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Baudrillard's simulacra and death of solidarity? The case of subalterns in Northeast India

in: Imaginations, Narratives and Mediated Performances of Solidarity and Community. Ed. by Nadja-Christina Schneider and Maitrayee Chaudhuri (2021)

Published onOct 06, 2021
Baudrillard's simulacra and death of solidarity? The case of subalterns in Northeast India
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In the age of hyperreality, signs and simulations constitute a social reality transcending the imaginative formation in everyday lives. This complicates the already complex social world by simulating products, things, or objects of becoming, as a function of influences, into a revitalised form.1 Taking the context of India and its subalterns (such as the socio-cultural and politically marginalised hill tribes in Northeast India), the paper will locate how a simulated world subtly intensifies and internalises social facts that appear to be the ‘truth’, but are fatal to the larger co-existence of the social and cultural world.  This paper reveals through studying a music video produced from India that simulation can also distort solidarity. On October 31, 2020, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi applauded a four-year-old girl from Mizoram for singing a contemporary version of the national song Maa Tujhe Salaam from A.R. Rahman’s album Vande Mataram. The music video uploaded on YouTube caught the attention of a large audience as it crossed 9.5 million views nine months after its release (as of July 2021).2 Taking this context as the point of reference, the paper will contribute to existing scholarships on Baudrillard’s simulation and simulacra, while the same approach enables the possibilities of critically analysing the problem of unfolding solidarity in the field of media studies. This analysis situates at a rather important junction. It allows one to see the complexities of media’s convergence with solidarity in a multi-faceted, heterogenous and multi-ethnic Indian society. Rather than looking at the music video exclusively as an ideological product in itself, or what it seeks to signify and what it signified, the paper seeks to problematise the relation between simulacra and solidarity, or the simulation of solidarity.3 It attempts to derive possibilities of simulating the absence of solidarity as presence, which hides the oppressive experience and the socio-cultural, historical, and political struggles of the subalterns in India (see for example, Sundar 1997; Kapoor 2007). The simulacra precede the original, leaving it impossible to distinguish what is real and what representation is. The simulacra, as Baudrillard (1983) argues, conceals the fact that there exist none, it feigns what one hasn’t: it feigns to have solidarity. It argues that through simulation there is a process of corrupting the notion of ‘solidarity’ against its conventional application and understanding in the age of the hyperreal. 

     The main aim of the paper is to problematise how the music video simulates solidarity through signs. In order to come to this point, it asks specific basic and simple questions: can solidarity be simulated? If so, how? Does intertextuality play a key role in simulating solidarity? If so, how does it impact on disrupting the notion of solidarity? The paper must be foregrounded within the historical and contemporary context of the marginalised groups. It must be read in relation to the condition within which the marginalised are positioned to produce music videos, as the one analysed, with the hope of entering into the Indian political, social and cultural space. The paper must not be misunderstood as a study of the music video per se. The main interest is rather on developing the theoretical concerns of solidarity within the frame of the hyperreal world in a complex and nuanced socio-cultural and political environment.

Historical background of the context of the study

Subalternity is a position without identity, a position “where social lines of mobility, being elsewhere, do not permit the formation of a recognizable basis of action” (Spivak 2005, 476). Gramsci (1971) applied the term for explaining the political and historical dynamics of dominated groups, of social classes, women, racialised communities, ethnicised communities, and the proletariat as constituted within the subaltern social groups. In this sense, India’s subaltern spread across the caste-dominated groups to the ethnically hegemonised and exploited groups whose social and cultural existence, besides their political formations, are threatened under the larger dominant mainstream regime. Contextually, India’s Northeast, numerically populated by indigenous people, represents a region deemed a project to be controlled by the Indian government, especially through political interventions (for example, see Samaddar 2005), and then penetrates further into their social and cultural lives (see Longkumer 2021). The indigenous people’s marginalised condition in socio-cultural and political milieu is what defined their subalternity. Their voices are unrepresented and unheard. Internationally they do not have the same recognition as indigenous peoples in North America, Australia, or New Zealand (Kapoor 2007).

