Manuals in Dark Times: A Review of Oishik Sircar’s Violent Modernities: Cultural Lives of Law in New India

[Ed Note: Over the next few weeks, we will run a book discussion on Oishik Sircar’s “Violent Modernities: Cultural Lives of Law in New India”. This is the introductory post by Adil Hasan Khan.] 

…without failure, no ethics…

Simone de Beauvoir

It is with immense pleasure that I take up this invitation to engage with (‘review’) this truly remarkable collection of essays written by Professor Oishik Sircar. Oishik is a jurist, currently teaching at the Jindal Global Law School at Sonipat. His varied research interests and trainings cover (but are not limited to) the fields of law and aesthetics, critical legal studies, feminist and queer approaches to law, as well as postcolonial legal studies. Violent Modernities: Cultural Lives of Law in the New India (OUP, 2021), is composed of seven substantive essays and forms the object for this roundtable discussion. All seven essays contain critical redescriptions of lives lived, and roles inhabited, while engaged in (as activist) and pedagogically reflecting on, and training for (as legal academic), various ‘faltering’ emancipatory struggles, and their unintended consequences, in a ‘New India’ (characterized by its violent and imbricated neoliberalism and ethnonationalism).

Oishik is a close friend. He, and his partner (and frequent co-author, including for one of the essays included in this collection), Debolina Dutta, have been scholarly interlocutors and critical guides for me over the past half a decade. I was thus quite familiar with several of the essays included in this collection, as they have been written and variously published by Oishik over the course of the last decade or so. These previously published essays have now been joined by a Preface (‘Negative Spaces’) penned by the author, and a very generous and moving Foreword written by the postcolonial international legal scholar, Vasuki Nesiah. In addition to some minor updates to the body of the essays themselves – mostly marking the further entrenchment of the title’s ‘New India’- the author has also provided short notes under each chapter, indicating when, where, how and sometimes, with whom, each piece was written.

While the Blog editors have entrusted me with the primary task of ‘Introducing’ Violent Modernities for the other reviews/reviewers in this roundtable, in what follows, I will (here perhaps in(af)fected by Oishik’s own ‘disciplinary misbehaviour’) take the liberty of offering my own review/interpretation. I hope this engagement might provide any prospective readers with a particular orientation in their forthcoming navigations of these delightful and challenging set of essays. 

Above all I want to urge prospective readers of these essays to be attentive to (and examine carefully) the organisation/arrangement of the essays in this collection. Significant work is being done here by the author as organiser. It is my argument that once we pay attention to its genre (which I am arguing is that of a training manual or an “exercise book”) and its telos (i.e., what it aims to exercise and transform), what might otherwise strike an ‘inattentive’ reader as being disparate and eclectic melange, at once appears as a carefully curated and connected series of self-formation exercises.

Regarding the telos, in Violent Modernities, the “ethical substance” sought to be transformed by this doing, or exercise work, is not the ‘world’ (á la Marx in his Theses on Feuerbach) – at least not directly – but the very subjectivities of selves and others (i.e., readers of this manual).

As a clarificatory explication for this reading, I want to argue that what is on offer in this collection of essays is less theory that is concerned with analysis and representation (‘informing’), and more with practical training of the self and others for a ‘way of life’ (‘forming’) – which is not simply the other of theory but includes a different mode of theorizing (what Pierre Hadot termed “théoretíque”). Furthermore, this practice is not stepping away from the ‘real work’ of transformational and emancipatory political struggle (into some ‘self-fashioning dandyism’) but working on the self (and/with others) to cultivate the necessary virtues to engage in such politics, and to better respond to its duties and responsibilities. Incidentally, such a reading of Violent Modernities as an exercise in the Foucauldian “practices of the self” is also gestured towards in her Foreword by Nesiah (as being “a running sub-narrative that is a dialogic companion to every argument in this book”).

As I read them, the two parts that Violent Modernities is divided into (“…the Theoretical…” and “…the Personal…”) mark different stages in this askesis, whereby there is an expansion (or deepening) of this exercise regimen to the everyday (and everywhere!) of the ‘Personal’ – beyond (and behind) the epic, the sacred, the public, and their attached personae (of activist and academic). Each part builds upon the one before it. While what is eventually aimed at is a (slow and endless) transformation of the very being of the self and others, this is not approached through attempting an experiment in instantaneous ecstatic rapture (á la Paul enroute to Damascus), but patiently working through different stages of (self-)transformation (much like Al-Ghazali does in the four parts of his magnificent Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, moving from a preliminary training in civility, to an ultimate training in mystical union and “ensoulment”).

If Violent Modernities is indeed to be read as an exercise manual, the question naturally arises, what is it training selves and others into? In my reading, Violent Modernties trains selves and others into cultivating the virtue of hope sans optimism – what some have referred to as “radical hope”, and what Oishik, quoting David Shulman, refers to as “dark hope”. Alongside this, it also offers a training into cultivating a conscience through the practice of an ‘ethic of responsibility’. Both these abilities/capacities are intimately connected in this training manual, with the cultivation of one working towards enabling the other. Thus, for instance, an activist embodying “spectacular hope” in some promised emancipatory futures of their various political activist projects – analogous to what ‘bad faith’ or ‘false consciousness’ is in certain related traditions of spiritual training within the broader tradition of critique – will ultimately struggle to practice the cultivation of a conscience that can adequately take responsibility of the limitations and/or failures of these emancipatory struggles.

