The idea for this post stems from Akshay Khanna’s lecture on The Body. He mentions India’s Daughter (a documentary that I watched last year) and the political opportunity created by the liminal space between life and death.
To understand this liminal space, it is perhaps easiest to begin with an example.
My mum was recently very ill. She was taken into hospital by ambulance and subsequently stayed there for two weeks. There was a period of around 6 days (in the middle of this time) when her condition worsened and the doctors didn’t know why.
I think this period can be linked to liminality – if not between life and death (as she is getting better again), then between regular health and life-changing illness.
I had been planning to go back to London to continue working and studying. But when her condition worsened, it became as if nothing else mattered. This was someone who was unbelievably important to me and everything else could wait. That gut-feeling, that I needed to be there for her and that I couldn’t possibly be anywhere else, corresponds to a liminal space. Leaving one condition (health) but not yet reaching another (death, or a return to health). You are waiting for some change, for the doctors to do something, or some miracle to occur. Thankfully, in this case, my mum will be able to fully-recover.
I expect that anyone who has experienced a serious illness themselves, or that of a family member or close friend, will be able to identify with this emotion. This feeling that you have to react, to be there. That nothing else matters.
I have now gone back to my normal life, working and studying. And yet, I feel changed. I’m more aware of the fragility of life and have been calling home much more often than before.
Now, to India’s Daughter…
* * * *
This is the title of a BBC documentary that focusses on the gang rape of Jyoti Singh in Delhi, India. On 16th December 2012, the 23-year-old medical student (and her male friend) boarded an off-duty charter bus that claimed to be going towards her home. Once on the main road, a group of six men (five that had pretended to be passengers, plus the driver) beat both of them. They then dragged Jyoti Singh to the back of the bus and proceeded to brutally rape her, including forced penetration with a blunt iron rod. After one of the men pulled a rope-like object (her intestines) from her body, they threw both her and her male friend from the bus, leaving them on the side of the highway for dead.
Jyoti Singh remained in hospital in a critical condition, first in India and then transferred to Singapore, for a period of thirteen days. She passed away on 29th December 2012.
Photo credit: http://indiasdaughter.com/home/
Watch the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JoGtGv2KS48
The circumstances under which Jyoti Singh occupied the liminal space between life and death were much more severe than my mum’s condition. But the ensuing gut-reaction was perhaps similar… And moreover, this reaction echoed across India and more widely, inspiring unruly actions globally.
There were mass-protests during these 13 liminal days (and for a period afterwards). Thousands of people came into the streets in Delhi and other cities across India, fighting for justice and for the perpetrators to be appropriately punished – in this case, hanged. The (mainly peaceful) demonstrators were met by police using batons and tear-gas, aiming to disperse their growing numbers at any cost. Several rail stations and streets were closed in Delhi on 22nd December in an attempt by the state to prohibit protesters from gathering.
People across India identified with Jyoti Singh and her parents. Sexual assault is (sadly) relatively common, in India and globally. But the existence of a liminal space between life and death perceptibly allowed for a stronger current of emotion and discontent to develop. This was not a one-off incident, a flash news story that disappeared in noise – instead, it continued to drag on for thirteen long days. And with each of these days, protesters grew more determined for justice to be served.
Just speculating, but… If Jyoti Singh had died the same night as the rape occurred, perhaps she would have become just another number. Perhaps she would not have sparked such a strong emotion. It was the liminality, the not-knowing, that enabled the gut-reaction (and ensuing protests) to occur and to reverberate globally.
Similar to the period when my mum was ill and nothing else mattered apart from her health, citizens across India were perhaps unable to do anything else. They had to come into the streets to protest. Her situation was critical and they needed to do something. Nothing else mattered.
* * * *
Liminality is not necessarily a (relatively) light-hearted account of the rites of passage between child and adult (as described in the first class reading by Julio Alves, 1993). It can also be much darker, linked to the liminal period between life and death. Either way, it fosters opportunity (for unruliness, for clarity, for a gut-reaction), because those who experience this liminal space are guided by a surge of emotion that cannot be displaced or forgotten.
When in the liminal period, regular norms and ways of life are discarded. The pure ability to live (or the pure desire for justice) surpasses everything else in importance.
This links to Agamben’s (1998) conception of the bare life: where a body is stripped of all political meaning, removed from the political life of a citizen (bios) and reduced to an object, to the natural life (zoe). Power can be exerted over this body, it can be controlled, beaten, raped, even die, without any implications. Here, the embedded patriarchal nature of the state represents the sovereign, controlling the distinction between zoe and bios. Males and females across India are the product of this sovereignty.
Jyoti Singh exposed the reality of her life, of an Indian woman’s life, as subject to the bare life. Controlled by men, who dictate when a woman can be outside, who she can be with and how she can travel. If this is outside of their expectations, as Jyoti Singh was that December evening, then the body may be treated however they wish.
… But this time, the Indian public would not accept that reduction. Would not accept the lack of consequences.
This exposure of the bare life resonated with women everywhere, whose lives had been over-determined by the male-dominated state and who had been unable to speak, move or even think without male permission. Many of the rapists’ and their lawyer’s statements in the documentary align to this perspective. Women are described as “flowers” and “diamonds” – if men put “their diamond” on the street, then “certainly the dog will take it”. Women should not “roam around” in public without a family member. There is “no place” for women in this culture.
So when Jyoti Singh became a public example of the Indian woman’s bare life, and remained in the public eye for almost two weeks, this presented the seeds for unruliness to erupt. Her liminality brought visibility to the bare life.
* * * *
Perhaps this visibility has changed the people of India forever. The aftermath of the protests has received a mix of praise and criticism: resultant laws have been passed, but there is uncertainty over the extent to which these laws are implemented. But the gut-reaction that people felt during that 13-day period, and the experience of protesting or witnessing mass protests in the streets, might have changed the perception of many people across India. The frame of reference and possibility has been widened. If people have “woken up”, they cannot now be silenced.
Here, the return from the bare life to the political life offers opportunities for real and lasting change. The reduction of Jyoti Singh to the bare life, and the extended period of liminality, were perhaps the necessary precursors to increase the life chances of women across India.
It is this altered perception, this power within, that is arguably most important factor for empowerment and for positive change more broadly. When I first started writing this blog, I was critical of the protests, wondering if anything had actually changed since. But I have since realised that the switch in mentality is the central point here, rather than a list of successful outcomes (much like in prefiguration). The change that those protesters went through, that perhaps the whole nation went through, will likely have large (and virtually immeasurable) effects. This is similar to the internal change in perception that I experienced during my mum’s illness.
* * * *
Whilst with my mum in hospital, I was reminded of the lyrics of an Antony and the Johnsons song:
Oh I’m scared of the middle place
Between light and nowhere
I don’t want to be the one
Left in there, left in there
I think it is this middle place, this liminal space, which is most frightening for those involved. But it is also embedded with the most opportunity for real change, for sparking unruliness.
* * * *
One caveat – I am a British woman and was not present at the 2012 Delhi protests. I can only speculate as to how it felt in that situation and what drove so many people to take to the streets. I was inspired by how powerful India’s Daughter was and by my recent experience with my own family; the concepts studied in class helped me to engage with these situations and to analyse them in a new light.
Agamben, G. (1998) ‘Part two: Homo Sacer’, in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp.71-115.
Alves, J. (1993). ‘Transgressions and transformations: initiation rites among urban Portuguese boys’, American Anthropologist, 95(4), pp. 894-928.