“As if in Mourning for It”: Knowledge of Violence, Violence as Knowledge

Penelope Deutscher

1. An endeavor to take flight from the everyday in which we are immersed will likely fail. But sometimes the everyday flees from us. And one can err, simply by having confidence in the everyday.

Textures of the Ordinary speaks to the dual character of everyday life:  routine, reassuringly habitual and yet constitutively capable of becoming defamiliarized, distrusted, monstrous. In the conjunctions explored by Veena Das in Textures, one consideration of doubt or unease about others is provided by Wittgenstein, for whom a kind of answer might sometimes be available through a reimmersion in the thick detail of daily life. A second order of possibility for looking into someone’s familiar face and doubting all is as it seems is attributed to Gaslight’s Paula Anton. Here, to respond by taking recourse in the practical details of quotidian life can also prove to be a blunder, a denial of what one has begun to know. A third, different possibility is attributed elsewhere in Textures to Sardar Ji, whose many years of marriage with Manjit (a survivor of Partition’s mass abductions), can’t alleviate his frenetic suspicions about the possible deceit her face might be concealing. They are first discussed in Life and Words (2007) in which Das had described the “coming to doubt of relationships that the Partition amplified [as having] a specificity of its own. It could be repaired only by allowing oneself a descent into the ordinary world but as if in mourning for it.”[1]

Das explores everyday immersion in this ordinary so immediate that it verges on imperceptibility while remaining vulnerable to the possibility of its own collapse.[2] Returning frequently to the quotidian lives of women living in the wake of sexual assault and bloodbath, Das’s account of how knowledge of the ordinary is sometimes more available in its breakdown, has given attention to the transformations in daily meaning for women who have survived kidnap, extreme brutality and sexual assault in twentieth century and contemporary India and Pakistan.[3] It’s noticeable that Textures of the Ordinary turns to an intelligence of form and conduct that can be differentiated from the knowledge sometimes attributed to sovereign subjects.

2. We cannot always “assume that subjects are in possession of the knowledge that they are enacting.”[4]  (Nor should one assume that subjects are not.)

Paula Anton, the heroine of George Cukor’s 1944 film Gaslight, has been misled by her lover from the outset. She ought to have been warier of him. But the scenario she has never entertained is incredible: that she might be the target of an elaborate plot to distort her perceptions, drive her mad, and appropriate hidden treasure. When she scrutinizes her fiancé’s face, she sees the spontaneous tenderness and romantic acceleration so marvelously incarnated by Charles Boyer. Paula’s actual situation would require, as Cavell and Das observe, a catastrophic version of doubt extended to the faces on whose affection she relies and to the very fabric of her environment. When a Scotland Yard detective, Brian Cameron, suggests to Paula that her marriage, her husband’s intentions and identity have all been an elaborate fraud, her repudiation takes recourse in their domestic intimacy and the shared roof over their heads:

“You’re wrong, you’re making a mistake. I know him, he’s my husband. I’ve lived in the same house with him. You’re talking about the man I’m married to.”

On what kind of knowledge can Paula draw in these circumstances? On this point, Cameron, who has befriended her, speaks with certainty. He appeals to the counter-knowledge that is the backing, he insinuates, to her continued attachment to the quotidian. He takes his assertion: “you know,” to be confirmed by the form with which Paula repudiates it:

– “Mrs. Anton—you know,  don’t you? You know who is up there?”

– “No.  No.” 

– “Are you sure you don’t?”

– “How could he be?”

