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nettime: CYBERPUBLICS IN INDIA - Ravi Sundaram 1/2


Ravi Sundaram*

*Centre For the Study of Developing Societies

29, Rajpur Road, Delhi-110054



In his now-classic text on post-modernism Fredric Jameson spoke of an
"inverted millenarianism" which has come to charecterise our time, where all
anticipations of the future have been replaced by a sense of the end of
various social imaginaries.(1992:1) Writing from a country that is located
firmly within the periphery of late capitalism, there are many senses in
which the old ideologies of 19th century modernity are in deep crisis - the
great *promesse de bonheur* of nationalism and Marxism has failed to
materialize in South Asia. What we are instead witnessing is a dramatic and
simultaneous process of both de-territorialisation as well as
territorialisation where received notions of order, based on historical
associations of citizenship, borders, time, and history are being actively

At the first glance, there seems cause for celebration. What Nietzsche
called the "consuming historical fever" of modernity - the tendency to
monumentalise history and to impose the burden of the millennium on all
human practices - seems well behind us. But the world as we see it does not
present a pretty sight - particularly at the margins of the metropolis. To
take recourse to a Hegelianism, it is as if the World-Spirit, defeated at
the final moment of self-consciousness, has enacted a terrible revenge for
sacrificing its grand vision. In particular, for the Third World citizen,
searching for identity among the ruins of the now-decaying artifacts of
nationalism, it seems more and more clear that the storm of progress has
passed on, with no promise of returning.

However here lies the paradox. At the very moment that modernity could free
itself from its 19th century variant, the power of the West, which was *the*
imaginative embodiment of the modern, seems more fragile than ever. For the
first time since the 16th century there seems to be a secular shift in the
centres of wealth from the West to Asia's eastern frontier, and possibly
China. The old state-system of modernity - based on secure borders and
sovereignty has collapsed, in the west itself, canonical notions of
subjectivity, representation, and freedom have taken a battering from which
one suspects they will never fully recover. The great Western millennium,
beginning with the violence of the Crusades and culminating in European
power may end with the very idea of modernity seriously compromised.

What has this to do with the engagement with virtual spaces in country like
India? In the first place, the dynamic of India's movement into electronic
spaces have occurred within the backdrop of the crisis of Western modernity
and its product: the territorial state based on a particular concept of
sovereignty. Further, it seems to me that it is the very *fragility* of the
"West" that gives cyberspace a particular attractiveness for Third World
users, at least in the case of India. This fragility of the Western
imaginary in the real world contrasts with a certain efflorescence in
virtual spaces. It is this disjunction that informs new modes of travel by
Third World elites to the West , through virtual space. These are modes that
need to be addressed as occupying a distinct space which depart from the old
borders that defined the Third World's relationship to the West.

It is here that the old Third Worldist/classical Marxist critique of
"cyberspace" seems limited. Such critiques have focused on the museumisation
of Third World cultures in the space of the Web, or the domination of
multinational capital in the political economy of the information
superhighway. There is a strong element of truth in both positions, but
neither can explain the complex implication of virtual spaces in
local/regional strategies for re-mapping *national* identity. In the event,
while the relationship to an imaginary West is important to cyberpractices
in India, this relationship by no means exhausts the complexity and local
interconnectedness of such practices. What is needed when looking at
cyberpractices in India is what Ernesto Laclau has called a "radical
contextualisation", where the violent abstractions of "West", "capital and
"nation" do not erase the richness and contradictions of initiatives into
virtual space .


If one were to adopt a certain diffusionary model of the spread of
cyberpractices in India, we would have to consider the following:

a) The simple fact of India being a peripheral society in the capitalist
world-economy: with one of the lowest saturation rate of telephones in the
world; only a small minority of the population has electricity.

b) India has no tradition of cyberpunk, in fact there is no indigenous
science fiction tradition. Most existing cultural communities have remained
ambivalent about technology. Historically, representations of science and
technology have been state-sponsored and social-realist in form.

Despite this, a significant number of people are linked to electronic
networks in India and the number is fast growing. For a Third World country
with inequalities like India this is quite remarkable. The reasons for this
shall be examined in the course of this essay. What is significant is that
"cyberspace" has emerged as a significant term in public discourse in India,
becoming the focal point of much coverage and speculation in the media .
Behind all of this is the growing community of users. Till date anonymous,
and lacking the "heroic" qualities of the old nationalist scientist, the
contemporary user lacks any visible representation of his or her agency.

I have tried to map the "user" into three, overlapping cyberpublics.
"Public" is used here very loosely, indicating a cybercommunity in the
making, where mutual rituals of initiation and excursion are only now being
invented. The three cyberpublics are those of the nationalist state, the
transnational elite, and that of the space between the market and the state
occupied by various bulletin boards, and social movement networks. While the
boundaries of all the three publics are fuzzy[1], they are also uneven in
internal differentiation and modes of address. The cyberpublics are a
relatively new phenomenon in India. What is attempted here is a very
preliminary examination of these communities-in-formation, by mapping
certain practices of the nationalist organisation of space, and its
consequences for agency and movement.

