Terror of performance

Print edition : April 03, 2015

May 1, 2003: U.S. President George W. Bush meets pilots and crew members of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln as they return to the U.S. after being deployed in the Gulf region. Terrorism is an official ideology of counter-insurgency, whereas “terror” is the “sprawl” of “human cruelties” that abounds in daily experiences of lived life thorough the world, says the author. Photo: HECTOR MATA/AFP

This significant book distinguishes the experience of terror from the ideology of “terrorism” carefully cultivated since 9/11.

RUSTOM BHARUCHA has produced a slender but significant book entitled Terror and Performance ( TP, hereafter) intended for lay as well as specialist readers. Lay readers may find it too specialised and the cognoscenti may find some loose ends. This narrative risk has to be run because what we call “terror” is a central problem of our times and concerns us all. But what may constitute the texts of terror and what meanings these convey are diversely contested issues. The value of TP lies in conveying the truth that even when the managers of civil society and the state seek to define, combat and control “terror”, its meanings are simultaneously both pre-given and produced through performance. The focus on the narrative as performance gives a special meaning to this work.

This is an impossible work to review in the usual sense. If its writing is plagued by the “onslaught of uncertainties and cruelties at a global level that challenges the basic assumptions of what it means to be human” (page viii), so is its reading. If we are all “biological beasts” (as the linguist-philosopher John Searle puts it), the experience of “terror” is as banal as that of joy. Hannah Arendt traced this movement poignantly: at one moment, she narrated the Kantian “radical evil” (as a state of affairs which we can neither fully understand nor can ever fully forgive), at another its banalisation where the doer is neither aware of the causes nor the consequences of radical evil but acts mechanically, as did Eichmann as a “cog in the machine”.

Interested in the phenomenon of routinisation of evil, Bharucha’s central problem is not so much the secular theology of radical evil as the everyday experience of it. If “terror” is banal, and not a “radical” evil, and thus is integral to life itself, why develop normative (ethical, juristic, philosophical) theories or theses about “what it means to be human”? The book is a serious response to this many-sided question and this review is an invitation to study it.

Bharucha does a signal service by distinguishing the experience of terror (here grasped as standardless use of force) from the ideology of “terrorism” carefully cultivated with and since 9/11. Terrorism is an official ideology of counter-insurgency, whereas “terror” is the “sprawl” of “human cruelties” that abounds in daily (pages 4-8) experiences of lived life through the world (pages x, 9).

This book is a harrowing history, and in part an autobiography, of such horrors that predate, accompany and outlast 9/11; in that sense it is “terror” rather than “terrorism” narrated by Bharucha. What Francois Debrix names as “tabloid terror” appears in Bharucha as “rampant mediatisation of terror on television, cable networks and other electronic sites”. This robs us of choice; we “see what media wants us to see” and this is “strategically sanctified by powerbrokers of terror to the infinite referral” to “the same images”. These begin to acquire an archetypal power (pages 17-18). Tabloid terror is a powerful means of the war on terror (WOT, hereafter).

War on terror

The agents of WOT are certainly the managers and agents of the state; but related horrors are also produced by civil society. The latter includes every entity that is not-state: the market, media, social movement and human-rights folks, and insurgent actors including armed opposition groups. What Bharucha makes legible in many ways is civil society “terror”, perhaps the combination of market with the state. For Bharucha personally, it came as being regarded as Muslim (because of his Parsi beard (page 110) and the burning of the theatre in Manila (when he staged The Maids, a play by Jean Genet). Both these haunting episodes invite the reader to share her own experiences as she reads this work. In this sense, TP constitutes an interactional ethnography.

Practices of misidentification and accidents play an important part in WOT; so do stereotypes. The author says a good deal about present-day Islamophobia; the “othering” of Muslims leads to their “homogenisation and legitimation of Islamophobia at global, national, and local levels” (page 97). Particularly striking is the assertion that the “dead certainty” of “genocide” needs to be inscribed by the “ uncertainty of justice” (page 108). In plain words, it is impunity—acting as if law does not exist—that matters and is at the heart of terror as a performance.

How is that uncertainty produced? This important question differently pursued by TP is in dire need of direct responses. Is it an integral feature of modern law that it cannot furnish any arresting response to state lawlessness, although it may occasionally penalise official deviance? How far is this loss of legality built into lawness itself? Is the rule of law itself illegal, as Ugo Mattei and Laura Nader invite us to think, when law serves to mask “plunder” and “predation”? Is it the case, as Marx said, that the rule of law may not exist outside the reign of terror? Is, as the Mahatma once said, the law nothing but “the convenience of the powerful” or Michel Foucault’s tactic of power and signature of sovereignty? Or is it also the case that there is also something emancipative about the law?

