In Defense of Margins
By Costica BradatanMay 9, 2015
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
“DO YOU EVER THINK when you look at someone,” asks Abdul, “when you listen to someone, does that person really have a life?” Abdul is a garbage sorter in Mumbai’s Annawadi slum and a lead character in Katherine Boo’s haunting nonfiction novel Behind the Beautiful Forevers. According to him, even “the person who lives like a dog still has a kind of life.” Strategically positioned near the international airport of India’s financial capital, one of the world’s busiest hubs, Abdul handles tons of trash every week. “For nearly all the waking hours of nearly all the years he could remember, he’d been buying and selling to recyclers the things that richer people threw away.” He deals in garbage just as others deal in spices or diamonds.
Abdul is good at everything that has to do with garbage, and he excels in sorting: “the crucial, exacting process of categorizing the purchased waste into one of sixty kinds of paper, plastic, metal, and the like, in order to sell it.” His art is one of the subtlest — that of determining what’s worthy in the worthless, what’s valuable in that which seems of no value. In a pile of luxury-hotel garbage, for example, where the lay eye sees nothing but trash, his expert gaze can detect “a fortune beyond counting.” But usually such luxury garbage is beyond Abdul’s reach. He has to content himself with trashier trash.
Abdul learns from his father that to be a good garbage sorter he has to take a holistic approach. He has to use all his senses, “nose, mouth, and ears,” not just his eyes. “Tap the metal scrap with a nail,” his father tells him, mimicking the act. “Its ring will tell you what it’s made of. Chew the plastic to identify its grade. If it’s hard plastic, snap it in half and inhale. A fresh smell indicates good-quality polyurethane.” This has put Abdul not only ahead of his competitors, but also in a unique position to make sense of the world around him. He has become a “materialist” in the most literal sense of the word: his understanding of the world is based on textures, tastes, odors, as well as on degrees of putrefaction and levels of toxicity. He bears the marks of his encounters with the matter of the world all over his body: in his infected eyes, on his blackened skin, in his damaged lungs, in the foul smell of his mouth.
The sophistication of 21st-century consumerist culture comes to Abdul through new materials, aggregates, and textures, as well as new problems to solve: “Rich people’s garbage was every year more complex, rife with hybrid materials, impurities, impostors. Planks that looked like wood were shot through with plastic. How was he to classify a loofah? The owners of the recycling plants demanded waste that was all one thing, pure.” Abdul knows capitalism inside out, even though he is placed at its margins. He knows its waste, its excesses, its vices and shames. He knows capitalism intimately because he knows what it defecates. That’s how he makes a living, after all; to do his job he needs to have his hands deep in the shit of global consumerism.
The center is all about power. Due to a survival instinct, a need for recognition, or a desire to succeed, we tend to flock to the center. True, at first we don’t even know where that is; strictly speaking, in whatever situation we find ourselves, there may be no center yet. But since all people are moved by these various impulses and desires to varying degrees, we soon find ourselves grouped along certain dynamic lines, and gradually a center takes shape and is recognized as such. And it would be nothing without this recognition: like most things important and enduring, the center, too, lies in the eye of the beholder. The more flocking to it there is — and the more eyes on it — the more powerful the center becomes. For power is always a matter of intensity.
Eventually the center structures itself and everything other than itself: it establishes dichotomies and hierarchies, classes and “rankings,” according to how close or how far away things are in relation to it. As a result, life at the center becomes highly regulated: spontaneity is legislated, the primary impulses tamed, and the vital instincts channeled. Everything is thought out to the last consequences; nothing is left to chance. The center plans and foresees everything, especially the unforeseeable. For it is in its nature to take good care of itself.
The margins are a different business altogether. Away from the fierce logic of power that creates the center, the margins remain conspicuously dispersed, unfocused, chaotic. Life takes other forms here; it has its own rhythms and priorities, and unfolds in ways both uncontrollable and difficult to predict. There is a certain sense of boundlessness, of infinite potential. It is as though to be at the margins is to be in a state of permanent beginning: since everything is yet to be done, anything is possible. Human existence seems freer here, more spontaneous, and more creative.
