Post-Positions: A Selfish Review
Introduction: Viewing Post-positions
We have seen two diametrically opposed, and perhaps incommensurable, views on the post-condition emerging in this seminar. The first position, stated so persuasively and incisively by Professor Aijaz Ahmad in his Keynote Address, sees in the post-condition the defeat of the enlightenment project of universal equality, rational society, and secular polity, and the triumph of neo-liberal capitalism. For Professor Ahmad anyone who espouses postmodernism is at once a supporter or fellow traveller of Francis Fukuyama, who after all, is nothing more than an agent of U.S. imperialism. The other view, expressed by Professor Gurbhagat Singh is that postmodernism represents a celebration of difference and thus the end of oppressive, totalizing meta-narratives. It is these meta-narratives that obliterate local histories and local narratives by positing one grand, centralized drama of human progress. This drama, it goes without saying, is staged in Europe, with the Enlightenment and the French revolution as its prime agents, and whose trajectory the rest of the world is compelled to replicate.
My paper attempts to steer a middle course between these two positions, the one condemnatory and the other celebratory—if such a middle ground is at all possible. I agree with Professor Ahmad that the overwhelming question for us, considering where we are located, is that of imperialism and neo-colonialism. But I am alarmed by the series of binary oppositions upon which the whole edifice of his argument is constructed: reason vs. superstition, history vs. meaningless flux, truth vs. faith, cognition vs. rhetoric, scientific competence vs. customary knowledge, the future vs. the present, revolution vs. neo-liberal imperialism. What is worse, his nostalgic evocation of the 1970’s as the period when “large portions of humanity seemed poised to gain historically unprecedented levels of freedom,” is also, ironically, the period of the gulags and concentration camps of Russia, the brutal suppression of human rights and civil liberties in China, Eastern Europe, and other parts of the world. In India, it is the period of the Emergency, the only time in our short history when the Constitution was suspended and democracy upturned.
In other words, the paix perpetuale, the eternal peace, that Kant envisaged never happened, in fact couldn’t happen. Instead, the two World Wars, the Holocaust, the atom bomb, and Stalinist and Maoist purges, the genocide of Pol Pot, and innumerable other horrors are the legacy of the 20th century. To what do we owe these horrors? To modernity or to its discontents? I leave that to you to judge. But to me, Professor Ahmad’s view of modernity is characterized by the kind of schizophrenic utopianism that enabled the writers of the American Declaration of Independence to aver: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal….” and at once to be slave-owners themselves. Let us not forget that the French Revolution who gave the world the slogan of “Liberty, equality and fraternity,” also popularised, if not invented, our first, rational and efficient killing machine—the guillotine. And it is the guillotine that so eloquently presages the gas chambers of Nazi Germany where millions of innocents were exterminated about 150 years later. I submit to you that if this is the legacy of modernity, we definitely need to look before or behind or beyond it. If postmodernity gives us that space, so be it. That is why I would differ from Aijaz Saheb and hesitate to dismiss, pace Lukacs, the “other” mind of Europe as “romantic anti-capitalists” who belong to the lineage of “irrationalist thought.”
My paper, as I said, earlier is critical of postmodernism without rejecting it out of hand. It is really one part of an inter-text made up of the various positions that I have taken on topics such as post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-colonialism, and post-nationalism. In this brief part, which I shall present to you here, I focus on postmodernism. In a sense, because the paper comes after these earlier papers which I shall discuss, it signifies a space which is therefore “post” all the previous positions. It also suggests, to exploit the slipperiness of post-modernism, the lack of necessity to take hard positions, if not a transcendence of positioning altogether. That is, it is “post” the earlier positions, but also suggests the need to move beyond any and all and hence post-positions. It acknowledges the postmodern undermining of rigid stances, celebrating the provisionality and contingency of our beliefs and opinions.
It is a selfish review because it looks, by and large, at my own work done over the last ten or twelve years. There are two reasons for this self-absorption. Perhaps, the deeper reason is that since others haven’t paid that much attention to these writings, it has fallen to my lot to retrace my steps before this somewhat captive, if not captivated, audience. But, indeed, there is another reason for this critical recap. This seminar gives me the opportunity to do what might turn out to be an After-, if not Fore-word—a sort of Post-face, if not Pre-face to a projected volume which collects these essays.
