The proof of details

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © AbdouMaliq Simone. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.3.014


The proof of details

AbdouMaliq SIMONE, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity

Comment on Obarrio, Juan. 2014. The spirit of the laws in Mozambique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Prelude: A premise of collective life

Once in a dispute over a purported theft, I stupidly called a shop owner in Fez a munafiq—a disbeliever. This resulted in the police being called and a subsequent appearance in a court as Moroccan law deems all of its citizens to be believers regardless of whether they consider themselves to be so or not, and reserves only for itself the right to question that status. Such questioning, if it ever takes place, is never a matter of construing from a person’s actions evidence deemed contrary to that of being a believer. In fact, in the law, being a believer or not is a matter of intent, not evidence; it is something beyond proof. Thus the infraction was not a matter of defaming a person who enacts his or her belief but rather of making a statement that before the law could not be made, not as a transgression but as impossibility.

For even if the state of believing necessitates its opposite, and even if the Quran warns against the state of unbelieving, Moroccan law protects against this possibility by rendering it impossible. My attribution of the shop owner being a munafiq was thus not a violation of his rights, not a denigration of his status, but inflicting a violence that rendered his entire existence impossible. The power of the law here is to preclude something from being brought into existence by making existent a particular state as impossible. Fortunately reconciliation took place outside of the law in an urban context where people jokingly called each other munafiq all of the time.

So in some sense the law here points to the construction of a void, or a process of voiding. The state creates a right for itself that can never really be applied, and if it had proceeded with “the case” would have done so on the basis of judging, not my actions per se, but whether or not they usurped the state’s right to render what [252]was implied as impossible. It was a matter of my coming before the law because my act could be construed as my coming before law, as if the law has existence prior to anything else.

In Juan Obarrio’s analyses of the law in the Mozambican postcolony, the law invents sentences that it cannot finish and it reserves for itself the possibility of ellipsis and incompletion while it offers itself as that which is able to tie things up— all of the loose ends, all of the bits and pieces of deliberation, negotiations within a coherent state of things. It creates a state of its own impossibility through which it is able to “recede into society”—reach into the variegated details of everyday differences and “turn them around,” or, at least, turn them toward a consideration of themselves in the presence of something that exceeds them, even if this is largely absent, or impossible.

Expendability and jurisdictions

In much of the world, collective life has become a remnant, a string of inflated solidarities, provisional congregations, and reiterations of facile parochialism. Constituencies may come to the fore through political demands and negotiations but they too often live through ratios of apportionment—experiencing and comparing themselves as one of many recipients of services and access. At the same time there seems to be general recognition that individuals cannot go it alone, no matter their proficiency in refashioning themselves. The irony is that the possibilities of alliance—the intersection and coming together of people, things, and places—seem to multiply exponentially, despite the absence of official recognition, readily available vernaculars, and means of assessing potential outcomes. In the interstices of intensified individuation and the potentials of multiple collectivities, it is still important to consider how people stand before and with the law. Even though these positions—before and with—designate different modes of judgment, interrogation, and affiliation—they both convey fixity of orientation and the possibilities of recourse, even as the law finds its constitutive moments in the murkiness of disorientation and the forces unleashed through subsequent collisions.

Obarrio’s detailed examination of the restructuring of Mozambican society through the technology of the law is an invaluable tool to think about the generalization of expendability and the increasingly arbitrary character of life trajectories. This is technology that sutures disjunctive times, invents space for the operation of a state increasingly groundless in its own convictions and choreographed by transnational interventions, yet able to recuperate the form of past subjections, that it once existed to undo, as a means of instantiating itself across contested jurisdictions.

