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heterographies Arrow vol 6 no 2 contents
About borderlands volume 6 number 2, 2007


Heterographies and Other Assemblages

Sudesh Mishra

Deakin University


This article examines assemblages as operations in which heterogeneous parts participate without belonging, and coins the term 'heterography' to describe such operations. It carefully distinguishes between hybrid and heterographic systems. Hybrid systems feature unstable value shifts, resulting in ambivalence, within the same temporal plane, arena or discourse, whereas heterographic operations designate the coming together of parts with radically different properties. There is no turnover of value along the horizon of mimicry and repetition at the site of heterography; rather, spatial proximity creates the possibility of cross-purposeful speech in the face of an intractable différend . It is as if communication were taking place in the midst of non-communication. Cross-purposeful speech, it is argued, may end up contributing to the emergence of new social structures and knowledge systems. Examples from art, music, ethnography and representational discourses are used to illustrate this point.



1. An assemblage is subject axiomatically to the operations of re-assembly. How are we, then, to grasp the re-mark that precedes an assemblage, that clearly designates a beginning, even an origin, and yet simultaneously destroys the possibility of such beginnings and origins, and so remains an arche-trace? [1] How are we, in other words, to understand that tantalising prefix - 're' - which recovers and repeats an origin, and therefore annuls the very concept of originality, of original starts, of some pure foundational assemblage? Further, how is it possible - is it indeed possible? - to get a handle on an assemblage that has dispensed with this paradox instituted by the prefix? Or does every assemblage, with or without the telltale prefix, testify to the recurrence of a previous assembly? Does an assemblage, then, depend simultaneously on the play of reassembly and disassembly? The heterogeneities that constitute an assemblage, be it a body with or without organs, are subject to the twin drives of decomposition and recomposition at same time; what is brought together is also, alas, taken apart. [2] An assemblage is an operation in the double sense used by Derrida in his pithy essay on Mallarmé. Any bringing together involves the "dissection of a corpse; of a decomposable body each part of which could be used elsewhere " (Derrida 1992, 117). Reassembly and disassembly coincide in any act of bricolage. If this constitutes a paradox, then it is in the nature of such paradoxes to travel in opposing senses, routes and directions at once (Deleuze 2004, 3-5). Every symposium, for instance, disassembles as well as reassembles the scene of another symposium, as recent as the one held, say, two days ago or as remote as the one imagined by Plato. Genres, too, display the characteristics of an assemblage. When a multitude of statements participate to beget a genre, they simultaneously disassemble and reassemble other systems, discourses or assemblages.

2. As has been famously noted by the authors of A Thousand Plateaus, movement and rest feature simultaneously in an assemblage. Lines of articulation and aggregation are bound to coincide with vectors of disaggregation and flight. Coincidence is, of course, not the same as correspondence, which implies a structure of contiguity and equivalence. What intervenes at the moment of coincidence - defined as the serendipitous concurrence of signs deprived of causal motivation - is the supplement. [3] Reassembly and disassembly stand in a supplementary relationship to each other since the twin factors of difference and detour come into play in the time of coincidence. It is for this reason that one partly concurs with Derrida's comment that an assemblage "has the structure of an interlacing, a weaving, or a web, which would allow the different threads and different lines of sense or force to separate again, as well as being ready to bind others together" (Derrida 2004, 280). It was Mikhail Bakhtin's signal achievement to identify the novel as a heteroglot assemblage based on the reassembly of voices, styles and fashions simultaneously disassembled from unlikely professions, jargons and groups:

The internal stratification of any single national language into social dialects, characteristic group behaviour, professional jargons, generic languages, languages of generations and age groups, tendentious languages, languages of the authorities, of various circles and passing fashions, languages that serve the specific sociopolitical purposes of the day, even of the hour (each day has its own slogan, its own vocabulary, its own emphases) - this internal stratification present in every language of its historical existence is the indispensable prerequisite for the novel as a genre. The novel orchestrates all its themes, the totality of the world of objects and ideas depicted and expressed in it, by means of the social diversity of speech types [raznorecie] and by the differing individual voices that flourish under such conditions. Authorial speech, the speeches of narrators, inserted genres, the speech of characters are merely fundamental compositional unities with whose help heteroglossia [raznorecie] can enter the novel; each of them permits a multiplicity of social voices and a wide variety of their links and interrelationships (always more or less dialogised) (Bakhtin 1981, 262-263).

Roland Barthes captured this same idea in his definition of the text as a tissue of citations without a single author or authority. [4] Thinking in terms of the law of the genre, Derrida observes that genres are special sorts of assemblages made up of statements or texts that participate without belonging. [5] In this, at least, he echoes Wittgenstein's remark that shared features found in the members of a single family may not correspond to the family face: the total face, by implication, eludes all participating features. Even radical assemblages, such as the carnival (Bakhtin), the heterotopia (Foucault) and the rhizome (Deleuze and Guattari), may not dispense with the constitutive paradox of reassembly and disassembly.


