Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Being vegetarian often forced Gandhi into marginal associations

We delight in showing how everything can be traced back to some previous thinker. 
Because the individuals entering into an assemblage are autonomous, assemblages constantly face the risk of falling apart or dissipating into thin air like so much mist. Anyone who’s formed groups and organizations is aware of just how precarious and fleeting these assemblages can be; or how much work these assemblages require to be maintained. 

As anyone who has ever done administrative work, organized a conference, or who has worked with others who share roughly analogous theoretical commitments in the work of movement building knows, collectives are hard work. The joke that’s been floated about for the last year is that forming collectives is like herding cats.
Collectives are assemblages of diverse actors, all milling about in different directions. These assemblages don’t simply consist of humans. No, they involve resources, materials, material infrastructures like power lines, buildings, staplers, paper, roads, etc. In this connection, a conversation during lunch yesterday made my jaw drop. Within the context of a heated debate about Levi-Strauss’s focus on the semiotic, on the domain of sense (and no, pointing out that he refers to nonsense is irrelevant to this point as nonsense is still a signifying determination in this structuralist model, i.e., a point about how language functions and generates sense), I remarked that when you look at live-time maps of internet traffic in the United States you notice that internet traffic comes almost entirely from the major cities and the coasts. In short, these maps also show us the distribution of internet infrastructure throughout the country. To this one of my dear friends remarked sarcastically “yeah, that’s the problem”. Well yes, I’m afraid, in part it is the problem. This exploded view map of internet infrastructure also maps on to political distributions in the United States.
In The German Ideology Marx and Engels note that one of the key contradictions in the capitalism of their time is the opposition between the city and the countryside, industry and agriculture. This exploded view schematic teaches us much the same thing, showing us how particular forms of politics map on to particular forms of infrastructure. The absence of readily available internet technologies creates a structure in which the people of rural regions only encounter those who share their own views. The only access is to people in church, at school, in the workplace such as it is, the local bar, etc.
Am I suggesting that making wi-fii freely available to all and that providing the infrastructure where this freely available wi-fii is a reality and not just an abstraction suddenly solves all our political problems? No. These technologies are only a component in a complex assemblage. However, just as having a child completely transforms your previous patterns of life, generating all sorts of deterritorializations, the introduction of such infrastructure surely introduces all sorts of new deterritorializations in such a context. The point is that these actors in a collective are not a matter of ideology, the signifier, norms, etc., and that so long as we focus almostexclusively on these things, these other actors become invisible to us. Are they imbricated with norms, signifiers, ideologies, and so on? Yes. The garlic in your pasta is imbricated with tomatoes, oregano, wine, etc., etc., etc. But these other actors introduce their own specific differences that deserve their own mode of analysis.
The advantage of thinking in terms of collectives and composition is that we focus on the work involved in producing solidarity and alliances… Solidarities and alliances that aren’t just solidarities and alliances between human beings, but where we also have to think about very concrete and basic things like how persons struggling for similar things despite the fact of being separated by hundreds of miles can communicate, interact, and coordinate despite this distance so that something of a collective entity can iterate itself or reproduce itself through time. All of this becomes invisible with baboon talk about events, truth-procedures, acts, and subjects.

As Leela Gandhi relates in her wonderful book Affective Communities, Mahatma Gandhi came to England without any strong anti-colonial desires. He was a vegetarian not out of personal ethical or religious reasons, but out of a promise he made to his mother. However, being vegetarian often forced him into marginal associations, groups that were more at the fringes of British society. Particularly, he fell in with Henry Salt and the Vegetarian Society by eating at their restaurants. It was while he was with them that he became radicalized. He embraced vegetarianism, anti-colonialism, and anti-capitalism. Gandhi's promise to his mother first isolated him, and then gave him a community. It fundamentally changed the way he would have experienced British culture and society, it fundamentally changed his life.
In this sense, ethics is not about isolation, but it can often cause that. Ethics is about changing and shifting where we find our community, where we find our energy and joy and connections. Vegetarianism has not been a deprivation for me, it has only opened up new vistas for experience and experimentation that I could not have found while my desires were rooted in the eating of flesh.

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