   The music video discussed in this article is published from Mizoram state in the Northeastern parts of the country. The Northeastern region comprises Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, and Arunachal Pradesh, accounting for 7.8 percent of the total landmass of India and 3.73 percent of India’s population. The Northeast region shares less than 2 percent of its borders with the rest of the country and 98 percent with four Asian countries- China, Myanmar, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. The population of Mizoram is composed of hill people. Mizoram, just like other ethnic groups in Northeastern states, has had a conflicting history with the colonisers and the larger mainstream postcolonial governance. In 1966, due to ill governance, discrimination, and negligence on the Assam and Indian government, the Mizo National Front uprising took shape to establish a sovereign state for the people of Mizoram. In this uprising, the Mizo National Front (MNF) declared independence (Goswami 2009). The government responded by sending in operations to suppress the rebellion carrying out airstrikes in Aizawl, the only instance of India carrying out an airstrike against its own civilians. Four fighter jets of Indian Air Force were deployed to bomb Aizawl. Taking off from Tezpur, Kumbigram, and Jorhat in Assam, the planes used machine guns to fire at civilian territory, causing civilian casualties. The forces returned the next day to drop incendiary bombs.4  In 1986 the Mizoram Peace Accord was signed between the government and MNF, thereby ending the rebellion. There are quite a number of similar cases where the Indian government carried out operations against the ethnic minorities in India. This is only one such instance.

      The shared experience of violence against the hill people in particular, the northeastern population in general, and the continuous attempt for assimilation (for example, see Longkumer 2021 ) is where the irony of the music video lies. The study underpins towards the idea that music video is fast, empty, and lascivious, reaching a definite ultimatum to present itself in a postmodern world. Frederic Jameson termed music videos as “a schizophrenic string of isolated, discontinuous signifiers, failing to link up into a coherent sequence, as a string without a center” (Peeters 2004). Production of simulated solidarity from such a historic spatial location becomes immensely contradicting, as the question of solidarity across the majoritarian groups and the minorities from Northeast India is out of question, and in fact, was hardly a dream. Hundreds of cases that can be taken from different sources which shows that the substantialisation of ‘solidarity’ and even the dream of solidarity is a misnomer. The very fact that many states in the Northeast have hundreds of insurgency groups, and political organisations that want to secede and attain independence from India till today shows the juxtaposition of such claims and attempts of solidarity through the music video. The recent attempt by netizens in Twitter to include the history of Northeast Indians in school curriculums demanding chapter(s) on the region in NCERT textbooks, which started as a ‘Twitter storm’, has occupied the internet displaying what a close reading of the real situation brings about as opposed to what is simulated in the music video. 

Certain recurring complexities have to be mentioned in situating the music video. Look East Policy (LEP), first introduced in 1991, did not live up to the expectations. The core of LEP has three dimensions: economic, strategic, and institutional which is a turning point in India’s foreign policy reinvigorating its engagement with Southeast Asia, with ASEAN as the focus. In 2014, the present Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi revised the policy and the nomenclature of the LEP by introducing Act East Policy (AEP) in November (Bajpaee 2017). It is regarded as an attempt at ‘soft balancing the power in the east.’5 The states such as Mizoram and Manipur (among others) bordering Myanmar are key to its functioning and ‘success’ but comes at the cost of institutional infringement of the their rights and exploitation in the name of development and progress. This kind of intervention by the sovereign in the name of development or improvement (Li 2007) has been contested as merely the production of indigenous subjectivities by and through the settler state which circumscribes Indigenous sovereignty. Adding to this, the passing of Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposal of National Register of Citizens (NRC) all over the country is another controversial and highly debated which led to protest in the streets re-igniting one’s centrism to identity, regionalism, and sub-nationalism. There is a strong claim of indigenous/tribal identity in protests against CAA and NRC. The historical and continuing experience of marginality and oppression at the hands of colonial rulers and non-tribals in postcolonial India shapes their political outlook and responses, where the NRC and CAA is a good example.6

The social and cultural antagonism experienced by the Northeastern people also plays key role in analysing the music video. For example, in the light of COVID-19, the Northeastern people in the country have been branded with different racial connotations. Many instances were reported (and unreported). Mizoram Chief Minister, Zoramthanga took to Twitter to raise the issue when a video started to surface in the internet where a some Northeastern people were denied entry to a grocery shop.7 In a similar vein, it was Mizoram Chief Minister Lalthanhawla, in 2009, who expressed that he was “a victim of racism” at a time when racial attacks against Indian students in Australia drew attention from the top leadership in both countries.8