3. I should now like to discuss specific sites and cases of assemblage. It is perhaps critical at the outset to point out that assemblages do not give rise to theories of enactment as they are forms of theoretical enactment in themselves. Whether discussed in relation to music or ethnography, governance or the visual arts, assemblages cannot be subsumed within some second-order theoretical framework - musicological, museumological, and so on. They are auto-referential theoretical events and, as such, constitute productions of the first-order. At any rate, I want to call upon a memory which, since it is a mnemonic assemblage, is already subject to the supplementary play of reassembly and disassembly. This memory pertains to a modest gallery in the Fiji Museum given over to artefacts associated with Indian labourers, numbering around 60,553, who served their indenture in the Fijian archipelago between 1879 and 1920. When I paid a visit to this gallery a few years ago, it consisted of an ethnographic re-assemblage of the indenture period, or girmit as it is called by Fiji's Indians. Spatially arranged, the artefacts functioned as metonymic indicators of the coolie odyssey. [6] The ensemble - and an ensemble, you will recall, pertains to the total performance of the multifarious components within a given system - included a charpoy or hemp bed, a rusty handsaw, a painted ceramic lota , a roughly-hewn pestle, a brass or copper platter, a chakki or millstone, a dyed pandanus basket, a drone instrument known as the tamboura, several photographs of labourers at plantation work, a ship's figurehead, an oriental scythe, a hefty wooden yoke, a winnowing tray or soop and an elegant hookah. At the most fundamental level, then, this ethnographic reassembly bore witness to the disassembly of the apparatuses that constituted the historical event of indenture. However, this gave rise to the counter-suggestion that girmit itself constituted a reassembly of cultural-economic systems disassembled from 'elsewhere' - an elsewhere that could hardly be construed in terms of a single cultural system, discourse, temporality or technology. In fact, as a cultural-historical signifier, girmit disassembles the noun 'agreement' to reassemble a radically different semantic, acoustic and graphic sign. It is generally agreed that girmit derives from the English 'agreement,' but whereas 'agreement' implies legal consent obtained from the worker by the recruiting agent, girmit constitutes a subaltern account of non-agreement, trauma and betrayal. A vernacular takeover of a colonialist category, it breaks continuity with the root word and, as such, refutes any synonymous contract. Girmit reassembles agreement by disassembling its etymological basis; it comprises a politico-historical supplement derived from but plainly in disagreement with the English noun. It advances a subaltern opinion by deforming and eviscerating the legal signifier that presents the hegemonic viewpoint. [7] If the linguistic signifier testifies to such an intricate re-assemblage, what might be the complexity of an ethnographic ensemble of the historical event itself?

4. Doubtless the girmit gallery had brought together assorted relics and remnants of a disassembled ethno-historical milieu; however, in its attempt to represent, that is to return to the present, the historical event known as girmit via these artefacts, the exhibit directed the viewer to multiple trace points of an earlier dis-assemblage, that is to say, one that occurred prior to the historical event of girmit. These trace points bore witness to a diversity of systems, economies, cultures and technologies. Indeed, the charpoy, lota, chakki, tamboura , hookah and soop were manifestly related to the land-locked agrarian economy of nineteenth century India, but what about the figurehead, the pandanus basket and the photographs? Salvaged from the sailing cutter, Syria, so ruinously disassembled on Nasilai Reef in 1884 while shipping labourers to Fiji, the ship's figurehead, a Grecian siren of sorts, while certainly a relevant feature in the ensemble, had absolutely no relation to an Indian village economy. It pointed to another scene of disassembly, Europe, and to a radically different socio-economic system - bourgeois capital. The violent dis-assemblages and re-assemblages that characterised modernity in the nineteenth century were perhaps best epitomised by European ships trafficking in human labour. As vehicular instruments of industrial capital, of modernity, they made possible the transformative alchemy of disassembly and reassembly, wrenching peasants from an antiquated and unregulated agrarian system and installing them as workers within a highly regulated system of industrial agriculture. According to Vijay Mishra, this process turned a motley crew of peasants into proper historical subjects as they entered "for the first time the regulative history of Empire" (Mishra 1996, 429). Goods, cultures, music, food and concepts underwent this same alchemising conversion. One thinks of how Indian cotton was reassembled in Manchester mills and shipped back to India, at considerable profit to Britain of course, thereby undermining the indigenous textile industry. One could also point to the transplantation of Indian dietary staples (dhal, roti and eggplant), as well as flora (mango, jackfruit and okra) and fauna (mongoose, mynah and bulbul), to the plantations of girmit. The colonial photographs and the pandanus basket induced a similar sense of discontinuity among the multiple sites of dis-assemblage. While affording portraits of coolie life in the archipelago, the photographs attested to a form of technological assemblage - cameras, glass-plate negatives, studios and chemicals - unrelated to peasant India. The basket, on the other hand, could have referred back to India except that it was put together from strips of dried pandanus and in a style not dissimilar to the Fijian practice of basket weaving. Some of the Indian articles, moreover, suggested different regional and, therefore, incongruent cultural-linguistic points of dis-assemblage. Girmit, then, was a peculiar re-assemblage existing in a state of supplementary difference from the multiple trace points of dis-assemblage. These trace points suggested different geopolitical locales certainly, but also unlikely economies, apparatuses, cultural practices, technologies and life-worlds.[8] Not only that, however. The ethnographic schema was itself a metonymic re-assemblage of a disassembled era, that is, an era whose presence had to remain partial, spectral - an assemblage of ruins intimating the presence of an event, a corpus, hopelessly lost to the present.

5. Participation without belonging is a description that holds true for generic as well as ethnographic assemblages. It indicates that the principle behind the participation of heterogeneous elements brought together in a spatiotemporal schema is never quite self-evident, commonsensical or natural: there is absolutely no genealogical basis for membership, alliance or affinity among the multifarious elements. Heterogeneities participate in the assemblage, but belong elsewhere - an elsewhere that inevitably recedes whenever there is any attempt to settle the question of belonging. Consequently, we must insist on dissociating hybrid operations from assemblages. Hybridity pertains to the movement of ambivalence within the same temporal plane or axis: hence an inconsistency appears on the same plane or axis of consistency. Homi Bhabha's take on the hybrid as manifested in colonial discourse concerns exactly this dynamic. What happens, he asks, when a group of Hindu converts to Christianity, gathered under a tree on the outskirts of Delhi in the month of May, 1817, dispute the English origins of the Hindi Bible by pointing out that God's word cannot be associated with flesh-eating Sahibs? [9] His answer, which constitutes the hybrid operation, is that there appears on the plane of normative consistency an inconsistency that is simultaneously less (or more) than the normative and its double. What occurs, in other words, is a transposition of values: the other assumes the values of the normative self (Christian) - hence mimicry and repetition - while, at the same time, inscribing a fundamental difference that queries and disavows the status of the normative in terms of Hindu dietary laws. The English cannot be the normative origin of (Christian) value. How can flesh-eating Sahibs have anything to do with the book of God? Bhabha makes the point that the normative image of the English "can neither be 'original' - by virtue of the act of repetition that constructs it - nor 'identical' - by virtue of the difference that defines it" (Bhabha 1994, 107). If Hindu converts cannot fully possess the sign 'Christian' in their recourse to Hindu dietary injunctions, then, by the same token and according to the same logic of ambivalence, the other's act of disavowal splits the sign 'English' along exactly the same lines, robbing it of self-presence or self-identity. The signifier breaks up in its attempt to discover the normative signified: it is interrupted by the scandalous supplement. The flesh-eating English cannot be Christian. There can be no "miraculous equivalence of God and the English" (Bhabha 1994, 118). Any ascription and transposition of value, therefore, can only be partial or, which amounts to the same thing, neither completely this nor that, neither totally self nor other. The Indian convert clings ignorantly to Hindu dietary laws and the representatives of Christian civilization are flesh-eating savages: the signifying chain cannot evade the reversibility, repetition and ambivalence characteristic of hybrid operations:

Hybridity is a problematic of colonial representation and individuation that reverses the effects of the colonialist disavowal, so that the other 'denied' knowledges enter upon the dominant discourse and estrange the basis of its authority - its rules of recognition (Bhabha 1994, 114).

Reversibility is achieved along the temporal-spatial plane of the signifying chain. A 'backwash' is experienced on the same discursive horizon as lines of inconsistency appear alongside lines of consistency. Similar values are attributed and disavowed at the same time whether one speaks of the self or the other.

6. Hybrid operations differ from assemblages in the following ways. First, in the hybrid operation signifiers are haunted by paradoxical values, double and different, but there is no question of an encounter between incommensurable properties that constitute the différend [10]; second, since any inconsistency arises on the same plane of consistency, the hybrid movement is always counter-purposeful and never cross-purposeful (cross-purposeful speaking occurs across the obstacle of différend: it is as if participants understand each other amid the radical impossibility of communication); and, third, as it consists of strategic narrative motion, the temporal switchover is emphasised in the temporal-spatial complex of hybridity. An assemblage, on the other hand, pertains to the congregation within a common spatial horizon of unlikely parts that may be readily taken apart. The hybrid refers to the ambivalence that splits up the temporal movement of some signifying chain. The assemblage, in contrast, has little to do with a common narrative or discursive plane along which self and other split up their values in the constitutive process of ambivalence. It concerns, rather, the spatial proximity of elements with radically different properties as well as dissimilar temporal and symbolic lineages. Assemblages are made up of elements that exhibit no common properties: hence no discursive splitting, transfer and reversal of values is possible between them. The parts of an assemblage speak to each other, if speak indeed they do, cross-purposefully and non-relationally. Dialogic or counter-purposeful reversals are not possible in an assemblage.