Obarrio’s ethnography is primarily located at the fuzzy interfaces of the concrete city and the mud-thatch urban periphery. No matter how much the law attempts to found or order territorial boundaries, to subsume rough-and-tumble socialities within the codes of exchange and formatted calculation, the urban at these interfaces generates evidence of something at the same time before, aside, and within the law that cannot be definitively scaled or embodied by particular formats.[253]

Indeed, in a region ravished by material destitution and scarcity . . . unfinished, interrupted projects (government, local, personal) linger on and preside over these decaying spaces, these eroded memories and corroded socialities, yet they are also entangled within many minor, emergent processes, within a life unfolding as a constantly deferred circuit of unpaid debts . . . (and so) conflict resolution amounts to the submission of “life” not to the court of law but, on the contrary, to very materialization of the law by that “life,” which is the source from which it extracts its legal force. (Obarrio 2014: 199–202)

For the conundrum of the law is that it is not crystalized into a coherent territory or set of functions but instantiates itself in the interstices of disparate intersections as a hinge, suturing objects to a specific locus of perception, to a series of apertures through which they can garner a sense of belonging and identity. Bodies to place, land to bodies, built environments to land, infrastructure to deliveries, deliveries to livelihoods.

But this suturing process is all the more problematic as people live in the midst of an increasingly large volume of stories, populations, symbols, and energies. If the present requires an order to render things as more or less past (Garcia 2014), more or less present as objects to be paid attention to, taken into consideration, then the increasingly urbanized “now” does not seem to know how to “let things go.” Urban life is inundated with things to pay attention to, things that are potentially relevant for the ability of inhabitants to organize their lives (Smith and Hetherington 2013).

How does one decide what to pay attention to, what to ignore, what is relevant, and what is not? These become increasingly arbitrary decisions, and so much of what remains of collective life congeals through a process of hesitation, of trying not to stand out too much even as the exigency to constitute oneself as a niche economic activity—as something singular and worth paying attention to intensifies. It becomes difficult to complete whole sentences, string together coherent narratives.

The disposition of efforts appears all the more precarious—what and who decides whether any effort at self-attainment or management will be successful increasingly appears to be an arbitrary matter. This motivates the demand for accountability and transparency that the law seems to promise—an even playing field, a series of clear rules of the game. All of the opacities, deal making, multiple sovereignties, and confusions as to what things really are that characterize the contemporary urban polity are to be “cleaned up” through new sets of urban law and policy.

The impact of various public rhetoric about rights to the city and strivings for equity and fairness are substantially diminished in the face of this hyperattentiveness of residents of all backgrounds to what appears to be the heightened arbitrariness of who makes it and who doesn’t. The language of deliverance and better lives has long dissipated into the staccato observations of hip-hop phrases and the need to see the evidence itself, to burrow down to the “real deal”—deliver the money, deliver the bodies. It is no wonder that many residents internalize their own expendability and that of others.

But as Obarrio forcefully elaborates, the law requires jurisdiction—a space to operate and on which to be applied; it requires “a temporalization that connects the different spatial localities, materializing history” (2014: 118). Does this creation of [254]jurisdiction then provide the possibility of orientation and anchorage, a sense of belonging that lessens this sense of expendability? Here it is important to keep in mind that cities throughout the Global South largely worked, not to the extent to which they constructed a particular kind of person, inhabitant, citizen, but rather the way in which everyday practices availed spatially and materially heterogeneous environments with densities.

These densities not only involved those of bodies but also ways of doing things and a wide range of technical devices that put things into a plurality of different relationships—with different scope, degrees of visibility, and duration. The sheer diversity of the overall built environment and the activities that took place within it, and in close proximity to each other, precipitated discussions, compensations, repairs, alliances, trade-offs, and short-term pooling of information, contacts, and resources that supplemented official income and earnings. At the same time, the composition of the built environment reiterated a sense of separateness among residents, the unavailability of any overarching reference point of easy commonality and, as such, these were localities of fractures that necessitated the constant reworking of lines of articulation (Benjamin 2008; Sundaram 2009; Perlman 2010; Chattopadhyay 2012; Dovey 2014). As Obarrio puts it, “the local in all of its multiple dissemination interrupts the law” (2014: 117).

Sifting through the shards of collective life

Still the making expendable of people and populations remains a predominant means of capital accumulation, reinforcing a desire for the law, even as the law is deployed as an instrument to dispossess those without formal employment, land title, or status. A disposable population is constituted not only to provide flexible labor for mobile and eventually transient capital investment but also to leverage the state’s access to enjoining the game of financial speculation.