And yet the margins often fall prey to their own contradictions: there can be so much freedom here that some drown in it; spontaneity is plenty, but it frequently translates into an impossibility to get anything done; and, yes, there is creativity, but it’s all too frequently wasted on scheming, infighting, or sheer survival.
In an important sense, the margins remain mostly incomprehensible to the center. The center is certainly aware of their existence, and often makes it its duty to survey and map out the margins, with whole knowledge industries dedicated to them. But that’s all the center can have: cartographic knowledge. It can never understand the margins. For all its power and resources, the center’s encounter with them is awkward, difficult, and superficial for the most part. The center is bound to remain at the periphery, as it were, of the margins.
Abdul the Mumbai garbage sorter knows more than the world of scrap metal, polyurethane, and empty cans. Somehow garbage sorting has given him the conceptual equipment to understand the social world as well. There are different categories of people, just as there are different kinds of trash, he discovers at an early age. The workings of society as a whole are not very different from how the garbage world works. Take the Indian criminal justice system: it’s “a market like garbage” — as simple as that. “Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.”
As a result, Abdul’s approach to humanity becomes somehow alchemical in nature. He ends up seeing people as essences, substances, and states of aggregation. Noticing one day that “water and ice are made of the same thing,” he concludes that most people must be made of the same thing too. “He himself was probably little different, constitutionally, from the cynical, corrupt people around him.” And yet, Abdul thinks, ice is better than water, even though they are made of the same thing. As Boo puts it, “In Mumbai’s dirty water, he wanted to be ice.”
Abdul’s trash business also gives him opportunities to try his hand at philosophizing, not that he knows philosophy by that name. Thus, while sorting garbage, Abdul develops a habit of observing the people with whom he comes in touch:
The habit killed time and gave him theories, one of which came to prevail over the others. It seemed to him that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.
Abdul is a likable young fellow all around. But should you try to check him out on your way to Mumbai, you will look in vain. You will not be able to see him from Airport Road because Annawadi, his slum, is carefully hidden behind a tall concrete wall covered with ads for Italianate floor tiles. The slogan accompanying the ads reads: Beautiful forever. Beautiful forever. Beautiful forever …
Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon is an excellent metaphor for the relationship between a center and its margins. Bentham thought his revolutionary penitentiary architecture to be “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” The proposal was relatively simple: the prison would consist in a circular building, where all inmates, placed in rows of grated cells along the peripheral ring, could be seen at any given moment from a central tower (“the inspector’s lodge”). The inspector is hidden behind blinds, so the inmates cannot know whether they are being watched or not. The essence of the project, says Bentham, lies in “the centrality of the inspector’s situation, combined with the well-known and most effectual contrivances for seeing without being seen.” And this is exactly what struck Michel Foucault. The main effect of the Panopticon, he writes in Discipline and Punish, is “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” The implication is that the inspector’s gaze, to which all inmates are exposed, robs them of something important.
Both Bentham and Foucault, however, may see too much in the Panopticon. That the inspector can see “everything” does not mean that he understands much. Since his knowledge implies a certain distance, it is bound to remain peripheral, shallow, often inconclusive. Surveillance barely touches the skin of things. In spite of what his name says, the inspector cannot really “look into” the inmates, get into their minds and grasp what their lives are fundamentally about. Indeed, in response to the constant surveillance, the inmates develop a culture of interiority, concealment, and pretense. Foucault is right that there is an internal response to surveillance, just wrong about its necessary valence — surveillance can internalize obedience, but it can also internalize resistance.