Nationalist policies employed a certain social cartography which attempted
to organise space, representation and identity. Maps generated `borders'
which sought to institutionalise identity, frame representations of
citizenship, and mediate the relationship with the West and
modernity(Krishna:1994). Mapping activities which were backed by the state's
monopoly of legitimate violence were also implicated in a particular version
of post-war modernism . The metaphor of the map is also useful to highlight
different strategies which emerged in the post-national period, which sought
to re-organise space by dislocating it from territory, and posit new forms
of identity.


There is a general consensus among writers that the anti-colonial struggle
in India produced a rich constellation of overlapping, contested visions of
nation and nationalism. Given the wide range of social mobilisation, this
was to some extent inevitable. For a long time competing discourses within
the anti-colonial movement on issues of identity, modernity and "building
the nation" remained dormant; it was only after the experience of
development, following independence that some of the older questions and
dissenting views, notably those raised by Gandhi's practice, assumed greater

The post-colonial period after 1947 saw a significant reconstitution of
nationalism under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime
Minister. The new turn consisted in affirming the need for an accelerated
transition to modernity through the building of the rational institutions of
state order, which would functionally re-organise national space for the
purposes of accumulation and industrialisation. In the event, the Gandhian
cultural constellation was seen as dysfunctional for the needs of rational
accumulation and state administration. What emerged is what Lefebvre (1991)
has called the construction of an `abstract space' - not accessible through
ordinary experience, and the preserve of purposive-rational modernisers -
the Third World *aufklarer*.

Gandhi's discourse had included a reassertion of `place' as a site of
genuine experience and action - consider his symbolic evocation of the
village as a site of anti-colonial politics (Nandy:1996). This was in
contrast to the abstract temporal cartography of colonialism which held out
the developmental possibility of the railway imaginary as a means to
overcome the `village society'; colonial ideology further stressed the use
of English as a passport to the cultural world-system and the virtues of
colonial law as a *sui generis* means towards order and non-revolutionary
evolution. Gandhi's evocation of the everyday and a new aestheticised
anti-colonial strategy[2] (the innovative use of counter-commodities like
*Khadi* or home-spun cloth) was viewed with skepticism by the Nehruvian
inheritors of post-independence India - as such Gandhi was accorded a
hagiographic status in official histories and marginalised.

While post-independence nationalists like Nehru excluded Gandhian economics
from state-building strategies, they were quick to incorporate the growing
discourse of *development* and make it an instrument of state policy. Much
has been written on the post-war invention of `development' as a necessary
process to modernity held out by both Americanism and Sovietism alike - the
attendant social and cultural disasters and the dislocation of millions from
historic modes of living. (Escobar:1995). What interests us here is how the
developmentalist state in India carried out a particular spatial mapping
that would play an important role in the development of the nationalist

In the first place, right from the 1950's onwards the space of the `global''
underwent a certain bracketing. The conquest of the national space and its
consolidation was seen as a necessary pre-condition to a thoroughgoing
incorporation into the world economy. In addition, the `national economy'
became a shorthand representational device for *the nation itself*.3 This
deployment of the `national economy' was, to be sure, the reaction to 200
years of colonial exploitation and India's peripheral status in the
world-economy. What is important for our purposes is that the `economy', as
in Lefebvre's abstract space, was embedded in a matrix accessible only to a
privileged and `enlightened' class of modernisers. Further, the economy was
conceived as a space clear of the cultural ambivalence inherent in the
village, or "traditional community". The sociologist and thinker , Zygmunt
Bauman speaks of Western modernity's great fear of ambivalence, which was
inscribed into the project from the very beginning:

The new, modern order took off as a desperate search for structure in a
world suddenly denuded of structure. Utopias that served as beacons for the
long march to reason visualized a world without margins, without leftovers,
the unaccounted for....The visualized world differed from the lost one by
putting assignment where blind fate ruled. The jobs to be done were now
gleaned from an overall plan, drafted by the spokesmen of reason; *in the
world to come, design preceded order*. (1992:xv) Emphasis ours.

What obtained says Bauman, was a *legislative* modernity where *soi disant*
intellectuals/modernisers saw `society' as a *tabula rasa* - as an object of
gardening and the elimination of ambivalence. While developmental planning
in India was based on securing nationalist economic development - it was
also firmly embedded in the discourses of the `gardening' state - where
development, through the reduction of poverty and inequality, was the
movement towards `order'. The modernist grid of the Plan (borrowed from
Soviet experiences) was invested with phantasmagoric qualities;
plan=development=order was part of the utopia of development. Here
development/order went hand in hand with what David Harvey has called the
logic of space-time compression under capitalist modernity(1989). Here the
annihilation of space by time due to the expansion of global capital has led
to the `disembedding of social relations'. and the homogenisation of vast
spaces of the world economy. Temporal acceleration was a significant part of
the imaginary of developmentalism - this was inherent in the logic of
`catching up' with the core areas of the world economy by privileging a
certain strategy of growth that actively delegitamized local and
`traditional' practices.

