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The Postnational, Inhabitation and the Work of Melancholia

Sri Lanka today is a postnational location, the uncomfortable home of a nation that never was, and never will be. If anthropology has been concerned with the particularity of "other" cultures defined as a "moral elsewhere" beyond the comprehension of universal reason, then anti-colonial nationalism has sought to claim a universality for the particularities of national culture. This essay sketches a preliminary description of the double loss imposed by the impossibility of the nationalist project, a loss that cannot be mourned in an ordinary way.

THE POSTNATIONAL CONDITION

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trained in the art of sculpture. They work

The Postnational, Inhabitation

together to restore and identify a skull of a person killed by a paramilitary death and the Work of Melancholia squad. Not only are the methods the two use different, but so are their problematiques – one forensic, the other restorative Pradeep Jeganathan – as are the stakes they have in the sepa-

Sri Lanka today is a postnational location, the uncomfortable home of a nation that never was, and never will be. If anthropology has been concerned with the particularity of “other” cultures defined as a “moral elsewhere” beyond the comprehension of universal reason, then anti-colonial nationalism has sought to claim a universality for the particularities of national culture. This essay sketches a preliminary description of the double loss imposed by the impossibility of the nationalist project, a loss that cannot be mourned in an ordinary way.

Pradeep Jeganathan (pradeep.jeganathan@ gmail.com) is the consultant anthropologist for Humanitarian Agencies, Colombo.

L
ocation matters, in relation to intellectual work. But such is not a claim about the “authenticity” of place or intellectual practice. All locations, if they are worked through and d elineated honestly, might well be equally sincere and authentic. Location matters for intellectual work, for several reasons; one would be that the stakes of such work would shift given location, and another that one’s problematiques would also be linked to one’s location. I assume, and will not be addressing these claims in a general, theoretical way in this essay.

Nevertheless, I shall try to elaborate through examples, pointing to the characters of Anil Tissera and Ananda Udagama, in Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost as two figures whose locational stakes and problematiques differ widely, even though they are physically in the same place, and the same time, working on and working with, the same material objects.

Anil, an expatriate Sri Lankan, returns to the island, seconded by a United Nations agency as a forensic anthropologist while Ananda Udagama is a resident Sri Lankan, a former gem miner, skilled and

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rate “truths” they seek.

Loss of Hope

I write from a postnational location, the uncomfortable home of a nation that never was, and never will be. I write as a national, who does not celebrate the possibilities of his nation or its eventual becoming, who is unpersuaded by the vision of a heroic utopia that is nationalism’s call, and who has only uncertain and unstable knowledge of the descent of national life into a grotesque world that has become ordinary. To write from this location, then, is to write of loss, a loss of hope and possibility that cannot be simply recovered from.

A loss, in other words, that cannot be mourned in an ordinary way. If home, is a category that is always already defined by loss, as in the idea of nostalgia, the loss of the possibilities of the nation carries a double burden. To expand: nationalism, for all its terror, exclusion and repression also carried with it a claim for the universality of its thought, in an important contestation and reversal of the claim to universality of anthropological knowledge. Such knowledge is, of course, both a precursor and condition of possibility of

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THE POSTNATIONAL CONDITION

colonial knowledge, the knowledge of rule in my country and others, for many centuries. If the project of anthropology is to make universal a particularity of some “moral elsewhere”, that by definition is “other,” and therefore, outside the bounds of comprehension of the universal reason of the enlightenment, then the project of anti-colonial nationalism would to be work through the particularity of its content – its literature, music or even its sports, such as cricket – and claim a universality of those particularities, practices, thoughts and knowledges and is as such also an epistemological orientation to the world.

It is this double loss that I seek to elaborate on in this brief essay, seeking a preliminary theoretical description of its contours, and the epistemological consequences of its realisation.

Melancholy and Melancholia

It is possible, as a first step, to ask what was lost when the proper name of my country was changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka, in 1972. In the inter-regnum between colony and the first republic, Ceylon was not the old Ceylon of imperial rule. It was free, yet a dominion, fully selfgoverning, yet ruled by Elizabeth II. What was lost when that name of 1948-72 is changed to Sri Lanka, in the constitution of the first republic, is not simply that of a colonial proper name. Surely it is more. For it also lost the promise of what might have been; Sri Lanka as a truly free nation. The consideration of such loss is one way of beginning a theorisation of the consequences of the realisation, so beautifully articulated by Pandian: “the nation never was, and never will be”.

We owe to Sigmund Freud’s classic 1917 essay, “Mourning and Melancholia” the idea that mourning can be thought of as work. What he calls “normal mourning”, is seen as a working through of grief, so that the libido’s attachment to the lost object is finally severed. This is contrasted with melancholia where cathartic energies turn inwards from that lost object, forming an identification that can itself be ambivalent, raging and loving, hating and desiring; an identification that can “change around into m ania” . On this view, it is only mourning that can be work, and productive psychic work, not melancholia.