7. I prefer to use the term heterography to describe entities made up of elements which participate without belonging. It expresses the sense of an operation that marks, records or portrays the coming together of heteronyms [11] that strive to simultaneously unravel it. Heteronyms call into dispute the ontological ground of the subject responsible for generating them. The miniature paintings of the Liverpool-based artists, Amrit and Rabindra Singh, are heterographies in precisely this sense. The Singh Twins, as they are widely known, habitually use the classical form of the Mogul miniature to mount a bricolage of effects and images where familiar and anomalous categories are simultaneously depicted and displaced. In Nyrmala's Wedding II, for instance, the flattened out, stylized and immediately recognisable tableau vivant of a classical Indian interior becomes the site of a diasporic re-assemblage as Peter Rabbit, mehindi decoration, Guru Nanak, Batman and Robin, dhol -playing, Ronald McDonald, sumptuous bridal ghagras and cholis, video cameras and Liverpudlian factories come together virtually in the same spatiotemporal arena. Not quite belonging to the set, Ronald McDonald and Batman estrange the items that appear, at first glance, to belong to it, thereby begetting a scene of participation without belonging. Can Batman be in the same series as Guru Nanak without producing a disorder in the very idea of juxtaposition, agreement and membership? Disassembled from different cultural-historical sites, Batman, Ronald McDonald and Guru Nanak are reassembled inside the miniature tradition which has itself been disassembled from India and reassembled in Liverpool.

8. It is possible to detect a similar operation in the heterophonic strains one picks up in the music of Black Rose, Fiji's most celebrated rock outfit. The songs collected in their first two albums, Voices of Nature and Kila...? , may be regarded as polymorphous collocations of the truest kind. What we have, in other words, is the juxtaposed arrangement of a plurality of non-relational forms. These non-relational or discontinuous forms are simultaneously instrumental, lyrical, idiomatic and cultural. The band does not endeavour to come up with a harmonic fusion of the creolised sort. Instead, it constructs a structure of mutual answerability across discontinuous forms that impart as much significance as they withhold. It may be argued that they insist on a mode of salto mortale , an interpretive leap of faith across incongruent forms - as if a conversation were possible in the midst of différend. It is not for nothing that kila means "to know and understand through feeling or to reveal through perception" and, it would seem, that the question mark in the album's title both suggests and subverts the possibility of a full understanding across these various forms. Each form participates in the musical event, but belongs to life-worlds not completely accessible to the listener. An excellent example is afforded by the haunting number, 'Valu ni Vanua' or 'Civil Strife,' which features in the group's second album. Focussing on the Speight-led troubles of 2000, it has two distinctive movements. The first features a geet, accompanied by the flute and tabla, sung in Hindi professing eternal belonging to Fiji desh (country). A lugubrious meke of protest chanted in a Fijian dialect to the frantic beat of the lali, the second movement responds in a completely different register to the other's profession by denouncing the civil disorder. Such juxtaposed reciprocities feature heavily in the group's repertoire. 'Teivovo,' for instance, is organised around three movements, the second and last of which are repeated. It begins with a terse classical raga set to the sitar and vina, succeeded by pastiche pop delivered in English to synthesised effects, followed by a wildly exultant Fijian meke. The band creates musical assemblages by reassembling instruments, idioms, styles and lyrics from divergent cultural points of disassembly. It is not unusual to find the lali set alongside the mandolin or tabla, ritualised meke usurped by diasporic hip-hop, haunting choral chants displaced by pastiche soul, and island reggae counterposed by Bollywood geet rhythms. Black Roses's signal achievement is to generate a vision of Fijian music - a musicopoeia - in which discontinuous forms congregate at the same musical scene, each one participating in the genre without quite belonging.

9. Such re-assemblages are heterotopias in the sense understood by Foucault: they form "counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted" (Foucault 1986, 24). You may recall this memory of a heterotopia in Borges capable of even reducing Foucault to laughter:

This passage quotes a 'certain Chinese encyclopaedia' in which it is written that 'animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera , (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies' (Foucault 1991, xv).

What is erected above - a tabulated assemblage, a category - is simultaneously demolished because of the impossibility of the "locus" or "residence" that "holds together" the series of common nouns (Foucault, 1991, xviii). In this fabulous assemblage the impossibility of generic cohabitation is governed, in the first instance, by the possible existence of the indexical, alphabetical or numerical list itself. For what the egregious siding of things does is to shatter the law (syntax) of arrangement. Yet, no matter how abstractly or vacantly, we are doomed to re-cite the list even in the midst of derangement. The law is instituted at the heretical scene of its violation.


