Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary

Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary

Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary

Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary

Synopsis

In this powerful, compassionate work, one of anthropology's most distinguished ethnographers weaves together rich fieldwork with a compelling critical analysis in a book that will surely make a signal contribution to contemporary thinking about violence and how it affects everyday life. Veena Das examines case studies including the extreme violence of the Partition of India in 1947 and the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 after the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In a major departure from much anthropological inquiry, Das asks how this violence has entered "the recesses of the ordinary" instead of viewing it as an interruption of life to which we simply bear witness. Das engages with anthropological work on collective violence, rumor, sectarian conflict, new kinship, and state and bureaucracy as she embarks on a wide-ranging exploration of the relations among violence, gender, and subjectivity. Weaving anthropological and philosophical reflections on the ordinary into her analysis, Das points toward a new way of interpreting violence in societies and cultures around the globe. The book will be indispensable reading across disciplinary boundaries as we strive to better understand violence, especially as it is perpetrated against women.

Excerpt

Veena das speaks of her “repeated (and even compulsive) reliance on Wittgenstein” as playing a role in the philosophical friendship that has developed between us. Beyond the clear evidence for this observation, the truth of it, from my side of things, is further confirmed, if perhaps less clearly, in an early and in a late thought of mine, each expressing my sense of an anthropological register in Wittgenstein’s sensibility, thoughts not reflected in Wittgenstein’s well-known recurrence, in his later (or as the French put it, his second) philosophy, to imaginary “tribes” different from “us.” I would like to mark my pleasure in contributing prefatory words for Das’s wonderful book Life and Words by putting those easily lost thoughts into words, into the world.

My early thought was directed to a passage in Philosophical Investigations that roughly sounds to me like a reflection on a primitive allegory of incipient anthropological work: “Suppose you came as an explorer into an unknown country with a language quite strange to you. in what circumstances would you say that the people there gave orders, understood them, obeyed them, rebelled against them, and so on? the common behaviour of mankind is the system of reference by means of which we interpret an unknown language” (§206).

This may, as other moments in Wittgenstein’s text may, seem either too doubtful or too tame to be of much intellectual service. “Common behavior”

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