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In thinking about this sharp distinction made by Freud, I have found helpful a concise intervention made by Jennifer Radden who has pointed out that “melancholy and melancholia” are terms that are indeed quiet different, both in a socio-historical and conceptual sense. Radden reminds us that melancholy was a state that could be moved in and out of, through and between; it was eminently Elizabethan. Melancholia is used rarely today as a term, it has been folded into the completely normalising clinical concept of “depression”. So much so that if one were to pick up a work on the subject by a sophisticated and literate doctor, the book might well be called Melancholia and Depression: From Hippocratic Times to Modern Times as is Stanley W Jackson’s well known text. But if one were to go back, that is to the sociohistorical context of Elizabethan England, you will find Timothy Bright’s Treatise of Melancholy (1586), or Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1628) laying around. There melancholy is about the four humours, and more, about one of them, the black bile – it is about a disposition of the body and mind, contemplation and stillness, certainly, but not about mania. In fact, melancholy can make a person weak, even filled with unreason, but not filled with fury. Never manic. Depression in the way the term is used today, of course, lies quite outside that context. In fact, if one were to return to Foucault with Radden, one finds his half chapter in Madness and Civilisation “Mania and Melancholia” most instructive on this point.

My point is not to reinforce a sharp distinction between the terms melancholy and melancholia, but rather to use work like Radon’s to question Freud’s own distinction between mourning and melancholia. This is not a quibble for me, since I am concerned, as I have said above, with a double loss that is difficult to comprehend, and impossible to mourn. As I have said, I wish to theorise my own intellectual location in relation to this loss; what hangs on this theorisation, for me, to extend that thought is this: what is the work of living and thinking that one who is melancholy in this way can do in the world? I should underline, that in attempting to think of melancholia as work, I am not attempting to configure it as the work of recovery or

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getting beyond loss. It is rather the kind of work, that after Veena Das’ formulation I will call “inhabitation”. As in the work “inhabit[ing]… a world made strange by the desolating experience of… loss”. In fact, it is Judith Butler who in a characteristically insistent recursive reading of Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia”, shows that he is not quite true to the conditions of possibility of his own terms, that the temporal logic of his terms lead to their own undoing, so that the ego that turns back, inward, may not be said to securely pre-exist the lost object; that as such, the distinction between “normal mourning” and melancholia itself, is rendered suspect. And even though the term “the work of melancholia” a ppears only once in Freud, almost as a wall of refusal that he cannot think beyond, it is Butler who elaborates the term as one that can map the bounds between the psychic and the social, that it can be work upon one’s self and work upon the world, at times of extraordinary loss.

Freud’s Reformulation

It is instructive now to turn to Freud’s reformulation of his ideas of 1917, in The Ego and Id (1923). It is in this text that Freud suggests that he did not, in this earlier exploration of the question, appreciate the full significance of “melancholia”, its frequency and typicality. In fact, we see that he has now moved to the view that such a loss and its refusal, in early childhood, through the ego’s identification with the lost object, is fundamental to the “character of the ego” which he describes as “the precipitate of abandoned object-cathexes”, that “contains the history of those [previous lost] object(s) choices”. However, in this essay, Freud is particularly concerned with such abandonment and identification which occurs in early childhood and then becomes central to the “Oedipal Complex” and the elaboration of the ego itself. Therefore, while this movement in his own thought, which is really a suggestion that the ego can be always already melancholic in his previous terms, is not taken up as such. It is the literary critic, Judith Butler, who in a series of textual readings of Freud, suggests that one can read this abandonment and identification, if heterosexualisation is not a given disposition, as

THE POSTNATIONAL CONDITION

p roducing gender “as a kind of melancholy”. I find this argument, that Butler has made in several ways over time, enabling, and wish to work with both letter and spirit of Butler’s thought, to think the “character of the ego”, in Freud’s terms, as being constantly made and remade in relation to the refusal of loss (melancholia) and the acceptance of loss (normal grief), which can in turn be also understood as cathetic abandonments and psychic identifications. Such is perhaps the ego of the melancholic, and it is the resultant life work and thought, that I wish to call, then, the “work of melancholia”.

Describing Melancholia

My next move is to attempt a description of the work of melancholia, with a view to reaching a fine grained understanding of it, since such an understanding would contribute towards an elaboration of my postnational location. One strategy I have considered and pursued is attention to particular figures of characters, lived or fictional, in the world of my life or the world of our common imagination, who appear to work through and with, such loss; whose lives can be said to be the “work of melancholia”.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I suggest, is one figure that one might begin to re-describe, given that his is the only proper name that appears in Freud’s 1917 account, albeit in a footnote. Hamlet, late prince of Denmark, drew Freud’s attention, though his lines, “use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping” as a sign of his, and the melancholic’s “keener eye for the truth”, a product of his inward looking physic condition which Freud views as a certain kind of epistemological vantage, a point that Lacan has echoed and expanded on in his own essay on Hamlet. I have also turned to Stephen Greenbaltt who has noted, most recently in his return to Shakespeare’s oeuvre, that Hamlet embodies a new problematic of interiority in Shakespeare’s characters. I have also been struck by his historical observation of the similarity between Shakespeare’s dead son’s name and the play, and the playwright’s possible unresolved grief at not being able to attend the child’s funeral, and the proximity of the two events.

