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Putting the Ontological Back into Ontological Security

Meredydd Rix

2. Ontological Security and Chaos

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1The central project of literature on ontological security, and late modernity more generally, is the negotiation of chaos and radical uncertainty. Radical uncertainty is the uncertainty that occurs when the ability to provide order and sense to the world is fundamentally challenged. It is at the centre of cognition and action, for both are dependent on an ordering that makes the underlying chaos of our existence intelligible and actionable. It is in this sense that radical uncertainty is of an ontological nature, as we no longer know what it means to be.

  • 1 Interestingly, late modernity has not featured centrally in ontological security in IR. Thus, the e (...)

2Ontological security has grown out of the research agenda of late modernity and the risk society, where self and society increasingly become the subject of reflexivity (Beck, Giddens and Lash, 1994).1 This means that we are increasingly conscious of our selfhood and that our actions and notions of identity are the conscious product of reflection. In late modernity, many of the ‘certainties’ that anchored the social and the self appear increasingly fragile or non-existent. The self and society direct their attention to the process of their own production as a consequence of the destabilisation of social relations and identities (Giddens, 1990).

3Giddens’ claim is that, in the late modern era, tradition and culture have lost their salience, giving rise to an increasingly self-reflexive individual. With the destabilisation of tradition, the rigid options of self-identity give way to a situation where “we have no choice but to choose how to be and how to act” (Giddens, 1994: 75). Reflexivity takes on a new centrality in a world disembedded from the structures of the past. Giddens sees this process as defined both by radical possibility and by the potential for anxiety – or rather ontological insecurity – as the self loses the certainties that are seen to define the traditional. Disembedded from societal narratives of self and identity, the reflexive self has the challenge of creating identity certainty for itself, through the use of narratives about one’s self. Thus, “the reflexive project of the self, which consists in the sustaining of coherent, yet continuously revised, biographical narratives, takes place in the context of multiple choice” (Giddens, 1991: 6).

4Giddens argues that the self is produced in early childhood when we come to perceive a distinction between an external world and ourselves. This is similar to Mead’s (1934: 247) symbolic interactionist notion of the self, where the self only comes into view when we see the self as an object. For Giddens, the period of early childhood is also a period where the identity of the self is grounded in a sense of ‘basic trust’ that emerges from the parental relation. This basic trust is “directly linked to achieving an early sense of ontological security” (Giddens, 1991: 4). The loss of tradition that marks late modernity results in a challenge to basic trust, and more generally to the certainties that ground our sense of ‘being’, introducing the ever-present potential of ontological insecurity. ‘Ontological security’ is a concept adapted by Giddens from the psychoanalytic work of Laing (1960). Normally,

The individual ... may experience his own being as real, alive, whole; as differentiated from the rest of the world in ordinary circumstances so clearly that his identity and autonomy are never in question; as a continuum in time; as having an inner consistency, substantiality, genuineness, and worth; as spatially coextensive with the body; and, usually, as having begun in or around birth and liable to extinction with death. He thus has a firm core of ontological security. (Laing, 1960: 41-42)

5Ontological security thus comes from a sense of ourselves as autonomous and unitary, as possessing a sense of inner presence: a core. When this sense breaks down, we become ontologically insecure. For Giddens, ontological security is maintained by creating narratives that ground a sense of identity and impart a sense of temporal continuity and internal coherence. In IR, most of the literature on ontological security has also focused on narrative as a way of producing certainty about ourselves and the world. Narratives about ourselves produce a sense of ‘self-identity’ that generates certainty. The implication is that when these narratives break down or become untenable, we are faced with radical uncertainty. This has been looked at from various angles, from feelings of shame emerging from the inability to reconcile one’s actions with one’s sense of identity (Steele, 2008; Browning, 2018), to a lack of fixity as a consequence of rapid change (Kinnvall, 2006), to an inability to integrate external events into our systems of knowing (Chernobrov, 2016).

6Like these studies I also take radical uncertainty as my central focus, but I do not foreground narrative and identity. Instead, I look at the radical uncertainty that derives from indeterminacy. Indeterminacy is that condition of not being able to make a judgement as to the value or meaning of something: the inability to code a given phenomenon. This uncodability gets to the heart of radical uncertainty; without determinacy the world is amorphous, unknowable and unthinkable. Determinacy is the foundation of an order; it institutes a way of organising chaos that makes the world coherent and actionable. In this way, it provides the building-blocks of an ontological framework. When the self becomes uncodable – when the self is the phenomenon that cannot be determined – we have what could properly be described as ontological insecurity; an insecurity about the nature of being.

2.1 What Is ‘Ontological’ about Ontological Security?

7The theory of ontological security that Giddens develops takes the individual as the unit of analysis. Work on ontological security in IR has been split by those that take the state or nation (Mitzen, 2006; Steele, 2008; Chernobrov, 2016), and those that take the individual as the unit of analysis (Kinnvall, 2006; Browning, 2018). I take the nation as my unit, recognising of course that the nation is a product of nationalism and that it comes to mean different things in different forms of nationalism. Fundamentally, while the content of nationalism may be different, the form – with its mobilisation of history, its affiliation to a (desired) ‘national’ state, its position as the centre of political contestation, and its sense of ontic reality – remains consistent.

  • 2 This does not imply a natural or foundational essence, but that there is something that enables us (...)

8We can talk of a national self to the extent that the nation is psychologically real for its members, and that in representing the ‘nation’ as an entity, it is accorded an ontological status. To be able to see ourselves we need to objectify ourselves – to see our self as an object. This objectification imparts a coherence and an essence. Essence is therefore implied in the notion of the self.2 Moreover, to be able to ‘biograph’ ourselves (the focus of ontological security scholars), we need to take a similar position outside the self to interpret a trajectory and a coherence. In doing so, we also come to implicitly objectify ourselves. Selfhood therefore relies on the belief in and tacit understanding that there is something that makes us, us. The same can be said for the nation, whose object-ness accords it an implicit metaphysics. The inability to code Bangladeshis and Indians undermines the object-ness of the national self. It is an inability to see the self from the outside as a coherent whole; the boundary between inside and outside, self and not-self evaporates. There is thus a loss of selfhood. National indeterminacy suggests that the self does not meaningfully exist. If the categories of self and not-self implode, the self in its objectivity and metaphysical presence is fatally challenged.

9Ontological insecurity is the inability to experience oneself as a “real, alive whole” (Laing, 1960: 39). In theories of ontological security to date, we are ontologically insecure when we no longer know who we are, and when our identity no longer feels fixed or certain (Kinnvall et al., 2018). Ontological security therefore resides “in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going” (Giddens, 1991: 54). Ontological insecurity in this sense, threatens a particular notion of self-identity. The inability to integrate our actions with identity (Steele, 2008; Browning, 2018), the inability to fit the actions of others into our narratives (Chernobrov, 2016), and the increasing sense that our identities are no longer fixed or rooted (Kinnvall, 2006) can all be sources of ontological insecurity. In much of the literature it is hard to differentiate identity from ontology. At best, identity is shown to provide a sense of ontology by making the world and our place in it recognisable and actionable, but more often ontology is not explicitly engaged with. This is in part a result of the intellectual heritage of the concept, in psychoanalysis and psychology, and in part a result of the conflation of self and identity, or the reduction of the former to the latter.

10This reduction is obvious in Giddens’ work, where the concepts are often hyphenated as ‘self-identity’. What self adds to identity here, is not always clear. This potential to conflate identity and self in the literature has also been noted by Browning and Joenniemi (2016) though to different ends. They argue that “identities and selves are presented as largely inter-changeable terms. Insofar as a distinction is made, selves figure merely as a reflection of identities” (Browning and Joenniemi, 2016: 4). They then argue that the pursuit of ontological security has become indistinguishable from the pursuit of identity preservation, and that, in this form, it is hard to see the added value to existing literatures on identity. Their interest is in developing the notion of reflexivity central to Giddens’ work, and focusing on how the adaptability of identity gives distinct analytical purchase beyond existing work on identity security. Others such as Rossdale (2015) and Mälksoo (2015) have also noted the inherent ethical difficulty in ‘ontologising’ identity security, and suggest that ontological security should not be reduced to justifying securitisation. Implicit in this argument is also the common reduction of ‘ontological security’ to ‘identity security’.

11I concur, but instead of looking at the potential of reflexivity and adaptability, I seek to make a different point, and to do so I take as my starting point the difference Giddens (1991: 48) notes between ontological awareness and self-identity (explored in the next section). I want to focus on what happens, when it becomes hard to maintain not consistency of who we are, but rather consistency of the fact that we are – in other words, I am interested not so much in a loss of identity but in a loss of selfhood. I do not deny that identity and notions of ‘who we are’ play a key function in the production of ontology (an understanding of being), but for ontological security to say substantially more than literature on identity security, the concepts of ontology and self have to be able to work independently of identity.

12Recently, there has been an increased focus in the literature on Lacanian thought and its potential to offer a different perspective on ontological security. Eberle (2019), Kinnvall (2019), Vieira (2018) and Solomon (2015) are among those to have developed these ideas, though they echo earlier work, particularly by Zizek (e.g. 1993, also Glynos and Stavrakakis, 2008). Following Lacan, they argue that subjectivity is constituted by a sense of lack because the unconscious is fundamentally external to the individual (as language and the ‘symbolic order’). This elementary lack is constitutive of fantasy relations towards various ‘things’ (objet petit a) that, once (re)attained, will supposedly restore our sense of wholeness and coherence (Lacan, 1988). Preventing us from attaining this ‘thing’ is usually some ‘other’. Kinnvall (2019) looks at the construction of Muslims as the other that supposedly deprives Hindutvavadis of their present-day Ram Rajya. Vieira (2018) takes a different approach, re-reading Lacan’s mirror-stage and arguing that the West comes to figure as the archetype of wholeness in relation to an inherent lack felt by postcolonial societies (drawing on Bhabha’s [1984] work on mimicry, also informed by Lacan).

13While I find this turn to Lacanianism a useful way of theorising international relations, I have a number of reservations regarding its relationship to ontological security. Firstly, I wonder whether a Lacanian approach is incommensurable with Giddens’ research agenda, given the ahistorical nature of ‘lack’ which would seemingly go against Giddens’ notion that there has been a distinct change to the subject in ‘late modernity’. More importantly however, I am uncertain what the term ‘ontological security’ adds to Lacanian theory. If the answer is that it is a one-way street, if Lacan’s theory gives a satisfactory account of anxiety over being, has ontological security dug its own grave? It is not clear to me that recent contributions have done much more than argue with Lacan, just with the addition of the words ‘ontological security’. Ontological security should add something to Lacanianism, or it should accept that it cannot and is perhaps therefore defunct, or it should argue that the focus on ontological security offers something different. Here, I attempt to present an account of ontological insecurity that I hope goes some way to doing the latter.

14Importantly though, many of the studies that take a Lacanian approach, also reduce selfhood to identity. The ‘thing’ is seen to be the essence of an identity (Finlayson, 1998) that is denied or perverted by the threat of an other that deprives the self of this coherence/essence. Actions to remove or counter this other that steals our thing, are therefore read as actions that seek to secure, in its coherence, a particular essence (see also Kinnvall, 2014: 324). Although an other is not a prerequisite in Lacanian psychoanalysis, most studies of nationalism and identity have focused on one. There is therefore a similar focus on identity and its securitisation though greater attention is paid in linking this securitisation to the production of the subject. While identity and identification are undeniably important, I am trying to argue that ontology – a sense of beingness – is not merely a function of identity and attempted identification.

15To have ontological status – to have a sense of being – is not synonymous with having a sense of identity. In the case of India apropos Bangladesh, what is in question is not merely Indian identity, but rather the coherence of India as an entity accorded ontological status. The question that the Bangladeshi induces is not ‘who am I?’ but rather ‘am I?’. It concerns the ability to think of the nation as something. For something to be ontological it should concern the nature of being and existence; to be ontologically insecure should be to cast the nature of being and existence into doubt. Challenges to an identity, feelings of shame, or a sense of ‘homelessness’ (Kinnvall, 2006) are not obviously of this nature. Certainly, one could conceive that at an extreme level, such feelings could undermine our sense of being, but how one draws the line is not clear. It should be remembered that Laing’s (1960) original concept of ontological insecurity was developed to understand the experience of schizophrenia. Needless to say, schizophrenia is quite different to shame.

2.2 Putting the Ontological Back into Ontological Security

16The history of the sub-field of ontological security in IR is well rehearsed, travelling from Laing, via Giddens into IR, manifesting in a first generation of literature split by Kinnvall’s psychosocial focus on the individual (2006) and Mitzen (2006), Steele (2008) and Zarakol’s (2010) focus on states and nations. This research and its divergence have formed the basis for most of the research of the last decade and a half. Despite differences, ontological security has largely maintained close links with Giddensian sociology, particularly his (1991) analysis of self-identity. Yet, as rehearsed as this history may be, it works to sideline and deny those divergences and moments of discontinuity that have characterised the study of ontological security. The first attempt to theorise ontological security in the context of international politics was self-consciously non-Giddensian.

17Huysmans’ (1998) article is important in critical security studies (CSS) for its reframing of security as a ‘thick signifier’: the argument that the naming of a situation as a ‘security’ issue is not merely descriptive, but organises social relations in the process. This point has been well taken in CSS and ontological security more specifically (particularly since Rossdale’s [2015] critique). Yet Huysmans’ article was also the first to introduce ontological security to international relations and was careful to distance the term from its hitherto Giddensian roots. Huysmans introduced ontological security against the backdrop of death and indeterminacy, which could be read as an extension of the Giddensian theme of late modernity. However, Huysmans was referencing quite a different scholarship, and taking the notion of death and its securitisation in a different direction. Huysmans (1991: 251) takes death as Baudrillard understands it, as the point at which the meaning of the subject and of value is obliterated. “Death ought never to be understood as the real event that affects a subject or a body, but as a form in which the determinacy of the subject and of value is lost” (Baudrillard, 1993: 5). The indeterminacy that Huysmans talks of is not synonymous with the ‘chaos of risk’, rather it is in the Baudrillardian sense that it is meant, of symbolic death – the death of meaning, and of a system of differences (life and death being a founding one). Security in this context is a process through which meaning is created and maintained, and the indeterminacy of signification/meaning is obscured by a focus on concretised danger.

18The challenge of indeterminacy “concerns not a challenge to an order but to the possibility of the activity of ordering itself” (Huysmans, 1998: 241). Huysmans draws heavily on Bauman (1990, 1991) in his evocation of the stranger of Simmellian fame. The stranger is that which is neither friend nor enemy, inside nor out, neither part of the self nor part of the other; something that exceeds the given categorisation, and instead is characterised by a sense of ‘strangeness’. Unlike the figure of the enemy that challenges a particular order, the figure of the stranger challenges the very possibility of ordering. For Huysmans, ontological insecurity is the feeling of indeterminacy and chaos that results from a challenge to the possibility of ordering. Interestingly, this problematic has seldom featured in the ensuing literature on ontological security. Instead, the unrelentingly post-structural and post-modern approach has given way to a socio-psychological frame that has fundamentally reinterpreted the nature of ontology and security, back towards its Giddensian roots.

19While Huysmans was the first to theorise the ontological insecurity deriving from indeterminacy, his article did not explore this any further, or with any empirical focus. No subsequent work has taken the idea of indeterminacy and ontological security further. Moreover, arguably he did not take indeterminacy as far as he could. The example of the ‘stranger’ that Huysmans and Bauman give is that of Jews in 20th-century European society. My understanding of indeterminacy is somewhat different to theirs. Bauman (1991: 85) writes:

[Jews] were the ultimate incongruity - a nonnational nation. Their strangeness was not confined to any particular place; they were universal strangers. They were not visitors from another country, as there was no such ‘another country’ - indeed, no country where they could claim not to be visitors or strangers. The Jews were ‘strangehood incarnated’, the eternal wanderers, the epitomy of nonterritoriality, the very essence of homelessness and absence of roots; an unexorcizable spectre of conventionality in the house of the absolute, of a nomadic past in the era of settlement.

