EMILY MARTIN New York University

Review essay
Violence, language, and everyday life
LifeandWords:ViolenceandtheDescentintotheOrdinary. Veena Das. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 296 pp., maps, tables, notes, acknowledgments, index. Living with Violence: An Anthropology of Events and Everyday Life. Roma Chatterji and Deepak Mehta. London: Routledge, 2007. 204 pp., bibliography, index. Das’s argument was foreshadowed by an observation Bronislaw Malinowski made in his second appendix to the first volume of Coral Gardens and Their Magic, entitled “Confessions of Ignorance and Failure: Gaps and Side-Steps”: A general source of inadequacies in all my material, whether photographic or linguistic or descriptive, consists in the fact that, like every ethnographer, I was lured by the dramatic, exceptional and sensational . . . I have also neglected much of the everyday, inconspicuous, drab and small-scale in my study of Trobriand life. The only comfort which I may derive is that . . . my mistakes may be of use to others. [1935:462] Even anthropologists who have the opportunity to live in the same field site for years, as Malinowski did, can find themselves “lured” by the “dramatic, exceptional and sensational.” Anthropologists whose time in the field is limited by funding or other circumstances would presumably be even more attracted to events that rose “above” the ordinary. What particular social value lies, then, in the “everyday, inconspicuous, drab and small-scale”? The primary context in which Das answers this question is her fieldwork among urban Punjabi families who migrated to India in the aftermath of the riots that followed the Partition in 1947. She situates herself and her interlocutors in the midst of the long duration of social life since this catastrophically violent event and in the long duration of social life since the 1984 riots against the Sikhs in Delhi, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Comparison of the violence of the Partition with the violence after the assassination of Gandhi allows Das to explore the gendered markings of state making. In local popular and literary representations, the Partition has generally been imagined as the violation of women through mass rapes, mass abductions, the expulsion of women from homes, and efforts of both Pakistan and India to recover their women. Ignoring the violations of male bodies during the Partition allowed the nation-state to imagine its agency as masculine and the restoration of order as the

In this review essay, I review two books about the social and cultural context of violence in India and Pakistan. Veena Das’s Life and Words provides a remarkable theorization of the anthropological significance of the everyday, and Roma Chatterji and Deepak Mehta’s Living with Violence provides a rich ethnographic treatment of violence and the everyday. Together, these books produce new insights into how social and cultural life can be re-created in the aftermath of violent events. By focusing on mundane, ordinary events over the long duration in contexts filled with conflict and uncertainty, the authors argue convincingly that violent acts are not necessarily only witnessed and remembered but also rewoven in the process of ordinary life into newly imagined cultural worlds. These findings have crucial implications for how anthropologists devise ethnographic studies of large-scale violence. Both books make plain the relevance of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later thought for an ethically responsible ethnography. [violence, language, nation-states, kinship, gender, memory]


rdinary everyday life has important, but hitherto unrecognized, theoretical significance for anthropological concepts and methodology. This claim, far more complex than it might seem at first glance, is the compelling and powerful argument that animates Veena Das’s Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. The claim is nicely illustrated by the fine ethnographic detail in Roma Chatterji and Deepak Mehta’s Living with Violence: An Anthropology of Events and Everyday Life.

AMERICAN ETHNOLOGIST, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 741–745, ISSN 0094-0496, online ISSN 1548-1425. C 2007 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Rights and Permissions website, http://www.ucpressjournals.com/reprintInfo.asp. DOI: 10.1525/ae.2007.34.4.741.

