Dialectics at the Threshold

This is what Bhrigu Singh says about the journey he had in mind for his book, Poverty and the Quest for Life: “I wanted to move closer to life in Shahabad. I also wanted to move farther away, to view Shahabad amid global movements of spirit and matter. This, then, was my bipolar orientation, nearer and farther than doxa, the impressionistic flatland of disembodied common sense” (20). I’d like to use my time here today to explore how Bhrigu navigates this journey, this bipolar orientation – and I want to do so through an exploration of what I take to be his key concept in the book: thresholds of life. My journey across his journey will take place in three short movements. The first movement is about how Bhrigu clears the ground, how he moves, as he puts it, farther away from doxa, the better to be able to move closer to life in Shahabad. The second movement explores this moving closer to life in Shahabad, and especially how it allows Bhrigu to develop his key concept, thresholds of life, immanently out of this moving closer. The third and last movement briefly takes up another one of Bhrigu’s central concepts – agonistic intimacy – and responds to it as an invitation to reflect, in an intimately agonistic way, now not on thresholds of life as a concept but rather on concepts as thresholds of life.

First movement: clearing the ground

Bhrigu’s signature gesture is to stay the moralizing hand of a social science that always already knows what it’s talking about and how you’re supposed to feel about it. This is the social science that has pre-identified the people among whom he conducted his fieldwork as abject and the officialdom that is supposed to serve them as corrupt. This kind of social science deals in what Bhrigu calls the ‘solar certainties’ of the enlighteners and the modernizers whose “‘critical’ common sense” (31) sees only failed states and bare life. That Bhrigu does his fieldwork in a part of northwestern India where everyday life is undeniably characterized by extreme poverty, drought, malnutrition, and marginalization only heightens the stakes of what he wants to achieve: that is, to find a way of talking about the waxing and waning of vitality, of human and non-human potencies, in a zone where solar wisdom sees only bare existence.

Bhrigu’s first and continuous task, then, is to move away from those strongly moralized concepts that stand in the way of a different ethics of ethnographic attention. Against blinding solar knowledge, Bhrigu proposes what he calls “a form of attentiveness to shifting tides: a lunar sense of enlightenment” (117). The promise here is the disclosure of a different drama. No longer now the pre-moralized struggle between “freedom-fighting heroes” and “colonizing villains” but rather “more ordinary necessities and desires” (122-123). No longer now just “Epochal terms such as feudalism and capitalism or neoliberalism” but rather “hybrid mixtures of old and new modes of transaction” (126). Thinking sovereignty not in terms of ideals of plenitude versus nightmares of abjection, but rather in terms of “the actualities of the state” (67). In this preliminary, ground-clearing movement, then, Bhrigu invites us to “think further about actual life rather than life-denying ideals” (138). And in a lovely line from the very final part of the book, he pokes gentle but serious fun at our would-be critical attachment to epochal drama – he says: “In waiting for the oceans to part, we may simply miss out on life” (229).

But Bhrigu is by no means simply calling for ethnography over theory. Far from it. In fact, Poverty and the Quest for Life is a work with grand theoretical ambitions – and a work that is wonderfully unembarrassed about its ambitions to theoretical generality. From an anthropological point of view, Bhrigu’s book is refreshing not least because it does the classic anthropological work of emphasizing ethnographic particularity against reified conceptualization. And while Bhrigu’s writing is deeply immersed in the cultural and linguistic particularities of life in Shahabad, his analysis refuses to fall back on culturalism as a mode of asserting the integrity of difference. One might say that Poverty and the Quest for Life is less interested in accounting for difference per se than in acknowledging a difference that might make a generalizable theoretical difference – that is to say, a difference that might shift the threshold for how we understand sovereignty, life, and action in general.

Second movement: moving closer

Thresholds indeed; thresholds of life. Having cleared the ground, Bhrigu finds himself immersed in local life. But what is the measure of life? Maybe there is, as he speculates early on, no measure for life. Can we, for instance, retrieve anything useful from the heavily moralized phrase “quality of life” (4)? As Bhrigu makes the ethnographic rounds, local potencies and potentates crowd in: regional deities, companion spirits, forestry officials, gurus and secular givers. As he strives to understand the play of these multiple potencies, their waxing and their waning, they start to become clearer and they begin, as it were, to prompt their own conceptual translation. Bhrigu says: “the gods helped me formulate a signature scholastic tool – concepts” (32).

Among these concepts, perhaps none is as omnipresent and as protean in Bhrigu’s book as ‘thresholds of life,’ a phrase that he typically qualifies as ‘varying thresholds of life,’ a concept that Bhrigu tells us “performs an encompassing ontological role” (282, his emphasis) in his work. He also tells us that it’s derived from Deleuze – but when I tried to follow up the page reference in Deleuze’s Pure Immanence, I found only a blank page…perhaps this was a mischievous bit of thug vidya – or trickster knowledge – on Bhrigu’s part? Turning, as one does, to Google, I did find some scattered references to the self as a threshold in Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. But in truth I’m more interested in what kind of vital threshold this concept – thresholds of life – is in Bhrigu’s text – how it lives and moves in the book and what kinds of life it makes sensible and intelligible in his project.