3. Knowledge is often lined with the potential of doubt’s friction.

Cameron reminds Paula about one of the forms of knowledge of special interest to Das: it is possible to act in accordance with forms of knowledge that inhabit us, without recognizing them. Cameron undertakes to reassure Paula that she is not mad. But Paula’s earlier actions had also been accompanied by a countering intelligence. Might one then suggest that Cavell’s rendering of Cameron’s role over-emphasizes Paula’s helplessness and the necessity of his intervention? From Cameron’s perspective, his confirmation makes possible her acceptance of the facts and, as Cavell sees it, initiates her turn to her freedom.[5] It unleashes her turn of the tables, her brief, brilliant performance of the gaslighting of her husband, her moment of revenge. But despite her stupefaction, Paula has not been entirely isolated:  her milieu has included her deceased aunt’s wealthy friend, a lawyer, a loyal housekeeper, her own affection for Guardi, her long training with him, her fidelity to her aunt, and her past familiarity with her own capacities. The role assumed by Cameron obliterates those resources, not recognizing the wisdom and forms of community also embedded in them.

Das does not disagree with Cavell’s characterization of Paula: “Not only individual men are destroying her mind, but the world of men, in its contradictions with itself, is destroying for her the idea and possibility of reality as such.”[6] She makes mention, also, of Jonathan Lear’s account of how structural injustice can impair the imagination:

it is likely that our own possibilities for thought will be tainted by the very injustice we are trying to understand. . . The crippled nature of our thought will be enacted in reflection, rather than addressed by it. Second, in conditions of injustice. . . we suffer deprivation in imagination: we fail to envisage possibilities for life and thought. [quoted in T, p. 201]

But as with the other resources in play in Textures of the Ordinary, Das propels Lear’s comment in a new direction. She invites philosophy to recognize forms of thought that are enacted, even when not articulated, particularly in contexts of sexual violence, abduction, and their aftermaths. But when she draws attention to the tendency to represent survival in terms of women’s muteness, incapacity, and need for external sources of intelligence, she just as importantly points out how a lack of imagination should be ascribed to this type of representation of women. Without questioning the need for state measures, judicial process, and truth commissions, she also directs her critical attention to the cultural imaginaries surrounding national, police, and bureaucratic intervention. The result is a complex exploration of knowledge’s materiality, an argument for more flexible definitions of the forms taken by thought, knowledge, communication, testimony, collectivity, and repair in the wake of violence.

4. Insofar as sexual contracts have often been presupposed by social contracts they may be at once occluded from and palpable in everyday life.

Das has described how, in the wake of Partition, the rescue of abducted women formed part of a national promise to restore them to their families. In the intertwined social and sexual contracts elsewhere discussed by Das, this generated a surplus benefit for the new national government’s identity: to repair a sexual order was to repair a nation, to generate retroactive moral and epistemic authority for a (performatively) reparative government for which the “return” of women to their families becomes the emblem of its care for the nation’s future.[7]

In the face of the many women who did not speak readily about their abductions—and in the face of widely circulating narratives aboutwomen’s silence and inability to act, testify, or defend themselves—the state makes an intervention not unlike Cameron’s seemingly enabling: “You know,” which delivered at the same time the detective’s authoritative appeal to what is known, and that he knows. Das observes a habitual lack of imagination at the junction of the social and sexual contract, in the narratives of restitution, the representation of women as requiring both rescue and explanatory narrative, as passive, incapacitated, silent, as seen in public announcements aimed at families concerning the importance of absolving women of blame following their return, the state’s role as both dominant and protective, reparative and authoritative.

5. That knowledge is often lined with the potential of doubt’s friction is also a resource for forms of counter-knowledge and resistance

