276 killed. More than 300 injured. More than 100 missing. These are the figures from the single deadliest attack in Somalia's history. When the numbers are piling up like a heap of garbage, any discourse on it, especially on social media, is conspicuous by its absence. As Michel Foucault argues, "discourses are practices which systematically form the objects of which they speak". However, so far is Somalia from our conventional imagination that even the idea of an intervention in it by parties with vested interests looks grossly distant and obscure. How does one search for humanity in the face of disaster?
It won't be off the mark to say that if one doesn't get moved by the numbers of bodies, there is no reason why its nature of brutality should have any impact on us. Our world of middle class aspirations can only think within the bubble of homogenous capital created by high capitalism. The war-torn Somalia can never rankle our superior consciousness. We don't aspire to be a Somalian, do we? With all our fetish for a lifestyle amidst skyscrapers, glitzy malls and a bumper pay scale, Somalia almost sounds as a perfect antithesis to the idea of an "American Dream". Our empathy can only be to a lifestyle that we aspire to live. Not for those who have fallen way behind in the race of Social Darwinism. As Ambedkar said in some context with his characteristic ungracious harshness, "even our empathy is casteist". It is important to draw attention to how we, the middle class of India deal with casteism, as our understanding of the world is a linear natural progression of the same.
For a deeply caste-ridden society like ours, untouchability has always been its cardinal feature. The core of this phenomenon is how we perceive "dirt" in general. For cementing the symbolism of "white" or "light skin" as one of purity, the filth or dirt of darkness needs to be highlighted beforehand.
"Dirt" over here is psychological, something that is pitted against the attributes of light skin like novelty, ingenuity and confidence. Dark skin, as Sudhir Kakar would argue, is nothing but an outer manifestation of inner dirtiness and hence remains untouchable. Keeping this in mind, our egalitarian projection in the public can never meaningfully intervene in the disparagement of the private. Africans — obviously a monolith in the middle class psyche — are a logical extension of our home-grown perception of white and dark skin. "We don't aspire to be a Somalian" can easily be rephrased as "We don't aspire to be a dark skinned person".
With our framework to visualise the outside world remaining the same, we neither have the earnestness nor the competence to realise the dynamics of shifting boundaries, overlapping cultures or peculiar ethnicities.
To see this in a global context, our incapability to register what Tabish Khair calls "the new xenophobia" lies at the root of the problem. The Somalians can never get the empathy they desperately require as they, along with a large swathe of underdeveloped population, have been subsumed in the deeply fractured language of finance capital.
The impact it has on the perception of strangerhood cannot be missed. They find themselves in a helpless situation wherein their "body" remains intact but their differences of identity get uniformly ironed out. Assimilating them in this politically loaded narrative makes it even more xenophobic than the old variety that thrived on physically eliminating the "other". In this sense, our fear of the stranger, in this case the Somalian victims, stems from our own complicity in reifying their strangerhood.
Alien lives, alien cultures and bodily existence whose worth is limited only to numbers. Photo: Reuters
As Emanuel Levinas would argue, "Violence is any action which we endure without at every point collaborating in it". When are we going to talk about this invisible, abstract violence that we perpetrate, that runs parallel to our quest of being part of this homogenising capital? The current anti-refugee sentiment exacerbates this normalisation of violence. Their supposed monstrosity and the destabilising effect their presence will have on our "civil culture" erases the more fundamental issue of the indifference to their daily plight. This is what psychologists like to call the "contagion anxiety".
The feeling that our proximity to someone who is facing the horrors of disaster might get transferred into our own body and mind in some way. Internet as a medium which already gives you enough bouts of anxiety and pressure is conveniently kept aside from accessing such sombre stories. Globalisation, driven by the power of internet, only brings us closer to our aspirations. The nameless and faceless who suffer are an aberration in our quest for meritocracy and progress.
The parallels between a certain Akhlaq who was butchered in broad daylight and the current Mogadishu episode are hard to miss. Alien lives, alien cultures and bodily existence whose worth is limited only to numbers. The world of finance capital is nothing but a world of numbers after all. If being indifferent to Akhlaq was a failure of our idea of citizenship, our lack of reaction to Somalia speaks volumes about our mental psyche amidst the "development" obsession espoused by high capitalism.
Our idea of the everyday has no place for a Somalia as it is ridiculously out of sync with the rapidity of the "newness" around us. Constant innovations, development models negate the possibility of there being a parallel, sordid history for this every day.
We live in an everyday which is devoid of origins and is laced with a sense of inevitability. This competitive binary of success and failure makes something like Somalia sound like a worthless exception. What happened in Mogadishu was extremely tragic. Where we as the privileged lot are heading is even more tragic.