20The challenge constituted by Jews, as presented by Bauman, is a challenge to the order of nationhood to the extent that they have no ‘nation’ or at least that they have no nation-state, and that, while German or Czech (etc.), they remain at the margins of the German and Czech nations. To what extent this is a challenge to nationhood as an ontological framework is dubious though, as Jews were still seen as a ‘nation’ in Bauman’s terms, albeit a ‘homeless’ one. Jews are therefore problematic because they problematised belonging and the boundaries of a nation. Nonetheless, as ‘strangers’ they are recognisable as such. They are codable to the extent that they are identifiable, even in their attempts to assimilate. Bauman (1991: 86, quoting Robert) goes on:

at home the young Jews of Prague lived, thought, and wrote like Germans apparently resembling other Germans, but outside of their neighbourhoods no one was deceived, the ‘others’ recognized them instantly by their faces, their manners, their accent.

21They are therefore not indeterminate in the sense of being uncodable, they are indeterminate to the extent that they are neither of the inside nor of the outside. They have a ‘strange’ quality that unsettles the division between friend and enemy that Bauman (1990: 153) argues is the defining function of the nation-state. They refuse (or are refused) the supposed universality and ‘horizonal comradeship’ that is seen to define the national domestic (Bauman, 1990; Anderson, 1983). In Bauman’s (1990: 145) account then, the stranger is indeterminate because he “is neither friend nor enemy; and because he may be both. And because we do not know, and have no way of knowing, which is the case”.

22On the contrary, I would argue that it is precisely in those moments when the Jew is the friend – when she is assumed unproblematically to be German or Czech – that are unsettling of the given order. It is not the pretence of resemblance, or of dissimulation, as Bauman implies, but rather the very real inability to distinguish German from Jew, and the resulting sense that the order that differentiates German and Jew is impossible to maintain. It is in this sense that I take indeterminacy, exploring the inability to code Bangladeshis and Indians. In the following chapters I will show how Bangladeshis are hypervisible-yet-invisible; both facets of which are a function of the indeterminacy of the Indian nation. They are hypervisible to the extent that they are seen to be everywhere; a pervasiveness in part made possible by the large number of Indians seen to be Bangladeshi. They are invisible precisely for the same reason; their indeterminacy with Indians means that they can ‘blend in’. Nonetheless, the ontological framework of nationalism relies on the determinacy of the order of nationhood. The (assumed) presence of spectral Bangladeshis undermines the determinacy and thus the believability of the order of nationhood.

23The difference between a challenge to an order, and to the possibility of ordering, is crucial, and concerns the difference between identity security and ontological security. Much of the existing literature has too readily reduced challenges to a particular identity – a sense of who we are – rather than looking at challenges to the ability to see oneself as a self. A sense of incommensurability between particular actions and one’s biographical narrative, does not usually result in an ontological anxiety – where ontology refers to the condition of being and existence. In my case, the anxiety over Bangladesh and Bangladeshis very clearly relates to an anxiety over the condition of being and existence, not merely over a sense of identity. Of course, to the extent that a challenge to ordering is also a challenge to an order, so a challenge to ontology is also a challenge to a particular conception of being (in this case an ‘identity’), but the former cannot be reduced to the latter.

  • 3 This is not really the case with other migrants. Nepalis are the other main migrant population, but (...)
  • 4 Of course, it existed in the imagination, but part of this imagination is the idea of its metaphysi (...)

24Bangladesh and Bangladeshis problematise determinacy through the uncodability of the border and those seen to cross it. As will be discussed more fully below, the fact that the borderland does not correspond to any pre-existing boundaries (people of the same ethnic groups, religions, languages and families live on both sides) makes it almost impossible to differentiate a ‘Bangladeshi’ from an ‘Indian’. Even those Bangladeshis from regions of Bangladesh far from the border who migrate to Indian cities, are impossible to identify with any certainty. The similarity of their language and cultural practices, and the sheer number of internal migrants in India (450 million in 2011) means Bangladeshi migrants easily merge into the ‘Indian’ population (De, 2019).3 The effect of this ambivalence and uncodability is that Bangladeshis take on a spectral quality. The inability to identify those who are Bangladeshi and those who are Indian undermines claims to an Indianness that forms the essence of the nation. If the Bangladeshi and the Indian elide, if the difference between them implodes, so too does the metaphysical edifice of nationhood. Elision is precisely the annulment of value and meaning. This elision is therefore a threat to determinacy and the possibility of ordering. The implosion of the self is prefigured in those moments of undecidability. This is an ontological threat – it induces a sense of ontological insecurity – in as much as the inability to specify the ‘self’ suggests that the self never meaningfully existed in the first place.4 It is a challenge to any notion of self that is built upon the belief in metaphysics (in this case nationalism), or on some difference from an other.

25The indeterminacy of the border between Bangladesh and India, Bangladeshis and Indians, is a threat to the particular ordering of people in South Asia – i.e. the location of the border that creates the order. But it is also a challenge to the existence of a border, and thus to the ability to order. The inability to determine the border, suggests that the border cannot be made to exist – that there is no essential Indianness, no sovereign presence, and no essential difference between Indian and Bangladeshi. Moreover, this is doubly troubling, partly because Bangladesh and Bangladeshis are key sites where parts of the Indian self are disowned and projected (it is the dystopic nature of Bangladesh that enables an exceptionalist India to understand itself), and partly because of the salience of ontological insecurity in a postcolonial context (explored in the next section).

