Reconstitution: the State of Nature
Ravi Agarwal’s work takes the forms of photographs, videos, installation, research and writing on pressing environmental concerns and activism. In Else, all will be Still, Agarwal integrates these varied forms into complex enunciations of his engagement with specific bodies of knowledge; Agarwal tackles the epistemologies of nature and ecology placing them in a dance with the social contract through the ontology of its objects.
Deftly encapsulating capital’s relationship with surplus value, the series of photographs, Engines, imply the dexterity of use and reuse. The boat engines at the center of each image, photographed from an angle that moves from bottom right to top left, bordered at the top left with the open sea and anchored in sand at bottom left, is a compositional gesture that is brilliant – locating the head of the engine – traditionally the back of a boat – as the masthead leading the charge both emotional and political into the horizon. The engines themselves are composed – not built, not engineered, but lyrically composed – suggesting that the process of this composition – the gathering of detritus that litters our world, into reusable engines that out of economic necessity are returned to cycles of utility, suggests an engine capable of perpetual motion; an epistemic impossibility.
Vivek Chibber’s recent book, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital works to prove that there are universalizing concerns – few not very many – that face individuals in both the global south and east and the global north and west. The need to universalizing certain concerns, such as one’s wellbeing, safety, security, some need for self-determination is true; however so is the assertion by Ranajit Guha that the primary agent of change for modernization in post-colonial theory should have been the bourgeoisie- implying the real engine of change is in addressing those universal concerns first; a fact that is borne out by the construction of various Constitutions that are designed to first protect basic human rights. The fact that these in practice do not come close to the ideal, even at the supranational level at the UN - which only recently declared the right of access to safe drinking water as a human right - is evidence of the complexity of social contracts as being particular and universal.
These constructs – human rights, constitutions and the social contract – are constructed systems predicated on the exit of man from a state of nature, into a being capable of forming and living in an organized civil society. In contrast the categories of things other than ourselves, and outside of ourselves – categories that despite their constructed organization constitute the other – are accounted for as both us, and the other. Object-oriented ontology as the basis of Timothy Morton’s Ecology without Nature asserts that nature as the other, is a constructed category. For Morton, the language used to engage with nature fails in its epistemological construct precisely because it hinders engagement – language is the barrier, it both deconstructs, divides and marks something as the other by its very articulation. Thus the language of the organization of the other, the bios and its systematic classification works to delineate the boundaries of epistemological bodies. Morton’s thesis is however undermined by the narrowness of the epistemologies he considers – Romantic Literature – pre and post Enlightenment. Even used as a case in point, to leave unacknowledged the fact that the Enlightenment formed the various tools for colonization – the building of bio-epistemologies, political and social organization based on classifications of the other – is to underline the fact that nature is not a universal category.
Agarwal provides a one particular engagement between language and category by activating Sangam Literature and Poetry – reaching further back to the 300BC-3000 AD for articulations of human engagement with objects, classified as the other, but also integrated as the self, moving with, and thus affecting, this other. The language of Sangam Literature is constructed as a binary – grammatically there is the inner – Agam – and the outer – Puram – presenting a distinction of voice subject to its location and its dispersal even before the construction of civil society in the West places the latter outside, and as an exception to the man in the state of nature.
Given the dominance and hegemony of western political, social and economic narratives it should come as no surprise that the construction of the polis – the city-state and/or the body of citizens – constitutes first a differentiating act between man in the state of nature (posited by various philosophers as a state of perpetual war, or as a true state of freedom) and man in civil society. This differentiation suggests two points; firstly it serves to romanticize the polis as a, and in a, state of negotiated peace, and secondly, categorized man as a political animal, while decrying that political nature as outside the confines of this socially constituted polis – by its constitution. A differentiation most markedly made by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition where she based the political activity of man as occurring and possible only after the social activity – sustenance, family etc. – had been met. Arendt further illustrated these differences and their bases in On Revolution, where the French Revolution’s declaration and subsequent adoption of the Rights of Man, predicated the building of the French Constitution, in contrast to the American Revolution, which sought to constitute a polis first, before conferring rights on its citizens.