Simulation, simulacra, and solidarity

Every map is someone’s way of getting you to look at the world his or her way.9

Simulation threatens the difference between ‘true’ and ‘false’, between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ (Baudrillard 1983). In simulation theory, the process is not of imitation, nor reduplication, nor even a parody. It substitutes signs of the real for the real itself, acting as a descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes. There is no longer production of the real, but this hyperreal as produced by an irradiating synthesis generates models of a real without origin or reality (Baudrillard 1983).

     Simulation is usually a set of actions, and is deceitful in its display of ‘some situation or process’ (Sandoz 2003). Like simulation, the simulacrum’s resemblance to the thing it imitates functions only at the surface level, which is understood as a static entity or a mere ‘image’. Hence, it does not ‘imitate[es] the behavior’ of the real thing. It creates its own real, a hyperreality. For Deleuze, agreeing with Baudrillard, the simulacrum is a system of empty signs which destructs the signals of the original reality it takes after. Deleuze sees this destruction as the result of the perfect simulation of the original, which no longer makes it clear what the real is or what the original is (see Sandoz 2003). In the order of simulation, the role of the signs is to sensationalise rather than confronting meaning and content. The sign constitutes a signifier and its signified but does not constitute a link between the two (for example, between the word, ‘tree’ and the object designated). This suggests that a synchronic approach to meaning implies the relationship between signifiers, rather than their intrinsic status. Saussure (1983, 67; 1974, 67) talks about the complimentary co-existence between signifier and signified. There is no signifier without its signified. Baudrillard (1983) comes in by problematising the theory of signs, where, ultimately, a sign becomes a simulacrum bearing no relation whatsoever to reality. The signifier is the object, the word, the physical structure, the image, or the action. The signified is the concept behind the object that is being represented. 

  The study’s core element is to investigate the struggle between the signifiers and signified as it manifests to simulate the idea of solidarity. In its simplest sense, solidarity may best be understood as a collective consciousness towards a social bonding that perpetuates across or beyond communities or people, who may or may not share the same culture, experiences, history, and constitute an emotionally and normatively motivated readiness for mutual support. As Thalos (2012, 64) argues, it connotes “action-readiness” and a “duty of assistance” (Trifunovic 2012, 155). A broad scholarship on solidarity reveals a number of characteristics that are core to the meaning of solidarity: it is relational (i.e., it resides between and beyond group members); it assumes the existence of a multiplicities; it is an individually-embodied feeling that is nevertheless shared beyond group members; and it motivates action. The attempt of the study is not to problematise the concept of solidarity, but to investigate how the music video simulates solidarity so normatively real and synchronous that it has the tendency to be accepted as the real (see Trifunovic 2012.). The study is not interested in looking at solidarity as a sense of belongingness, or if solidarity is possible across groups that do not have shared affinities. It is rather the question of looking at how the music video studied attempts to formulate solidarity that resembles a sense of belonging, shared experiences and cultures to fit into the majoritarian discourse.  

Methodology

The object of study is the music video, specifically how it simulates solidarity as the real. The subject of study is the nature of telling, the plot, the lyrics, the role of the narrator, the characterization and settings. More importantly analysed in the music video is the dimension of showing. Studies in signs, signifiers and signifieds, are interested in the qualitative analysis of the object of study. Employing a semiotic approach, the focus is to analyse the sign produced in the music video, in a cultural form. As the subject matter of semiotics, this study looks into the context in which a sign is communicated, how the signs are produced, and why. It is concerned with ‘interpretation of meaning’. Semiotic as a pivotal tool to ensure that the signs constitute intended meanings as produced by the encoder.  The study thus focuses on the music video, rather than how the users of social media decode the texts. It is not interested in looking at how it influences the audiences but is instead concerned on formulating what the music video does to solidarity. This is to say that the concern is situated in simulacra rather than the process of denotation. This is directly an investigation into culture and society concerning the analyses of cultural products and how media penetrates the world by reconstructing and compositing new signs. The data is collected from the music video Maa Tujhe Salaam available on YouTube. It was produced on October 31, 2020. The description of the music video reads 

