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Ultranationalism: A Proposal for a Quiet Withdrawal


I developed an early suspicion of any form of nationalism courtesy of a geography teacher and an imaginary cricket game. As the only student of Chinese origin in a high school in Bangalore, I was asked by my teacher in a benign voice who I would support if India and China played a match. Aside from the ridiculousness of the question (China does not even play cricket), the dubious intent behind it was rather clear, even to a teenager. Still, I dutifully replied, “Sir, I will support India,” for which I received a gratified smile and a pat on the head. I was offended less by the crude attempt by someone in power to force a kid to prove his patriotism, than by the outright silliness of the game. If all it took to establish the euphoric security of nationalism was that simple answer, I figured there must be something drastically wrong with the question. I was left, however, with an uneasy feeling (one that has persisted through the years), not because I had given a false answer but because I had been forced to answer a false question. The answer made pragmatic sense in a schoolboy way (you don’t want to piss off someone who is going to be marking your papers), and I hadn’t read King Lear yet to know that the only appropriate response to the question should have been silence. If Cordelia refuses to participate in Lear’s competition of affective intimacy, it is not just the truth, but also the distasteful aesthetics of her sister’s excessive declarations of love, that motivates her withdrawal into silence.

If we similarly measure ultranationalism not just on a political plane but on an aesthetic one, we are immediately struck by just how deafeningly loud and shrill it is. While one could attempt to counter the ascending clamor with speech of one’s own, there are times when our silence may be our greatest weapon. I would suggest that if we think of ultranationalism as an affective excess marked by a hyperperformative jingoism, often orchestrated around sporting rituals, then one of the undervalued ways of countering excess has been asceticism.

If nationalism presumes our consent to a social contract and ultranationalism forcefully demands such a consent, what would it mean to imagine silence as a political act—not one of tacit consent, but rather the withdrawal of it? Stanley Cavell argues that presumptions of the social contract are always subject to repudiation through the withdrawal of consent, or withdrawal from society. The withdrawal of my consent is not necessarily a nihilistic rejection of the world, but a dispute that I have about its content. It is both possible and reasonable to reject society as it stands (because it is unfaithful to what I have consented to) while still consenting to a conversation about the horizon of possibilities of this society. The radical potential of such disagreements about the substantive content of politics is testified to by the existence of laws of sedition, which seek to criminalize forms of speech that create “disaffection” towards the state. For Agamben, the state is not founded on a social bond of which it is the expression, but rather on the dissolution, the unbinding it prohibits.

But while the state may enforce laws against speech, how does it proscribe seditious thoughts and feelings that do not seek out a public, but are uttered in silence? In 2013, on a trip to postwar Jaffna, Sri Lanka to meet activists and scholars, I was introduced to Jagadeesan (known to a few as “the philosopher”), who lived alone in a remote village. The philosopher was once a part of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, but after he became a critic of their politics, he was arrested, detained, and tortured by them for several years. After his release, he withdrew from active political life, choosing to live in isolation. When we asked him what he felt about the postwar situation and the mounting Sinhalese chauvinism spurred on by the victory of the ultranationalists, he looked at us and replied that he had no idea since he rarely talked to people any longer. Gesturing to the trees in front of the house, he said that he now only spoke to trees and shared his jokes with them, since people did not even understand jokes anymore. If people no longer understood jokes, he said, it was clear that the world was going mad and there was no hope left. He indicated that he was less and less interested in the political affairs of the world around him, and more and more attracted to forms of spiritual practice (even as he gave detailed instructions to someone on how to repair their pump: he had been an engineer). His helpfulness to his neighbors and his comfort with technical matters seemed to bely the claim that he had entirely withdrawn from the social, and yet at the same time, his melancholic disposition seemed to indicate a form of inhabiting the world through the act of mourning it, which in his case required his turning away from it.

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