribery, through PR agencies expert in glossing over the filth that lies under the carpet, through the mobilisation of networks of confluent interest (investors, politicians, industrialists, etc.), and through fuelling communal tensions, fragmenting resistance and so on. In India this can be witnessed across the country, as hundreds of striking workers get thrown in jail on false charges of killing a manager after violence was insighted by hired goons or others get brutally beaten and hospitalised for refusing to work over violation of labour laws. Elsewhere, adivasis and landless people – often backed more or less directly by any number of left political organisations, social movements or activist networks – struggle against displacement due to mega-mines, refineries, sea-ports, mega-dams, nuclear power stations, special tourism zones and thousand kilometre long industrial corridors. Ah. Development. Progress.

The minerals and extractives sector. Aside from humans – from labourers, from bureaucrats, the countless types of possessed or enslaved souls – isn’t this the primary fuel of capitalism? Capitalism cannot function without the exploitation of natural resources – it is inherent in its logic and most certainly dictated by its technological regime. Our global economy is based on this. It is the bauxite, sitting in the hills of Niyamgiri in Odisha – or in Brazil, or wherever – that will be used to create the weapons that pointlessly shred so many lives apart, as if they were worthless. True, if there is resistance in Niyamgiri then bauxite could just as well come from somewhere else. But today, most likely the resistance is mounting there too, in other places. In this situation, capital will be driven by two main things: (1) where is the resistance weakest; (2) where can the resistance be squashed for the lowest costs. After all, the loans that have been taken for developing the mines in Niyamgiri must be repaid to the investors – mostly banks based in the UK, elsewhere in Europe or in North America/Canada. These loans add up to billions, if not trillions, of dollars and they have been given for the extraction of minerals worth multiples of this. And so, we are really witnessing the final showdown in many ways. A relentless capitalism, mindlessly – algorithmically – plugging away, enacting a banal and monotonously simple calculus of profit for which everything is expendable. This means that we know, with crystal clarity, what is coming – what must come – so long as the machine is left intact.

Some might argue that there is another route: a separation from global capital, perhaps a national revolution if you will. But how can this proceed without ushering in an arms race? Witnessing the history of wars in the Middle East, for example, these last 15 years or so (the number of years I have been following unfolding events there – however partially), the emergence of new modes of warfare – from the perpetual surveillance and racism of the war on terror or the closer-to-home reality of the NSA to the second-order management of political instability in zones of perpetual conflict and the mainstreaming of drones – and the total opacity and illegality of military interventions – there is no chance of ‘being left alone’. We have seen Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and other uprsisings in the region getting sabotaged, thwarted, co-opted, or ruthlessly crushed. The notion that the revolutionary impulse can spread unpredictably and uncontrollably – like wildfire – is not lost on those who are able to pull the strings on the world stage. No resistance that goes beyond the cosmetic or superficial display of ‘democratic expression’ can be tolerated. Repression is a daily reality and fills the media channels of those who care to know.

Stengers writes – or I inherit from her – the idea that the only thing that can change a system such as capitalism, with its obstinate logics, its hired eyes and ears and its filthy, deceitful mouth capable only of manipulation, spouting platitudes or hurling infernal alternatives at people – is the creation of an event that confounds it, that creates a situation that it can neither ignore nor dispel. Such events function as a rupture in the smooth operations of capital (keeping in mind that war and destruction are part of this smotohness). Of course, confronted with a multi-faced capitalism, it is the multiplication of simultaneous – if not loosely coordinated – ruptures that amplifies the crisis. We know well that we can locate strategic points in the networks that sustain the smooth functioning of capital: major production units, power sources, extractive industries, supply lines and trade/communication routes to name some of the most prominent. This is one domain of resistance against capital. But the battle is a delicate one because resistance invokes the full wrath of the state-corporate nexus and its totally disproportionate military might. So, in the meanwhile, the work must turn to propaganda, or counter-propaganda, to the courts, the media, party politics, scientists, parliaments – to all the nodes in the network that might disrupt the very flows that capitalism depends on.

But India shakes us here. The new regime is hell-bent on weakening laws designed to guarantee workers certain basic rights or to protect the environment from total destruction – and of course it has a coterie of globalised financial and corporate giants drooling over it, salivating at the prospect of a massive and totally expendable work-force and hundreds of billions of dollars worth of resources packed under the soil or in the seas all gauranteed through a servile police force equipped with riot gear, water cannons, rubber coated bullets and, if that’s not enough, countless massess in the (para-military) Central Reserve Police Force or – why not – the army itself. Of course, plenty of work can be carried out under the radar through hired goons. The sites of so many existing and prospective mines, dams, etc., are in areas where the greater part of the population live with minimal material consumption. This is the result of both their cultures and traditions on the one hand and their long history of relations with states of varying degrees of hostility toward them. As their marginalisation and expropriation intensifies and their young are educated – if at all – in schools that alienate them from their cultural contexts and turn them into servants – the phenomenon known as poverty creeps in and soon a good number of people can be bought for relatively little. These people work as goons – sometimes from outside, sometimes from within – sometimes mobilised along communal lines, sometimes paid, sometimes given free reign to take whatever they can, a share of the spoils. And it doesn’t take many goons to cause a great deal of damage, to weaken morale, to silence someone outspoken, to kill someone, to set traps for activists and stage events that make them look crinimal in the public eye, to do ecological damage that will take a lifetime or more to repair. This is the story that repeats itself across the land. It is a story that shrivels life in its wake, that gropes for the meaning it destroys and produces the meaning and the bodies that will one day rise up to destroy it in turn.