Dear brothers and sisters, Be proud that you are an indian, it is a land of love, care and affection. so lovely the variety in languages, cultures, lifestyle.. let us stand together to be good sons and daughters for our motherland inspite of the diversities.10

The key object of study is the music video as text composed of a system of signs (signifiers and signified). These signifiers constitute intertextual forms such as the children in traditional costume, national flag, lyrics, hilly mountainous terrains, etc. The focus on intertextuality11 of the signs, of the signifiers and signified, are concerned with the how, rather than what, meaning is produced and the social convention which links signs with meanings through the code of encoding (Potts 1996, 21). Maa Tujhe Salaam is a song from AR Rahman’s album Vande Maataram, an ode to the motherland. The title Vande Mataram means “I bow to thee, Mother”. Released on the Golden Jubilee anniversary of India’s Independence, the album and its title song Maa Tujhe Salaam is influential enough in instilling a sense of patriotic pride and national unity amongst the people of India. The song made a permanent place in the hearts of the patriotic Indians in remembering the country’s martyrs whose lives were dedicated at the altar of the Motherland in the quest for freedom. The title song Maa Tujhe Salaam is ranked as the second most popular song globally through a poll conducted by BBC World Services in 2002 out of over 7000 songs selected from all over the world.12

Maa Tujhe Salaam Vande Mataram - Esther Hnamte (4 years)

Data analysis and discussion

Data are divided across signifiers and signifieds, while the main focus is on the signifiers in simulating solidarity. The structure of the music video may be read according to the following analysis. At the beginning of the music video, as the intro to the music plays, four essential elements appear in the music video, entrenched upon the code of production that emits light on the notion of the background, culture, landscape, and context of Mizoram. Hnamte, the artist and the child, distinctively formulates an identity as a cultured minority engaged in flag-waving indistinctively as the other children in the background tune to the song. In between the verses and the chorus, a slight transition quickly displays the landscape of the hills (for example, between 1:17-1:19), followed by the hilly terrains displaying embryonic conditions which form into the periphery of the Indian union. One can also see the men and women in their traditional costume which is a telling as a part of show casting their identity. More importantly, analysed in the music video is the dimension of showing that this is a form of ‘possible’ solidarity.

Intertextuality

Table 1. Composition of signs

Signifier

Signified

National flag

Symbolic signifier

It signifies a deep meaning of nationalism, patriotism, and belongingness to India. 

 

National flag and traditionally dressed children.

Symbolic signifier

For example: Children, who belong to subaltern groups, conform and imbibe the ‘national’ ideals, values, belief, to represent acceptance of ‘Indianness’. Both of these signifiers have to be decoded in manners where the symbolic turn manifests here. 

 

Hills landscape: mountains, riverscape, etc.

Index signifier

The hills as peripheries form part of the geographical landscape of India,  across the vast, diverse, and heterogenous Indian population.

                                                

National song

Symbolic Signifier

The national song sung by hill people is a message about the subalterns’ (here mizo) ‘conformity’ to Indianness.

  The table shows that two types of signifiers are used, i.e., the index and symbolic signifiers. On the intertextual configuration, the national flag, traditionally dressed children taking part in flag-waving, and the lyrics are pure examples of symbolic signifiers. The index signifiers include the hill landscape, as it finds itself fitting with other signs into the music video timeline. These should be located with the socio-cultural, political, and historical contexts. The question now is to find out how is simulacra of solidarity produced with the signifiers? It is produced at two levels: firstly, the hill landscapes as index signifiers blend well with the lyrics. Some of the lines go as “I’ve seen the entire world, but there’s no one like you, I took time to travel through the world, But there’s no one like you… Your face is the most beautiful, Your love is the most adorable…” An attempt to introduce the landscape of Northeast India in general and Mizoram, in particular, is envisaged here. The signs show an attempt to be regarded as distinct, rather than to be excluded, in an exclusive majoritarian state. Recapturing the concept of solidarity described earlier, this index signifier holds a vital ground in capturing intertextual configurations, i.e., to create a common ground of existence by exposing the beauty of ‘India’ through signs. The index signifier customises a kind of solidarity that tries to blend in within the interest of the majoritarian nation state. The intertextual nature of the lyrics as a signifier in this context only makes possible meaning to be produced out of the signs. In real life, a hill station would signify ‘something’ else. Nevertheless, in a music video highly sensationalised with nationalistic feelings, these signs constitute their own meaning. A hilly geo-political landscape composes itself as a new signifier, and the lyrics find their own intertextual companion.  

