Two seemingly contradictory things are happening simultaneously in India today. Happiness as a mental health product is being sought after like never before in the current biological crisis. At the same time, comedians, whose profession is to make people happy, are being persecuted legally and socially. If happiness is determined by enjoyment then why would a society which wants to enjoy reject comedy, a timeless source of enjoyment? We need to address this apparent contradiction.
The global spread of the COVID-19 virus and the nation-wide lockdown has affected us all in various ways. It has caused economic depression with many losing their jobs, shutting down of factories and farms, and the decline in the GDP figures, etc. At a more personal level, it has forced us into segregation of bodies and maintaining distance. The lockdown and the discourse on social distancing has also deprived us from a social life. The government guidelines on the pandemic recognise this as “extraordinary situations” in which the “normal” people are being exposed to unforeseen events. Issues, ranging from social isolation to restricted movements have led to various forms of pandemic induced disorders. Under such circumstances, achieving “happiness” has become the most desirable “thing” in the life of many. From governmental guidelines, to media reports, self-help coaches, bloggers, talk shows, spiritual leaders and psychologists, all came in to rescue the civilisation of the “normal” people from this disorderliness with the universal objective of bringing happiness. Experts argue that the best way to cope when we are anxious and isolated in our homes is to have a positive attitude. Positivity has become the byword of the social elite in times of this crisis. However this is not some upper class fad but a systematic psychologisation of the current crisis which is proliferating at various levels. What is being proposed as a way to deal with the stress of our current uncertainty is actually part of a larger discourse of happiness studies which has been gaining momentum in western societies since the late 1990’s and whose operative mantra has been – positivity in individual life is the key to success in a competitive society.
But what is this positivity? Is there a logic to it at all or is it mere rhetoric of a certain class? Positivity is claimed to be a psychological disposition, a mental attitude which is defined by our freedom to choose the kind of life we want to lead. Therefore one of the key factors about positivity today, experts argue, is to choose to involve ourselves in little everyday pleasures particularly when we are left all by ourselves, confined in our homes. Savor every moment spent with yourself and your family, friends, partners or even your dog. Cook new dishes, help others – from the elderly in your neighborhood (with responsibility and caution) to cutting your loved ones hair. These same experts argue that these activities can increase one’s immunity and hence their chances of survival. So in a certain way a new imperative of happiness is being pronounced because it is directly related to our own biological survival.
Immunity: The privileged few
The word immunity comes from the latin word “immunitas” and etymologically refers to a particular category of people – the immunis, who are exempted from public office. The Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito maintains that Immunitas refers to anyone who is not only exonerated from the obligations of society/community (communitas) but because of the exemption, is also identified as privileged and separate from the common lot. In other words, immunity is the point where exemption and privilege overlap each other. In the context of our current biological crisis and the ethical imperative of social distancing — it is very important not to forget this connotation of the archaic meaning of immunity; that it is originally entwined with the idea of the privileged section of the society who are not only exempted from social obligations but their exemption and their privileged identity coincide.
Someone who is privileged is also someone who is isolated from the common fate of the community on the basis of that very position. Today the paradigm of immunity (a prerogative of the privileged) is being prescribed as the basis of sociability — a community of the privileged. What happiness and positive psychology is trying to achieve, in the current crisis, is to turn this community of the privileged into an abstract, universal idea. Everybody has the potential to feel privileged only if they desire so. It is as if to be privileged is in my own hand, in the choices I make, in the positive attitude I exude. This abstract idea of potential privilege however gets articulated in concrete practices and habits of the few who are the social elite and who are always reminding us, in a strange way, that we are a society in so far as we practice the ethics of social isolation. The current crisis seems more like an amplification which explodes the modern myth of community as the sharing of a “common substance”. The common substance today is nothing other than the immediate reality of the individualised consumer-subject who is always free to consume. It is difficult to imagine any idea of community based on such individualistic consumer ethics.
There is something insidious beneath the videos of celebrities and movie stars responsibly enjoying the little everyday pleasures of their successful lives (cooking, doing everyday chores, celebrating each other’s birthdays etc shared through social media). These moments have become perfect examples where social privilege, positive attitude, enjoyment and consumption overlap each other to produce the subject of a new sociability. It is the idea of a synthetic and highly individualistic sociability based upon positivity which is being manufactured not only at this micro level of individual enjoyment but also at a national level when the whole country is imagined as a unified social body capable of such positive enjoyment in times of crisis. The “Smile India” initiative supported by the government of India in its “fight against” COVID-19 seems to be the perfect interface of this ideological technique to stay positive and happy, and to enforce concrete immunitary measures. The ideological implication of the immunitary paradigm for the “ideal” Indian society is the imperative to enjoy. It is the injunction to be positive and happy while the state becomes more and more authoritative. The sign of a good Indian citizen is not only to be at home and maintain social isolation but also to think positive and enjoy the privileges of a responsible consumer.
Contagion: Laughter as the common feeling
The recent attack on comedians by the Indian state has to be seen in this backdrop of forced enjoyment. While on the one hand we are forced to enjoy the ethical imperative to be positive and happy, any form of enjoyment that does not conform to this ideology of positivity is immediately curtailed. Therefore all forms of non-conformist laughter are to be banned. There is something positive and narcissistic at the same time in the rejection of comedy by political authorities because it perpetuates the expulsion of the other in the name of the same. True laughter always embodies some negativity just like real happiness can also come out of despair. We always “laugh at something” which is to say we always stand against something in order to laugh.
Laughter is by definition non-conformist. There is always a little opposition, a little resistance entwined in comedy, at least good comedy. Moreover, laughter is contagious and collective. This makes comedy fundamentally anti-individualist. There is some truth in the old saying “when we cry we cry alone but when we laugh the world laughs with us”. Tragic consciousness is always singular, individual. Hence we have tragic heroes. But comic consciousness is always general and collective. So we have common figures like Chaplin’s “tramp” in comedy. Laughter can very well become the common substance forging a new collective. The comic spells out the possibility of an alternative collective consciousness. This is intolerable to the state which wants us to become individualised consumer-citizens. The authoritarian attitude of the state to comic enjoyment seems to reflect this implicit injunction to be positive and isolated.
Real happiness is always informed by a bit of sadness, a bit of loss: Like we are happy to remember our childhood, which is in the past, which we have lost forever except in our memory. Such happiness is never entirely positive. Positivity is a form of enforced happiness that we can only consume but cannot accommodate non-conformist laughter. Thus we find ourselves in a strange situation of “Happiness without laughter” which seems to have become the social and moral imperative today.