10. I should now like to attend to a fascinating attempt made by Fiji's colonial administrators to institute the Indian panchayat, a village-based council of five elders officiating over juridical, agricultural and customary matters, in parts of the country settled by ex-indentured workers. Although the scheme never quite saw the light of day, what fascinates me is the debate occurring in official circles pertaining to the feasibility and prudence, as well as the anticipated shape, of the re-assemblage. The earliest mention of the panchayat is to be found in a letter written by Badri Maharaj, a wealthy and conservative planter from Ra province, to the Agent General of Immigration in 1918. Handpicked to represent Indian interests, Maharaj was the first and only Indian representative on the Legislative Council, and seen by the government as a necessary counterweight to the more radical leadership provided by the lawyer Manilal Doctor and sadhu Bashishth Muni, both of whom were eventually deported from the colony for subversion (Kelly 1991, 86-97). The encounter between Maharaj and his political rivals has been examined in suggestive detail by John Kelly, and it is not my intention to revisit the affair. What interests me specifically is the manner in which Maharaj discursively projects a variant image of the panchayat. Instead of advocating the introduction of village councils as found in India, he suggests a re-assemblage that bears only a nominal link to the context of disassembly. The supplement, in short, interrupts the two-way dynamic of reassembly and disassembly. It is Maharaj's opinion that the introduction of panchayats would solve the looming law and order crisis. Since the primary objective is to ensure a ready supply of docile coolie labour to the plantations, Maharaj imagines these councils almost exclusively in punitive and disciplinary terms. In his view the panchayats would take care of disputes arising from rampant criminal behaviour; they would punish immorality among the lower castes; they would prevent unsuitable or fraudulent marriages; they would put a stop to controversial religious acts such as the Muslim practice of cow slaughter; and they would undertake to accomplish all these things in defence of some unnameable Indian custom. Maharaj's panchayat is not meant to be the result of consensus obtained from the adult Indian population in designated districts or villages; rather, it is conceived as the product of summary appointments made by no other authority than his own person (CSO MP 4549/1918). Kelly, too, picks up on this point:

The panchayats envisioned by Maharaj resemble neither the panchayats of village India nor the contingent, ephemeral panchayats known in Fiji Indian settlements... Badri Maharaj's panchayat system, like British colonial government itself, was to be a top-down exercise of authority, empowered to solve crimes and mete out punishments to the limits allowed by higher authority (1991, 89).

Kelly is only partly correct since the anomaly he detects is not wholly a product of some gratuitous misrepresentation. In actual fact, Maharaj does endeavour to incorporate into his panchayat a few elements of the system as practised in the subcontinent - such as, for instance, the settlement of communal disputes and the overseeing of customary marriages - but he does it within a framework that takes cognizance of colonial legal apparatuses and hierarchy.

11. What is perhaps most intriguing about Maharaj's proposal is that it inspired a quest by the government to determine how the system was reassembled in Britain's other colonies. Letters were despatched by the Colonial Secretary to counterparts in British Guiana, Trinidad, Mauritius, and even India, requesting copies of "legislative enactments" relating to panchayat boards (CSO MP 4549/1918). When it was found that the system had not taken root in any of the sister sugar colonies, the idea was put on hold.

12. It was revived again in 1920, probably at Maharaj's behest, in the course of five public meetings organised by the government on the subject of Indian franchise. On this occasion, however, the discussion had very little to do with juridical village councils appointed to address law and order issues or some perceived cultural crisis among Fiji's Indians; rather, the debate related to the formation of electoral bodies responsible for choosing two Indian members to the Legislative Council. Of the witnesses summoned by the commission to garner public opinion, there were two Indians who provided lengthy testimonies. Both advocated the panchayat concept in their ostensibly independent submissions. The first discussant, a merchant by the name of V. Moothiaya Pillay, began his statement by observing that the proposed panchayats [12] might have a petty juridical as well as an electoral purpose, but the Chair of the commission intervened and directed him to focus exclusively on the latter. The discussion that ensued concerned the propriety, authenticity, fairness and feasibility of reassembling the panchayat as an electoral body within a colonial polity. Concerned that the stipulated property, income and literacy tests would disqualify many Indians, Pillay suggested a two-tiered electoral system. The first step involved consensual nomination and the second election via the secret ballot. In his scheme the adult members within every village unit - whether male or female, wealthy or poor, literate or not - would communally nominate a panchayat composed of five representatives, who would, in turn, be empowered to elect the Indian members to the Legislative Council. Essentially, then, Pillay envisaged a re-assemblage that drew on vastly different representational discourses and systems: liberal British and rural Indian. It was his belief that the communal system of nominating panchayats extended the franchise to the largest number of adult Indians, while direct voting by the panchayat of the two councillors through the secret ballot vouchsafed the election of the best by the best.

13. The second discussant, Sant Singh Chowla, came up with a similar proposal, except that he introduced into the system an additional tier of taluks or district electoral boards comprising forty percent of every panchayat or what he insisted on calling the village electoral board. Members of panchayats and taluks would be chosen communally through the Indian system of consensual nomination, while the two legislative councillors would be formally elected by the combined body of taluks. Dogmatically predisposed to the idea of direct voting and limited franchise, safeguarded by property, income and literacy tests, the commission rejected the panchayat model in its final report. It justified its decision by tactically misrepresenting the views advanced by the Indian witnesses. The report noted that "the panchayat system ... in its native atmosphere is ... a valuable institution, the panchayat being chosen without much friction and commanding the confidence of those it represents" and observed that "the community choosing the panchayat in India is more or less homogeneous, a condition which would not, as a rule, obtain in Fiji, and that the further we got from this condition the greater would be the difficulty of choosing the panchayat, or 'electoral board,' and the less confidence would it command" (Leg.Co.Journal /1921). Even at the most elementary level, this statement simply distorts the views of the discussants who were genuinely advocating an experimental re-assemblage of which the panchayat constituted one element in a complex form of electoral representation; second, Pillay, and especially Chowla, make it amply clear that the reassembled panchayat would be, of necessity, a different beast in the colonial polity, without the same powers or caste obligations; third, the commission's scepticism of the democratic character of consensual nomination is directly contradicted by its scandalous disenfranchisement of illiterate and non-propertied Indians; and finally, the report's depiction of the Indian panchayat as some homogeneous and frictionless utopia flagrantly disregards Chowla's testimony "that village panchayats consist of people of different religions," that "there are some sub-panchayats in which a body of people belonging to the same caste or religion unite," and that "Mohammadans and Hindus" may occasionally come together "for the maintenance of the sanitary service of the village, and for other purposes" (Leg.Co.Journal /1921). Contending that the Indian panchayat could not be reproduced in its pure form in the Fiji context, the commission's report sabotages the possibility of a radical re-assemblage made up of elements, necessarily modified, from two divergent representational systems. In their insistence on the différend governing Indian and British representational systems, the report disavows the possibility of something new emerging from components brought together in cross-purposeful participation.