At first, I’ll admit, I was confused. In an explicitly definitional moment toward the end of the book, Bhrigu says that by thresholds of life he means two things. One meaning is moments of passage in a life – often ritually marked – like birth, marriage, death as well as phases of post-mortem life. But the concept of thresholds of life is also, Bhrigu explains, a way of talking about how different potencies, different vitalities become manifest or, as it were, ‘come alive’ socially. As he puts it, “In this sense, rather than thinking of the ‘supernatural’ versus the ‘rational,’ we can ask what thresholds and dimensions a culture or a self is open to” (282). As I say, though, it wasn’t immediately clear to me how this worked in Bhrigu’s writing, because sometimes ‘thresholds of life’ appear in the guise of objects – trees, water, food – sometimes they appear as the modes in which such objects might be discursively or ritually animated, sometimes they appear as states of being or consciousness – for example possession, renunciation or samadhi are all thresholds of life – and sometimes thresholds of life are what one might otherwise refer to as ideological narratives and practices like nationalism, religion, or post-colonial historiography. Some thresholds of life would seem to be culturally defined as ‘higher’ or ‘purer’ than others, which is not to say that they are more efficacious under all circumstances, but rather that they enjoy a kind of prestige whereby they might presume to incorporate or subsume ‘lower’ or ‘cruder’ thresholds of life.

I’m still not entirely sure that I fully understand what Bhrigu intends by thresholds of life, but as I read back through and across his book I began to form a version of the concept that seemed both useful to me and pretty much in line with the spirit of Bhrigu’s thinking. My sense is that thresholds of life might be understood as more or less formalized occasions or forms through which the multiple vital potentialities that animate a social field might be actualized in more or less durable ways. In that regard, Bhrigu’s reflections on what we might conventionally call ‘religious ritual’ seemed helpful. Acknowledging the etymological basis of the word ‘religion’ in notions of ‘binding’ or ‘tying together,’ Bhrigu suggests that we might understand ritual practice not in the usual sense as an act of ‘binding together’ the community in smooth solidarity, but rather as a practice of producing variably durable assemblages of contestation and contract, of potency and its routinization. That Bhrigu should read ritual this way is of course in line with his explicitly Nietzschean optic: an optic in which behind all the moralizing pieties of normative discourse we find an infinitely dynamic field of agonistic potencies. But this is also where the concept of thresholds of life becomes, I think, quite powerful in his analysis. It helps us to think through problems like why it is that gods are born and fade away at certain times and in certain places, why a debilitating condition of madness may, at another level, be a source of social power, and why “the quality of life” only becomes interesting as a concept once it’s opened up to a plurality of qualia – that is to say, “variable thresholds of life.”

There’s stuff in here that I find extremely useful for helping to think through my own preoccupations. Bhrigu asks, for example, why it is that we have such a hard time theorizing the vulnerability of state power as anything other than corruption or state failure? Have we been led too far down the road, leading from Weber to Foucault, of thinking state power only as more or less total rationalization? What about what Veena Das calls the element of ‘illegibility’ that is internal to the modern state or what Talal Asad calls the ‘margins of uncertainty’ that live alongside legal-bureaucratic legitimation? This is not, for Bhrigu, just a matter of the arcanum of power – of the sublime core of quotidian sovereignty. Rather the question of the partial illegibility of the state opens up a more complex set of problems for our theorizations of power, where ‘weakness’ may not be the opposite of ‘strength’ and – from the standpoint of subjects – ‘equality’ may not be the opposite of ‘inequality.’ On this latter point – that is to say, our habit of thinking of democratic politics as a salvific machine for the pursuit of equality – Bhrigu very characteristically completely refuses the anthropological balm of culturalism: we are certainly not going to get any relativizing organicist pieties about homo hierarchicus from him. But just as crucially, for him the alternative is also never a liberal-secular universalism in which persistent inequality can only be read as an index of disappointed political aspirations. What emerges instead from the pages of Poverty and the Quest for Life is a vision of politics as a kind of multiscalar agonistic contest in which various kinds of entities – human and non-human – mobilize forces that we might variably recognize as aesthetic, magical, and charismatic in a pursuit of enhanced life. Indeed, as obsessed as I am right now with revisiting the classic anthropological category of mana, there are many points in Bhrigu’s text that open up vitalizing thresholds for thinking potentiality and efficacy across “religious” and “secular” domains.

Third movement: agon

I promised just now that my third movement would travel from a look at thresholds of life as a concept to some words on concepts as thresholds of life. And here again, Bhrigu meets me more than halfway, declaring near the beginning of his book that “Concepts are spirit mediums” (32). But what do these mediums channel? Certainly not just local worlds. Concepts arising immanently out of fieldwork in highly particular places should not have to stay put. Rather they pursue their own trajectories of life in a comparative field. As Bhrigu puts it, emphatically: “It is not that Mitra-Varuna are ‘Indian’ gods and thereby explain only the Indian state. These are inherently comparative mythologies” (286).

