Subverting Performative Aesthetics

We have reached what we may describe as electronic nirvana. The digital divide appears to be bridged with the advent of the smartphone. We enjoy ourselves being hooked to the beehive that we call the internet. There is an excessive performative element in our attachment to virtual life. With the advent of the digital culture, we are chained to the new Platonic cave by the glue of what we may call performative aesthetics.

Performance and performativity are polyhedral concepts. We can trace the notion of performativity in the linguist J. L. Austen in the early 1950s. It was amplified by Victor Turner who applied it to our cultural life like rites of passage. We can trace it also in American feminist, Judith Butler who talks about gender performativity. Austen taught us that performativity is something that acts in its very enunciation.

We can see how the judge sentences punishment through his declaration or a priest effects the marriage of a Man and Woman in the very announcement of the same. This means our engagement with the digital world may be better understood when we take this concept of performativity to illumine how the virtual and the real intermingle in our life. We seem to live on the interstices of these two worlds. It is our performative engagement that is materializing the virtual for us as well as digitalizing the material. We are enslaved to performative aesthetics and are enjoying our slavery.

Performative aesthetics opens us to live an excessive mediality and enables us to enjoy the liveness of the digital and the physical worlds. It affords us a sense of immediacy that gives us an effect of presenting and not representing. This gives us an impression of non-referentiality. This means our telos or goals are not at a distance. We simply are able to enact our goals in our living present. This is why we have to continuously repeat and re-enact in order to re-experience what we deem to be in the world.

It is by this performative aesthetics that we have come to belong to the digital and the physical world. Both digital and the physical have merged into the phygital. While we may be enabled to understand our new phygital lives with the help of the notion, of performative aesthetics, it can be a conceptual tool that may enable us to understand why morbid nationalisms have become the order across the globe. It does have wide illuminative and explanatory power and may assist us to understand the growth of what we call identity politics.

This may also explain why what is happening to India and why our Government requires to be seen as blatantly humiliating the minorities, especially the Muslims even to the extent of destroying their houses without following the due procedure laid down by the law. The Phygital in our country is ruled by a performative aesthetics that compels us to feel being a Hindu by hating the Muslims in our country. This new way of being Hindu is certainly paying dividends to our ruling benches but is destroying the inclusive civilizational ethos of our country.

The new way of being Hindu is phygital and is affecting even those that are educated. This is why maybe we have to understand that Hindutva as a politics of identity is not merely religious and therefore Hindu but is also a performative aesthetics by which one lives one’s identity as a Hindu. The digital and the physical of Hinduism as well as the socio-political and economic of our country have merged with Hindutva and given rise to the performative aesthetics that enjoys the Hindu/ Muslim divide or the Mandir/ Masjid feud. The new way of being a Hindu is therefore a mediated performance between the binaries of Mandir/ Masjid etc. Maybe it is because of this the politics of our country keeps us always on the boil. We stay immersed in a restless condition that seems to always make our conflict with Indians to be Indians.

This new performative aesthetics seems to compel most of the members of the majority community to perform as Hindus to qualify as Indians. This performance as Hindus has a script. It is narrow, conflictual and hate-ridden. The new way of being Hindu seems to appear far removed from Hinduism without also not being truly so. This is why we may have to agree that the manner in which Hindutva has developed in recent days, has successfully blurred the boundary between Hinduism and Hindutva and ushered a new way of being Hindu on the wings of the phygital world even while the Hindus may not have discerned the same.

How are we to respond to this new drive to performativity to be Indians? Do we have to hate each other to be Hindus, Muslims or other minorities? It is not easy to even detect that we are enslaved by performative aesthetics. It being primarily reflexive does not necessarily favour reason and reflection. Maybe we need what Aristotle called practical wisdom and not theoretical wisdom to respond to this new aesthetics that has taken a strangulating hold over us. Maybe it is practical wisdom might work against reigning performative aesthetics.

This may require us to embrace ethics as the first Philosophy in the Levinasian sense. It means we become human by being ethical. In other words, ethical performativity is constitutive of our being human. Being ethical is a choice and therefore becomes our ways of being authentically human. This means we have to embrace transgressive performances that subvert our orientations to enjoy the intoxication of performative aesthetics. This means we can truly become Indians by embracing the diversity of our country. Although it appears hard today to be embracive of diversity, we have to transgress the monolithic way of being Indians to be truly Indian as Hindus, Christians, Muslims etc.

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    June 22, 2022



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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao