SORAAAD BookNotes with the Bulletin: Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger

By Kate Daley-Bailey

Arjun Appadurai’s book, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (2006), albeit a small physical text (153 pages including the index), castes a colossal shadow over the landscape of multidisciplinary discourse on globalization and violence.  Appadurai, a social anthropologist, plants his analysis of communal violence in fecund ground when he repeats reporter Philip Gourevitch’s brutal aphorism about genocide in Rwanda; that “genocide, after all, is an exercise in community building” (7). In this, Appadurai focuses his attention on the social productivity of violence and the “we/they” dialectic of which genocide is but one possible outcome. However, Appadurai’s self-made Sisyphean task is to unravel what seems to be a paradox… the existence of violence against minorities in self-proclaimed liberal societies which have embraced the values of human rights. While violence against minorities is hardly a new phenomenon, Appapurdai claims that this genocidal violence and rage against minorities, previously primarily associated with totalitarian regimes and rogue nation-states (Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, etc.), has manifested itself in unlikely territory, bastions of liberal democracy. The author links this rage with a number of factors: globalization and the economic anxiety it creates as well as the unease regarding minorities and their (special) interests (financial, religious, ethnic, and political allegiances to outside communities).

Appadurai, inverting Samuel Huntington’s controversial summation that terrorism is born from the clash of civilizations, states that terrorism is rather a product of a civilization of clashes. By this, the author means that the nation-state (as a structure) is losing its monopoly on war. To Appadurai, the ‘new game’ is not primarily dictated by differences among civilizations (the East vs. West formula) but is rather due to uncertainty generated by two kinds of political systems (vertebrate vs. cellular). A vertebrate system is based upon “the large and growing body of protocols, institutions, treaties, and agreements that seek to ensure that all nations operate on symmetrical principles in relation to their conduct with one another, whatever their hierarchies in power or wealth” (25). The modern system of nation-states embodies many of these characteristics. A cellular system, on the other hand, is global in scope and thereby not as limited by national regulation, is heavily dependent on the rapid transfer of money and information electronically, and is remarkably portable. The global capitalist model on which the world increasing operates reflects the cooperation, as well as the disjunction, between these two kinds of systems. The seismic shifts dictating this ‘civilization of clashes’ demands the exigent attention of all disciplines… but this text may best be utilized by a well-educated populous unnerved by recent global strife and academics in the social sciences whose research demands critical reflection on group dynamics and the production of ‘identities’ and communities via various discursive practices and the ideology of enumeration (the belief that one can ultimately measure and objectively categorize people based on seemingly significant demographics).

The ‘newness’ which Appadurai ascribes to globalization is due to the invasive nature of financial speculation, the information revolution in which regulatory bodies are many steps behind the technological industries they are meant to regulate, and the new forms of wealth generated by the two aforementioned characteristics. This ‘newness’ of globalization means there is no solid precedent for this transformation and this creates instability in world markets.  All three aspects which generate this uncertainty also widen the gap between the rich and the poor. Terrorism, the epitome of a cellular system, is fueled by not only the disparate divide between rich and poor but is often (ironically) funded and sustained via a global capitalistic structure… a structure it seems desperate to disrupt.

Appadurai defines terrorism as “the rightful name of any effort to replace peace with violence as the guaranteed anchor of everyday life” and he claims that terrorism is an “epistemological assault on us all” because it challenges our assumptions about social order, the role and abilities of the nation-state, and generally blurs our categories (military/civilian, war/peace, etc.)(31-33). In reaction to these radical tectonic shifts in economic, political, and ideological systems, nation-states may shift their own anxieties about being marginalized in an increasingly global society onto their own minorities. Minorities, in such cases, become metaphors… physical reminders of failed national projects and while globalization cannot be eradicated… symbols of globalization, such as minorities, can be (43-44). Building upon the elementary sociological theory of the “creation of collective others,” Appadurai extends the “we/they” dialectic further and describes what he calls predatory identities. Predatory identities are those “whose social construction and mobilization require the extinction of other, proximate social categories, defined as threats to the very existence of some group, defined as we” (51).

Who’s afraid of a minority group? Appadurai puzzles out this question by stating that since “minorities and majorities are recent historical inventions,” tied up with ideas about the nation-state, then the discourses of modern politics hinge upon categorization and demographic construction (49). Modern nationalism often “provides the basis for the emergence of predatory identities” and “predatory identities are almost always majoritarian identities” (based on “claims about, and on the behalf of a threatened majority”) (52). So under what circumstances do identities ‘turn’ predatory? They do not morph simply by being invoked by a large group but rather when a group strives to “close the gap between the majority and the purity of the national whole” (reacting to what is described as ‘the anxiety of incompleteness’) (52). Predatory identities thrive in the gap between the “the sense of numerical majority and the fantasy of natural purity and wholeness” (53). The minority’s mere existence represents an obstacle to ‘total purity’… this makes the minority a site of social rage. This rage and the anxiety generated by economic, ideological, and political uncertainty creates a social context more likely to result in genocide.

The number one is a critical number in the liberal social imagination because it represents the individual. Even large groups are seen in liberal thought as “aggregations of individuals” (“infinite combinations of the number one”) (60-61). Historically, liberal thought has been suspicious of democracy’s potential to produce the “political legitimacy of large numbers” (the dreaded masses) (61). Appadurai cites Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses description of the masses as collections of individuals who have lost “the rationalities embedded in the individual,” as the offspring of fascism and totalitarianism and as a terrifying phantasm conjured up by outside forces. So if liberal thought sacralizes the image of the individual and fears the idea of masses… where does the fear of small numbers emerge?

Small numbers have historically been associated with elites and tyrannies (small groups which horde resources and privileges). As Appaduria aptly states, “small numbers are also a worry because they raise the specter of conspiracy, of the cell, the spy, the traitor, the dissident, or the revolutionary” (62). Appadurai’s case studies are primarily focused in India, Iraq, Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and Africa… but the implications of his theories can be applied globally (given the proper contextualization). The image of the suicide bomber is the site of all of the above mentioned anxieties. The image itself is a perversion of the martyr archetype, so prevalent in the religious landscapes of Christianity and Islam (and I would include Judaism in this list as well). The image blurs the boundaries between body and weapon. The antithesis of the “liberal individual acting in her own interest,” the suicide bomber, is the individual become the mass (the crazed mob incarnate in the flesh of the individual) (78).

Terror, as method, Appadurai describes as a “kind of metastasis of war, war without spatial of temporal bounds” which “opens the possibility that anyone may be a soldier in disguise, a sleeper among us, waiting to strike at the heart of our social slumber” (92). This text illustrates for me why some portion of the American population’s rhetoric against President Obama is not primarily based on his political record or public identity but rather on the political rhetoric claiming he is deceptive (a ‘secret’ Muslim), a criminal (foreign born and posing as an American citizen), and working as an agent for his ‘secret’ religious identity (Islam). In the eyes of these Americans, President Obama is the paramount terrorist… he is the single most important individual in the Western world (the president), at the same time he represents an amalgamation of minorities and ‘special interests’, and could, at any moment, be ‘activated’ by the outside powers which, ultimately, control him.

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One Response to SORAAAD BookNotes with the Bulletin: Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger

  1. Carolyn Medine says:

    This is a superb review of this book!

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