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Soumyabrata Choudhury


The Poverty of Appearance, Appearance of Poverty.

By Soumyabrata Choudhury

In a recent adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People by Aranyak Theatre, Bangladesh, directed by Momunur Rashid, the poor appear. But this appearance which happens quite unforgettably towards the end of the play is already set up by an inaugural appearance. The ‘ inauguration’ consists of the landing on stage of a buffo figure, wearing a parachute, a landing from the sovereign heavens on the earth as it were, on the theatre of the world, a theatrum mundi…..This buffo figure in this play is Dr Stockmann’s brother who arrives on a mission to alleviate the poverty of his people by the simplest means possible, that is, by lending them money. These would be small loans to begin with, but with as wide a net of lending/borrowing as possible. But even this small loan, this offer of micro-credit implies an apparent reversal of principle and change of relation with the poor. Now the poor can be trusted with a loan, whose promissory horizon of a time bound return with a reasonable interest (much less than what is charged by the unreasonable, blood sucking local money lender) can be taken seriously. Clearly based on such a reversal of principle and such an inclusion into a kind of economic sociability , a new space of banking enterprise and corporation becomes possible, an enterprise with a new agency, that of ‘socially sensitive’ capital, and a corporation with a new substance and figure , those of poverty itself. In the context of Bangladesh and its history between 1970’s and the present the recognizable agency is that of Mohammed Yunus ( or at least the capital mobilized by Yunus’ stated principle of the poor as credit worthy)and the much mentioned , exemplary and almost mythical corporation of Grameen Banki

Then for such an admirable and emancipatory project, why the buffo tone in the play? Why the appearance of the generous, trusting, and missionary saturated with mockery? The play as it progresses , provides the answer. And that is: the emancipatory project and its constitutive principle of the credit worthiness of the poor and the cooperative banking system that follows from it are structured by a kind of auto mockery and layers of deception. And that is the technique of the play’s performance – relentless theatrical exercises of auto-mockery distributing the critical gravity of the theme(s) into inter-linked circuits of hypocrisy, expropriation, fetishization, and coercion. Now let us look at each of these circuits as they ‘impurify’ the play’s utopian horizon.

  1. Hypocrisy: The hypocrisy alleged and presented in the play is both personal and structural. The emancipator is, at bottom, a politician and a rhetor- this is the play’s presentation. He covertly -and sometimes openly – translates the emancipated principle into a locus of rhetorical assemble of the poor , and the poor as the new subjects of economic sociability and credit-worthiness , are gathered together as a population , a consistency, a ‘people’. But, this in itself is not an act of hypocrisy (or falsification), even if its one of manipulation. The real hypocritical moment , which is both personal and structural , of this subversive translation is the simultaneous assertion that the poor are the true people of society and nation and that they are poor , that is , poor of and in wealth, security, coherent inwardness( that is rationality) , time of the world(that is a future) … In other words the true people on whose existence as a majority and as a manipulable will political power is staged – actually is poor ‘in world’.( as Heidegger would say of the animal) and does not quite exist.

  2. Expropriation: From the first allegation follows the second mechanism of re-circulating and distorting the emancipatory gesture. In its distorted but effective form this gesture presents itself as expropriation in the play. The hypocritical moment was the delicate overloading of it with the double maneuver to be held in balance: The move to collectivize the poor into a spurious potency of the ‘ true’ people and at the same time , to maintain the poor as the poor (in the world), as not quite existing , as the ‘least’ existent…..The moment of expropriation in the play is the re-individualization of the poor , when the poor person faces the ( messianic) moneylender in all his/her isolation from the convivial or sociable spontaneity of the world. At this point the poor who is existentially and economically defined as deprived( “capacity –d eprived” as Amartya Sen might sayii) is impassively expropriated of land or any other residual , ‘least’, property as ‘security’ for the ‘least’(micro) loan as if this person is a full subject of society and the law. So the expropriation is not only economic , it is , properly speaking, a case of ontological expropriation wherein the material terrain of Being is appropriated and the subject is thrown out of his/ her situation, but this very displacement of existence, this expropriation of being is denied its ontological value. In other words the poor are given micro- credit to utilize their productive capacities and correct their deprivation , thus overcome their material and categorical status as ‘poor’, but in so far as the poor are decided as ‘credit –worthy’ and they have a ‘right to credit’ (as Md Yunus would say)they no longer exist in the heterogeneous but non-localizable zone of poverty; rather now they are included in the homogeneous economic and individual space of administration , law/state and productivity. However, expropriated from existence, poverty so appears – not as something which exists in all its concrete non-localizable richness effects in the world but as fetish, as that which is arrested to the figure, image and sensation of a pathetic incarnation whose fate is sealed with the glue of this very pathos.