The fact that both required man to leave a state of nature, whether it was a state of freedom (Locke) or a state of perpetual war (Hobbes) to enter into a social contract (Rousseau, Montesquieu) as an instrument through which civil society can be formed, firmly constituting, as a result, the state of nature as an epistemological construct that is opposed to the existence and furtherance of civil society. Is it to be wondered that Enlightenment chose as one of its basic constructs the language of romanticism to describe and demarcate the other – both socially and politically sundered from the constructed polis?
From Hobbes to Hume, the positioning of man as coming out of Plato’s cave to form the basis of being with others and seeing beyond the confines of the cave itself, man in the pre-civil society stage – in the state of nature – has formed the founding premise over which civil society is built. The social contract between polis and the individual forms the enunciation and condition of this exit from the Plato’s cave. John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government however assumes that in the state of nature man is naturally free and equal – in contrast to Hobbes who concluded that the man outside the state of nature must subject himself to sovereign power to remain outside the state of perpetual war, presenting the assumption that man in the state of nature must leave willingly on the one hand, and is an aberration on the other. These two opposing constructions of man in a state of nature, nevertheless result in the formation of the social contract.
As this exit forms the basis of the construction of the social contract – the images in Plato’s cave form the basis of aesthetic theory; from the projection of the subjective subconscious onto the walls of the cave, to the pre-language articulations of cave painting – the image is suggested as nefarious and subject to subjective relations of perception, while the object as image lies outside the cave – after exit. If perception is the object inside the cave, at exit the previously exiting state is the basis of the objectification of the other.
Image as object, and object-oriented ontology (from Morton’s Ecology without Nature) forms the point at which Agarwal’s Engine Parts 1, and Sangam Engines form an epistemological speculation. The engine is given an articulation that only it seems to understand – in placing one language (Sangam Poetry) upon the language of image – Agarwal contrasts Morton’s thesis that Ecology must be considered without Nature – that is without the manner in which we objectify nature in word, image and speech as the other in order to understand ecology as a body of knowledge. With the overt gesture of Sangam Poetry inscribed below and around engine parts, Agarwal suggests two counter points in these works; first that ecology is not only a scientific body of rational knowledge, but also a system in perpetual motion and ongoing negotiation with an uncompleted other, and therefore inadequate in the ecology that is assumed and second, that Morton’s thesis is flawed as it fails to account for the languages of the inherited other – in Morton’s case his inheritance is the Enlightenment – which claims the superiority of rational and scientific thought over more fluid constructions. For Agarwal, nature, not a dreaded word, and our place in it, with it, conditional to it, and now weighing heavily upon it, should form a democratic construction – as the ecological contract.