26Importantly, while I reinterpret ontological security away from Giddens and the psychosocial focus of ontological security literature, the move I make could be creatively read from Giddens’ work, and the division he makes between self-identity and ontological awareness. Giddens (1991) identifies four ‘existential questions’ that must be answered in order to provide a sense of ontological security, yet in much of the literature, these questions are not accorded equal weight. Both Giddens and IR scholars have focused primarily on his fourth question concerning narrative and self-identity (as implied in his title Modernity and Self Identity). Giddens’ first two questions, concerning the struggle of being over non-being, and of death and finality, are not fully engaged with either by Giddens or subsequently. It is in creatively expanding upon these two questions that I think a fuller picture of ontological security can take shape.

27Giddens’ (1991: 48) first question concerns “existence itself: the discovery of an ontological framework”. This ontological framework should provide sense to the world, something that makes being in the world intelligible. What is at stake in this ontological framework is “the ‘struggle of being against non-being’” (ibid.). This refers to Kierkegaard and his concept of ‘dread’. Kierkegaard’s philosophy is pivotal to scholarship on reflexivity and the risk society. Dread is differentiated from fear in that it lacks a definite object. Dread is nebulous; it is an overwhelming sense of infinity and the unknown. As Kierkegaard (1844/1980: 61) puts it, “freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself”. I interpret this finiteness to be synonymous with determinacy. Determinacy creates finiteness to the extent that it shuts down endless possibility (which is what Kierkegaard means by freedom). It creates a structure and an order that limits the chaos of infinity. This structure and order that is the product of determinacy is what could be called an ontological framework. Indeed, an ontological framework is provided and made possible by determinacy; it is the ability to provide an order to the world, to make it intelligible and actionable. For Giddens (1984), it is exactly those moments of undecidability, where our ‘practical consciousness’ is challenged, that produce anxiety. Undecidability is very often a result of indeterminacy (Derrida, 1981). Total indeterminacy is chaos; it is formless and meaningless. Determinacy is therefore synonymous with the viability of an ontological framework. Giddens (1991: 48) goes on to say that “to ‘be’, for the human individual, is to have ontological awareness”, which, he is careful to stress, “is not the same as awareness of self-identity, however closely the two may be related”. Ontological awareness is precisely the existence of a framework that makes the world intelligible and actionable.

28The second question Giddens identifies concerns death and finality; the ultimate unknowability of death. Giddens is keen to distinguish biological death from ‘subjective death’. We can know biological death but we cannot know subjective death, because it is at the point of knowing that we cease to know anything. For Giddens, this again causes dread over a sense of infinity and the unknown. This idea that it is at the point of knowing that we cease to know anything is precisely what Baudrillard means by reversion; it is annulment. Although Giddens does not venture in this direction, death is the ultimate opposite not just of life, but of meaning, value and presence. Baudrillard (1993: 147) writes: “our whole culture is just one huge effort to dissociate life and death, to ward off the ambivalence of death in the interests of life as value”. The separation of life from death, with death being the void, gives ‘life’ a positive value. The price of living life ‘in positivity’ is the construction of death as the absolute, as irreversible, as pure negativity/nothingness. For Baudrillard, this construction of ‘life’ and ‘death’ and the instantiation of positive value that it enables informs human endeavour – the holding off of death. “The elimination of death is our phantasm, and ramifies in every direction: for religion, the afterlife and immortality; for science, truth; and for economics, productivity and accumulation” (Baudrillard, 1993: 147-148).

29The bar between life and death is also what guarantees ontology; beingness requires its opposite – its reversion in the form of death. Indeterminacy is death to the extent that it is the annulment of value and meaning in a system based on difference and equivalence. Indeterminacy, in its refusal to take on a value, to enter into an order of equivalence, poses a fatal challenge to value. As Baudrillard (1981: 209) puts it, “ambivalence is not the dialectical negation of value it is the incessant potentiality of its annulment, of the destruction of the illusion of value”. Value works according to a structure of differentiation – ambivalence refuses to be pinned down by difference, it cannot be identified. Value, identity and presence are synonyms; they are all functions of difference on a scale of equivalence, and they all imply a metaphysics. The idea of ontology and of self (defined by a presence) therefore relies on the maintenance of determinacy, for without determinacy, value, presence, identity and meaning evaporate. An idea of selfhood built around these concepts and notions dies in its encounter with its own indeterminacy.

30Ontology as beingness implies a presence and facticity. To be able to speak of an Indianness and of an Indian nation implies that there is something around which such claims cohere; an essence that is seen to confer a presence. As Grace (2000: 42) puts it, “identity is premised on the notion of essence; not because it is singular and unified, but because it only becomes meaningful in a logic of the real where ontological status is separated … from its (linguistic) representation”. Thus, the self as commonly understood implies and is synonymous with a sovereign presence that makes us distinct. It is in this sense that I speak of a national self. Post-structural thought has long shown how this presence (ontology) is a produced effect of its signification, which serves to constantly defer it (e.g. Derrida, 1968; Baudrillard, 1981). In other words, the presence of something called Indianness is a function of those strategies that call it into being; it has no ontic reality. The creation of presence creates Indianness as something, as a positive value that exists. This positivity is crucial and derives from determinacy to the extent that presence and value obtain their ontic reality from their position on a scale of equivalence.

31Determinacy is created by the ability to provide an order to chaos and complexity, and is a function of differences on a scale of equivalence. To be able to identify something as this and not that, we look to what differentiates them. These differences are on a scale of equivalence to the extent that it is difference in relation to sameness, rather than a radical alterity whose difference cannot be categorised or comprehended on the same terms (Baudrillard, 1981). Difference and equivalence are therefore central to any order, and form the structure of determinacy and the conditions for codability. In the following chapters I show how Bangladeshi difference is curated so as to enable the presence of Indian selfhood, and how instances of indeterminacy, where this curation breaks down, presents an ontological challenge to the presence of an Indian nation.

