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Putting the Ontological Back into Ontological Security

Meredydd Rix

6. Conclusion

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1In this study, I have sought to sketch a theory of ontological security that places questions of an ontological nature in the foreground. In doing so, I have tried to theorise ontological security in a way that navigates away from the tendency to reduce ontology and selfhood to identity. I have suggested that ontological insecurity is a function of national indeterminacy, where the ontological status of the national self is cast into doubt. In chapters four and five, I attempted to show empirically how such a theory might be demonstrated. In so doing, I suggested that Indian nationalisms, in as much as they posit a notion of Indian selfhood, have been defined in part by the constant need to navigate and banish indeterminacy. One vital indeterminacy is that of Bangladesh and Bangladeshis. Ever since Partition, what is now called Bangladesh has been understood as peripheral to Indian politics. In western South Asia, the challenge for India is constitutive of nationalism and statism. In the east, while there are constituting elements, the challenge is largely the opposite, in that far from bolstering nationalism and statism, it undermines them. In this way, it is perhaps from the east that the challenge to the nation and national selfhood is most pronounced.

2The indeterminacy of nationhood, and the seeming pervasiveness of Bangladeshi migrants threaten to annul the selfhood of Indian nationhood. As I discussed in chapter two, the ontological status of a nation is a function of determinacy as the ability to differentiate it on a scale of equivalence. In chapters four and five I showed how this determinacy is constantly undermined. The inability to identify who is Bangladeshi and who is Indian has led to an anxiety that has manifested itself in changes to citizenship, the mass testing and re-testing of nationality, and the emergence of documentary regimes, to name but a few. I explored the anxiety that surrounded indeterminacy, the loss of a sense of national self, and of distinction therein. Moreover, much of chapters four and five charted the countering of indeterminacy, in the constant efforts to produce the border and the nation, in discourse, in bodies, in ‘culture’ and in ontic modalities.

  • 1 And that is just regarding the anxiety posed by Bangladeshi indeterminacy. Anxiety over other indet (...)

3I chose the case of India vis-à-vis Bangladesh, in part because it is one I know well, and in part because, as discussed, the anxiety surrounding national indeterminacy is perhaps especially prominent here. Nonetheless, all so-called margins operate similarly; they all undermine the coherence of ontological status and presence, and all selves built upon such a presence are necessarily haunted by the irreducible margin at their centre. To this extent I would suggest that this account of ontological insecurity has wide applicability. Also clear from this study, I hope, is the utility of ontological insecurity in global politics. I have tried to show that ontological security is not just a theoretical indulgence, but is useful to the extent that it makes intelligible and links together a plethora of disparate processes, practices and institutions, all of which have very concrete repercussions. In India, tens of millions of people encounter very viscerally the nation’s ontological anxiety on a daily basis.1

4Beyond making the case of the importance of indeterminacy and of Bangladesh in the study of Indian politics and nationalism, this study aimed to ‘put the ontological back into ontological security’. I have argued that most of the approaches to date have effectively reduced selfhood to identity, and that in the process ontological security has largely been reduced to identity security. Here, I have sought to refocus ontological security firmly around questions of ontology. I suggested in chapter two that such questions would concern not so much ‘who are we?’ but rather more philosophically, ‘are we?’. It is, to use the language of Benedict Anderson, a concern over the imaginability of the imagined community that breaks down in the inability to specify it. Following Huysmans and Bauman, I interpreted ontological security as a challenge, not (merely) to a particular order, but to the possibility of ordering itself. In doing so I focused on the role of determinacy in creating ontological security. Determinacy is what underpins an ontological framework – it is, in Giddens’ terms, what keeps at bay the anxiety of chaos.

5In this case I have shown how such indeterminacy challenges the positivity and ontological status that nationalism accords the nation. In the indeterminacy of Indian and Bangladeshi nationals, the idea of India and Indianness is undermined, by revealing the irreducible margin at the centre. At this margin, the nation is either everywhere or nowhere. In a Baudrillardian sense, this is the collapse of the bar that gives positivity, meaning and value – that bar that divides life from death and thus guarantees ontology. In those instances where the Indian and Bangladeshi could not be discerned, the meaningfulness of the order that constitutes them as Indian and Bangladeshi, was threatened with annulment.

6Implicit in much of this study has been the work of Derrida, and his concepts of différance and undecidability, among others. Derrida’s project was, like that of many so-called post-structuralists, to interrogate ideas of presence, determinacy and sovereignty, which are seen to be central to the idea of ontology. Derrida’s alternative is hauntology – itself a play on words. Hauntology displaces the presence of being that is implied in ontology, and emphasises instead that ontology is a produced effect of those acts that call it into being. The notion of ontology is therefore haunted by its incompleteness and by those indeterminacies that call it into question. It is this that has been the focus of this study, and that I have argued is central to the politics of nationalism. To this extent, I wonder if hauntological insecurity would not be a more apt term. Such a term might help to put at the centre of the study the impossibility of ever achieving ontological security, that has been noted by numerous contributors to this margin of international relations.

  • 2 This has been pre-empted by the Subaltern Studies Collective, and by a number of anthropologists wo (...)

7Lastly, I wish to address a potential concern. At times throughout this study, it may have appeared that I was diminishing individuality, difference and identity and suggesting that India and Bangladesh are the ‘same’. Quite diametrically, I have sought to question the Manichean portrayal of these terms that the order of nationhood seeks to impose, and to reinsert indeterminacy, not as a function of similarity, but as a function of differences that cannot be captured by difference within equivalence. Thus, in emphasising indeterminacy I have sought to move beyond the notion of identity and difference, not in the interest of homogenisation and denial but, conversely, in the interest of seeking to understand ontic realities that are themselves flattened and immeasurably reduced by the focus on identity, difference within equivalence and, ultimately, ontology. I have aimed therefore, not at the “violent erasure of cultural being, but rather the prior impossibility of culture being captured by, or submitting to, the order of ontological or semiological being” (Prentice, 2017: 1001). To this extent, I have positioned indeterminacy as a kind of radical alterity in its refusal to be pinned down by difference within equivalence, and by identity, meaning, value and presence. That is to say, indeterminacy refuses the terms of ontology – this is the cause of ontological insecurity – but also offers a place from which to critique the hegemony of ontology. There is no scope left in this study to explore such ideas further, but it is perhaps in the modalities and perspectives of those positioned as indeterminate that such a place could be located.2


1 And that is just regarding the anxiety posed by Bangladeshi indeterminacy. Anxiety over other indeterminacies (e.g. the codability of Hinduism) most likely mean that most people beyond that small minority of middle-class bonafide citizens, navigate on a daily basis a life under the spectre of the nation’s ontological insecurity.

2 This has been pre-empted by the Subaltern Studies Collective, and by a number of anthropologists working along the border.


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