Geert Lovink on Wed, 7 May 1997 18:15:09 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Ravi Sundaram: Electronic Marginality



- Ravi Sundaram

     Thinking about virtual space in the Third World is almost a
lonely exercise. At the same time that the local elite in a country
like India dreams of riding the new wave of post-territoriality and
simultaneous time on the backs of Microsoft, the fact remains that
this is a society with one of the lowest saturation rates of
telephones in the world. As for critical movements in electronic
culture, remember that India has no tradition of cyberpunk nor any
indigenous science fiction. Most cultural communities until
recently have been ambivalent about technology. Historically,
representations of science and technology have been
state-sponsored, social-realist and monumentalist. All this raises
a significant dilemma:alternative voices in India can only feel a
sense of existential solidarity with cyber-debates in the West. For
the genealogical reference points simply do not exist in India,
much less much of the Third world.

     In fact one almost feels a sense of bemusement towards the
somewhat sweeping pronouncements in futurology emanating out of the
French intellecttual circuit, notably Baudrillard and Virilio.
While Baudrillard's positions are consisent, Virilio's gloomy
prognosis of the future net-worls, ruled by the "industrialisation
of real time" make little sense here in the periphery of golbal
capitalism as a _singular_ category of analysis. 

     Despite all this, there is no doubt that the time of cyber-
transition has arrived in India - the rhetoric of connectivity is
in full swing both within the trans-national elite, state-managers
and a bewildered generation of social movement activists. This
essay seeks to stake out a voice for theorising the new electronic
space in India by looking at the discursive patterns of
cyberculture in the country. These patterns operate within a
constellation of re-configured nationalist pan-optics, elite
time-travel to the sacred geographies of the "West", the decline of
the Village imaginary and the rise of the Techno-city (Bangalore,
Noida-Delhi) and new patterns of violence and terror in the old
City. Cyberculture also operates within a changing grammar of
techno-social power: elite/new class core enclaves which are
predicated on a new post-nationalist optics are juxtaposed with
large techno-cultural peripheries.
     What concerns me in this essay is the changing topograpgy of
urban life. This new urban space which is distinct from  Western
modernist and post-modernist experiences of the city, which seeks
to 'house' the new electronic culture. In much of the Indian public
discourse electronic networks and cyberspace this very significant
transition is often missed.

     Various forms of electronic networks exist in India today.
They include the state-connected networks (VSNL,NICNET,ERNET),
private providers (AXCESS, DART,SPRINT etc) and the hundreds of
non-legal bulletin boards which offer inexpensive network culture
to many citizens. The public discourse on the 'network',
'cyberspace' and the internet is intense, so much so that
'cyberspace' remained the top foreign story in the newspapers. In
his recent visit to India, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates was
accorded the kind of welcome few heads of states receive, and India
is being spoken of as the software 'giant' of the future.

     Behind all this rhetoric long term transitions are missed. Our
hypothesis is that the new network culture is actually part of a
deep transition to an urban and proto-globalized culture in India
within which any study be based. Before we go on to map out the
possibilities of dissent within electronic space in India it is
imperative that a brief history of this transition to the 'city' be

The Absent City: Post-Colonial India 1947-1980

     The centrality of the city in the narrative of Western
modernity contrasts with the situation in post-colonial India. To
be sure, in the pre-colonial period, Islamicate political life
accorded a certain importance to the city, notably the Imperial
capital. This can be contrasted with the complete turn-around in
the post-independence period. It will be no exaggeration to say
that the City was marginal to the self-imagination of Indian

     In the Indian case, citizenship was secured through different
forms of territorial identification: the self-governing village
community (Gandhi) or the abstract, levelling national imaginary
which reproduced itself through developmentalism (Nehru). While 
European social theory accepted the city as an important site for
citizenship (in that it dissolved ancien regime distinctions),in
India universalism was secured less by the city, but through
developmentalism and constitutionalist discourses.  The city also
seemed marginal to Indian political and social thought - indeed to
this day urban theory is one of South Asia's great failings.