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Wazirpur update

It’s been a while since my last post, in which I shared some ramblings following a short visit to Wazirpur, an old industrial area in the north of Delhi. I was quite surprised to discover that a major strike broke out about a month after my visit. I know nothing of the specifics of how this came together but it makes for quite a striking event in light of my last post! Clearly the palpable sense of the potential for erruption was validated and, most encouragingly, the existence of solidarity amongst workers occupying such precarious positions has revealed itself, leaving me with that brief, warm, fuzzy feeling of knowing that such things are possible, against the odds.


Some further references for those who are interested:

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Wazirpur – visit 1

A few days ago I visited Wazirpur, an old industrial neighbourhood in north Delhi. At some point, after the 80s (?), capital pulled out of the area in a big way, leaving behind an air of  dereliction. Today, the place is home to a plethora of small crumbling workshops where precarious labourers toil for long hours, doing dangerous jobs for less than minimum wages.

* * *

The grey streets of Wazirpur, spotted with colour: some rotting cabbages and tomatoes wedged into the open sewer, as though a pile of damp rubble and trash had erupted from the broken concrete. The sun was out blasting its 40ºC onto the sweating heads of meandering locals and the soot-covered walls of dilapidated factories. Hive-like clusters of tiny brick houses perched all over each other peaked out from behind the factories. In the shadowy interiors of clamorous workshops, workers moved about to the metallic clang of hammering or stood beside blasting furnaces, sliding strips of steel into and out of the machine. Some stood at the factory entrances, in twos or threes, chatting a little or just staring out at the street.

They were not difficult to approach. I was carrying some copies of a magazine that some friends of mine were distributing, dealing with labour issues, particularly in the context of May Day, which was the next day. Holding out my magazine I would get chatting with the people in the streets or sitting at a chai stall, most of them labourers, apparently on an off-day. In Wazirpur, Wednesday is the local version of the weekend.

I learned a lot from these conversations about the place, its people, the local political dynamics, the condition of the labourers, and the functioning of the factories, the housing system, basic services and legal institutions. I would be a fool to suggest I have more than a superficial picture of the place, but even that is enough to get a sense of how, broadly, it holds together: the shadowy forces busily playing with the dynamics of life, regulating life, shaping life, crippling life.

A man walked along, his wife close behind, and when we stopped him to light a beedie, we saw his hands were swollen, misshapen and blackened around the knuckles, on both hands. “What happened to your hands?” one of us asked. “Oh! It’s from my job!” he exclaimed, “I work with pots and I have to put my hands like this…” He placed his hands on his legs, showing how his knuckles received a kind of constant interaction with the metal pots he worked on. “So, are you going to the hospital?” One of us asked. The man started laughing. “No. No. This is how my hands are now!” His wife had been getting impatient and was calling him away. We continued in our respective ways.

I met people from Bihar, UP and Rajasthan. Some said they had grown up in Wazirpur, some had been there for almost 20 years and some just arrived last month. It was a life where no one felt secure. The slightest slip and they could quickly find themselves out of a job – especially if that slip was to suggest that working conditions should be improved. The general pattern was around 10-50 labourers (men for the most part) in a factory, mostly doing metalwork. They worked shifts of 12-14 hours daily with no pay for working overtime, barely getting paid enough to live, having no medical insurance, no rights, and no job security whatsoever. When the labour inspector comes, staff are often ordered to leave the factories so that they can’t speak up.

With the constant influx of new aspirants looking for work, the hierarchy of supervisors and managers, and the rackets of politicians, factory owners, the police, the mafia and the landlords and bureaucrats, trust, so to speak, had its boundaries. With such a fragmented labour force, the idea of workers striking seemed a bit like joke. Again and again I was told “There are no unions here, there is no unity.” There was not much space for manoeuvre, for doing anything out of line, for sticking your neck out, for screwing up that bare life. The message was clear: if you speak up, expect no one to come to your side. You’d be pulling a crazy. You would be without your day’s wages and, quite probably, you would have lost your job too. And you wouldn’t exactly be popular in the neighbourhood. This spells economic doom and the prospect seems terrifying. Better not to fuck up. Better to just get on with it. So long as things can go on…

But everyone knows, in one form or another, what they are up are against. They have a keen sense of how they are exploited, of the class dynamics at work in this exploitation, of how they have been failed by the constitution. Many of them are literate and words flow quickly between them where the occasions allow it. At some point, I asked a group of men sitting in the shade if things could ever change. For the most part this question brought a barrage of hopelessness, but one young man cautioned me “Don’t expect anything to change fast over here. You have to go slowly. Things could get out of hand quickly… and that could be disastrous. But if you find some sharp people and start talking with them, then you might be able to grow some stronger roots and one day a full tree will grow…”

By the evening, the worst of the heat had subsided and people of all ages were out on the narrow residential lanes and wider market streets, bantering with each other or inspecting the wares of the fishmongers and vegetable hawkers, trying to strike a bargain.

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The gap that divides
here and now
thought and action
politics and religion
you and I.

Dreaming wanderers
Fall endlessly
Into it.

A teaming abyss
of cybernetic suffocation,
guided paralysis and yoga retreats.
You are everything,
You are nothing.
You are not even the speck in between everything and nothing
Let the media junk digest your brain
Be the part
Of a cannibal whole
Into prolonged decay
Ejaculating in the illusion of your own glory

Machines groan and smash thunder.
Sweating workers lose fingers, hands, arms,
Minds and souls,
Free women move their bodies
And scream rage in the shadows of drunken beatings, gang rapes and honour killings.
Homosexuals, transgenders and queers
theorize their existential criminality.
Dogged adivasis dragged from their land, laughter and freshly plucked mangoes,
Their gods murdered,
Set adrift in dead concrete boats
Away from forests, mountains, streams
Beside the mines and factories
Where they languish without dreams
Still not of this time
Never to become of this time

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