But parallely, I am as interested in the figure of Ananda Uda gama, a character from an Ondaatje novel, I referenced above, or the figure of Abeywickrama in Vithanage’s Pura Handa Kaluwara (Death on a Full Moon Day) or the indescribable figure of a male head in Shanaathanan’s very fine mixed media painting All Is Falling.

There is obviously a hierarchy of these figures that correspond to their place, in what has come to be, in the wake of the march of modern capital, universal knowledge. Hamlet is up there, since he is a character in Shakespeare. Perhaps Ondaatje gets there in some quarters. But not the others; they require explanatory footnotes. And, of course, it is a hierarchy all the way down.

In his powerful, polemical and extremely influential account of the emergence of capital, in relation to the production of history, Dipesh Chakrabarty has written, famously, “in the place of capital, read Europe”. By which he means to draw an analogy between the universalising effect of capital and the universal claims of European knowledge. The project that Chakrabarty was involved in at the time, which followed the lead of Ranajit Guha and Partha Chatterjee in attempting in several ways to work with the possibilities of other claims of universality, in the wake of anticolonial nationalist thought. Chakrabarty’s own answer was to call for the “provincalising of Europe”. In later work, he elaborates on this call by attempting a new account of Bengali modernity, as in the paper, “Adda: A History of Sociality”, which is a redescription of a practice of community, Adda, and in general in the book, by that name.

While appreciating the power of these moves, and acknow ledging that my own thought owes much to them, I wish to disagree. To put in a short hand, that I hope will be understood in the spirit of camaraderie it is offered, I wish to simply say that to reduce Europe to a province of Bengal is unkind. Surely at least, if Bengal is to be a country of sorts, then Europe should also be thought of as a country. But even so, it seems that when all is said and done, and the descriptions of things that count like Adda are read, there is an unmistakable feeling that what is left is little different from good old cultural anthropology, or worse, the US area studies, with all its orientalist tinges, well worn and tattered, now reproduced by

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the subalterns in what Bernard Cohn would have called, “historyland”, a place that is bound, conceptually, by the exclusion of the political. Or to put it another way, a n ostalgia as cultural or social re-description is really a reinvention of Chakrabarty’s Europe, in another dis ciplinary form.

I find this particularly difficult, since my advance disciplinary training is in cultural anthropology, and I came to subaltern studies in all its power, as a graduate student in the US, in search of a critique of that discipline. One of the challenges I have set myself is to produce an epistemological critique of anthropology that might parallel the best possible critique of historiography, that subaltern studies offers. This I have attempted in haphazard ways elsewhere, in the sense of delineating the limits of anthropological knowledge. Now I wish to continue by producing an alter native critical intellectual practice. And as such, while deeply a ppreciative of the power of one critique, I am wary of finding out that anthropology’s culture lies at the end of my search. So I take a different direction, no doubt quite flawed and confused in its own way. I simply lay it out here, in closing, as a way of marking how little I have travelled, and how far I still have to go.

Return from Theoryland

So how do I access Hamlet? What is the theoretical status of that figure so wellknown in Europe’s imagination, in relation to postnational location? Is he to be understood as an inhabitant? Let me now turn to that question.

I take Hamlet to be a story I heard in the field, in the course of a kind of fieldwork in Theoryland (which is obviously a province of Europe, not Bengal). I can, and have, as the reader knows by now, consulted several informants, including Freud, Lacan and Greenblatt. The charge that my knowledge is incomplete I will concede at once, only noting quietly, that so many anthropologists who work in postnational places are as ignorant as me. Of course, my particular story is well known, the writings of my informants are public, and so, one does not have to wait for a Derek Freeman to point out how confused I might be. I take that as a positive, for when I am so corrected, my arguments will emerge stronger and more robust.

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THE POSTNATIONAL CONDITION

But finally, like all those anthropologists who long to return from India to a beef burger at the Reynold’s Club, like my old supervisor Bernard Cohn, and those, who unlike him, like to have a little party to laugh at every one and every thing they met and saw in the “field” when they return to the safety of “home”, I also confess I do not really care much for Hamlet, as such. His is but a story, a myth in some distant Anthropologyland about which I conversed with my informants. It is to be taken apart, understood and dissected, carefully first, of course, on the terms of my informants, but then, soon to be dispensed with such. Ultimately, I must move beyond those terms, to the “work of melancholy” of figures such, as Ananda Udagama or Abeywickrama or Shanaathan’s head. And even more so, to the thoughts and lives of living figures who inhabit my world, and who feed my imagination. But

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-the knowledge gained in a Theoryland is not to be abandoned, it has its benefits. For I would want to play with, d ecentre and shift, the field of universal understanding of Hamlet, well known through wellknown informants, by laying my own knowledge of unknown others, by the side of what is well-known. So that I can judge our knowledge of Hamlet, in some way, in r elation to my knowledge of the melancholy inhabitants of postnational place.

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