This means that people experience themselves as plural subjects who live in one actual moment but simultaneously occupy a time in the future. or else their words seemed animated by the voice of some other person. instead of tracing the subsequent eruptions of these violent events into people’s everyday lives. Consider the case of a woman called “Asha. Therefore. are ideally enduring. The originality and importance of Das’s account of this seemingly prosaic process lie in this: Events that wreak extreme violence on families and communities create a form of doubt about the social world. Asha was forced to experience her transformation from a beloved daughter and sister to someone who was a burden on the family. 742 . The vertical sense of the form of life is the edge or limit of what can be recognized as human.American Ethnologist Volume 34 Number 4 November 2007 reassertion of masculine control over women. 7). Time is seen as the destroyer of relationships. By contrast. picking up the pieces means the possibility of finding a voice to animate one’s words and give them social life in a shattered environment. Asha’s brother’s family made it plain in subtle ways that they were reluctant to support her. encouraging her to satisfy herself in maternal desires rather than in. are my children loyal? Following the later thinking of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The failure of grammar here is the experience that the social world might be at an end: the prospect faced by a brother “not being able to decipher whether love consisted in killing one’s sister to save her from another kind of violence from the crowd. The presumption was that the boy would take care of Asha as he grew up and she grew older. She fled with her “adopted” son to her natal family just inside the Indian border. doubt about the social world throws the fabric of taken-for-granted everyday life into jeopardy. a future that has not yet arrived. the family of Asha’s husband lost everything. By voice. “Descending” into the ordinary. but the eventual way in which death will end any relationship shadows relationships from the beginning. but their words “had the frozen slide quality to them. all the while adopting the expressions of grief appropriate for a widow and willingly taking on the lowliest chores. and she sought different ways to construct her subjectivity. It was also a breach of the brother–sister tie. It was as if they spoke words of Punjabi or Hindi translated from some unknown language. inundated with the needs of others who had fled. 15). lived relationship is experienced in relation to the eventual. Das argues that subjectivity comes into being and continually develops in connection with the way language organizes the world. When the “grammar of the ordinary” fails. During the Partition. or handing her over for protection to someone whose motives one could not fully fathom” (p. I consider whether her insights may also be applicable to a wider range of social contexts in which people reach the vertical edge of a form of life. The actual present. It is in the contemplation of the possible end of a form of social life that the significance of the everyday takes shape in Das’s account. or daughter for her family’s protection against the desire of her kin to maintain the family’s purity literally places people beyond the boundaries of the world as they have ever conceived it. in accord with dominant cultural paradigms. the eventual. 9). Picking up the pieces does not mean simply speaking about the traumatic events of the past. Beyond that edge lies the danger that human beings can represent to each other: not just the danger of being killed at the hands of another person but also the danger that a form of social life can be rendered unlivable. is what social relationships require. 8). the humiliation of men rose to the forefront. 11). People could tell stories about the Partition. how does the subjectivity of a person survive? Or does it? Das attempts the difficult task of locating the subject through the experience of a world-shattering limit. although usually latent. Das provides an ethnographic account of time and subjectivity that is specific to Punjabi conceptions. Below.” who was widowed at a young age years before the Partition. What Das calls the “vertical sense of the form of life” is key here (p. Das means speech with life in it. There. Her female kin. she heard people speak about the violence and what they experienced with words that seemed ghostly. Das traces how these events enfold themselves into “the recesses of the ordinary. The Partition opened a space in which poisonous knowledge about the treachery contained in kin relations was revealed to Asha. She lived with her husband’s elder brother’s family and was given a child in “adoption” by her husband’s younger sister. paying repeated attention to the most mundane events and objects. Asha then had to shuttle between her affines (whose circumstances were now greatly reduced) and her natal family. how can simple everyday acts provide a way forward? At this point. say. which showed their burned and numbed relation to life” (p.” attaching themselves as if with invisible tentacles to everyday life (p. wife. Counterintuitively. in the riots against the Sikhs in 1984. the everyday is the site at which one can understand what it is “to pick up the pieces and to live in this very place of devastation” (p. In contrast. If the boundaries of the knowable world are thus exceeded. In the face of violence sufficient to make one question what counts as human. This was a breach of the kinship obligations owed a daughter. People are placed into circumstances in which the givens of emotional and social connectedness are replaced by an unknown void: Do my parents care for me. 1). what is put into question is how people ever understood what kind of an experience it was to feel “grief” or “love” (p. sought to fill the emptiness of Asha’s childlessness. which. Das makes her argument in relation to the carnage caused by communal violence. which has a special and sacred quality in Punjabi society. Like shadows of the more abstract philosophical skepticism that doubts the reality of the world. Violence that pits the desire of an abducted and raped mother. sexuality.