  3. Fetishization: From the point of view of law, administration, economy etc. the poor are clearly resource and potentiality (exactly the reverse side of Amartya Sen and Yunus’ argument about the poor as capacity deprived). In this view, poverty is a transitional stage in a process and logic of ‘creditable’ appearance. Amartya Sen cites Adam Smith in the course of his analysis of poverty’s social exclusion to the effect that escaping exclusion is to be “…. Able to appear in public without shame”iii What Adam Smith says about the particular (and generic poor) person, the policy of state supported by law declares for the poor as a collective productive capacity, as an aggregate population and as a space of appearance. If for the individual the fact that he/she can appear in the public without shame is a kind of lived demonstration of capability, correction, emancipation from the condition of poverty and social inclusion, for the policy of state (and society, why not) the objective demonstration of shameless well-being is co-terminus with the purification of spaces of the signs of the poor, of the fragments of the pathos of poverty’s public incarnation. And yet in the play in question, we started with saying “the poor appear!” To understand this twist we must return to an analysis of the auto mockery of dignified, purified structures in the theatre to the point where dignity and mockery become indistinguishable. Towards the end of the adaptation of Enemy of the People, a figure appears on stage, shatteringly silent and seized with unrelieved trembling. The figure belongs to an actor playing a poor peasant utterly expropriated of all assets and appears as a definitive incarnation of poverty. But does he appear as a portrait before the audience’s gaze? No, he is still part of a perverse gesture of theatre that seizes the poor as a fetish and displays the fetish and loves it. The trembling figure appears to the messianic moneylender and the latter plants a kiss on his cheek under whose tender and infinite impact the figure collapses on stage. At this point the precarious sobriety of the document of poverty becomes indistinguishable from the sheer yet sticky pathos of appearance .; this is when the theatre of analytic( and quite joyous) mockery cant be discerned from a theatre of cruelty

  4. Coercion: As an event of cruelty- and all events befall us with sublime cruelty, as Kant and Artaud understood- the pathos of incarnation and the perverse appearance of the trembling fetish give way to danger, to threat, to the terror of poverty. This is not another more drastic stage of appearance but what actually distributes the trembling in the fibers of the figure - a non-localizable but effective necessity that supports all fantasies of poverty. The fantasy is that the poor are a pitiable weak potentiality of productivity, work and value; they are the objects of a rectification and subjects of emancipation (the cooperation strategy of self-realization). The effective necessity is that the poor exist here and now, they are real or they are the manifest declaration of the reality they themselves are – the poor. Understood from the productive humanity, the poor-individually and collectively- stands for a ‘weak’ reality and a maximally potent world pf a future realization, a perfect potentiality. From the point of view of the ‘here and now’, that is immanently speaking, the poor are an event of existence that cannot be localized to the schema of productive/economic realization in the future of a ‘least’ existence in the present. Precisely because the poor escape the judgment of appearance – led by the potency of the productive essence by which they are judged ‘weak’- and given such judgment is relative , circumstantial and plagued by the bad conscience of unthought heteronomy, hence imperfect – the poor are a “perfect weakness”( Alain Badiou)iv. I think it is by virtue of releasing these effects of ‘perfection’ in the circuits of the world , which effects are retrospect non-localizable to a ‘potent’ cause( a cause with potentia, power and distinction of authority) that the generic threat of the poor to the securities of society and the state occurs. I think it is a danger and a threat and it generates the terror of the unknown that the poor don’t demand protection from the coercive apparatuses (police, military etc) for their generic lives (life as fundamental biological substance which further modifies to political right). In the same way that they don’ t take insurance policies which always pertain to ‘abstract’ life void of the event of existence. To this danger and the terror of this non localizable but concrete event of the poor, the very coercive machinery which doesn’t much interest the poor as part of their existential machinery (dipositif) reacts with ever intensive severity and violence. And this is the limit presentation of the play: the banks, baptized as the saviors of the poor, appear as police or coercive spaces and instruments; to the non-payment of dues and interests and after all alienable property has been confiscated and the last alienable threshold reached is that of existence, the banks reduce the stakes of this threshold – or raise them to impossible heights- to physical violence, confinement and torture. The poor are reduced to the surfaces of their least bodies on which the great potency and bewilderment of power are inscribed.