Creating a neutral space for these negotiations forces first, a reconsideration of the basic foundation of the social contract- the exit from the cave. This reconsideration Agarwal complicates with the documentation of the fisherman Selvam’s work eking out a living from the sea in the videos Shoreline I,II,III. Fishing, an inherited occupation, and one that Selvam doesn’t necessarily want to pass on to his son – echoing Chibber’s claim for a few universal desires across the spectrum – requires an ontology that is both mastery and humility. Romantic notions yes, but laced with the practical consideration of earning a living wage, supporting a family and surviving. Does Agarwal make a case for an existing state of nature? For those not addressed by policy-makers, the economically marginalized, the poor, a contract between the sea and Selvam constitutes a language of sustenance, where Selvam takes, and the sea gives – not sustainability. Selvam’s economic will is subject to the sea, because his social contract has failed him – although that is pure supposition, for many it is not far from the truth. It is a proven fact that the marginalized and the poor bear the brunt and the costs of climate change. Of what use is their social contract, the agreement to form a civil society – in the Indian Constitution predicated on the betterment of the masses (in contrast to the American Constitution, predicated on the property rights) - , and the body of constituted law therein, when representation in practice is both fluid and corrupt? Agarwal’s long practice of activism is one form of this articulation. In Third Text, Volume 27, 2013 Agarwal offers an explanation,
‘As part of my art practice I try to address some of these urgent concerns, for example, through my work on the river in Delhi (e.g. After the Flood, 2011, and Alien Waters, 2004–2006), and on the farming of marigolds (Have You Seen the Flowers on the River, 2007), and in the documentation of labor in Gujarat (Down and Out: Laboring under Global Capitalism, 1997–2000), which is locally situated but reﬂective of the global capital ﬂows and new global imaginations. I see these as deeply interconnected, not caused by some ‘foreign hand’, but as an internalization of the idea of a global identity. Have You Seen the Flowers on the River? deals with the idea of sustainability, documenting the journey of the marigold from the small farmer ﬁelds of the river Yamuna in Delhi to the 200-year-old farmers’ market in Old Delhi where until recently they were sold daily. (The market moved in December 2011 owing to the city’s new ‘beautiﬁcation’ drive.) Through photographs, ﬁeld notes, videos and an installation, over a period of four years (2007 to 2012), I attempted to show a sustainable life in the middle of a densely populated city. The farmers’ land is now being slowly acquired for new development, owing to exorbitant land prices caused by the recent ‘globalization’ of the city, even as the city works under the banner of ‘sustainability’. The work questions if sustainability is only found through creating ‘new markets’ or if it already exists in people’s lives and is more about an idea and way of life. And ‘sustainability’ is being interpreted by all (corporations, governments, NGOs) for their own uses. Both through my activist and artistic involvements, I am interested in it from a ground-up perspective of equality and rooted in the question of ‘what is a good life?’
Agarwal’s positioning of sustainability and its use and misuse, subjective and ground-up narratives and the evocation of the good life and equality therein, is at the core of the current discourse around human rights and climate change, and by extension an ecological contract based off of a re-rendering and renegotiation of the social contract. The philosophical and political other – rights of the planet and its inhabitants – must needs also constitute a new social contract with human beings. In practice, this theorization of human and planet rights, epistemologically fails to even accurately identify what falls in the other category. Ecology itself is no longer an adequate category sufficient enough to include in a social contract, simply because both humans and non-humans are subject to the realities of the failures of past exclusions. It is no longer ethically or morally contestable that climate change is not a naturally occurring event. It is rather the result of human action on non-human actors, who by the very dint of their epistemological constructions, as the other, as the cave that precipitated an exit in the first place, has become politically mute. Further, the construction of civil society for human progress, constituted a secondary yet equally powerful demarcation between the idea of progress through accumulation and surplus creation versus the idea of backwardness through scarcity. This second construction positing a choice between surplus and scarcity is the simplest formulation of human rights, predicated on the right to property and the good life.
Universalizing issues such as climate change, the environment and human rights have constrained spaces in particular social and political constructions. In India, a country that has deftly adopted the language of capital, and is fully embracing its logic, with a billion people, all speaking culturally attuned dialects of capital, and the problems of labor, what is the space envisioned for the renegotiation of the social contract that does not exclude the epistemological and political other, both human and non-human. What space is there for the language of ecology and nature and where is this articulation most effective?
Contrary to the theories and practices of the ongoing politicization of aesthetics - signaling a more sophisticated breakdown of epistemologies on the one hand, while on the other, further proof that the social is the political - the exhibition, Else, all will be Still forms one neutral space for Agarwal’s articulation. The works in the exhibition form a complexity that effectively brings Agarwal’s activist practice and artistic practice into one spatial dimension, and in so doing, Agarwal makes the argument for the renegotiation of the social contract from a ground-up perspective by taking into account the existing political, economic and ecological frameworks.
