Contradictions and over-determinations
FREUD’S discovery of the unconscious was predicated upon encountering some of its symptoms, dreams for example. These symptoms or formations of the unconscious have been attributed to a plurality of determining factors. This plurality itself, in turn, may be taken in more than one sense. For instance, in one of his earlier works, Studies in Hysteria, Freud attributes hysterical symptoms to a constitutional predisposition as well as to a number of traumatic events. As a useful handbook of psychoanalytic terms puts it; ‘one of these factors on its own is not enough to produce or to sustain the symptom, and this is why the cathartic method of treatment, although it does not attack the constitutional causes of the hysteria, is nonetheless able to get rid of the symptom through the recollection and abreaction of the trauma.’ A second sense of over-determination refers to ‘a multiplicity of unconscious elements which may be organised in different meaningful sequences, each having its own specific coherence at a particular level of interpretation’. At another instance Freud takes it in the sense of multiplicity of elements in a chain of association: ‘the chain of associations which links the symptom to the ‘pathogenic nucleus’ is here said to constitute a ramifying system of lines and more particularly...a converging one (Laplanche and Pontalis 1973: 292).
Over-determination, as revealed in Freud’s own clinical practice, appears to be a consequence of the work of condensation. It is expressed not only on the level of isolated elements of the dream, a dream as a whole may be over-determined. ‘The achievements of condensation,’ as Freud puts it, ‘can be quite extraordinary. It is sometimes possible by its help to combine two quite different latent trains of thought into one manifest dream, so that one can arrive at what appears to be a sufficient interpretation of a dream and yet in doing so can fail to notice a possible ‘over-interpretation’. Over-determination, it should be noted, does not imply independence or parallelism of different meanings of a single phenomenon (Laplanche and Pontalis 1973: 292).
Jacques Lacan emphasises the fact that over-determination is a trait common to all unconscious formations and is ‘constituted by a double meaning (symbol of a conflict long dead over and above its function in a no less symbolic present conflict).’ If we would only follow, in the wake of Freud, ‘the ascending ramification of the symbolic lineage in the text of the patient’s free associations in order to map it out at the points where its verbal forms intersect with the nodal points of its structure then it is already quite clear that the symptom resolves itself entirely in an analysis of language, because the symptom is itself structured like a language, because it is from language that speech must be delivered (Lacan 1977: 59). Freud shows, with regard to hysterical symptoms, that this develops only where fulfilment of two opposing wishes, each arising from a different psychical system, are able to converge in a single expression.’
Louis Althusser once undertook to account for the Russian revolution as an instance of over-determination. ‘How was this revolution possible in Russia, why was it victorious over there?’ The French philosopher so asked only to paraphrase the good old Lenin’s answer in a brand new Freudian formulation: ‘It was possible in Russia for a reason that went beyond Russia: because with the unleashing of imperialist war humanity entered into an objectively revolutionary situation’ (Althusser 2005: 95).
Althusser’s road to Freud, it is widely known, has been paved with Lacanian bricks. Over-determination, according to Lacan, is a trait common to all unconscious formations, best illustrated by hysterical symptoms and dreams. Lacan always insisted in the name of Freud, with regard to symptoms, whether neurotic or not, there must be a ‘minimum of over-determination constituted by a double meaning (symbol of a conflict long dead over and above its function in a no less symbolic present conflict)’. Thus in the text of the patient’s free association the lineage of the symbol is ramified in an ascending order so that verbal forms of the text intersect with nodal points of the symbolic structure. Its raison d’être being that ‘the symbol resolves itself entirely in an analysis of language, because the symptom is itself structured like a language, because it is from language that speech must be delivered (Lacan 1977: 59; emphases in the original).
Being ‘structured like a language’, we will argue, is not far from as being over-determined. It means that processes constituted by the dual axes of metonymy and metaphor, of displacement and substitution, are by definition processes of elision and layering of meaning. As a commentator put it in brief, ‘just as a word cannot be reduced to a signal, a symptom cannot be the unambiguous sign of a single unconscious content (Laplanche and Pontalis 1973: 293).
I propose to advance the hypothesis that the national question as such in South Asia can in fact be better addressed if we take into account certain processes of over-determination in the analysis of modes and relations of production, not excluding formations of states and cultures. As in Freudian interpretation of dreams, in analyses of national formations too, lack of one definitive determination is of fundamental importance. One may yet argue that analysis of historical experience can render this problematic more determinate. A prologue to any analysis whatsoever of ‘the politically and analytically intractable national question’ in India must remain wedded to a consideration of the historical course of development of India’s high bourgeoisie.