A whole existential universe starts where the capability of the inspector’s gaze ends: humanity reduced to its bare essentials, the need to look yourself in the face, the radical solitude, and the self-examination it ushers — even the notion of imprisonment as an ontological condition. Since power clouds even the thinking of the smartest people, sometimes powerlessness can be a blessing in disguise: it can help you look at yourself, and at the world, with more honest eyes. Thus the inmate understands her own situation, that of her fellow inmates, and, indeed, that of the inspector himself — she knows only too well that he, too, is a prisoner of the situation, even if he doesn’t know it. She sees and understands everything. Eventually, behind bars, the inmates acquire a panoptic gaze of sorts, while they remain, to the inspector, essentially unseeable.
And thus the margins, despite being under surveillance, remain fundamentally invisible to the center. Just like Abdul, behind the Beautiful forever slogan. The center has the resources and capabilities to map out the periphery, to see everything, but because of its position and its crushing power, the center doesn’t understand much. Beyond the reach of its gaze, there lies a whole world with its own unique composition, texture, and rhythms. Here human existence reveals itself in all its nakedness. Man’s dramas are played out at their rawest, without safety nets or second chances. Since typically the margins don’t take too much care of themselves, life here has an immediacy that makes things at once simpler and more complex. “Suffering,” “anguish,” “lack,” “necessity” mean something else at the margins than they do at the center. There is, for instance, a way of being poor here that the poor at the center have no idea of. Compared to what happens at the margins, the lives of those at the center often look like spoiled children’s. Life is much harder here, death is closer, comfort scarcer, and happiness easier to define.
All this makes for a certain type of understanding of the world, of how it works and what humans’ roles in it are. The margins can stimulate forms of reflexivity “from below” that put the center’s experts to shame. These insights may look primitive and awkwardly packed, but they’re reliable because they’re empirically tested; at the margins, they make the difference between survival and going under. Just like the Panopticon’s inmates, the marginals develop a culture of interiority and concealment, as well as a profound, philosophical understanding of what it is like to be looked over, dismissed, rejected — how it feels to be reduced to nil, to not count.
This is nothing new, of course; from Gramsci and Camus to Gayatri Spivak and Arundhati Roy, marginality has been the object of serious and original reflection. Yet the best, most intimate knowledge about marginality is bound to remain inaccessible outside of the margins. Books like Roy’s The God of Small Things or Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers can take us there, even urge us to watch, but cannot do the seeing for us. And even if we were to see something, much would be lost in translation. The knowledge of marginality, for the most part, remains the depressing privilege of the marginals themselves.
These people know marginality inside out, and, since the world is mostly margins, they know quite a lot. They also know the center very well because it is in the latter’s nature to expose itself shamelessly to the margins. The marginals often know the center even better than those who inhabit it. After all, like Abdul, they take its waste into their mouths and learn its taste. It will poison them, but also enlighten them, for there is no knowledge more intimate than the one that starts on your tongue.
There is nothing scholastic or worn-out about this wisdom developed at the margins. It is always fresh, brand-new knowledge because it is recreated with every new marginal: when one dies, he takes most of it to the grave with him. Those who stay behind have largely to learn how to survive on their own.
The Mumbai slum dweller, then, may know more about what life is ultimately about than the Wall Street banker. Certainly, the latter has power over the former’s living circumstances, but he does not have the experience of this power. His actions affect the lives of millions, but he understands these lives as much as the hunter’s bullet understands the game. He is “out of touch” with the world not as a matter of deliberate detachment but because he can’t feel anything; his is life under anesthesia. All this time the marginal feels and understands everything; not only does she take the blows, but she takes them in: she savors them slowly, one at a time, over a long span of years.
“Human beings,” says Simone Weil, “are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening.” Not that one gets to choose, but one wonders sometimes. When it comes to what really matters, what’s more genuinely human: a life of affluence and safety but lived under anesthesia, or a life obscure, lived in poverty, but in such a way that you feel what is happening?
Costica Bradatan is an associate professor in the Honors College at Texas Tech University and the religion/comparative studies editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books. His most recent book is Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers.
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