     To be sure, urban space had remained prominent in the colonial
imaginary - witness the grand constructions centred around Lutyen's
Delhi and the re-invention of Moghul urban spectacle through the
Imperial Durbars. Nevertheless post-colonial political narratives
privileged the village/Nation as sites of social discourse. In the
Gandhian discourse, the village was seen as occupying a kind of
sacred geography where intrusions of industrial western and urban
modernity could be contested through self-governing communities
based on indigenous technologies. In the immediate post-colonial
period however, the Gandhian vision was overwhelmed by Nehruvian
developmentalism which combined the imaginary of the dam/steel mill
with populist references to the village as the site of the
"Nation". In other words despite its fundamental distinction from
Gandhi's agrarian utopia, Nehruvianism never departed from
rhetorically asserting the importance of the village in building
the imaginary national community.

     Ashis Nandy has argued convincingly for the decline of the
Village from the public imagination in India in the 1990's. One
can perhaps attribute this to a number of factors: the decline of
old-style nationalist narratives, the imperative of globalization
which privileged a new urban space, and the secular retreat of
upper-castes from the rural areas with the concomitant rise of
lower caste movements for political power.

     In the post-independence period, a city like Delhi had for the
elites a certain untheorised security - part legacy of colonialism
and part upper-caste hegemony over politics. While cities like
Bombay, and previously Calcutta, came closest to resemble the urban
experience in the Western sense, much of this began to change by
the 1990's.

The New Constellation and Electronic Networks: The accelerated pace
of globalization has led to a new focus on urban space, with cities
acting as conduits of labour/cultural commodities vis-a-vis the
West. Saskia Sassen has spoken of a new geography of centralisation
and marginality in the new "global cities" . The modes of
electronic centrality links the financial centres of New York,
London, Frankfurt, Tokyo with new centres like Mexico City, Sao
Paulo, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bombay. This new regime of
centralisation operates within an increasingly changed dynamic with
local/national regimes. On the other hand the geography of
marginality is also reproduced on a world-scale through migration
of labour to low-wage areas of both Western and Third World cities.

     In the Indian case however, the new focus on the city remains
embedded in a distinct, historically specific constellation that
may well add new dimensions to the debates in the West. In the
first place, the unity/fragmentation dialectic, so central to
Western thinking on cities, seems inadequate in capturing the
evolving urban landscape. The experiences in India, with an
explosive criss-crossing of religious-secular geographies, new
urban landscapes based on inversions of received notions of public-
private, speak to  a host of theoretical issues that need to

     In India, the rewriting of urban space appears as a series of
disjunctures, which seem to reproduce specific practices of
differentiation and conflict within cities. These include: the re-
writing of the "national" to include the diaspora; the development
of new enclaves of software/electronic production autonomous from
the old city but connected to trans-national space.

     Within cities themselves there have emerged a series of new
overlapping discourses: the emphasis on the city as an abstract
guarantor of consumption and desire, the idea of urban speed and
temporal acceleration, the rise of right-wing Hindu nationalist
movements which are securely embedded in the new urban
commercial/consumption cultures. The new urban consumption cultures
include a rapidly growing popular component centred around the
large film industry, and a new subaltern techno-culture focused on
musical audio cassettes.  The resurgent lower-caste movements have
sought to engage with the new discourses on the city, often
aggressively supporting consumption regimes. The argument here is
that the old hostility to consumption and an emphasis on frugality
was derivative of an upper-caste politics.

     Thus we see a number of initiatives that have radically
changed the old marginality of cities: the decline of the village
in the self-imagination of nationalism; the differentiation of
cities with electronic enclaves linked to transnational space, new
patterns of conflict embedded in practices of inequality,
consumption and desire. These patterns of conflict do not follow
traditional paths - given the limited resources of urban theory in
South Asia (in contrast to the very rich work on rural and
subaltern protest), very little work has been done on this new


The peculiarity and abstract character of nationalist science
stands out today. This was predicated  on "development" - that is
the possibility of 'catching up' with the West within the framework
of a peripheral capitalist economy. Given the impossibility of this
task and its eventual failure, we are left with the cultural legacy
of the project and its impact on sources of dissent.