In the photographs Manifesto, Rhizome, and Sea of Mars, Agarwal positions this as yet undefined spatial backdrop as alien landscapes with objects suspended in spaces that are not easily recognizable – suggesting a loss of language and a loss of anchorage for these objects and for their inbuilt enunciations of capital, conquest and colonization. A reworking of these enunciations by inscribing their subjects and ontology therein in open spaces without the anchorages of constructed linear meaning – as in Rhizome – alien but no longer unknown landscapes – as in Sea of Mars – and space without a visual horizon – as in Manifesto, Agarwal suggests that in order to construct the ecological contract the weightage, the location, and the meaning of epistemological, capitalist and democratic systems must be all renegotiated. Placing at center the practicalities of Selvam’s livelihood – the boat as the object, and the sea and the subject that speaks for itself as well – firmly establishes that at this center must be the practical, moral and ethical considerations of those humans and objects that bear the brunt of the negative effects of these systems.
Reconsidering underlying political and economic systems requires returning to the fundamental foundations of Western political philosophy which demarcates civil society from man in a state of nature, and the nature of property rights as the basis of democratic representation. In comparison, the construction of the polis post-independence in India, which is predicated on the betterment of the masses rather than the property-class (who at the time conceded a portions of their property rights under the Emergency Provisions) the Indian Constitution places the vast majority of India’s poor at the center of the constitution – the Social Revolution as the engine of growth. The stated aim, to build a centralized civil society capable of lifting millions out of poverty, vs the unanimous rejection of the decentralization of political power in the romanticized unit of the village served to construct a unique constitution that, which while deftly borrows from the Rights of Man, nevertheless protects the right of the state to appropriate property and Fundamental Rights in the case of an emergency. The aim of the contract at the heart of the Indian Constitution is the social revolution – not revolution as against the state but the reconstitution of the term revolution to proactively imply the existence and effective application of constituent power of the masses vis a vis the state. In practice of course, this is hardly the case. Reconsidering both, the construction of this polis as it currently exists and the fundamental assumption of pre-civil society man to include the non-human actors that are silent parties to this contract, is fundamental to building an ecological contract, evidenced by the significant impact of climate change that affects the sub-continent, including the impending depletion of India’s water table, the rising of sea-levels in the Indian Ocean, and the scarcity of resources. If the social revolution is predicated on lifting the masses from poverty, this must needs include providing adequate food, access to safe drinking water, and livable conditions – a return to man in the state of nature is no longer the same state of nature as it was when the construction of civil society necessitated a stark and extreme demarcation. Instead, the ecological contract must include the considerations of the social contract, with the inclusion of ecology and nature as epistemological bodies that are at the basis of the polis and not politically separate as the other.
The space created by Agarwal, both in his activist and artistic practices, suggests a reworking with Selvam and the sea as the center of the one intimate ecological contract – taking into account both parties as mute in their own spheres, but as dependent ontologies together. This particular enunciation, without the harkening of language of Romanticism, and given Agarwal’s work as an activist, implies that there is semi-neutral ground available on which space can be made for the voicing of both parties’ ethical obligations - not by an outside other but in relation to each other.
The ethical and moral considerations suggested by Agarwal in his focus on Selvam’s work and life, is but a fraction of the vast 600+ million or so that also struggle for their livelihood on the sub-continent, with the state and its global adherence to, and local adoptions of, capitalism serving as both utopian and fictional engines in perpetual motion, and as the most effective argument for the continuation of collective global and local activism. Climate change, the ecological contract and the rights of humans, nature and ecology are undoubtedly the next evolution that we must consider. In Else, all will be Still, Agarwal creates a space for the verbalizing, aestheticizing and complicating of epistemological, and systemic constructs from a bottom-up perspective in the public realm, as the basic and fundamental requirement of an ecological contract that is an ethical and political reconsideration of the social contracts and the future state of nature as the future state of man.
New York, October, 2015