29 March 2012

Mosquitoes and Civilisation

The fact that there are mosquitoes in this room is a sign of a deep rooted civilisational malaise. It’s an absolute blot on humanity, a disgrace on our entire civilisational effort, a matter of deep shame for all of mankind that there are mosquitoes in this room.

Or perhaps it’s not a disgrace on our science, on our technological might which can atomise whole worlds, but a comment on existence itself. That there are mosquitoes in the same world as there are humans is a reminder not just of the ultimate animality of our species but also a strong comment on the undeniable animality of our civilisation.

Yes, the animality of our civilisation. After all, progressive civilisation as we’ve come to know it is based essentially and inextricably on unsustainable exploitation of resources and peoples. We are humans and have laptops and the internet not simply because one bloke long back had the ingenuity to tame lightning and direct it with wires but also because we have the mechanisms, tangible and intangible, to dig up mounds of soil to make miniscule little chips and blow up mountains and rocks to make slender, fine wires. All of that digging and blowing – and that is just a very, very general understatement of all that goes into laptops and the internet – is achieved at the expense of a variety of ideas and organisms, human and otherwise. To be civilised is to be fashionably brutish.

Of course, there is no one way of being civilised. Progressive, liberal, growth oriented civilisation is what we know the most and live through, but civilisation can be various states of being and relativity, various diverse modes and degrees of exploitation and engagement with ideas and objects and their respective interactions with each other. Yet, over the past hundred years or so our civilisations have been tending towards a singular, modular civilisation, towards a more or less composite, set way of engaging with alterities and otherness and of conceiving the self in relation to itself and to these alterities exterior to it.

The fact that despite jaalis there’re still mosquitoes in this room is indicative of the coming to age of this homogenising, super-civilisation. A civilisation which directs the gaze inwards, which gives agency but sequesters it to leave much of experience outside the pale of action: we are citizens of more or less democratic communities which engender notions of free will, free press and free speech, but democracy and freedom themselves are temporal subjectivities prone to subtle domestications.

It is these domestications which, ultimately, allow macchars a free reign in the troposphere. Contemporary politics gives us the freedom to romance, the access to schooling and the choice to gainful employment, but it increasingly presents all of these in such pleasant provisos as limit their exercise for progressively transparent, equitable modes of socio-economic engagement. Market logic dictates that focus should be the self and selfhood the primary, even exclusive, domain of action – what lies outside is the responsibility of the state, the communal, the increasingly atomised yet faceless collective.

The politics of mosquito repellent merchandise is an exemplary instance of such invisible yet potent diversification. The macchar-chaap coil and machine, the mosquito repellent cream, the fly zapper, all these are symbols of a larger, global impulse towards the barricading of interiors, of the polarisation of home and world in ways which put all possible premium on the former and relegate all possible responsibility towards the latter to the ethereal yet ever strengthening arm of the state. We can control only what goes on in our own little homes and so we have jaalis on our windows and subscribe eagerly to even stronger chemical combinations to kill those who invade our domestic castles. The state does its bit in conducting fumigation once in a while, disseminating information against mosquito breeding and conducting investigations on actions taken by citizens in their homes and so the responsibility of the opens is comfortably devolved onto agencies and factors outside individual control. Whether that responsibility is undertaken to the fullest and whether such a delegation of powers allows any significant scope to the public individual is, then, a matter of and for more or less self-limiting academic debate.

Be that as it may, one can’t deny that in its entirety individual control is a happy impossibility. Still, the very fact that individual agency needs, increasingly, to find legitimate outlet through institutionalised effort is reflective of the ways in which the private is obfuscating the public even as the public is restricting the private. As long as our civilisations move towards this ideal of civilisation, individual agency and endeavour will continue finding gainful realisation in the private and macchars, for all that our achievements and economies are worth, will continue finding safe haven in our homes.

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