Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Semiotics of Indian Citizenship

This is a long-form essay first published in 'the Indian Quarterly', Vol.1, Issue 2, January-March 2013, with the title 'When Rules Acquire Flesh'. 

Illustration by MSMDNYC, courtesy Indian Quarterly

The Semiotics of Indian Citizenship
an essay by
Mustansir Dalvi

In Mumbai, here are a few things you can do with relative impunity: travel ticket-less; wheedle your way out of a parking ticket; get a substantial discount on a piece of real estate by paying rokda; erect a pavilion in the middle of a busy road during festival time; squat on government land or burn an effigy, a book or a bus, should you be collectively outraged. In Mumbai, you can also land in jail for kissing a cheek.

These quotidian acts make for a substantial part of the city’s citizenship. You can see them for what they are, illegal. But that will neither lead to an understanding of why they take place, nor help imagine useful remedial or preventive defenses against them. 

Think instead, of practiced citizenship (legal and otherwise) as a language, an articulation of communication between the city’s inhabitants, and a development of conversations that, taken to a head leads to a discourse that runs parallel to the one created by the state through its legislation  Language is a speech-act, where meaning is possible only in a context. Language is, in a very real sense, a game you play, and games can only be coherently played when all the players know (and follow) the rules. Citizenship is a street-act, played out in an urban context that gives rise to both a discourse and a semiotic. 

Language, as it is used is defined and in turn defines its user. This bonded binary was first described by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in 1916. For Saussure, language presents itself to the user as a series of rules, such as grammar, that form an essential sign-system that all its users know and accept. Saussure calls this system ‘langue’. However, it is practiced by each individual user as a series of everyday choices, where the spoken or written word is articulated, or made visible, either perfectly within the system of grammar, or deviated from (which works, as long as meaning is conveyed). Saussure calls this praxis ‘parole’. With such practice and deviation, language is constantly evolving and is at any given moment the sum of the parts that are langue and parole.

Meaning and coherence is the result of this pas de deux, where rules are tentative, but followed and the spoken words are the rules made flesh, equally tentative, emerging in a visible spectrum from ‘propah’, to colloquial, to slang, to nonsense, to entirely internal dialogues, which still retain a semblance of sense across speakers.

It is no great stretch of imagination to see that our street-acts also follow a kind of langue and parole. What each citizen does individually coalesces into collective custom over a period of time that like an Impressionist painting, metonymically expresses the wisdom of the whole. How we act is governed by how everybody acts. And yet, our actions change based on immediate stimuli, peer pressure, or, on occasion our own motivations. So, in Mumbai here is another thing I can do with relative impunity: cross a street when the light is red, if the traffic is relatively frugal. I do so, of course, because everyone else is doing it too.

The idea that laws can be bent, abused or broken is a matter of transaction on Mumbai’s streets. Looked at from an objective distance one can, somewhat vaguely, discern the rules that define the transactions.  These rules are like langue, ‘multiform and heterogeneous’ to quote Saussure. The parole/acts, however, are diverse, random and arbitrary, but spontaneity is often followed by mimesis, leading to a kind of normalization of behavior that we recognize as ‘common law’. I have to do so, because everyone else is doing it too.

If pulled up by a traffic policeman for a possible breach, what should I do? This quotidian stimulus calls for my response. This response is particularly acute when there are two ways to do something: one within and one outside the law. Do I show him my driving license with, or without a fifty rupee note tucked inside it? If we accept as a given that no one consciously breaks the law unless there is the possibility of a reward, then we accept that specific incentives are in place for making a choice. Whether I actually do this or not is parole. An act, as Roland Barthes says, of selection and actualization. The confidence to do it depends on the discourse, the extended street-acts that recur. I know it has been done before. 

This known discourse is based on possibility, tolerance and acceptability and is practiced, mostly by imitation. It is nearly impossible to find the first offender for any breach of law. Through iteration then, to impunity. I put the currency note in my driving license; it gets looked at and is returned, sans note. I drive away. There is a tipping point beyond which such behavior becomes convention, and is integrated into the language of the street-act. At the pointy end of parole, any attempt to attribute ethical values or moral judgement is beside the point. What remains is the transaction conveyed, without words, acted out as a meme.