Image 1: Index signifier: Blending infrastructural elements with hills landscape as signifiers in the music video


Image 2: Index signifier: Snippet of the hills from the music video

Image 3: Representation of the traditional dance through symbolic signifiers.

Image 4: The virtual play of signs between the subaltern social and cultural position in relation to the mainstream nationalism.

No signs are innocent in the music video. In the second analysis, the symbolic signifiers such as the national flag, blended with the children clothed in traditional costume, produce the vision that the multi-ethnic country can be in solidarity. Just as the index signifier constructs simulated solidarity in line with the idea of mutual co-existence, the symbolic signifiers also correspond to the ideal solidarity whose achievement may lead to social order. By solidarity we mean the de-centering from the system of shared histories, beliefs, ideas, and values and moving close to the set of multiplicities that binds people together. The symbolic signifiers are instead seen as producing the signs of solidarity but of simulated solidarity. This simulated solidarity suggests that to achieve solidarity, minorities should give up their cultural forms, beliefs, and identities as they are formally assimilated. As mentioned earlier, this has to be located with their social, historical, and political struggles against the Indian government. The signifiers in the music video produced conforms to the dominant discourse, which seems to be the only means of substantializing solidarity. The context of the music video seems to suggest that cultural assimilation is the only means of achieving solidarity, which is normalised in the music video. This is the system of channeling the majoritarian hegemonic scheme of assimilating the Northeast (in a larger context). It reaffirms that the majoritarian narratives and discourses are the dominant factor that cannot be distorted, while the minorities’ are distortable. This brief analysis has one thing in common, the submission of the subaltern’s identities to the larger Indian interest. One can see that the Mizo’s are Indianised. A serious distortion of solidarity as it diverts from the possibilities of heterogeneity.  It creates a kind of solidarity that does not exist in the real. It is so real that it deflects from the fundamental categories of what a solidarity practically should be. The signifier and the signified stands ultimately on the social and cultural prefix that lays the ground for the hyperreal to be constituted. The terrifying aspect is that the simulated solidarity seems to be an ideal form of solidarity, which only a close reading can tell how it is not so.

     The intertextuality of the texts in the music video shows that the reading of the texts are subject to its relation to other signs (Fiske 1988). The hill landscapes do not hold significant meaning if produced alone. It derives new meaning when it is produced along with the national song. Likewise, the traditional costume in a cultural sense denotes a particular form of association only with traditional cultures. However, when the texts intersect with the national song or the lyrical condensation, it constructs a form of meaning that juxtaposes with the existing idea of what traditional costume means. These meanings are acquired only when traditional minority culture intersects with the larger mainstream idea of what nationalism is.  

Death of solidarity?