Here a disposable population is bundled in aggregate as that which can be offered as “wholesale life commodities” offered in advance through a state’s compliance with austerity measures, structural adjustment, debt repayment, and budget cuts in health, education, and social services (Tadiar 2013). “Put another way, the seemingly limitless resource that is the future (as part of the seeming limitlessness of life itself) is in actuality the lives of people whose own futures are offered up as exchange values extractable in the present” (Obarrio 2014: 30). Households have begun to compensate for the stagnation of real wages by financing necessary housing, food, transport, mobility, health, and education through credit (debt), with enormous effects and yet more deductions from wages, along with an increase in the social disciplinary mechanisms that come with the need for debt reduction.

It is difficult to envision how the law will restore a viable social body under such circumstances—especially laws and policies that attempt to specify all of the rights to the city, as well as the right of the city itself to endure through all of the threats that social divisions, greenhouse emissions, and debilitating ecological footprints pose to its coherence. As Claire Colebrook (2012) has incisively argued, aspirations for a more organic attachment, one which downplays the centrality of human design as an overarching force in service of a more measured distribution of value [253]across many different things, living and nonliving, is always already infected by a violence that erases the specificity of everyday conditions in terms of a notion of life or the world in general. Getting beyond the condition where humans have such a hard time considering their own detachment and malevolence in relationship to an earth they continue to see as an environment for them always occurs through imagining some higher sense of “we,” some greater collective good.

Thus Colebrook argues, “any ecological movement that aimed to vanquish man (as some accident that befell life) and did so in the name of a proper organic whole of life to which man ought to return would be another subjectivism (life or nature as an organizing ground)” (2012: 197). For the ways we have of considering the detriments of human detachment from the ecological relations—from the world— are the same as that which enabled humans to distance themselves from their own destruction.

Given this, a certain detachment from convictions that the virtuous is restored through recognizing our proper place within complex ecologies or jurisdictions may be necessary in order to fully appreciate the ways in which cities are full of many different kinds of forces that do not necessarily rule out the ability of people to stay in place but that require such stability to be a function of circular dispersals and returns, of constant exiting and reentering through side doors. In other words, emplacement is a matter of constant recalibration, of ducking and diving, and riding waves, and not insisting upon particular grounds of propriety, property, or entrenchment. Perhaps the chest containing all the weird assortment of evidentiary materials in Obarrio’s otherwise barren community courtroom is the real archive for these efforts—a chest that comes before the law, because of the law, but whose potential narratives concealed within will outlast the law.

While residents across the postcolony certainly desire some recourse to planning and decision-making processes that make sense to them, that posits an atmosphere of stability through which they can reasonably anticipate what the immediate future holds and then plan accordingly, the ability of government to constitute such stability does not inhere in the apparent solidity of its own sense-making. Rather, it is more a problem of performance. In other words, the ability of those who govern to take the heterogeneous elements and knowledge they work with to convey a persuasive connection between actions such as taxation, democratic procedure, land regulation, and budget allocations—to just cite a few—and make them indeed seem connected to each other.

Such a performance of reasonableness provides an workable image of assurance that those who share a common residency in particular governmental jurisdictions are somehow then themselves connected to each other beyond the efforts they make, either as individuals or collectives, to constitute themselves as living “in the same boat.” But there is nothing definitive about urban government that necessitates a clear sense of normative procedure nor that requires “effective” government to be in place in order for residents to themselves, albeit within limits, create viable platforms for their existence, using some of the very same knowledge that government usually reserves for itself.

After all, the details of what residents do with each other belongs to them, not just as a reflection of what takes place when they act but as components for making their own conclusions about what is possible or not. It is these details that are [256]the real stuff of the law of the community courts in Northern Mozambique. They are the entry point into any application of the law but also something that endures beyond the law’s interpretation of them—as litigants continue to pile up in front of the ramshackle chambers week in and week out. Government agencies and other large institutions may have the capacity to aggregate these details—provided they are paying attention—into specific overall patterns, which then inform planning and budgetary decisions. Yet, both formal and informal mechanisms of working with these details within localities themselves are critical aspects of governance, as the details always slip out of easy assemblage and even view. How these details can be made known, visualized, and accessed are matters of continuous inventive political practice, no matter the law.


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AbdouMaliq Simone
Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity
Herman-Foege-Weg 11
Göttigen, Germany 37073