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Life and Words

Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary

Veena Das

Publication Year: 2006

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.

Published by: University of California Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

...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...

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The Event and the Everyday

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pp. 1-17

...picture of this book as some kind of map (or a fragment of one) of the distance that I have traveled since I first realized how much of my intellectual biography was tied up with questions around violence: my journey is not about going forward, but rather about turning back, about collecting words and thoughts that I think of as having forged connections between me and my interlocutors in the field. Two major...

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The Figure of the Abducted Woman

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pp. 18-37

...Gyanendra Pandey took the neglect of the Partition in the social sciences and in Indian public culture as a symptom of a deep malaise. Historical writing in India, he argued, was singularly uninterested in the popular construction of the Partition, the trauma it produced, and the sharp division between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs it left behind. He attributed this blindness to the fact that the historian’s craft has never been particularly comfortable with such matters as “the horror...

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Language and Body

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pp. 38-58

...to write the meaning(s) of violence against women in Indian society, I find that languages of pain through which social sciences could gaze at, touch or become textual bodies on which this pain is written often elude me.”1 I felt compelled then to look toward the transactions between language and body in the work of mourning, and especially in the gendered division of labor by which the antiphony...

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The Act of Witnessing

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pp. 59-78

...argued that the experience of becoming a subject is linked to the experience of subjugation in important ways.1 The violations inscribed on the female body (both literally and figuratively) and the discursive formations around these violations, as we saw, made visible the imagination of the nation as a...

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Boundaries, Violence, and theWork of Time

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pp. 79-94

...struck by the sense voiced by many scholars that, faced with violence, we reach some kind of limit in relation to the capacity to represent. Often this argument is staged through the trope of “horror.” We are then invited to consider how human beings could have been capable of such horrific acts on such large scales, as in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. As we saw, the violence of the Partition provides a...

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Thinking of Time and Subjectivity

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pp. 95-107

...from the first part of the book as well as a bridge to the next set of chapters in which I try to capture my sense of adjacency to the violence among the survivors in Delhi in 1984. My arguments are not a comprehensive review of notions of time in anthropology—they stem from a very specific issue in the ethnography of the two events under consideration. In the last chapter we saw how Manjit made frequent references to the agency of time. Time is what could strike one...

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In the Region of Rumor

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pp. 108-134

...us experience events, not simply by pointing to them as to something external, but rather by producing them in the very act of telling. In this chapter I try to show how the processes of translation and rotation that we identified work to actualize certain regions of the past and create a sense of continuity between events that might otherwise seem unconnected. Unlike objects around which we can draw...

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The Force of the Local

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pp. 135-161

...How did the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi become an event of specific local importance in Sultanpuri, folding in it so many lives from peripheral colonies in the city? I want to argue that to understand the subjectivity of the crowds we have to read how institutions of the state and the local networks of political allegiances and hostilities left their tracks in the acts of violence. These crowds enacted vengeance on behalf...

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The Signature of the State

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pp. 162-183

...While this approach has been extremely productive in showing the importance of states of exception as lying both inside and outside the law, it also has tended to render sovereignty as if it were best analyzed as a spectral relic of a past political theology. I want to argue, instead, that if we see how authority of the state is literalized and embodied in the contexts of violence in the Sultanpuri low-income...

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Three Portraits of Grief and Mourning

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pp. 184-204

...I remember these as almost the first words that Shanti said when I met her in her house in Sultanpuri. She was sitting on a bed in a dark room with no windows. Covered with quilts, she seemed to shrink into the smallest space her body could occupy. On one side of the bed was her mother, who had come from Alwar (a nearby town) to look after her. Her unmarried younger sister sat on the floor. An old neighbor...

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Revisiting Trauma, Testimony, and Political Community

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pp. 205-222

...I alluded to the feeling that I was not able to name that which died when the citizens of the newly inaugurated nation in reclaiming their honor as husbands and fathers were simultaneously born as monsters—or at least that is how the literary figures I read saw the matter. I would like to imagine that this was not a straightforward assimilation of notions of trauma into the historical record in the sense that an...


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pp. 223-266

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pp. 267-270

...My debts to various friends, colleagues, and students for their generosity in sharing ideas, offering criticisms, and helping to reframe issues are many, and I gladly carry these debts with me wherever I go. In Delhi, the intense conversations with Rita Brara, Roma Chatterji, and Deepak Mehta have been inspirational for me for more than two decades. Yasmin Arif, Pratiksha Baxi, Asha Singh, and Mani Shekhar Singh...


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pp. 271-281

E-ISBN-13: 9780520939530
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520247444

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2006