According to some of the best accounts available Indian merchant communities, who would form the core of the high bourgeoisie, passed it formative era before India’s subjection to British rule in which they were able to find a symbiosis throughout that fateful era. In the colonial era, they found themselves in the service of British imperialism not simply in India but also in other colonial and semi-colonial possessions. This high bourgeoisie, as is well known, insisted on a unitary Indian state at the end of the colonial rule. For this bourgeoisie, who were already operating on a pan-Indian scale, and even beyond in the Pax Britannica, the interest was not just some regional bazaar but the All-India market, even when it was in its mercantile formation.
In the phase of its transition to industrial capital, under the tutelage of British capital, there surfaced no new reason to compromise the accent on a pan-Indian nation. ‘It was not out of small capitals serving local markets,’ as the sage commentator, DN, puts it, ‘that the big capitals arose. Thus it was not necessary for them to identify with local sub-nationalisms. Along with aspiring to the all-India market went the necessity of pan-Indian nationalism’ (DN 1989: 456).
An ideology of building a pan-Indian nation was framed contemporaneously, working itself out in an over-determination. Indian nationalism swallowed a dose more of Hindu nationalism. Along with this came the decision to promote Hindi as the national language of India. That non-Hindi big bourgeois groups, such as Gujarati Banias, lent their support to Hindi for a national language of India is an interesting fact though ‘obviously in the interests of fashioning an all-India market, based on pan-Indian nationalism’. It is more interesting, perhaps, to note that ‘some upper caste groups, which were not big bourgeoisies in the all-India markets, like the Tamil Brahmins, also supported Hindi as the national language.’
For India’s high bourgeoisie, defined here as those merchant-bankers and industrialists of pan-Indian orientation and who did not advance their demands on the basis of a regional market, nation building were committed to ‘Hindu memory’ as the basis of the Indian nation and the ‘Hindi’ as the national language of India. It is in the wake of this nation-building policy nurtured by the high bourgeoisie that the national question in India came up-front. Given the use of caste discrimination by the high bourgeoisie as barriers to entry against outsiders and outliers in both state and civil society, ‘the Muslim bourgeois elements sought to gain an area where their community’s numerical majority would enable them to use the state machinery for capitalist accumulation.’
‘Over a series of demands and counter-demands what finally emerged,’ as DN reminds in the interest of historical truth, ‘was that, while Muslim League was willing to settle for a federation in which the Muslim –majority states would have full (as full as possible in the imperialist world) economic and political power, the Congress, representing the Indian big bourgeoisie, was not willing for such a federal scheme. The Congress insisted on the right to fashion a constitution as it wished, on the basis of its majority, i.e. a Hindu majority.’ As everyone knows the Indian National Congress, true to its commitment, preferred partition of India to a federation.’ Hardly anyone would notice the act of repression though. ‘A federation, with major economic and political powers (other than foreign and military affairs ) in the hands of the provincial governments would have helped the growth of not just a bourgeoisie from the Muslims, but also other competing, regional bourgeoisies. The Indian big bourgeoisie was determined to prevent. Birla, for instance, was clear that partition was preferable to federation’ (DN 1989: 456).
India, accordingly, India turned out to be voluntary union one fine morning in place of a ‘voluntary federation’ as promised. Thus, not unlike the erstwhile Union of Soviet Republics in the wake of the Romanov Empire, the Unions of India and Pakistan came to succeed the British Empire, with perhaps a difference. The steel frame (the army and the civil service) was partitioned as the basis of building two imperial states, with the addition of Hindi and Urdu as signifiers of the two nationalisms, Hindu and Muslim.
In retrospect, after Bangladesh, it appears this primary repression historical nations killed two birds in the same shot. First, the ‘two-nation’ theory, a dignity it hardly deserves, was pushed forward as a charter of political demands, a justification rather for a section of Britain’s Indian Empire. Articulating such a demand, if worth a community’s salt, as a national credo permitted shoving all followers of one creed off to the procrustean bed of a single nation.
Jinnah, and other Muslim leaders, as is now widely accepted, did not mean to plead partition of India in the beginning. They meant the ‘two-nations’ theory to come into operation only when British rule came to an end; ‘in other words, it was not intended to be a demand for National Self-Determination or for independent Nation-Statehood but was a pre-emptive strategy to counter-back the options of the Indian political leadership which was carrying on the struggle for freedom from British rule’ (Mathur 1977: 435).
An analysis of the actual course of events, c. 1940-1947, leaves no doubt indeed that to Muhammad Ali Jinnah and his admirers it was no more than ‘a convenient political formula’ imagined to be acceptable to India’s British masters. The Lahore Resolution of 1940, which provided for more states than one with Muslim majority in British India, must have brought to closure the old debate on Pakistan. It was never meant to be a nation-state, neither in the opening bids nor during the endgame of old Pakistan’s.