a shantytown in Bombay (Mumbai). she did whatever she could to mend the broken ties with the family of her first husband. For example. Both Asha’s brother’s failure to support her in her destitution and her own failure to be loyal to her first husband were social facts they accepted into their daily lives. Only by following events as they transmute in experience of the ordinary can this process be documented. their plural subjectivities stretching between the actual and the eventual could incorporate many subject positions. one moves with those who experienced the violence. and enumeration ensnare Dharavi’s population in multiple forms of power. The events are stable and given. When they found out. including victim. she entered into a second marriage. This constitutes a denial of the Other’s suffering— refusal to participate in the social life of the Other. far from being remembered as a traumatic insertion of the past into the present or regarded as something that must be obliterated for life to go on. instigated by Hindu militants. She agreed. never forgotten but folded into the flow of everyday life. to a man from another town that she met through a friend of her husband’s. Nonetheless. and bystander. A particularly valuable contribution is the authors’ analysis of NGOs and slum rehabilitation plans in juxtaposition and competition with state agendas. a major political event brought to light a side of kinship relationships that had been concealed. The destruction. culprit. The past is literally inscribed into the present and relived on an everyday basis. the task of rebuilding a new social order is one of monumental proportions. the local NGOs share the view that memories of communal violence must be set aside for normal life to resume. In the latter stance. during the following years. sent shock waves throughout the country. new forms of what could be imagined emerged as people experimented with the possibilities life presented.Review essay American Ethnologist To avoid inappropriate sexual advances from a widowed affine. The multiple violations suffered by victims of the Partition were reworked in this case: The subject position of victim was transformed into the subject position of one who is able to actively rework the limits of the social. the bedrock of social existence. The limits of the social world. those who witnessed and suffered from the riots strive to find a way to embed the results of the riots in their everyday lives. in colonial history and in contemporary official documents at the national and international levels. they engaged in an ongoing process of producing a new social world out of the debris of the old. In times of violence. the violent events are enfolded into ongoing social life in multiple ways. Chatterji and Mehta show in intricate ethnographic detail how the memory of these events is woven into the fabric of everyday life. Each of these books makes a clear distinction between acting as a witness to violence and acting as an ethnographer of violence. simultaneously. In the former stance. the limits of what could be conceived within the domain of human life. were burst asunder by the events of the Partition. But with the passage of time. Thus. events that broke apart the givens of social life.500 km northeast from Dharavi) in December 1992 and continued until January 1993. each of the women reinhabited a frayed world. The two women’s work took many years to unfold. Roma Chatterji and Deepak Mehta’s Living with Violence: An Anthropology of Events and Everyday Life is based on extended fieldwork with residents of Dharavi. As if building on the insights in Life and Words. Das writes of events that took an extreme form. In contrast to the state’s effort to limit and contain the “disease” of rioting. and the authors’ analysis reaps all the benefits Das promises from spending a long time in one place.” The term connotes an outbreak of inevitable pathology that is peculiar to India. Descending into the ordinary world of domestic tasks and daily events. threatened only by the possibility they may be forgotten or concealed. Das chronicles not the survival of a form of social life but the remaking of a social world based on 743 . Some say the first phase of violence was the outcome of Muslim anger over demolition of the mosque and that the second was the outcome of a Hindu backlash aided by the police. Another of their critically important insights is that. The ethnographic observations brought to bear on this process are extremely subtle. which demands remembering unspeakable events. this documentation can be used to settle life or death questions of identity. whose effort to constitute the “slum voice” sometimes falls on the twin horns of a colonial past and a developmental present. 2. The shape of past events in people’s experience shifts and changes over time. “Communal violence” is seen as an infectious disease that spreads through contagion and must be contained by official control (p. witness. and the social facts of life that had never been questioned. Spaces and boundaries in Dharavi invisible to an outsider are named for national borders or for a police line. both sides of her family refused to see her again. Because of the extreme nature of the breach. Chatterji and Mehta trace the complex ways that forms of governmentality such as numerical surveillance. the authors shed light on the interstitial position of the local NGOs. mapping. in unpredictable ways. it can be a route to lifesaving resources through relief and rehabilitation agencies. The violent events that are the focus of the book began on the day of the demolition of the Babri mosque (in Uttar Pradesh. What Asha and her kin took as given before that upheaval was revealed to be shot through with schisms. a side that contained the possibility of betrayal. events involving largescale violence in India are categorized as “communal riots. 56). one occupies the same moment of time as the violent events and then speaks about them in the future. saying Asha had sullied and disgraced them. rationing. Similarly. Asha and her first husband’s sister knit up a fabric of social life. Through years of work and the passing of time. As the authors detail.