A Concluding Note on Theatre and Politics in the Subcontinent:

Argument and Polemic

In November 2009, when I first saw the first performance of the above mentioned adaptation of Enemy of the people(called ‘Shotrughna’ in Bengali) in Dhaka, I was part of a collective response which could be called one of” enthusiasm”< sup>vThis is the word used by Immanuel Kant for the idea of the French revolution as it evoked a collective feeling among people who were not necessarily active participants in the revolution – but who thought about it. In a text called The Conflict of Faculties, Kant called these people spectatorsvi. But this is not idle viewing; the spectators are moved to enthusiasm about the revolution because of their greater perspective on the scene of the event(s) and their ‘moral pre-disposition’ to recognize the emancipatory element in an otherwise partisan , imperfect , even reprehensible historical conjuncture and actions. One can add that this pre-disposition is equally a ‘critical’ faculty that is historically activated but has the paradoxical characteristic that it is entirely public while being non-localizable vis-à-vis any active role in the unfolding of the historical sequence and so is entirely secret – a public and collective secret that is lived out ‘ enthusiastically’

In the actual viewing of the play, the spectators critically responded to the argument therein that the Yunus programme (the reference to Yunus in the play was stark, resonant and carnivalesque way) essentially promoted a dogma of ‘ free’ individuality secured apparently by credit worthiness and availability of credit. That this was a dogma was corroborated by humorous observations in the play about the only possible success of this freedom in the real world – the success of entering the market as a micro (least) – entrepreneur (there is much fun made of the small enterprise growing around mobile phones in Bangladesh rural areas and its advertisements as digital Bangladesh to the global market.) viiThis critical response was mobilized equally by the thought of the opposition between free individuality as self-employment (and its insertion into the capital market.) and another political sociability in the direction of a new ‘figure’ and space of appearance that doesn’t merely manifest the dogma of the market and the axiom of productivity. I must admit that the only evidence of this thought that I found during and after the play was a collective intensity I have called “enthusiasm”viii . But it was persuasive evidence even if a subjective one. Or it was persuasive because it was subjective.

It takes but a couple of hours to fly from Bangladesh to the other third part of the sub-continent which is India. While to every appearance there is very little to separate these societies, I will risk a polemic differentiating the Indian situation, or rather a certain situation in contemporary India. That is the situation of the “commonwealth” in the context of the commonwealth games scheduled for October 2010. The polemic is the following: the commonwealth in the incarnation of the games represents a municipal and sovereign decision on the question of ontological equality and its question of appearance and sociability. This is the decision to exclude the poor(which in this case includes the manual laborers engaged in the construction work before the games, who are often migrants, and stay in make shift locations , beggars on traffic islands, etc) from the appearance of the ‘commonwealth’ in the specific geo-political form of the metropolitan city. But the crucial question is what is the modality of this decision and exclusion? One can improvise the following answer (which is frankly polemical): The poor are excluded – and are being excluded as this essay is being written – from the space of appearance which is the city (Delhi) and in the same move, are exposed to this very appearance and its norm. replicating in a fundamental way the structural complicity and the point of application of sovereign power Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life”, this ‘exposed exclusion’ or ‘non- manifest exposure’ reveals a pre-subjective threshold where the ‘thought of the poor’ struggles to create its element, a threshold before the thesis on exclusion defended by Amartya Sen based on the normatively determined subjective parameter of a public emotion (shame) inherited from Adam Smithix. In this line of argument the parameter has to be entirely localized in the subject-individual, the one who does or does not feel shame to appear in the public under certain structural and physical conditions. Everything in this emancipatory economic thinking depends on either the measurement or the testimony of the individual who is measured and/or judged to appear successfully or not , so to have thus overcome poverty and its attendant exclusion or not. Everything depends on an economic subjectification and sociability that rescues or condemns the poor. This is the subjectification of the poor individual to the “creditable” social and entrepreneurial agent (Adam Smith) with the right to public appearance, without shame, to the ‘ credit-worthy’ poor (Mohammed Yunus) with the right to upward mobility in an ‘open’ economy.