Barthes (1977) argues about the death of the author as critical of the intense interpretation by the readers that no longer attributes to the author’s code of production. However, scholars such as Foucault (1984), Eco (1990), etc., have criticised that Barthes has overemphasised the role of the readers. In this context, similarly, how does simulation cause the death of solidarity? By death of solidarity, I do not imply that solidarity no longer exists in the social world. I instead attempt to argue that media constitute such possibilities of distorting what solidarity looks like, as it creates its frame of solidarity. Hence, the reference or origin loses its significance, as it gradually withers away. The death of solidarity in this manner, as a complex, structurally organised and subjectively ‘solitary’ world, further proliferates a possible world full of complexities with a distorted frame of what ‘solidarity’ essentially is. It is not the practical death of solidarity, but the power of media to distort the meaning of solidarity, that the true essence of solidarity is blurred. In this paper, death may be understood as the act of simulation to feign, and distort the contours of the real signs of social order. Just as Nietzsche’s “God is dead” was never about the actual death of God, but about God no longer occupying the centre of the system of philosophy which Nietzsche is rejecting (Foucault 1984), the concern of the paper is rather about how a distorted prospect of solidarity is born out of the media. Furthermore, how this simulated solidarity contradict the fundamental frame of solidarity that is keen for social bonding, that does not distinguish, divide, or subsume people in any configurations. I have discussed that solidarity is a collective consciousness that perpetuates across communities, people, who share the same culture, experiences, history, and constitute an emotionally and normatively motivated readiness for mutual support.13 Solidarity also is relational (i.e., it resides between group members); it assumes the existence of a collective; it is an individually-embodied feeling that is nevertheless shared among group members; and it motivates action. The data analysed however shows that the signs discursively hold onto the dominant discourse, where a group, to fit into the existing social order, has to submit, tease out its layers, and be assimilated to the extent that it loses its own identity partly, if not its totality.  Investigating how the media simulates solidarity so normatively real and synchronous that it is not distinguishable from the real shows that the signifier and the signified contextual relations and its intertextuality re-mystify what is and what is not solidarity. The signifiers’ culpable antagonistic frame mystifies the objective criterion and the possibilities of a possible claim for a collective order and performance that no longer exhibit the real. Solidarity dies with the signs, for it lost its practical value, its use-value in Baudrillard’s (1981) sense. If the simulacra produce symptoms of ‘social solidarity’, then arguing from Baudrillard’s (1983) point of view, it can no longer be accepted as a fact of nature, which suggests that forms of ‘solidarity’ may be considered as possible to be simulated. The signs feed reality, about what solidarity is, how solidarity should be, which seems to exist as the real, but is in itself the imaginary.   

Conclusion

It is worth reminding that the music video is produced from Mizoram, awakening a new propagandistic nationalism that allures the desired form of solidarity. The idea of the nation has been staged where assimilation, rather than multiplicities, seems to be the way out for social bonding. The paper shows how any social phenomena must be situated locally to understand the national and global context, rather than establishing meta- or grand-narrative in its totality. The irony thus is how the subaltern are put in a position to brand the nation to fit into the mainstream, and assert their Indianness. It should not be misunderstood that the analysis is anti-solidarity.

At the theoretical realm, one thing can indeed be concluded from the paper: the simulacra conceals the fact that there exists no solidarity, hence it feigns what it hasn’t: it feigns to have solidarity. Through simulation, there is a process of corrupting the notion of ‘solidarity’ against its conventional application and understanding in the age of the hyperreal. As in the case of this study, the music video can turn out to be shallow postmodern strings without connection or centre concerning the play of signifiers within the narrative. It also consists of an intricate pattern of representational and non-representational signs. It should also be mentioned that the signs hide the real, history of the northeastern hill population, the mizo struggles, the majoritarian dominance, etc. The signifiers ensure that the signs encroached towards a calculated entrenchment of the majoritarian divide, converting it into a mild and subtle confrontation to be assimilated to the larger culture. Sign plays a decisive role, no doubt. The intertextuality of signs ensures the possibility of hijacking the real through simulation. The signs play with the consciousness, but the substantialization of the simulated solidarity does not seem to be a concern. A mere simulation of solidarity, or at least an attempt to, through interpellated signs, catches the attention more than its practical formulation. Thus, the signifier is considered as the form rather than content (Pawlett 2010, 197). As the signifiers are taken into consideration seriously, instead of formulating what use value it propagates concerning the existence of social bonding in the society, its index and symbolic reference to what it presented blurs the line, of truth, of the epistemological concern relating to its projection of knowledge that behest the majoritarian discourse. There is no direct relation between the signifier and the signified. However, the context of the music video, its intertextual configuration and properties make possible the construction of a notion about social bonding only to discern that it is the signs that killed solidarity, rather than producing it.

The paper does not look at the users’ or audiences’ code of interpretation as its primary concern is to demystify the signs. However, a comprehensive analysis of both the music video and the users’ interpretation is suggestible for further research.

 

About the Author

Suanmuanlian Tonsing is a doctoral student at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems (CSSS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), India. His research interests include anthropology of state, digital anthropology, media and communications, cultural studies, sociology of body, and ethnicity. 

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