This same rethinking of incapacity occurs in another intersection between public institutional resources and domestic, life-threatening violence, and the multiplication of available knowledges, in chapter 6, when the psychically disturbed Swapan confronts a number of possible authorities concerning the epistemology of his madness. Now it is his mother and sister who are exposed to domestic violence at his hands, the former beaten to unconsciousness and threatened with death (see T, p. 189). Their recourse includes negotiation with the local police force, traditional knowledge and psychiatric consultation, the limits of overstretched public medicine, the pressure of authorities within family, the local community, bureaucracy. Here, Das offers a different account of the multiple forms through which subjects are asked to recognize their own madness. Das describes Swapan as situated within nomadic flows between local agents of the state, police stations, hospitals, doctors, and family that she also sees (in the company of Foucault) as an intersection of multiple forms of power and their residues.[8] What she refers to as an intensified real is the result of relays between various positions of authority within the family, the police, local leaders, an anthropologist, medical diagnosis, and psychiatry (see T, p. 179). Without epistemic rupture, it is possible for Swapan’s contexts of treatment to include family authority, the reference to malevolent spirits of local diviners, and the bureaucracy of psychiatric diagnosis and prescribed medication. But the question is what practical knowledge is embedded in, or arises from, this multiplicity itself. The question is not always what one knows, but what is enacted by the forms and intersections of knowledge and multiple modes of power. In Das’s work, the answers can range from: flights of fantasy incorporated into racist characterizations of other peoples, instances of epistemic violence in some conventions and conducts in the history of anthropology, quotidian work of micro-repair through which life may resume in the wake of violence, or attentive responsiveness to family dynamics.

It is between the “you know” Swapan is asked to recognize, and his delusion, that Das observes a different order of knowledge. It is to be the found in the abyss between the reality whose acceptance would be dictated by the norms of psychiatric health (and would require his recognizing the slim chances of his exiting poverty), and his projection of routes of self-improvement and success (“perhaps now my career will be made”) (T, p. 194).

Here, Das turns to the term “countermaneuver,” which, for Foucault, indicates that sometimes a symptom might be the means of obliging a psychiatrist to listen to the patient (T, p. 176).[9] But Das reads Swapan with Foucault in a manner that departs from the latter’s resources. She identifies an alternative form of practical knowledge in the space between the psychically disordered conduct that intertwines with his ambitious hopes for the outcome of learning English and the grim confrontation that might result from that symptom’s relinquishment. Das makes her own maneuver at this point, “It suggests to me that the patient is not simply offering countermaneuvers as a form of resistance but trying to find ways toward an ordinary realism” (T, p. 197). Cavell’s characterization of Das as appropriating remnants of thought to articulate what otherwise goes silent, could also be described as somewhat under-calculating, (or under-imagining) her interventions, albeit appreciatively (see T, p. 308).  For example, it is by working between Wittgenstein and Foucault that Das foregrounds alternative ways of knowing embedded in a conduct that is neither the countermaneuver nor an unavailability of the ordinary. Indrawing at once on the enfolded national, political, neighborhood, and domestic scenes and forms of thought that may not otherwise be understood as philosophical activity, and on the ordinary language philosophers whose concerns might seem remote from these scenes, Textures of the Ordinary shows how perceptions and insights of both can transform through the conjunction.


Penelope Deutscher is Joan and Sarepta Harrison Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University. She is the author of several books, most recently Foucault’s Futures: A Critique of Reproductive Reason and The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir: Ambiguity, Conversion, and Resistance, and the editor of Repenser le politique: l’apport du féminisme and Enigmas: Essays on Sarah Kofman.


With warm thanks to Alice Crary and Clara Han for their invitations to respond to Veena Das in symposia engaging Textures of the Ordinary, and to Sandra Laugier and Das for their helpful responses and engagement.

[1] Veena Das, Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary (Berkeley, 2006), p. 77.

[2] Das, “What Does Ordinary Ethics Look Like?” in Four Lectures on Ethics: Anthropological Perspectives, ed. Michael Lambek et al. (Chicago, 2015), pp. 53–126. 

[3] Das, Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology After Wittgenstein (New York, 2020), p. 60; hereafter abbreviated T.

[4]Das, Life and Words, p. 159.

[5] Stanley Cavell, Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (Chicago), pp. 48-51.

[6] Ibid., pp. 50–51.

[7] Das, “Violence, Gender and Subjectivity,” Annual Review of Anthropology 37 (2008): 283-99.

[8] See Michel Foucault, Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1973-1974 (New York, 2013).

[9] See ibid., p. 322.

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