she argues. something malleable that is tucked and stitched into ongoing lives and deaths over the long duration. Making public such truths is an exemplary Enlightenment project of modernist politics. at times. and more. for example. people she knew in her fieldwork could speak about past events of communal violence perfectly well. the interview itself may assert a kind of rational frame over interactions in which only certain kinds of communication can take place. death and its meaning. is maintained. how ethnic groups that set on each other violently can (over time) combine to pursue their common interests. requires ethnography of long duration. the actual and the eventual. If the question at stake is how one goes on when the taken-forgranted assumptions about going on have been sundered. family and its duration. Establishing and making public the truth of the recent past attributing responsibility to state officials for specific acts and in some cases exacting retribution—appears here as ineluctable precondition for any democratic future . Many anthropologists. kinship. Some worry that Wittgenstein’s thought encourages an antiempiricist and apolitical bias in anthropology. and the critique of it in these contexts could serve only to aid the mystificatory and repressive powers of the regime under attack. and the state through her original understanding of the ethnography of everyday life. taken-for-granted. Das’s work (1998) has for many years asserted the relevance of Wittgenstein’s thought for a critical cultural anthropology. could be fruitfully regarded in such a light. places. As an example of this worry. diagnosis of a major mental illness. Das quotes Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. which here means social and natural life. rather. These arguments enable a return to Malinowski’s “gaps and side-steps” with renewed interest. clinging to the primacy of the concept of truth can be a powerful and necessary form of resistance. . These givens. what their speech alone could not capture was the presence or absence of “life” animating their experience of past violence. would we be able to observe such issues taking shape? There are important implications here for the ethnographic method. have used interviews to gather ethnographic data when working in complex urban settings. anthropologists would do well to provide evidence that could contest official efforts to make traces of violence and its records disappear. In Anthropology Today. who argue in Empire why it is important to sustain rather than critique Enlightenment conceptions of truth. But both of the books considered here speak to the messy complexities of how (over time) state oppressors and their victims may change. how a state that at one time was seen as the perpetrator of genocide can come to be seen (over time) as desirable for its beneficence. Through it all. Clifford Geertz referred to the “half-formed. if they happen. can only be formed out of the small repetitive events of the domestic and everyday repeated endlessly over time. Perhaps even more to the point. [2000:xx] Das acknowledges that. Is a brother still the same person once he is described as being outside the bounds of sense? Will there be a failure of grammar in which those around him feel they can no longer decipher his life? How can he continue his relationships on such radically altered terms. by throwing the person who receives it into the ranks of the irrational. or even exchange. For the case of medical diagnosis. conflict. indifferently 744 . Das’s book and Chatterji and Mehta’s rich volume provide a treasure trove of compelling stories about how people remake social life out of events that throw the very idea of social life into question. Life. as ethnographers. the interview might not be the best way to reach an answer. in general. A catastrophic finding of a genetic trait that has an impact on oneself and possibly all of one’s biological kin might throw into question every assumption one had made about life and its qualities. Das has written a brilliant book. To see these transformations.American Ethnologist Volume 34 Number 4 November 2007 new givens. To ignore them ensures an impoverished understanding of human capacities. Wilson 2004). could only be given to words again from the long processes of daily living by which the past could potentially be enfolded into the present and future. . not produced by communal violence. when the former criteria for relationships have ended? How. a debate has recently focused on whether Wittgenstein’s later philosophy has relevance for a politically critical anthropology (Morris 2007. myself included. and this colonel led the massacre of that village. Myhre 2006. the Punjabi penchant for occupying a subject position that incorporates the present and the future. As Das makes clear. but in such a way that the eventual includes forms of living that could not have been imagined beforehand. Winch 1967). in which one could (without misleading hyperbole) speak of hitherto unimaginable breaches of the taken-for-granted tenets of social life? I think that some forms of medical diagnosis. the concept of truth is not fluid or unstable-on the contrary! The truth is that this general ordered the torture and assassination of that union leader. disrupts assumptions about what it means to be human. The great merit of the present book is that she shows how and why anthropologists must move beyond the worry about abandoning the Enlightenment concept of the truth when we produce ethnographic accounts of fluid or unstable cultural meanings. Engaged in the long-standing contention about Wittgenstein in the social sciences (Gellner 1998. one that will materially further understanding of how to study violence. How do people “enfold” such events into their lives? Das’s approach allows one to see that the diagnosis is not likely to be a fixed “thing” that erupts unchanged into people’s thoughts and experiences but. Together. one that is afflicted by “embarrassment with the notion of truth” (Wilson 2004:14). especially when describing incidents of state terror: In the context of state terror and mystification. Are there other kinds of social contexts.