32Narrative, of course, provides determinacy, but determinacy is not reducible to narrative. Narrative becomes possible because of the determinacy of categories such as self and other, friend and foe (and nation and nationals) that make narrativisation possible. To interrogate determinacy is therefore to interrogate the ontological frameworks that order and structure the world. In this study I look at the indeterminacy of Indianness and of Indian subjects, particularly in relation to Bangladesh. Codability is a function of difference. It need not be categorical difference; it can be difference of degree. Similarly, difference need not need to have a singular value, difference can be polyvalent – what it cannot be is ambivalent.

2.3 Postcoloniality and National Indeterminacy

33Indeterminacy is particularly marked in a postcolonial context that is often characterised by very recent partitions and territorialities, and where nationalism is only recently hegemonic. In contrast to countries (usually ex-colonial powers) where the accoutrements of nation-statism tend to be more naturalised, many former-colonies are characterised by a relationship to the nation and to territory that is anything but naturalised. Of course, the naturalised nature of nation-statism has usually been a result of centuries of violence, assimilation and cleansing. Krishna (1994: 509) noted how India as a “child of partition… has cartographic anxiety inscribed in its very genetic code”. This cartographic anxiety derives from the obvious arbitrariness of its borders (physical and otherwise) which are seen to undermine claims that an ‘India’ exists and that it is bestowed with an essence, a meaning and a common future.

34Independence was fought for and won on the basis of claims to nationhood and sovereign statehood, and succeeded as such. It is in some ways a tragic irony that the act of decolonisation itself should need to adopt the forms of nationhood and statehood valorised and naturalised by colonial powers (Spivak, 1993, 2016). In one way it is the ‘inheritance’ of the international system that is captured in the terms of postcolonialism and the continuing legacy of imperialism (Chatterjee, 1998). Having won independence on the basis of nationhood and statehood, the project of decolonisation was hampered before it began. It is another case of ‘the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house’. The politics of the postcolonial in South Asia has been defined by a struggle to live up to an ideal posited and supposedly embodied by the colonial other (and the historical self) (Nandy, 2007; Krishna, 1999; for an ontological security perspective, see Vieira, 2018).

35Most theories of nationalism take the emergence of national sentiment to be the apotheosis of processes of nationalisation (e.g. Gellner, 1983; Anderson, 1983; Nairn, 1997; Hechter, 1987). Conversely, in India (and generally) the idea of the nation proceeds nationalism and ‘national integration’ (Seth, 1992; Bauman, 1990). Certainly the colonial experience and the independence movement started a process of nation creation, but it was only “once the alien was expelled, [that] the drive to achieving modernity and unity could begin in real earnest” (Krishna, 1992: 860).

36Nehru was very explicit about this, commenting that while India had an essence that extended into prehistory, this was not the same as or sufficient for a sense of nation and nationalism. A sense of national consciousness had to be generated and communicated by a nationalist elite (Seth, 1992: 42). Nationalism is therefore something that must be consciously produced. Nationalism was a universal that India could also partake in; Indianness as essence was seen as a national incipience, and its realisation a teleological necessity (Nehru, 1946; Seth, 1992). History and self were cast in a way that read nation, nationalism and statehood both back in time and into the future. The nation-form was thus seen as prefigured, and ‘Indian’ pasts were read in terms of a nationalist future. The categories of nation and state were never questioned by members of the independence movement or by politicians since. Nonetheless, beyond nationalist discourse and ‘civil society’, the nation remains unnaturalised, particularly at its many margins. The complete inability to distinguish citizen from foreigner is just one of the many ways in which ‘the nation’ is deeply problematic. Ontological insecurity is a symptom of this.

37The ontological challenge posed by national indeterminacy is also particularly pronounced in a postcolonial context, not just because the nation is far from fully naturalised, but also because the nation takes on a great deal of significance. The colonial experience was ontologically alienating to the extent that the ontological frameworks through which the world has come to be seen placed the colonised outside a sense of ‘here’ and ‘now’ (Alcoff, 2007; Mignolo, 1999). The nation appears as a vehicle to overcome this alienation, offering a here and now: an ontological framework from which to reclaim a position of subjectivity. Nationalism is therefore a way of re-establishing a relationship between the decolonised self and its reality, and of reasserting an agency and autonomy over oneself and in the world (Chatterjee, 1993; Fanon, 1963). The nation takes on a key ontological function in the postcolonial context, and so I would expect the indeterminacy of nationhood to produce even greater ontological insecurity. Because there is seen to be so much at stake in postcolonial nationalism, threats to the validity of this order, this here and now, are seen as particularly existential. Postcolonial nationalism is in this sense haunted by the possibility of slipping back into an alienated relationship with one’s self. Of course, the extent to which this decolonisation of subjectivity and the reclamation of a position of agency is possible within the nation and state form is dubious (Spivak, 2016; Bhabha, 1990). Perhaps because of this double bind, because even in asserting a claim to the here and now in these terms, the colonial nationalist fails to escape colonial alienation, it further feeds the anxiousness that pervades postcolonial nationalism (Krishna, 1999).