Nationalist science policy was state-centred and typically
monumentalist - a feature Nehruvianism borrowed from the Soviet
plan and the TVA in the US. The early science/development monuments
were the steel mill and the dam - huge, ugly monuments based on
displacement,violence and displacement of millions (Walter
Benjamin's  remark that there is no document of civilisation that
is not also a document of barbarism holds particularly true here).
Not surprising this project inspired very little cultural
celebration (except a few Hindi films and thousands of reels of
boring state news-reels). The Soviet industrialisation drives may
have inspired Mayakovsky, but the Indian scientific monuments moved
very few cultural producers.

The effect was the opposite. The vast majority of dissenters,
aghast by the violence of the technological monuments moved in the
opposite direction - towards an engagement with Gandhian critiques
of modernity and modern industrialism. Most social movements were
joined by cultural dissenters who were hostile to technological
monumnetalism and nationalist technoculture.

This is a crucial distinction from the West. In the advanced
capitalist world there almost is a "givenness" to the history of
technology, rationalisation and creative dissent. In India, and I
suspect in many parts of the Third world such a situation does not
exist. Net-critique has to struggle a gainst a whole tradition of
dissent and radicalism that has, in the past remained hostile to

Anyway, the first electronic networks, state sponsored appeared in
the 1980's. This was again, in the form of a panoptic grid , with
the focus of vision right at the centre - the nationalist state.
The idea was to connect each district centre of the country to  the
national centre to encourage accurate information for
"development". But this was at the time of a declining nationalist
project, the pan-optics of the old, based on a now-defunct
monumentalism soon gave way to the current multiple scenarios.

The transition from the old developmentalist science to the new
urban techno-culture is significant. The old developmental model
was partly based on an abstract Village imaginary that it
cannibalised from the legacy of the anti-colonialism. The new
techno-culture speaks to an urban imaginary, but in an fragmentary
sense. This does not therefore fit in with the traditional history
of the Western city of modernity with the compulsory reference
points: Baudelaire, Simmel and Benjamin for modernism, Debord and
Baudrillard for the new city-scape. In the new Indian cityscape
there is a bit of everything and much, much more.

The tiny forms of digital accumulation (Delueze's "societies of
control") co-exist with disciplinary societies (Foucault), as also
violent forms of primary accumulation (Marx) and pockets of
industrialised real-time (Virilio). Violent abstractions based on
single-concepts: discipline, control, evil, speed make

The real dilemma for net-critique in India is this: on the one hand
there is the historical tradition of dissent in the country that
has remained hostile to techno-culture; on the other hand many of
the critical Western debates make little sense here. 
What is the way out? It seems to me that net-critique has to engage
with "actually existing techno-culture" in the country, and speak
to the spaces that exist apart from the elite domains of
multinational capital housed in the suburbs of techno-cities like
Bangalore, Hyderbabad and Madras. These domains include the
hundreds of BBS' all over the country, the new network space of
social movements and a fledgling electronic art movement. 

But this is not all. There is no simple discrete net space in South
Asia. Electronic geographies include the vast field of
experimentation in popular cinema and music. In fact, some of the
best fields of electronic engagement have been popular music
composers and those that generate the older forms of mechanical
reproduction - radio, inexpensive cassettes. The fact is that
electronic space in India will never reach the vast spatial grid as
in the West - unlike the cinema and radio, it is premised on speed
of capital and print-literacy, both in relatively short supply in
the periphery. To be sue this may well change in the future, but
for the moment what makes electronic space interesting in the
periphery is the explosive mix of cultural transitions that it
speaks to: village to city, monument to techo-culture.

But what of the critical dialogue with the West? Any trans-national
solidarity has to move beyond simple-minded liberal acknowledgement
of "limited access" in the Third World. The problem with this
framework is that it leaves untouched the very limited framework of
the Western debate itself.A genuine dialogue needs a reflexive
transition in the terms of electronic debates in the West which do
not offer any _theorectial_ place for the experiences in the
periphery. Given the acceleration of the multinational-sponsored
discourse here in periphery, such a dialogue between dissenting
voices is both urgent and necessary.

Ravi Sundaram
Centre for the Study of Developing Societies
29 Rajpur Road, Delhi-54

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