This subjectification and normative threshold of economic thinking, despite its emancipatory nobility is some variants, remains prisoner to the originary “exposure” mentioned above. Irrespective of the ‘mobility’ of some poor individuals beyond the threshold of poverty and shame , the condition whereby sovereign/municipal power purifies the space of public appearance ,not of ashamed poor individualsx but of the signs of shame , is a condition endemic to economist thinking as well as the ‘aesthetics’ of the state policy. So I would say, the decision to make the commonwealth appear in the sporting, ritual and municipal space(s) is equally the exercise of making the poor, as a locus of shameful signs and of ignominy, disappear but this exercise of making disappear, this capture into the lower depths of visibility (the slums or the frontiers of the city which can be demolished any day) is the result of the absolute, unmitigated exposure to that very decision. It is the exposure to a monotonous and crushing light that sovereign power and economic reason praise as the light of productive- and profitable –sociability. In being exposed to the generous dogma and the violence of this sociability whether the poor are included in or excluded from that very generosity – is a question that does not cease to mock us.

i Notes

For a detailed and admirably lucid statement on the formation of Grameen Bank in 1983(and its initial history in the 1970’s) and its development up to the turn of the millennium when the Grameen Bank had become the inspiration and paradigm for a whole non-governmental initiative in disbursing credit to the poor, see Mohammed Yunus. “Grameen Bank , Microcredit and Millennium Development Goals” in Economic and Political Weekly , September 4, 2004, p 4076- 4081


See Amartya Sen. , Social Exclusion: Concept Application Scrutiny, ( New Delhi: Critica Quest, 2004) p.4


Amartya Sen. Writes “…….Smith placed the ideas of inclusion and exclusion at the centre of poverty analysis, when he defined the nature of “necessaries’ for leading a decent life.

By necessaries I understand not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even the lowest order, to be without………. Custom has rendered leathered shoes necessary of life in England. The poorest creditable person of either sex would be ashamed to appear in public without them”.

The above mentioned quote is the full basis of Sen’s choice of affective criterion for social inclusion and poverty alleviation. See, ibid, p. 5-6


See Alain Badiou’s interview in Infinite Thought (Continuum: London,2005)

v The play was staged as part of an international Ibsen festival organized mainly by Centre for Asian Theatre (CAT) in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The performances were accompanied by a seminar on “religion and freedom in Ibsen” and discussions with directors of the plays and their actors. In a conversation with this writer, the plays director Momunur Rashid, while targeting American imperialism in the global world order, accepted the suggestion that the poor is not a national incarnation (Bangladesh, the pre-eminent poor country). The non-localizable effects of poverty traverse as much a rich country (the US) as a poor nation.

vi For an excellent discussion of Kant and Hannah Arendt in this regard, see Julia Kristeva , Hannah Arendt trans. Ross Guberman (New York : Columbia university Press, 2001) p 51-52


The sight of Dr Stockmann’s brother , the great moneylender – visionary , with a giant mobile phone stuck to his ear obviously mocks Mohammad Yunus’ sober triumph towards the later part of his above-cited essay when Yunus claims that the Grameen Phone had become the single largest mobile phone operator in south Asia. Yunus’ triumph stems from the successful conversion of ‘ sociability’ (the milieu of communication) into enterprise. The logical circle is that this conversion to enterprise that marks freedom from endemic poverty is itself to be characterized by a kind of conversion to sociability without “shame”. See M. Yunus, “ Grameen Bank, Microcredit and Millennium Development Goals” p. 4078

viii But ‘another’ political sociability will always appear as unsociability, isolationism, incommensurability and disjunctive fragment when judged by the norm of society whether understood as “civil” or political society. This unsocial sociability is the locus of danger around which “the dangerous classes “might well appear but the locus itself is not localizable beyond the thought of danger.


See Giorgio Agamben , Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power And Bare Life (California State University Press, 1998)


The reality is that no one is ashamed! They/we beg and steal and laugh and mock and forgive as they/we go along………… .