‘Oppressive realities’

Interested in such meta-issues, Bharucha prefers to approach these at micro levels. He recognises the “oppressive realities” of the criminal justice system (“all the inevitable delays, suspensions, blackmail and threats, constituting a systematic denial or deferral of justice”) but remains unwilling to abandon the institutions of the law entirely. Bharucha unveils the complexity and contradiction in the oft-used phrase “let the law take its course” and “frustrations” though he is not “entirely convinced of its futility” (page 115). From this vantage point, a reading of Chapter 3, which deals with the device of truth and reconciliation commissions (TRC) in South Africa and Rwanda, shows fully the dilemmas of nationalisation of memory and an archive of amnesty on the one hand and the tasks of governance and development on the other as history moves on. Whose history moves on, on whose bodies is the future memory of history inscribed, how do we confront the assassins of memory, and in how many ways do we draw a disturbed distinction between memory and history” asks Bharucha.

India, of course, has not adopted the TRC device, despite significant urgings, including mine! The state commissions of inquiry remain the staple norm to which are added human rights groups-led independent citizen “fact-finding” commissions. Conflicting narratives abound as to the means and methods, models and missions of violence; the citizen commissions, often headed and resourced by former justices of the Supreme Court or High Courts, inadvertently aid competitive liberal politics around a catastrophe. These, not unlike the TRC, pursue the norm of “breaking the silence”, which is a fresh start in some ways. But TP helps us feel uneasy about this norm; what matters is not that the violated “are witness to their own suffering” but that they are “sentinels of their own suffering” (page 147). This distinction goes beyond giving pain a language; equally important, it remains to recognise “anger” and “revenge”, “amnesty” and “premature” closure (pages 147-158).

The important last chapter and the postscript must have been difficult to write and are not easy to read. Offering a discussion of Mohandas’ theory and practice of non-violence is not easy. Valiantly, the author places it in various contexts—whether of the “epic” theatre of Bertolt Brecht, the contexts of Sri Aurobindo, and of Gayatri Spivak, Tridip Suhrud, Ajay Skaria, or Faisal Devji (not to also invoke Lord Bhikhu Parekh, who famously composed a dialogue between Mohandas and Osama bin Laden). Yet, in the end, what is relevant is what Brecht wrote in the Prologue to The Exception and the Rule (1937):

Let nothing be called

natural

In an age of bloody

confusion,

Ordered disorder,

planned caprice,

And dehumanised hu-

manity, lest all things

Be held unalterable!

Space permits only a few summary remarks, perhaps best put in the form of questions for thought. Did Mohandas have a theory of collective martyrdom? How does it differ from the doctrine of shahadat? How is adjudication of conflicting social theory possible without presenting images of a true Sharia? Is jehad a form of shahadat? Is it a form of sacrifice and sacrificing or simply an act of brutality and violence? What does it mean to say that Mohandas’ satyagrahi is a figure who is “prepared to die but not kill” (reversing Giorgio Agamben’s “Homo Sacer”) and furnishes “a new paradigm for the political imagery of our times” (page 173)? Is “performance studies”, after all, the best pathway to the future, a “new apparatus for survival” assuring “new forms of protection and civic education that do not merely feed the dominant cultures of surveillance” (pages 203-204)? These are worthy questions that Bharucha frames and his narrative entails.

The book is likely to provoke, even annoy, several types of readers. A protagonist of WOT may hold paramount (over those of human rights) considerations of national, regional, and global security and condemn the extremists, jehadists, or terrorists to the very same regard they display towards non-combatant civilians. Bharucha’s response will be to put cruelty/barbarity first as a way of taking human suffering, and therefore human rights, seriously.

Many international lawyers may suggest that there is a customary right of individual and collective self-defence and a right of humanitarian intervention as well as a right to assist and that this may even lead to further acts of counter-insurgency globally. TP dismisses this as Eurocentric arrogance but acknowledges that the issue of what to do with terror remains.

Among the Mohandasians some interlocution on reading non-violence is bound to arise, particularly the discussion of “violence of non-violence” (pages 187-188).

The hard Hindutva reader is certainly likely to contest the description of “genocide” in Gujarat in 2002, and even maintain that the then Chief Minister (and now the Prime Minister), Narendra Modi, has so far not been held guilty by any commission or court. She is likely to say that Modi is not even morally responsible; on the other hand, the author decidedly holds the contrary view.

Bhopal and terror

The Bhopal methyl isocyanate (MIC)-afflicted humanity, in its 30-plus years aftermath, may articulate a sense of disappointment with TP as the terror of a multinational corporation is not fully articulated. An anecdote relevant here is worth a passing reference: Within four days of 9/11, I identified Bhopal also as an act of terror, on a leading national TV channel live interview; I have not been invited by the commercial TV channels since that day until now, whether or not formally blacklisted; the print media has been more hospitable.

This anecdote illustrates that the market or the economy is hard to grasp; it forms an integral part of “civil society” and yet maintains its fierce code of censorship, which varies depending on the nature of the media. The larger question is: How do we speak of such terror sponsored by society in neoliberal and hyperglobalising intersocial state-ordained times?

TP will be received variously. As Raymond Barthes once said metaphorically, the birth of a reader entails the death of an author. There is no, nor should there be any, way out of interpretive pluralism; but Bharucha, well aware of the pleasures and perils of writing, does hold certain truths as providing the boundaries and borders of performance. This book, written in a masterful vein, will continue to be widely read and discussed. And one thanks Tulika for bringing this “performance” so elegantly to a wider readership.

Upendra Baxi is Emeritus Professor of Law, University of Warwick, United Kingdom.

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