But, I would like also to suggest that “selfish” in my title means not just devoted or caring only for oneself and one’s own interests. “Selfish” is my rather deliberately skewed translation of “Swaraj.” If I were to sum up my entire approach to the various theoretical debates that have preoccupied our critical endeavours over the last decade or so, I would call it a Swarajist approach. In this approach what is important is self-empowerment and self-emancipation, not so much the attacking or blaming of others. Swaraj not only means self-rule and self-control, but also self-reliance, self-confidence, self-development, and self-realisation. It is, if one traces its recent usage to the late nineteenth century, closely linked to our struggle for freedom from British imperialism. Swaraj, in other words, has built into it an anti-imperialistic orientation. It also evokes, I admit, a culturalist-nationalist position in which one’s civilisational heritage is owned up rather than discarded. The term is found, moreover, in the Upanishads, as one of the many synonyms for self-realisation. If this provokes some of my friends therefore to dismiss this project as being regressive, revivalist, or Hindu, I shall have to run that risk.
Of course, it needs to be clarified at the outset that there is nothing communal or fanatical about this project. In fact, as M. K. Gandhi took great pains to emphasise, Swaraj is not a form of narrow nationalism or jingoism. Instead, it has a universalist, plural, and co-operative impulse, as this selection of quotations is meant to show:
“My nationalism, fierce though it is, is not exclusive, is not devised to harm any nation or individual.”
“Between the two, the nationalist and the imperialist, there is no meeting ground.”
“Non-violent nationalism is a necessary condition of corporate or civilised life.”
“Violent nationalism, otherwise known as imperialism, is the curse.” (See Tikekar 106)
These quotations from Gandhi should disabuse anyone who wants to jump to the conclusion that Swaraj is the same as Hindutva or as militant nationalism. The quotations, instead, suggest that the idea of Swaraj provides the blueprint for a just, egalitarian world-order in which from the individual to the widest-possible collective, there is both harmony and mutuality. More about Swaraj later, if we have the time. Of course, these statements of Gandhi are merely indicative of the thrust of the Swarajist project. A more detailed reading of Gandhi is available in my book, Decolonization and Development: Hind Svaraj Revisioned (1993).
If follows, then, that if I have tried to read “postal” theories from this perspective, I should be most concerned not just with the content but the manner of mediation of these theories. If we were to focus on the latter, we would quickly realise that as consumers of imported theories, our relationship with its producers is one of gross inequality and subjugation. That is, the exchange, if you would call it that, is taking place on unjust terms. These terms are so designed as to perpetuate the very inequality that the new theories ostensibly seek to redress. The result it that imported technologies of emancipation actually strengthen our bondage and subjection. Postcolonial structures of knowledge thus generate an imperialism of categories in which, as Ashis Nandy puts it, the whole “conceptual domain is hegemonized by “concept[s] produced and honed in the West…” (see Nandy 177-194). In other words, it is pointless debating these theories unless we do so in a manner so as to critique the very structures of knowledge under whose auspices they are read and received.
But does this mean that we discard, reject, or resist everything that comes to us from the metropolis simply because it is metropolitan and therefore given to us in a sort of condescending hand-me-down—leftovers, jhoota? That is not what I have been advocating. And yet, an overall attitude of healthy scepticism and doubt is perhaps not out of place.
This is how I have approached many of the exciting shifts in metropolitan discourse, which we have managed to observe from the outside as it were. Later, I shall have more to say about the relationship between power and powerlessness, between being outside and inside the discourse. Right now, what I propose to do is to offer a few samples from some of the positions that I promised to share with you.
“The Invasion of Theory: An Indian Response.” Published in Indian Journal of English Studies (1989): 74-82 (shorter version); and in New Quest 81 (May0June 1990) 151-161 (full text
This essay is “both a personal narrative and a polemic” on the reception of post-structuralist theories in India. I offer the following conclusions:
1. Vis-à-vis India, post-structuralism is as oppressive (or liberating) as structuralism, existentialism, or any of the previously fashionable theories from the West. That is, its content is almost totally ignored while its power is what makes it attractive or irresistible to us in India. We are compelled to genuflect to the latest, regardless of what it preaches.
2. Poststructuralism, though it seeks to end logocentricism and actually decentre the whole discursive tradition of Europe is still, will-nilly, Eurocentric. This is Europe’s attempt at self-correction; Europe’s Others are not directly involved and it is unlikely that they will be the principal beneficiaries of this restructuring.
