ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Violence of Commodity Aesthetics

As increasing trends point to businesses and political parties targeting persons rather than masses, forms of patriarchal authority are softened and diffused, leading to a revision of the older distinctions that prevailed between public and private. At the same time, as relations between individuals are mediated more through markets and media, they also generate new kinds of rights and new capacities for imagination along with new ideas of belonging or inclusion that in turn, lead to novel ways of exercising citizenship rights and conceiving politics. This experience of inclusion in new circuits of communication and of sharing intellectual property across classes, such as seen with television, can help to politicise those sections previously marginalised. This paper, examines the implications of this argument in terms of recent debates over the rights of the hawker, or the 'pheriwala', in Mumbai.

The evolution of communications has been highly compressed in south Asia. For example, the internet arrived little more than a decade after nationwide television in most parts of India, and many public telephones only arrived when television did. In a short time, an explosion of communicative possibilities has swept across a society of deep linguistic and regional divides and a small, albeit expanding middle class. The uneven character of the resulting development has provoked new forms of social imagination that cannot be understood simply as delayed manifestations of events already seen elsewhere. A range of new practices are seen, for example, more individualised and flamboyant modes of comportment, alongside increasingly public and aggressive definition of singular identities that were earlier more recessed, fluid and fuzzy. A distinctive ensemble of commodity aesthetics is diffusing across not only the stores and bazaars, but other old and new urban spaces as well as more intimate settings, displacing and transforming earlier understandings of harmony and balance.

The media re-order perceptions, and precipitate new ways of seeing and thinking, but they do not emerge in isolation. They arise as part of a far-reaching change in social relations due to the growth and spread of markets. A provisional way of describing them is in terms of the increasing centrality of consumption to the formation of social identities. Previously identified as strictly private, consumption has become a new and unpredictable form of civic participation, distinct from those prevailing in the era of the developmental state. At one level, this is banal, but it deserves more examination. It indexes not simply the market behaviour economists have taught us to recognise, but as well the accompanying circulation of images and information via the media. One way of characterising the latest phase in the globalisation of capital (to use Partha Chatterjee’s gloss on the word) is in terms of the exponentially increased circulation of non-material forms of property that require public dissemination to ensure their realisation as privately appropriated value. Such forms of intellectual property are characterised by plenty rather than by paucity, since they are essentially inexhaustible. They can therefore sustain modes of participation distinct from the competitive, zero-sum activity of markets. These new forms of solidarity are already being mobilised, and require to be more accurately understood.

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