38I show how Bangladesh becomes the example of a nation that has failed to reclaim its here and now, suspended between ex-colony and not-yet-nation (Krishna, 1994). Wojczewski (2019: 188) notes how Indian nationalism positions itself in relation to temporal and spatial others, notably colonialism and Pakistan and China. I argue that the categories of temporal and spatial others converge in the image of Bangladesh, as a country unable to escape the colonial condition. Bangladesh’s present is seen as a postcolonial dystopia, a country unable to develop, to chart its own path or make its own history, mired in communal violence. The othering of Bangladesh therefore also feeds off the memory of the colonial period as one of great suffering, violence and communal fragmentation. This memory of colonialism is projected onto the modern-day image of Bangladesh as an example of an ex-colony that has failed to become a post-colony (Samaddar, 1999). In India, as in many other postcolonial contexts, one of the legacies of colonialism has been the delegitimisation of those so-called traditional ontic modalities that are seen as antithetical to the rationalism of developmentalism. As Nandy (2007: 172) writes “today only that past is being celebrated which is seen as conducive to modernisation and development; only that past is being rued which is seen as resistant to modernity and development”. Culture therefore becomes seen either as a ‘resource’ to be bent to the national will or as an obstructive force that must be subjugated (or at least tamed) lest it prevent the march of history. As Fanon (1963: 169) wrote, “the effect consciously sought by colonialism was to drive into the natives' heads the idea that if the settlers were to leave, they would at once fall back into barbarism, degradation, and bestiality”. Culture therefore becomes refracted through the colonial lens, not only as irrational, superstitious and backward, but also as threatening and debased.

  • 5 Modi claimed in 2014 that “the slave mentality of 1,200 years is troubling us” (Ahmad and Kanungo, (...)

39Colonial narratives of ‘oriental despotism’ and of the pre-colonial as a ‘heart of darkness’ ironically (and tragically) re-emerge as internalised projections of the past, against which modern statehood is constructed, and the nationalist, developmentalist project legitimised.5 The result is that those ontic modalities which are not seen as abetting the march of development require urgent cleansing (Krishna, 1999: 15). It is my contention that Bangladesh comes to figure as this heart of darkness in Indian representations, so as to make the exceptionality of Indian development and statehood pronounced.

40Samaddar (2005) once suggested that Bangladesh acts as a kind of phantasmagoria in India; a dystopic horror scene that casts long shadows. Hordes of destitute migrants, persecuted minorities, and Islamic fundamentalists are seen to spill over into India, pushed there by rampant “population growth, poverty, flood, famine, cyclone, war, riots and persecution” (Samaddar, 1999: 19). It is this spectre that Hazarika (2011) has called the ‘Bangladesh Syndrome’. I argue that this ‘syndrome’ is tied up with cartographic anxiety and the need to disavow the ambiguity of nation that the border and migrant reveal.

41Bangladesh therefore comes to be seen as a place of poverty and lawlessness, with a state unable or unwilling to perform its historic role. Majoritarianism leads to the violent persecution of minorities, and mass political violence. The spatial and temporal others thus converge in the image of Bangladesh as a ‘modern-day colony’. Yet, because it is a piece of the past, in the present, it is also monstrous and mutated; the fascination with Bangladesh as a place rife with Islamic terrorists fits into broader global images of the terrorist as ‘deviant’ and ‘neomedieval’ (Mitchell, 2011; also Kinnvall, 2006). Ultimately, this feeds into a sense of cartographic anxiety. Maintaining the image of a naturalised border becomes essential to guaranteeing the Indian state and nation against the spectre of the mutated past that is Bangladesh. The porosity of the border and the uncodability of the migrant, threaten to reveal the falsity of these oppositions, in doing so, undermining not just the identity of the Indian self, but its coherence as sovereign and present.

42Yet, the threat posed by Bangladesh and Bangladeshi immigration is not a threat of one becoming the other, of India becoming like Bangladesh. It is the threat of the self always having been the other. National selfhood therefore is what separates India from Bangladesh, and enables India to claim a here and now. The possibility that the border between them may be indistinguishable, that the Indian national self might not have ontological status, is thus a threat to the process of decolonisation. In this way, the threat is not that India might become like Bangladesh, but that the difference that accords India a sense of self has never really existed. This is evident in the fact that the discourse analysed in chapter four focuses not just on Bangladeshis coming to India, but on the indeterminacy of Indians and Bangladeshis. Those discourses that create and curate Bangladesh as a dystopic spectre work to overcode this indeterminacy and restore a sense of sovereign, present selfhood.

43The extent to which it is possible to decolonise nation-statism is well beyond the remit of this study. Nonetheless, it is important to justify my position a little further. Some have suggested that the nation and state are not derivative discourses. The best critique is made by Chatterjee (1986, 1993), among others, and looks at whether the nation and state have developed a ‘life of their own’ that is non-mimetic and that produces forms of action and selfhood that are ‘authentic’. I certainly think it is myopic to suggest that nation and state have not been reinscribed, but they have been reinscribed in a way that it is still firmly within what Spivak (1988) calls the ‘culture of imperialism’. Thus, I would be cautious to exaggerate the extent to which citizenship, territory and nation-form, which are those aspects of nation-statism most under study, have developed substantially in non-mimetic ways.

  • 6 Both Savarkar and Golwalkar (1939), the founding ideologues of Hindutva, explicitly noted how India (...)