Pakistan’s endgame in 1971 all the same tells the same old story all over again. The Pakistani elite perhaps never ever believed in the fantasy that Punjabis and Bengalis would form one nation. ‘Faced with a mounting sense of distrust and discontent in East Pakistan, the Pakistani ruling elite placed very little premium on the religious identities of East Pakistanis and banked mainly on their armed forces to maintain the integrity of Pakistan.’ Anyone who is forced to take recourse to a military solution to the problem of national integration must be taken for one who has lost faith in the efficacy of any theory whatsoever as an integrative force.
For India it proved easy to teach her neighbour perhaps a lesson or two on how not to build a nation, it seems a trifle harder to learn as much from her. The national crisis that India faces today is all apparent but is this altogether an unprecedented event? India resisted the crisis rather successfully, compared especially to Pakistan. It is perhaps too early to ask if India’s resilience may prove ‘too weak against a continuing string of divisive policies and actions’ (Tripathi 2000: 937).
Before I conclude this rather inconclusive paper let me recall what an old orientalist once said on the national question in ancient India. As Sylvain Levy of Collège de France put it in a luminous lecture, delivered a little less than a hundred years ago (incidentally on August 15, 1922) at the Calcutta University, ‘India is not a unity in the ethnological sense. There is not a people [on earth] that reveals so clearly as India [such an] extraordinary diversity of origin. India is not a unity in the linguistic sense [either]; the languages of India are even more numerous than races. And yet India is not a mere geographical expression devoid of human value, determined only by the nature of the ground, by elevations and depressions’ (Levy 1922: 373).
‘No one can dispute,’ added Levy who knew what he was raving about, ‘the existence of an Indian civilisation, characterised by the predominance of one ideal, of one doctrine, of one language, of one literature and of one social class.’ ‘From the Himalaya to Ceylon,’ the occidental savant kept going on, ‘cultured minds and simple souls alike believe in the same transcendental law—the ‘Dharma’ bound up with eternal transmigration —‘Samsara’ and the inevitable recompense of acts from existence to existence —‘Karman.’ Religions and philosophies agree in preaching the nothingness of the individual and the vanity, the illusion of things. Sanskrit, the language of the gods, has enjoyed a prestige for two or three millenniums. Vyäsa, Välmiki, Kälidäsa are unanimously held to be models of taste, of poesy and of style. The Brahmin is everywhere venerated as a sort of divinity on earth. But India is a proof of the fact that a civilisation is not enough to form a nation. A comparison with the great peoples of classic antiquity will show only too clearly what is wanting in India’ (Levy 1922: 373).
Sylvain Levy nonetheless lost no time to insert a caveat. ‘And when I speak of ‘India’,’ he quips, ‘it is of ancient India that I mean to speak; I must refuse resolutely to take any part in the controversies and the passions of the present moment’ (Levy 1922: 373). It has been the burden of this paper to suggest that despite all the controversies and passions of the last hundred years, with the wart and all of anti-colonial struggles, India has not become a nation by 1947. Neither has it become one since then, Pakistan too has not proven an exception. Only Bangladesh, if any, has come anywhere near the measure of the ‘great peoples’ of the classical Greek world.
As the Constitution of India, that well crafted document puts it, India is a ‘Union of States,’ having features of both a federation and a union with a systematic flexibility that has allowed it to becoming a three-tiered polity with a single citizenship, and with the capacity to be either unitary or federal, according to the requirements of time and circumstances. As a well known Indian statesman reminds us, the point was well-taken by BR Ambedkar whose charge it was to chair the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly of India. ‘The Drafting Committee,’ as Ambedkar in fact noted, ‘wanted it to be clear that though India was to be a federation, the federation was not the result of an agreement by the states to join in a federation,’ adding that ‘the federation is a Union because it is indestructible. Though the country and the people may be divided into different States for convenience of administration, the country is one integral whole, its people a single people living under a single imperium derived from a single source’ (Ansari 2016: 11-12).
Does it matter, really, if we call a rose or an imperium by any other name whatsoever? India remains a nation in the making in the thick of it all, elevations and depressions.
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Salimullah Khan is Director, Center for Advanced Theory and Professor, General Education Department. University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, Dhaka, Bangladesh. He studied law in Dhaka (Dhaka University, LL.B. Honors, 1978 and LL.M., 1979) and economics in New York (New School for Social Research, Ph.D. 2000). He worked on the theory of money and central banking in England since the late eighteenth century. He presently teaches psychoanalytic theory and writes on problems of contemporary history on a world scale. Salimullah Khan’s publications include ‘Silence: On crimes of power’ (Dhaka: Samhati, 2009), a collection of political essays.
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