What obtained was an imaginary that was strikingly common to Bentham's
Panopticon. The original Panopticon was conceived as a prison where
`rational' methods of confinement were deployed to ensure the visibility of
all the prisoners to the warden's gaze, while he himself remained out of
their sight. Here the residents of the Panopticon live an ordered,
supervised environment committed to an abstract ideal of freedom. In the
eyes of its innovators the political technology of the Panopticon had the
great merit of imposing order while simultaneously preventing the oppressed
from visualizing power. As Zizek points out[4], it was the great "dark spot"
as to who was at the center that gave the Panopticon its greatest use. For
it was this abstract centre, that space of anonymity from the nation and the
everyday that gave the Nehruvian developmental bureaucracy its greatest
relief. Meritocratic, upper-caste and English-speaking, the state-managers
of post-independence India cultivated an anonymity that was seen as
necessary for a legislative modernity - an abstract vision that would
transcend sectional, regional and religious claims.

Temporal acceleration, development and `order' were, indeed the *focus
imaginarius* of Nehruvian nationalism's struggle for modernity. In terms of
*historical* practice such an imaginary had to be mediated through the
claims of a republican democratic politics. The periodic re-mapping of
political/social space by political actors/movements through the regime of
political representation meant that the claims of panoptical political
technology were *continuously* contested. As we shall see, the rise of new
social movements of oppressed castes by the late 1980's seriously threatened
the exclusivist vision of the Panopticon. This, along with the new globalism
compromised Nehruvianism's old `map' of the national space .

Building the Network

Frederic Jameson calls architecture the privileged site of postmodern
representation because it is able to speak best to the new spatiality of
postmodernism. All 20th century movements have their iconography - Nehruvian
nationalism included. As opposed to the Gandhian evocation of the Village,
Nehruvian nationalism privileged the Dam. The Dam was the "temple of
modernity", it evoked the power of secular labour over nature. It was
Nehruvian nationalism's' great dream of controlling and disciplining energy.
In newsreels and in print, Indians were exhorted to `visit' Bhakra Nangal
-the first major post-independence dam site through a pre-virtual tour.[5]

As Deshpande(Ibid.) points out, the identification of the Dam(along with
sites that produced steel and electricity) as a site of post-independence
nationalist `journeys' was based on privileging the `economy' and production
as markers of patriotism and national development. This privileging of the
`economic' was, by the 1970's grafted to a highly centralised and repressive
state whose self-representation was dynastic rule by the Nehru-Gandhi
family. `Development' was paralleled by state-sponsored compulsory
sterilisation drives aimed at the poor[6]. This project ended in political
defeat for Indira Gandhi and the Congress party. In the 1980's the Congress
was back in power - but the old nationalist architecture was in considerable
crisis. A new .approach was put into place in the early 1980's, actively
encouraged by Rajiv Gandhi (Nehru's grandson) who later became Prime
Minister in 1984. This new constellation had two main components.

The first was to ensure temporal acceleration while at the same time perform
the task of emancipating the state-managers from the everyday, the
interaction with *place*. In other words the annihilation of space through
time would obtain *without* the messy political problems that spatiality and
its associated politics produced[7]. What was needed was a solution that
would shift from old-style nationalist policies, seen by the elite as
restricting initiative and growth. This was resolved by an evacuation of the
`national' space (`globalisation'), a process that would accelerate by the
late 1980's and the early 1990's. Under pressure from the IMF and the World
Bank, the old import substitution regime was gradually dismantled and
controls on domestic industry and transnational companies lifted.

The end-result of all these moves was a decisive reconstruction of the old
nationalist imaginary in ways that would dissolve it to the point of no
recognition. `Development' remained an issue but was reconstituted as a
problem of *communication*. The way forward was computerization, networking
and a new visual regime based on a national television network. The computer
soon became the iconic space around which almost all representation, both
state and commercial cohered - the effect on nationalist discourse was
incredible[8]. As opposed to the Nehruvian focus on 19th century *physical*
instruments of accumulation (steel, energy, coal), state discourse after
1984 posed a *virtual *space where issues of development would be resolved.
Through public lectures, television programmes and press campaigns, state
managers simulated this new space, which though *unseen* was seen as
transcending the lack inherent in Nehruvian controls.[9]

This new image of the computer was akin to pure reification - as the old
critical theorists like Lukacs had described in *History and Class
Consciousness*. Except this largely unseen object[10] was also a simulation
machine, generating a new form of abstract space (the network) which would
accelerate the transition to modernity and the `West'. In the event, the old
panoptics of Nehruvianism could not but undergo a subtle revision. The
`national' was re-affirmed but through a new discourse which complicated the
notion of borders and sovereignty that were so central to the old visual