3. There is a national discourse outside this dominant Eurocentric academic world, but this discourse is weak and impotent. Those who contribute to it are rarely taken seriously. On the other hand, those from the Third World who have made their way into the dominant discourse have done so at the risk of not being able to communicate to their claimed constituencies. What is more, they also risk being so altered by the process of entering this international discourse that they no longer resemble their former selves. The Catch-22, in other words, is that if you are outside the dominant discourse, for all practical purposes you don’t exist; on the other hand, to join the dominant discourse is to be co-opted.
4. Europe’s attempt to disentangle itself from Logocentricism is paradoxically only a means of affirming Logocentricism. This is because Europe “progresses” through substitution, not transformation or coexistence. In this endless chain of parricidal displacement, no “real” growth can take place. The trap that Europe has fallen into is to accept only power as the ultimate raison d’etre of life.
5. Finally, the essay tries to deconstruct and critique its own confrontational stance. What is suggested is that a truer dialogue with Europe is possible only after we cease to be overwhelmed by their superiority and power. Whether or not institutional solutions emerge, the struggle for such freedom from dominion should carry on at the personal level.
“Postmodernism and India: Some Preliminary Animadversions.” Published in A Way of Leaving So As to Stay: Papers in Honour of S. Viswanathan. Sudhakar Marathe, et. al., eds. Madras: T.R. Publications, 1994: 89-110.
Though this essay shares the polemical and confrontational stance of the earlier one, nevertheless, it also attempts to engage with the content of postmodernism. The essay has sections such as “Situating Ourselves,” “Do We Need Postmodernism?” “Do We Have a Choice?” and “What is Postmodernism?” In these sections I try to argue that any exercise in defining postmodernism is fraught with the dangers of self-contradiction and futility because postmodernism’s first move is to reject monolithic and essentialistic formulations. What greater violence can be done to postmodernism than to do to it what it sets out to demolish or relinquish in all conceptual categories? The essay, therefore, tries to map the internal divisions and contradictions of postmodernist discourse.
In the section that follows, “How We Can Use Postmodernism,” I take on three postmodern postulates: The Death of Man, The Death of History, and The Death of Metaphysics. I argue that none of these is really very relevant to our condition, here in India. In fact, we need all these three Enlightenment impulses in order to shore up our own incomplete modernization process. In the end, in “Postmodernism and Social Criticism” I try to salvage some of the positive charge of postmodernism for our own social realities in India. I contend that the most radical postmodernist shifts in Europe are perestroika and glassnost in Russia, not all the theoretical carping in Western Europe. But both of these are not innocent. Behind them is the whole might of the West, which wanted to destroy or hijack the process of Russia’s own democraticization and reform. For India, I argue for the forging of an alternative tradition of criticism in which our master-texts, including the Constitution, can be re-read so as to exploit their power to bring about social and political reform. If postmodernism is a cry for greater freedom and autonomy, then it is bound to have a resonance among those who are denied of both in any corner of the world.
“Svaraj and Postmodernism.” Kala Prayojan 10 (Oct-Dec 1997): 102-114.
In this paper I argue that the critique of modernity need not be mounted from a postmodernist platform. Both in Europe and in India there was an older tradition of dissent. Indeed, both Marx and Freud emerge as two powerful examples of modernity’s internal critique. However, it is from an older, spiritual centre that I wish to draw my strength. In the West, this tradition included various figures like Blake, Goethe, Carlyle, Dickens, Emerson, Thoreau, Ruskin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Weil, and so on. These figures are varied in their response, but have one common thread running through their work. They use religion, mysticism, spirituality, or literature to critique modernity. That is, they do not attack modernity on its own terms as Marx or Freud does, but invoke from within Europe, alternative traditions of epistemology and metaphysics. This “other mind of Europe,” can, as Gandhi realised, serve as a useful ally in our own quest for selfhood. In India, we find a critique of modernity from its very inception. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj (1909) is perhaps the most powerful and far-reaching of these critiques. Now, can we argue that Hind Swaraji is postmodern? I would prefer to think of it as anti-modern, neo-traditional. Yet it does share and anticipate some of the criticisms mounted by postmodernism later.