I couldn’t agree more. The idea that local worlds can only be explained by local concepts, and that local concepts must remain bound by local worlds is little more than positivism masquerading as ethnographic ethics. The anthropologist is also a medium, a threshold of life, and the act of interpretation, when it is done well, actualizes potentialities in the substance of our encounters that go far beyond mere description. If concepts, as Bhrigu says “have a rhythm and a timing” (284), then part of what this means is that concepts are not just like pairs of spectacles or differently shaped windows through which we view the world. Concepts, too, are thresholds of life; that is to say, they actualize and animate the world in new ways.

And here I want to tease my good friend a little bit, taking him up on his invitation to an intimate agonistics. He already knows that I think his spirit guide Deleuze – in so many ways a threshold of life in Bhrigu’s project – he already knows that I think that Monsieur Deleuze has entirely misled him when it comes to his characterization of dialectics as life-denying. Against the neo-vitalist current, I would like to assert that the idea that concepts might emerge immanently from our ethnographic encounters is paradigmatically dialectical – indeed, it is a paradigmatically Hegelian thought. Having suggested that concepts are spirit mediums, Bhrigu adds, much later, that “Concepts, too, are mortal” (287). This, too, reads to me like an opening to a Hegelian thought: concepts, the great German master taught us, are internally dynamic because, in their immersion in life, they become internally agonistic – that is the source of their life, their potential, and their death. And when Bhrigu says that, in fieldwork, first impressions are at once moved beyond and retained, what could be a better gloss on the classic Hegelian idea of Aufhebung or sublation? But, someone will object, isn’t sublation a teleological and totalizing concept? Right, but that’s precisely where negative dialectics come in – a non-teleological, non-totalizing dialectics as Adorno defined the term.

As I say, I’m playing with my friend a little bit here, dressing up his thoughts in the very terms that he so vehemently rejects. But my purpose here is not just to fantasize a little playful theoretical cross-dressing, but perhaps also to open up a conversation about conceptual voluntarism – about what it means to ‘choose’ a position from which to write, whether we can really ‘choose’ a position from which to write, especially if good anthropology involves, as Bhrigu puts it so well, “a particular mode of attentiveness to life” (285). In a Nietzschean spirit, Bhrigu is advocating a joyful, life-affirming anthropology against the moralizing pathos that he finds in critical theory. As he puts it: “Strangely enough in my scholastic neck of the words, such is the view of life (or is it only a mode of feigning gravitas?) that it is harder for now to prompt a smile than it is to confirm a global catastrophe. What spirits possess us?” (58). Yes of course, I want to say – but then who wouldn’t choose life over death, the smile over the catastrophe, as long as the two are presented as an either/or? Perhaps we’re losing our way, and losing our “attentiveness to life,” as soon as we start imagining affirmation and negation as separable stances, as if one might choose one or the other, as if one doesn’t activate and potentiate the other?

And what is this thing that we’re doing when we ‘choose,’ anyway? Bhrigu has some wise things to say here, for instance when he reflects: “what form of life are we drawn to? We often express what impresses us, what impresses itself upon us. This is not so much a question of logic as of ethics, the kind of life to which we are attracted” (223). But if what attracts us is what impresses us, then what it is that makes us impressionable in a particular way in the first place? Surely there are deep histories, unconscious histories here, histories that turn us into particular kinds of…what? Spirit mediums? Thresholds of life? Interpretive media? Slightly later in the book, Bhrigu suggests: “At best, like Nietzsche, for instance, we might set out the coordinates of a tension as accurately as possible and declare the direction of our own attraction, as he does for Dionysus” (276). I couldn’t agree more – but it seems to me that, again, the important point here is not the attraction to Dionysus per se, but rather the phrase “coordinates of a tension” – that is, the tension between Apollo and Dionysus is not an either/or, but rather a both/and: the tension is constitutive and in itself productive and, perhaps, vitalizing.

As I’m sure you can tell, a few passages in Bhrigu’s book had me on the defensive – when he writes, for instance, of “the gloomy spirit of negative dialecticians in the post-9/11 era” (55), and I know exactly what and whom he’s talking about but I also absolutely don’t want to waste the rare and precious term ‘negative dialectic’ on those guys. Or when he uses a phrase that, to me, has to be a contradiction in terms: a “transcendentally negative dialectic” (44). But in the spirit of intimate agonistics, this is of course entirely appropriate. In my long-standing pursuit of what I call ‘dialectical vitalism,’ I continue to dream of peculiar monsters. And the force of this exceptionally fine book, Poverty and the Quest for Life, is that it asks not ‘what will you defend?’ but rather ‘what can you become?’


William Mazzarella is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Shoveling Smoke: Advertising and Globalization in Contemporary India (Duke, 2003) and Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity (Duke 2013).


One Response to Dialectics at the Threshold

  1. Pingback: Book Forum – Bhrigupati Singh’s Poverty and the Quest for Life by Todd Meyers - Bioethics Research Library

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