This is perhaps an appropriate juncture at which to briefly meditate on the (central) role performed by certain formulations of failure in these exercises. Failures, as the historically experienced limitations of one’s emancipatory projects, once acknowledged, cultivates ‘dark hope’, and once taken responsibility for, in terms of one’s complicity, cultivates a conscience. Acknowledgement here operates as the a priori condition for taking responsibility. Thus, one technique on display in several of these essays is that of confessing failures of projects that the self has been invested in/committed to, in order to transform the ‘bad faith’ condition that refuses to take any responsibility, into a conscience that practices an ‘ethics of responsibility’ (no doubt a well-established technique for cultivating a conscience). Here it is instructive to mention that this combination of cultivating ‘dark hope’ and a conscience is one which avoids the formulation of failure primarily as defeats or reversals suffered by the emancipatory projects. This latter, more gnostic configuration of failures as defeats and reversals, somehow external to the self (and the ends of one’s emancipatory projects), characterises a venerable (post-)Marxist engagement in ‘spiritual exercises’ to cultivate ‘dark hope’ sans conscience for an ‘evil world’ (Adorno, Benjamin, Eagleton – the list is long!). Rather, for Violent Modernities, ethically significant failure takes the form of limitations of the emancipatory projects and complicities of the committed self in these limitations. On the other hand, the suffering produced by the projects of liberal legality are not accounted for by Violent Modernities in terms of their limitations and complicities with fascist state authoritarianism – rather, their promised emancipation is perceived to be phantasmagoric, the violence of the ‘New India’ is taken to be a product of their proclivities (and not their limitations), and their imbrications with state fascism is not considered to be a relationship of complicity but of co-constitution.

Staying with ‘dark hope’, I would like to add that in Violent Modernities, this virtue is very much configured as a disposition (rather than an experience). Specifically, this disposition is associated with the capacity for (re-)imagination, for configuring the world, otherwise in an endless quest for an (impossible) justice, and a truly co-habitational community. As a disposition, it must necessarily be trained into. The exercises for cultivating this ability presented by this manual significantly include an ‘aesthetic education’ through different forms of sensory knowledge(s), and affective learnings.

The reader must however be forewarned. The training enacted and shared by Oishik here is extremely demanding. It is almost Augustinian (or is that Gandhian?) in its combination of an unrelenting quest towards (an unachievable) ‘moral perfectionism’, with an equally unflinching examination of (inescapable) limitations and complicities. This is not a form of life that is suitable for everyone, and certainly not one that will enable one to ever ‘succeed’ in the ‘neoliberal academy’ (for that, one could always perhaps learn one’s askesis from Sadhguru!).

That said, this uncompromising account of the various limitations of different critical traditions and projects the self is committed to and inhabits is never formulated as a juridical judgement upon them. In other words, these exercises in critical refraction are never a cue to “take a break from” Feminism, Marxism, the Queer movement etc. Unlike many of us (privileged) academic agnostics – for whom any experience of loss of faith or even plain ennui vis-à-vis these traditions and movements often produces the justification for their total abandonment – Oishik refuses to turn apostate. Nor of course does he assume the role of the ‘bad faith’ heterodoxy by turning a blind eye to their limitations. Instead, what Oishik manifests is a deepening of these commitments by way of taking responsibility for these limitations by endlessly seeking to re-form these “living traditions” (out of which emerges “queerfeministmarxistpostcolonial critique”!). This really is taking responsibility for and inheriting one’s traditions, projects, and movements.

However, I wonder whether Violent Modernities does offer us adequate training for taking up public institutional life, for instance in a university (neoliberal or otherwise…) – one that is attentive to such a life’s attendant limits and possibilities (but especially to its limits)? As one formulation of “jurisdictional thinking” suggests, limits are not the same as limitations – e.g., while settler law and institutions constantly (and openly) worry about their limitations, they struggle to properly acknowledge their limits (vis-à-vis indigenous jurisdictions). So, while ‘dark hope’ and conscience are virtues that enable us to (endlessly) struggle against limits, what might enable us to live well with them? I will leave that as an open question – an invitation in an ongoing dialogue. 

In this book roundtable, the following scholars will engage with and review Violent Modernities:

Siddharth Narrain – PhD candidate at UNSW Law- The Review can be read here.

Nivedita Menon – Professor at the Centre for Comparative Politics and Political Theory, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The Review can be read here.

Atreyee Majumder – Assistant Professor of Sociology at the National Law School of India University. The Review can be read here (Part I & Part II). 

M. Parthasarathi

This book discussion has been co-edited and coordinated by Mariyam Mayan from our Student Editorial Team. You can follow Law and Other Things on our social media handles. (TwitterLinkedIn, and Instagram)



Dr. Adil Hasan Khan is a Senior Research Fellow at the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness, Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne, Australia. He can be reached at [email protected].


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