44Both major strands of nationalism are built in the image of European nationalism, even if they venerate cultural forms that were previously decried by the colonial regime. As discussed in chapter one, both Nehruvian and Hindutvavadi nationalisms were constructed in conscious emulation of ‘European’ nationalisms which were seen to be the source of power behind imperialism.6 Indeed, even the extent to which the mobilisation of an ‘authentic culture’ in the sphere of nationalism has occurred, is open to contest, given that much of what counts as ‘culture’ and ‘community’ in India and South Asia continues to be framed by colonial discourse and governmentality (Menon, 2019; Chatterjee, 1993). Chatterjee’s history of middle-class nationalism in Bengal is also evidence of the way that, even when it was staking a claim to sovereignty, it did so within terms set out by colonial knowledge. The notion of a sovereign ‘inner’, the realm of the spiritual where the East is supposedly superior, is uncontestably within the logic of orientalist discourse (Chatterjee, 1998: 278). This is certainly not to say that there are not numerous alternatives (Ambedkar and Gandhi offered two quite different visions) but these alternatives have not become part of the mainstream, beyond tokenistic gestures.

45Certainly, the notions of citizenship, belonging and territoriality, and the practices that police them, have not been the subject of decolonial introspection. Ideas of citizenship and territoriality are perhaps the most derivative and least contestable elements of nation-statism in South Asia. In chapter one I noted how current understandings of territory and belonging were not preordained at independence. Nonetheless, nationalist logics succeeded in enclosing the imaginaries of belonging in the region, and in closing down alternative ontic modalities that continue to contest the present hegemony. The nation-form, as a category of belonging and an ontological framework, intimately tied to citizenship and territory, is also far from decolonised. The idea of nations, organised in a community of states, with the nation as the organising principle of belonging, with clearly demarcated territories and nationals, is doxical in South Asia, as with most of the world. Yet such an ontological framework is the product of a specific time and place, and is intimately tied to the commonsense of mid-20th-century imperial Europe and to colonial rule in the ‘colonies’. Thus, as Spivak (2016: 51) writes, “national liberation is not a revolution. My generation… spoke of ‘post-colonial’ ironically because the failure of decolonization seemed to start the morning after”. In the end, Chatterjee (1993: 11) sums it up well: “autonomous forms of imagination of the community were, and continue to be, overwhelmed and swamped by the history of the postcolonial state. Here lies the root of our postcolonial misery: not in our inability to think out new forms of the modern community but in our surrender to the old forms of the modern state”.

2.4 Looking for the Signs of Ontological Insecurity

46In chapters four and five I trace the ontological insecurity that derives from national indeterminacy. Before doing so, perhaps a pertinent question to consider is, what differentiates the anxiety of ontological insecurity from anxiety or moral panic stoked instrumentally by politicians for electoral ends? My answer to this has several facets. Firstly, I contest that there is a firm line between instrumental political discourse, moral panic and ontological insecurity, as the former two work precisely because they draw on issues of who the nation is/should be and what it should not be. To suggest that Bangladeshis cause anxiety because they pervert national culture becomes ontological when it derives from a blurring of the nation. The focus on Bangladeshis as all-pervasive yet spectral is what enables this anxiety to be effective (even when instrumental, which it sometimes is). Secondly, the concern with bordering and defining the nation, which has been noted and can be evidenced going back since independence, shows this to be a continuation of the nation-building process, and a legacy of Partition, of determining inside from out (Krishna, 1994; Samaddar, 1999). The longevity of this anxiety, and the centrality of it to the construction of an Indian nation is convincing evidence that it is fundamental to nationalism and the ongoing struggle for an ontic reality of the nation. This incidentally has been the subject of a great deal of scholarship, which I am working within. For me, this constitutes evidence that this anxiety can be understood as ontological and not merely expedient – though as I have said, they are not incompatible.

47That said, there are a number of other ways, one could potentially differentiate ontological anxiety from other forms of anxiety. Firstly, if evidence of anxiety is confined to political speeches and interviews, if it is restricted to a particular party or section of politics, or if it is short-lived or only evident during elections, this would point towards an anxiety that may be more instrumental than ontological. In chapters four and five I shall show how none of these are the case. Moreover, as stated, if the anxiety identified is over indeterminacy, then one can assume that indeterminacy and thus (in my framework) ontology, is the source. That anxiety derives from indeterminacy is something I demonstrate throughout this paper. Further evidence of this is found in looking at what the discourse does – how it seeks to reduce indeterminacy, by overcoding Indian and Bangladeshi. Thus, what is clear from this brief discussion is that the strength of my argument depends on my ability to demonstrate that the anxiety derives from indeterminacy. In the following chapter, I explore questions of method and evidence in more depth, before moving on to analysis.


1 Interestingly, late modernity has not featured centrally in ontological security in IR. Thus, the extent to which the notion of late modernity is useful or valid (and if its omission is problematic) is not the concern of this study.

2 This does not imply a natural or foundational essence, but that there is something that enables us to speak of the self as something – it is accorded object-ness.

3 This is not really the case with other migrants. Nepalis are the other main migrant population, but because migration is legal for them, they do not ‘hide’ and are therefore not ambivalent. Pakistanis are small in number, Burmese are confined mainly to the north-east which is already excluded from the Indian nation, and Afghans are more visible and tend to live in enclaves. Bangladeshis are therefore the most ambiguous migrant group.

4 Of course, it existed in the imagination, but part of this imagination is the idea of its metaphysical reality.

5 Modi claimed in 2014 that “the slave mentality of 1,200 years is troubling us” (Ahmad and Kanungo, 2019: 29).

6 Both Savarkar and Golwalkar (1939), the founding ideologues of Hindutva, explicitly noted how India needed to emulate Nazi nationalism (Krishnan, 2019).


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