and Antonio Negri 2000 Empire. Myhre. Hardt. Anthropology Today 20(5):14. References cited Das. New York. and unsystematic—it can become the site in which new meanings arise.edu 745 . 2004 The Trouble with Truth: Anthropology’s Epistemological Hypochondria. a Study of the Methods of Tilling the Soil and of Agricultural Rites in the Trobriand Islands. 2007 Emily Martin Department of Anthropology Institute of the History of Production of Knowledge New York University 25 Waverly Pl. Malinowski. 220). Clifford 1973 The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Anthropology Today 22(6):3. Anthropology Today 23(1):28. Carrying out fieldwork over the long duration and attending to the humble acts of everyday life instead of more dramatic and spectacular events will provide a way for anthropologists both to produce ethnographic knowledge solidly grounded in empirical observations and to avoid the rigid dichotomies characteristic of the modernist frame of mind. Richard A. Winch. Veena 1998 Wittgenstein and Anthropology. Gellner. It is my hope that Das’s magisterial work. undefined. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. alongside Chatterji and Mehta’s important ethnography. NY 10003 em81@nyu. Annual Review of Anthropology 27:171–195. New York: American Book.Review essay American Ethnologist systematized notions that guide the normal activities of ordinary men in everyday life” (1973:362). 221) even in the face of violence on such a scale that it threatens “the very idea of life” and brings people to “the end of criteria” (p. Peter 1967 The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy. Malinowski. MA: Harvard University Press. New York: Basic Books. “Victims and survivors [can] affirm the possibility of life” (p. Knut Christian 2006 The Truth of Anthropology. 2 vols. Geertz. will finally make clear that Wittgenstein’s thought is nothing less than crucial for an ethically and politically responsible anthropology in the contemporary world. Das shows that because of the open and indeterminate nature of everyday life—it is inchoate. 2007 final version submitted January May 18. Morris. accepted December May 16. Brian 2007 Wittgenstein Revisited. Ernest 1998 Language and Solitude: Wittgenstein. Cambridge. Wilson. and the Habsburg Dilemma. Bronislaw 1935 Coral Gardens and Their Magic. Michael.

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