14. The subject of the panchayat was brought up again in 1930 after Dr Victor McGusty, in his capacity as the Acting Secretary for Indian Affairs, circulated an important minute alerting the government to the "lack of direct contact" between the administration and post- girmit Indian settlers. McGusty noted that, during the period of indenture, Indian interests were in the hands of the sugar companies and government-appointed Immigration Inspectors. With the abolition of girmit in 1920, freed settlers, who had organised their own loosely-defined village communities, were left with no official means of contact with the authorities. Consequently, McGusty felt that there was an urgent need "to create a centralising organisation, the basis and essential part of which is a system of village or community headmen." These headmen would be charged with nurturing community spirit, reporting crime and informing the government of other concerns, including public health, pertaining to the village unit; moreover, he thought they could form a "valuable medium for the communication to Indian settlers of all matters affecting their wellbeing" (CSO MP 553/1930). McGusty does not hint at the possibility of using headmen for surveillance purposes. In view of the administration's suspicion of Indian organisations such as the Arya Samaj, however, it must have played on his mind. At any rate, McGusty's minute sparked an interesting debate within officialdom with regard to the precise form and function of the mediating body. Upon his return from leave, J.R. Pearson, Secretary for Indian Affairs, with thirty years of administrative experience in India, endorsed McGusty's initiative but considered the panchayat a better alternative to the headman scheme and solicited views as to the functions and duties, as well as the structure, of any re-assemblage. Pearson was of the opinion that the headman scheme set up "another grade of petty Government official, not fully trusted as a 'Government man,' and probably a self-seeker" whereas "the panchayat scheme, however slowly introduced, works in the direction of combining diverse elements to work together in cooperation with Government, with joint responsibilities towards it" (CSO MP 553/1930). Where McGusty imagines an empowered mukhiya or headman for each village unit as a point of contact between people and government, Pearson envisages a council of elders gradually imparting the secrets of citizenship and responsibility to an adolescent community. [13] His principal concern is to foster "communal organisation and the development of the spirit of responsible citizenship": [14]

Leaders must arise, and leaders who can sway the multitude with no corresponding constitutional responsibility must be a source of danger. At the present moment we have no Indians with any authority to deal with the most petty disputes among their own people, no Councils of Elders recognised and therefore responsible for seeing that their representations find reasonable expression ... We cannot keep the population down to one dead level. Gradation must come and it is for us to see that with it comes a sense of responsibility and a sense of obligation to the authority that has conferred it( CSO MP 553/1930).

With this broad and long-term picture in mind, Pearson sought the advice of a clutch of officials on the feasibility of reassembling the panchayat in Fiji. He also canvassed opinion, as well as submitting several of his own, on whether the panchayat was preferable to the mukhiya system.

15. One of his advisers, A.W. McMillan, Inspector of Schools, who had done time in the subcontinent, commented that the conditions in Fiji were very different from rural India. Since "we have residing as neighbours people who would be living 1500 miles apart in India, or who would be separated by the caste-system," he argued that it would be sensible of Fiji to "explore its own path and not necessarily try to adapt what is customary in India." (CSO MP 553/30) McMillan was, of course, making the vital point that the reassembly of Indian practices and peoples from unrelated regional and caste sites of disassembly had resulted in a visibly different set of social relations. He could have mentioned the further complexity of the reassembly happening alongside non-Indian economic and political forms. At any rate, McMillan felt that any panchayat-style re-assemblage would do well to take stock of the changed circumstance. He recommended the formation of district panchayats consisting of three members each of which represented a different creed. Since the 'educative value' of the panchayat was an important consideration for McMillan, he suggested that the government appoint a school-teacher to one of the positions. The other two were to be nominated communally by the various districts. [15] McMillan's view that an absence of communal cohesion among Fiji's Indians and the introduction of new heterogeneities necessitated an experimental re-assemblage was, subsequently, reinforced by the Secretary for Indian Affairs. Pearson pressed for elasticity and latitude in the reassembled system so as to, as he put it, make the "diverse elements hang together." (CSO MP 553/30) Lack of cohesion and sectarian diversity were also cited by Commander Burrows, another India hand and Pearson adviser, when rejecting the headman scheme. In his submission, Burrows described how the provinces would be divided into taluks, along the lines of the Fijian buli system, with each taluk appointing a panchayat numbering the traditional five. So as to ensure the hanging-together of diverse elements, he suggested appointments be made with special attention paid to class, creed and sub-ethnic combinations. Of the two lists he provided, one included a Hindu landowner, a Madrassi landowner, a Madrassi storekeeper, a Hindu storekeeper and a Molvi. As the headmen scheme lost ground, especially in the aftermath of the District Commissioners' Conference which came out in favour of the panchayat scheme, the discussion turned to the social, political and juridical character of the anticipated re-assemblage. Was it simply to be "a recognised channel of communication between the Indian communities in a District and the D.C.," [16] or something more?