In 1976, Richard Dawkins, in his seminal book ‘The Selfish Gene’ proposed the concept of the meme (an extrapolation of the ‘gene’) as an idea that is transmitted through a culture through words, speech, or actions, anything that can be imitated. These idea/memes take a life of their own in a society and persist through mimesis. Just like genetic evolution, these self-replicate to become ‘sticky’, like catch-phrases, or a tune that you cannot get out of your head. 

For good or ill, they remain as events in the life of a culture. The meme cannot be controlled or wished away; it can only be modified through mutation, or lost through disuse. A meme may be replaced by another meme, over a period of time. If certain normalized memes in our society breach the laws that our own society makes, then cracking down on individual offenders is most unlikely to stop that meme/act from taking place in the future. For this very reason, attributing causality to certain acts serves no purpose beyond merely showing that these acts do, in fact, take place.

Of course we know memes today as those quirky elements in the social networking universe that seem to keep capturing the eyeballs and multiplying in numbers and variations. With text, images and videos, meme-generators and phone applications, some objects, like cute kittens or laughing babies, on the internet, go ‘viral’. It is interesting how the language around memes uses phrases associated with disease.  Viruses spread. Memes are transmitted. Copycat behavior or even a general kind of imitation keeps the memes active and the infection in the population thrives. 

Aaron Lynch describes the spread and persistence of memes as a ‘Thought Contagion’. In his book ‘Thought Contagion: how belief spreads through society’, he describes the various ways that memes spread in a favorable environment: Some ideas remain as their consumers are loath to let them go. The user preserves the meme in the presence of other memes. Some memes are motivational, in that people adopt them out of a need for self-interest. Some memes are cognitive; they fall in smoothly with accepted belief patterns of their consumers in a society and thrive in their easy acceptability. On the other hand some memes thrive by being adversarial, by being aggressive against other memes. Crossing railway tracks, for example, can be seen as cognitive behaviour, preserved through repeated practice. Parole as seen in the practice of citizenry often takes one or the other of these meme paths, more out of convenience and custom rather than such options being well thought out.

In all these cases mimesis, usage and transmission make the memes flourish in a society favorable to their adoption. Taken together they coagulate into a rough and ready discourse, a system that is largely followed simply because it is largely followed. This coagulation or langue then is institutionalized socially, as (in Barthian terms) a collective contract that should be accepted in its entirety if one wishes to communicate. At this level, a single individual cannot bring change into the system.

Unlike language, the semiotics of citizenship differ in one important aspect. Langue manifests itself in two forms, both separately institutionalized  but one at a systemic level and one at the level of praxis. The langue described thus far is the second, formed by common-law agreement and repetitive usage. It is largely arbitrary and unmotivated, quite beyond the pale of cause and effect. The first langue is what society legislates as law, written down, for practice, defended and adjudicated over. The law applies to all, irrespective of individual desire, belief, value and motivation. There are written consequences for breaking the law, applicable theoretically to all who do so.

This law, an alternative manifestation of langue, is framed, codified and signed off in the legislatures of a country. While they seek to represent the values of its citizens as a whole, laws tend not to be reactionary, but equitable, even handed. As such, many deliberations go into its final framing, issues are examined from all sides, several times over, usage is simulated and worst case scenarios analysed. Framing the law is an intellectual and critical activity, serving its citizens well by deliberately looking beyond common sense. Law is frequently counter-intuitive, and thus prone to conflict with the other langue, the one of common-law agreement. 

Consider this: in the enrollment form for the Universal Identity Card (the Aadhar Card) issued by the Government of India to all its citizens, there are three boxes to be ticked under the category of gender: Male, Female and Transgender (in Hindi- ‘Anya’ or Other). This clear legitimation at the level of the State of the possibility of gender affiliation extending beyond the obvious binary is completely at variance with the way people with alternative gender choices are treated (or even recognized  in Indian society today. In an ideal culture, parole should coalesce into langue codified in law, but that is seldom the case. To use a Darwinian analogy, while the langue of the street develops through a process of evolution, trial and error, a survival of the most repeated meme; the langue presupposed by legislation is often a mutation, an intellectual exercise whose consequences appear at first glance to be far removed from the day to day.

So often at the level of the street-act, ‘the law is an ass’. Why can’t I cross the street when the light is red and there are no cars in sight? Why can’t I cross tracks when no train is present? Why can’t I pay for something in cash for a discount; I don’t keep the bill anyway? Why can’t I collectively express my religious fervor on a busy street during a festival day? Parole sees law as obdurate, as inconsiderate as a speed breaker is to a driver with one foot on the accelerator, who will (because he can) by pass this bump by taking his car over the pavement instead. Everyone does it, no? No one was harmed. So parole subverts one langue with another, one that it makes collectively, and soon breaking the law does not seem such a big deal after all.