In other words, I argue that we do not need postmodernism to critique modernity; we can use critical traditionalism better. Indeed, historically speaking, we in India have never fully accepted or internalised modernity. That is why we need not debunk it as urgently as the postmodernists have to.
In the second part of my paper, I offer a serious critique of postmodernist relativity or anomie from the point of view of Indian critical thinkers like Gandhi and Aurobindo. The latter spoke of an “antinomian tendency” that constantly recurs in the life of Europe. But instead of going above the normative and authoritarian regime of rationality, it instead plunges into anarchy and nihilism, denying all ethical obligations in its search of vital freedom. I argue, therefore, that the various expressions of the postmodern condition “in their very poignant cry for total emancipation, actually result in legitimating various kinds of irresponsibility.” That is why such free play is available only in the most secure and materially advanced nations of the world, where like spoilt children of late capitalism, these philosophers can make a mess which others must clean up. Postmodernity, in other words, rides piggy back on the most oppressive features of modernity, just as globalisation needs missiles and racist visa regimes for its survival. The free flow of capital is promoted, but the movement of labour is strictly curtailed. This is the paradox of the postmodern condition. It’s anit-foundationalism itself becomes a pseudo-foundation which only entraps us in the prison house of language. This is a chakravyuva into which we may well know how to enter, but not how to get out.
“Bypassing Postmodernism: the Burden of Creating Meaningful Knowledge in Contemporary India.” In Sandalwood: Essays and Articles in Honour of Dr. Shankar Mokashi Punekar. K. Raghavendra Rao, et. al., eds. Dharwad: Dr. Shankar Mokashi Punekar Felicitation Committee, 1998: 16-38.
In this paper I argue that what is needed for us in India is not postmodernism, but the recovery of our spiritual self. I argue for a shift from knowledge to wisdom, from a fragmentary epistemology to a holistic mode of insight and contemplation, from information to gnosis. Such an awakening of intelligence, if it is at all genuine, is bound also to result in a social transformation. This is the one way in which we can have adversaries without having enemies, in which our forms of dissent do not turn into habits of consent. I argue that rather than trying to salvage the modern project (like the esteemed Aijaz Saab tries to do), rather than trying to turn to purer or uncorrupted forms of social engineering or pseudo-scientific theories of social change, what we need is to abandon modernity as we would a sinking ship. (Speaking of ships, indeed, better symbol can we find for the modern project the doomed hulk, Titanic? All that the latter does, symbolically, is to afford us a tragic love story in which the beautiful girl, though rescued from her filthy capitalist fiancé, can never obtain her artistic lover who represents the triumph of the free proletariat.) We need, the paper argues, is a different kind of kind of craft, powered with a different of energy to take us into the new millennium. A new science, a new spirituality, a new India is what the essay yearns for.
I have summarised four of my earlier essays, all of which have been on postmodernism. I have five other essays on related subjects: three on options for and challenges before Indian criticism, and two on postcolonial criticism. For reasons of brevity, I won’t go into them here. Most of these nine or ten essays take a somewhat oppositional stance against metropolitan theorising and its relevance to the Indian context. They plead for indigenous and homespun theorising, not an escape from theory altogether. A culturally rooted and responsible praxis is what they call for. Yet, in one major way, they record the influence of these theories. The form of these essays breaks the usual mould of serious, academic writing on weighty matters like literary theory. These essays seek to fashion suitable, usually subversive forms for what they try to express. In that sense, they do reflect a break with the conventions of academic writing. There is, in other words, a certain postmodernism to them, as indeed, there is to my poetry and fiction—as perceptive critics have pointed out. I would like to believe that this comes from assimilation and naturalisation of what I have read as opposed to an imitation as is the case in some of the work I encounter. Taming theory, rather than being tamed by it is the way for us—not shunning or hating it on the one hand or capitulating to it and perpetuating it on the other.
Ahmad, Aijaz. “Keynote Address” given at the national seminar on “Interrogating the Post-Condition: Theory, Texts and
Contexts,” Punjabi University, Patiala, 20-21 January 2000.
Nandy, Ashis. “The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance.” Alternatives XIII (1998): 177-194.
Paranjape, Makarand. Decolonization and Development: Hind Svaraj Revisioned. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1993.
Tikekar, S.R., comp. Epigrams from Gandhiji. New Delhi: Publications Division, 1994.