16. Building on the advice given by McMillan, McGusty, Burrows and others, Pearson provided an elaborate account of the possible structure and duties of the panchayat in a series of summaries, despatches and reports addressed to the Colonial Secretary; he also drew up a list identifying the pros and cons of the panchayat and mukhiya systems in a letter he sent to McMillan. Pearson imagined a reassembled panchayat that was almost as ambitious in scope as the schemes imagined by Chowla and Pillay; he had no intention of settling for the toothless option of a simple advisory committee; rather, he saw the panchayat as a multi-purpose organism actively working to produce fully-fledged citizens capable of accepting and exercising responsibility. Pearson defined the panchayat as "a committee of representative persons of the locality" (CSO MP 553/30) and deemed it a consultative body invested with certain executive duties, petty judicial functions and powers of representation. Apart from conveying the "wants and desires of those it represents to Government and Government to them," he felt the panchayat could be endowed with "certain functions of an executive, judicial or statutory nature," including powers (i) to "deal with petty criminal complaints and civil disputes," (ii) to issue burial certificates, (iii) to "attest notices of marriage," (iv) "to attest a request from the mother of an illegitimate child" in registering the infant's birth and determining paternity, (v) "to receive reports of birth and deaths," (vi) to carry out specific "public health duties and functions" and (vii) to oversee communicative services in outlying areas (CSO MP 553/30). Pearson saw the panchayat as an evolving body to be delegated additional duties and powers in gradual stages. He expected it would eventually assume responsibility for communications, local water supplies and sanitation, come up with "measures for the improvement of crop-growing and marketing," (CSO MP 553/30) arbitrate over petty legal ructions and conflicts and liaise with sugar industry officials on matters of concern to those it represented. Pearson dreamt of a network of local panchayats propping up district bodies which, in turn, propped up a part of the national or legislative body. Composed of heterogenous parts, and adjusted to fit the island context, the panchayat system, as Pearson conceived it, would constitute a crucial part of a re-imagined national polity. He had in mind a re-assemblage on a national scale where the life-worlds of indigenous Fijians, settler Indians and colonial Europeans would find proper representation. Unfortunately the panchayat, as word and scheme, found disfavour with a few high-ranking officials, including the Secretary for Native Affairs. In the month of February, 1932, the Governor approved the formation of an experimental Indian committee in Rewa but only in an advisory capacity and with none of the self-regulatory powers of a panchayat.

17. Doubtless the failure of the panchayat scheme testifies to the bankruptcy of the colonial imagination when confronted with the radical possibility of implementing cross-purposeful systems and structures. What we find in dominant colonial discourse, despite the intervention of far-seeing administrators such as Pearson and McMillan, is a predisposition towards known quantities (not to mention an overtly political resistance to lived hybridity) rather than a disposition towards creative risk-taking of the kind represented by heterographies. The example of the Black Rose shows us how cross-purposeful acts occurring across the impasse of différend can facilitate the emergence of unanticipated forms and configurations. Pearson may have had something kindred in mind for the political realm when he argued for a reassembly of the panchayat scheme. It is perhaps unfortunate that his views were not shared by colonial decision-makers who based their judgement on instrumental foreknowledge - i.e. a knowing beforehand of policy outcomes. Any assemblage whose final shape could not be anticipated or predetermined was simply too risky for the colonial authorities. In the end, the singularity of imperial purpose obstructed Pearson's attempt to speak cross-purposefully across the fence of cultures, discourses and representative systems. Since gaining independence in October, 1970, Fiji has experienced several coups against elected governments. One wonders whether the political landscape might have been different if Pearson's recommendations had been adopted.

In trying to speak of assemblages, and the panchayat is one among several examples, I have doubtless performed a critical reassembly, bringing together within the field of my paper a diversity of body parts (musical, ethnographic, artistic and political), disassembled from elsewhere, each one participating without belonging, and yet somehow spinning the illusion of a combinatory system, a heterographic weave or intermezzo, in the face of a perpetual coming apart.


Sudesh Mishra is the author of Preparing Faces: Modernism and Indian Poetry in English (1995) and Diaspora Criticism (2006). He is presently working on a fifth collection of verse as well as a study of dissident modernity in relation to the Indian diaspora in Fiji. His papers have appeared in Subaltern Studies, Social Text, The UTS Review and Emergences.