In our country, there has been a growing distance between the codification of law and its actual implementation. In this vacuum, parole flourishes, and the law is bent, abused or broken in its use (as has been mentioned before, at a transactional level) rather than followed, as a civic partaking from a common troth. As the gulf widens, parallel discourses squat in their place. While the law is seldom actualized  except in the most heinous of circumstances; at a quotidian level it is ‘used’ as a locally applied tincture, a semiotic, an exploration for possible gain, for the moment. There is an otherness while considering the ethical positions that brought the law into being. ‘The law may be so, but over here, this is what everybody does.’

The manner in which the law is followed, in part or in the breach, becomes normative, and soon takes a life of its own. Memes that emerge from motivational or cognitive imperatives become material. Common sense becomes operative in the common-law langue of the street: not rigid, not causal, loosely based on agreed upon values and beliefs, mediated by consequences of investment and return. This langue is powered by a shopkeeper’s logic that varies from day to day, depending on a perception of gain or loss, fueled by notions of acceptability and elasticity. Nothing personal, only bijness. In the end, all that remains is possibility.

In the miasma of implementation, lies the shadow of occupation. 
Out of the 18 million or so citizens of Mumbai, more than half live in homes they have built for themselves, glossing over the city’s building bye laws and development control rules. From simple tarpaulin tents, often occupying land that belonged to the government, many of its inhabitants have, through slow accretion, now built ‘pucca’ homes in RCC with all the fittings of modern life, while still existing in a status of dubious legality. Some have lived in the same place for nearly half a century. This physical occupation, illegal though it is from the point of view of the state, is an example of the tolerance exhibited by the state itself in the form of deferred implementation of laws that prohibit such occupation. 

Illegality is allowed to happen for a variety of reasons that over time cease to matter. What only does is that the squatters are there, fait accompli. Parole has subsumed into langue, and every second person in the city you could shake hands with arguably lives in one or the other of these neighborhoods  More and more migrants, who come to the city plug into this system, learn to play the game of slum-dwelling. Soon, by becoming normative this results in a palimpsest of urban living that, although unrecognized by the authorities, cannot be wished away by mere legislation. Every major initiative by the state to eradicate slums in the city has flopped, in large part because they have got the discourse wrong. Calling the slums ‘difficult areas’, using a language that pontificates, harping on the dwellers of having a lack of hygiene, living in congestion or ‘stealing electricity’ simply treats them as unwanted without actually having a plan for them. Waving the red flag of illegality has simply ceased to have effect. In the meanwhile, these parts of the city live and flourish, following a langue of their own, evolved the hard way, over time.

Here, tolerance is a game played by all the stakeholders. Local officials allow the neighborhoods to continue, while they implement tentative rules that are acceptable to both. The occupiers are allowed to live, but under the constant threat of demolition, a threat that is seldom carried out, and both know it. Services and infrastructure make their way into these neighborhoods slowly, and very soon they take their place as alternative middle class housing, with the structures they live in, while still illegal now command real estate values equivalent to the ‘legal’ parts of the city.

In the miasma of implementation, lies the shadow of transaction. 
Laws are made; they are just not applied that way. The consequences of behavior in the breach are a series of negotiations over a rough ground of transactions that are smoothened through mutual agreement. The langue of the common people displays a level of acceptance that is much more elastic and variable than the law, that rigid old school master with a cane and a set of arcane pronouncements. Some things are frowned upon, completely unacceptable: thou shalt not kill, no doubt, nor rape, nor cause bodily harm. Thou shalt not burgle a home. Thou shalt certainly not be in breach of promise, but for all else there is cash. 

The parallel economy is widely acknowledged as one that substantially greases the wheels of the country’s economy. This economy runs outside the law, which insists that all transactions must be acknowledged to the state and taxes paid over services and value given. But what the state will not know, it will not miss, and nudge-nudge, wink-wink, things can be managed. The langue that is derived from the discourse of acceptability has, in our country, developed systems that are as rigid as the laws of the state. It is extremely unlikely, for example, that you could buy a piece of real-estate in Mumbai entirely through ‘cheque payment’. Hard, unaccountable currency is a large part of these transactions. The law is completely subverted by the norm. Now in practice for so many years this has become custom, accepted by all. To deny this is to encounter looks of astonishment, to be pitied as naive, as an amateur in a world whose rules you obviously have no idea of, Membership in a city based on a langue derived from praxis, exacts a price for your participation in it. We don’t need no steenking rule-book. Play this game, there is no other.