[1] Derrida observes that "the trace is not only the disappearance of an means that the origin did not even disappear, that it was never constituted except reciprocally by a nonorigin, the trace, which thus becomes the origin of the origin. From then on, to wrench the concept of the trace from the classical scheme, which would derive it from a presence or from an originary nontrace and which would make of it an empirical mark, one must indeed speak of an originary trace or arche-trace. Yet we know that that concept destroys its name and that, if all begins with the trace, there is above all no originary trace" (Derrida 1976, 61).

[2] "One side of a machinic assemblage," note Deleuze and Guattari, "faces the strata, which doubtless make it a kind of organism, or signing totality, or determination attributable to a subject; it also has a side facing a body without organs, which is constantly dismantling the organism, causing asignifying particles or pure intensities to pass or circulate, and attributing to itself subjects that it leaves with nothing more than a name as the trace of an intensity" (Deleuze and Guattari 2004, 4).

[3] Derrida notes that the "play, permitted by the lack or absence of a centre or origin, is the movement of supplementarity. One cannot determine the centre and exhaust totalisation because the sign which replaces the centre, which supplements it, taking the centre's place in its absence - this sign is added, occurs as a surplus, as a supplement. The movement of signification adds something, which results in the fact that there is always more, but this addition is a floating one because it comes to perform a vicarious function, to supplement a lack on the part of the signified"(Derrida 1978, 289).

[4] "We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single 'theological' meaning (the 'message' of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture" (Barthes 1984, 146).

[5] "Every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text, there is always a genre and genres, yet such participation never amounts to belonging. And not because of an abundant overflowing or a free, anarchic and unclassifiable productivity, but because of the trait of participation itself, because of the effect of the code and of the generic mark. In marking itself generically, a text unmarks itself [se démarque]. If remarks of belonging belong without belonging, participate without belonging, then genre-designations cannot be simply part of the corpus" (Derrida 1992, 230).

[6] Coolie Odyssey is the title of a book of poems by David Dabydeen.

[7] I have discussed this at some length in a paper entitled 'Time and Girmit' (Mishra 2005, 15-36).

[8] You will recall that Habermas uses the term, life-world, to describe a milieu of shared values and knowledge categories (1984, 52).

[9] See 'Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of ambivalence and authority under a tree outside Delhi, May 1817' (Bhabha 1994, 102-122).

[10] Lyotard asserts that "[a] case of différend between two parties takes place when the 'regulation' of the conflict which opposes them is done in the idiom of one of the parties while the injustice suffered by the other is not signified in that idiom." (1984, 4-14).

[11] The term was coined by Fernando Pessoa to describe his many invented selves.

[12] Pillay's use of the term caused considerable perplexity among the commissioners who appeared not to have understood that the panchayat simultaneously stood for the five village councillors as well as the entire village unit that they represented.

[13] He writes: "We cannot continue to keep an adolescent community indefinitely in leading strings, and we must sooner or later attempt to inculcate a definite sense of responsibility" (CSO MP 553/1930).

[14] There is, of course, a less philanthropic side to this account as revealed in a note McMillan despatched to Pearson, stating that "at a time when disturbing political influences and wholesale criticism of Government are fingering their way into every Indian settlement in the Colony brought by every mail from India, it would be opportune to show that the Government of Fiji desires to encourage the people along the path of citizenship" (CSO MP 553/1930).

[15] The Acting Colonial Secretary notes that McMillan modified his first version and subsequently recommended "the appointment of a panchayat to each populous subdivision, one of the members to be a Headman appointed by the Government, and the other two elected by the people" (CSO MP 553/1930).

[16] The comment was made by the Acting Colonial Secretary in a memorandum to the Governor (CSO MP 553/1930).


The Minute Papers ( MP ), Colonial Office documents ( CSO ) and Legislative Council Journals (Leg.Co.Journal) referred to in my paper are kept in the National Archives of Fiji.

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Barthes, Roland. (1984), Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath, London: Flamingo.

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Dabydeen, David (1988) Coolie Odyssey. London: Hansib Publishing Limited and Dangaroo Press.

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Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari [1980] (2004), A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, London and New York: Continuum.

Derrida, Jacques [1967] (1978), Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

________ (1976), Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Foucault, Michel [1966] (1991), The Order of Things, London: Routledge.

Habermas, Jurgen (1984), The Theory of Communicative Action Volume 1: Reason and Rationalization of Society, trans. Thomas McCarthy, Cambridge: Polity.

Kelly, John D. (1991), A Politics of Virtue: Hinduism, Sexuality, and Countercolonial Discourse in Fiji, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois (1984) 'The Différend , the Referent, and the Proper Name', Diacritics, 14, 3, 4-14.

Mishra, Sudesh (2005), 'Time and Girmit, ' Social Text, 85, 15-36.

Mishra, Vijay (1996), 'The Diasporic Imaginary: Theorising the Indian Diaspora', Textual Practice, 10, 3, 421-447.

Pessoa, Fernando (1974), Selected Poems of Fernando Pessoa, trans. Jonathan Griffin, Harmondsworth: Penguin.


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