Even at the level of the state, where someone is authorized to permit an activity or a transaction, there exist a series of stages where interpersonal negotiations (settled in cash) make for quick or customized permissions. Such acts have now become convention, and monies have to be paid for permits even if everything is above board and nothing special is asked for. Such practices, loftily labelled corruption, are now so entrenched; even to describe them seems infantile. As mentioned before, an act practiced over and over, by a greater and greater number of people becomes essentially amoral, even though it is agreed to have broken the law. 

Where transactions acceptable between two entities outside of the gaze of the law are now conventionalized and follow their own specific langue acts, it is virtually impossible to eradicate such behavior by merely describing it in morally dubious terms. The corruption meme works strictly within preservational and cognitive ambits, having far too many participants and far too little useful outrage to actually transform it into anything else. Legislations against corrupt practices fail if they refuse to look at the practice as transactional and merely focus on booking the receiver of graft and denying the role or culpability of the giver. 

In the miasma of implementation, lies the shadow of outrage. 
Where implementation of most laws are largely unmonitored, some laws can be fore-grounded, based on the perceived values of the wielder. A police inspector, scouring the watering holes of Mumbai to eradicate illicit activities, and arresting all the women in a restaurant or pub for perceived prostitution, is taking a high moral ground no different from a mob burning a bus in self-righteous moral outrage. A beat cop, booking a couple for a relatively benign display of affection in  a public space is implementing a law to suit his purpose and thus abuses it as a matter of personal choice. This is an act of parole as a reflection of a common-law langue, rooted in a vague moral conservatism, born out a milieu where the alienation of the other is a necessary aspect of the validation of the self. The law becomes subservient to the individual, and is interpreted arbitrarily to serve the individual’s purpose.

Let us take this possibility to its natural limit: imagine then, legislation made purely on the basis of the street-act. If langue is formed out of the collective discourse of a million acts of parole, then parole is the way langue is practiced. If common-law rules become the law, they will inevitably reflect a reactionary and conservative mindset, limited by peer pressure, not wanting to step across a line. The acceptability of the opinions of the lowest common denominator will rearrange the limits for the majority to remain within. In a sense this is the langue of the mob made law. 

In a public realm that is becoming rapidly de-intellectualized, this can only lead to a limiting of diversity, of free expression, of an acceptance of personal values, beliefs and choices of action. In this ‘with-us-or-against-us’ environment, petty slights will be enacted on the street in the form of expressions of outrage. Even today, even with our laws in place there is a hypersensitivity about treating the violent, public expression of outrage (especially religious) for what they are, as acts of criminality and vandalism. Imagine then, a common-law legislated to legitimize such behavior. 

In the recent past Mumbai has seen enough examples of such collective ‘rage’. This anger was essentially fueled by an astute use of adversarial memes that placed one set of people in a discourse of victim-hood  essentially in opposition to the rest. This manifested itself into public violence that disrupted the city and cost lives.  When the state acts to prevent such outbreaks in the future, an over compensation is inevitable, and an excessive zeal to keep the peace will result in the proscription of all free expression in the form of the arts, books, media, dress, and even individual presence in public spaces.

If the discourse of state does not actively engage its citizens, the citizens will create their own through practice and experience. One discourse will rapidly be replaced by another discourse if the former recedes from public imagination. Such a langue will have no reasons for being other than that they exist at any given moment. Largely un-premeditated, it will flourish in its use and iteration, and only vaguely reflect the collective opinion of its practitioners. It will, however, have a hold on its adherents, who will follow the langue in their acts of parole simply because that is the way things are done. After all the reasons have been subsumed in the actions, the actions themselves will remain, carried out mechanically. For those who are charged with making good laws for their citizens, this situation will allow no accommodation. They are, after all, playing a different game. 

Unless engagement is actively sought and cultivated, laws, however well intentioned are doomed to sterility. Sensitivity to the semiotics of citizenship is the necessary first step in the development of a functioning, critical and inclusive nation state.

Thank you, Madhu Jain and Jonathan Foreman.

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