*Thesis Nine: The Dissent that is Beyond Dissent

 

A meeting at Penang in autumn 2010 of like-minded intellectuals and activists from the Global South committed to a radical decolonization of knowledge commenced with a screening of the late Howard Zinn’s documentary, We the People.  A few years ago, the World Social Forum in Mumbai opened with a screening, before thousands of people, of the documentary, Manufacturing Consent, focused on the ideas and work of Noam Chomsky, the most well known American voice of dissent at home and abroad.  In either case, most people would be justified in thinking that the choice was sound.  Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States — a work attentive to the voices of the marginalized, critical of mainstream narratives, sensitive to histories of labor and the working class, and so on — has sold over a million copies in various editions; moreover, Zinn’s life, marked by an ethical impulse to do, in common parlance, what is right and stand by what is just, is one that many might seek to emulate.  Chomsky, for his part, has been the most relentless and forthright critic of American foreign policy:  if there is one liberal voice which to the world represents the ability of the United States to tolerate its own critics, it is surely the voice of Chomsky.  Critical as Chomsky is of the United States, one suspects that he can also be trumpeted by his adversaries as the supreme instance of America’s adherence to notions of free speech.  Chomsky is simultaneously one of America’s principal intellectual liabilities and assets.

 

I am animated, however, by a different set of considerations in this discussion of Zinn and Chomsky.  Why, we should ask, did the organizers settle for Zinn and Chomsky, both American scholars – and that, too, at meetings, especially the Multiversity conference in Penang, committed at least partly to the idea of intellectual autonomy, self-reliance, greater equity between the global North and the global South, and so on.  An ethical case might reasonably be made for the gestures encountered at Penang and Mumbai.  No less a person than Gandhi sought alliances, throughout his life, with the ‘other West’.  Holding firmly to the principle that freedom is indivisible, and that it is not only India that needed to be free of colonial rule, but also England itself that had to be liberated from its own worst tendencies, Gandhi sought out those writers, intellectuals, and activists in the West who had themselves been reduced to the margins.  His tract of 1909, Hind Swaraj, which is intensely critical of the modern West, lists ‘eminent authorities’ whose works Gandhi consulted, and the bulk of them are figures such as Tolstoy, Thoreau, Edward Carpenter, and Ruskin.  Those who rightly recall this critical aspect of Gandhi’s life conveniently forget that Gandhi, on more than one occasion, also described the West as “Satanic”.  If he accepted English, America, and European friends as allies in the struggle for Indian independence, he also never wavered from his firm belief that ultimately Indians had to fight their own battles.  Thus, following  him, some difficult questions that come to mind should not be brushed aside.  Is the Global South so colonized that it must borrow even its models of dissent from the West?  If the theorists of global import, from Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Adorno, Heidegger and Althusser to Lacan, Habermas, Levinas, Judith Butler, and Agamben all hail from the West, are the ultimate dissenters also from the West?

 

What begins in people’s minds can only end in people’s minds.  All over the colonized world in the nineteenth century, Locke, John Stuart Mill, and Tocqueville were held up as the torchbearers of freedom.  Almost no one recognized Tocqueville, even today a sacrosanct figure in the United States, as the holder of the most virulently racist ideas about Arabs and Muslims.  Mill’s ideas about representative government extended only to people he conceived of as free, mature, and possessed of rational faculties.  The habits of simulation in the global South are so deeply engrained that Americans become the ultimate and only genuine dissenters.  The rebellions of the dispossessed, oppressed, and marginalized are generally dismissed as luxuries possible only in permissive democracies, as the last rants of people opposed to development and progress.  However, the problem of dissent is far from being confined to the global South:  it is, if anything, more acute in the United States, where the dissenters have all been neatly accommodated, whether in women’s studies, ethnic studies, or gay studies departments at universities, or in officially-sanctioned programs of multiculturalism, or in pious-sounding policies affirming the values of diversity and cultural pluralism.  The dictators of tomorrow will also, we can be certain, have had “diversity training”.  Is there any dissent beyond what now passes for dissent?   How will we recognize the dissent of those who do not speak in one of the prescribed languages of dissent?  The United Nations has officially recognized languages, but the world at large has something much more insidious, namely officially recognized and prescribed modes of dissent.  Those who do not dissent in the languages of dissent will never even receive the dignity of recognition, not even as much as a mass memorial to ‘the unknown soldier’.

CONCLUDED

See also the previous posts in this series:

Thesis Eight: Postcolonial Thought and Religion in the Public Sphere

Thesis Seven: The Geography and Psychogeography of Home

Thesis Six: In incommensurability is the promise of more democratic futures

Thesis Five: The Moral and Political Imperative of South-South Dialogues

Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

Thesis Three: Postcolonialism’s critique of the nation-state remains inadequate

Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue)

 

 

*Thesis Eight: Postcolonial Thought and Religion in the Public Sphere

 

Proposition:  A more ecumenical conception of the future must contend with the question of religion in the public sphere

I do not think it can be doubted that postcolonial thought has displayed a stern reluctance to engage with the question of religion or, more broadly, the language of transcendence.  Let us acknowledge, in the first instance, that the very template of ‘religion’ comes from the canon of Western thought; more precisely, ‘religion’ the world over was sought to be remade in the template of Protestant Christianity.  The nineteenth century also saw the establishment of an hierarchy of religions; even the notion of world religions, as the work of Tomoko Masuzawa [The Invention of World ReligionsOr, how European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (2005)] suggests, served to enforce the idea of European modernity in the guise of pluralism.  Though a “religion” such as Hinduism could be accommodated within the Aryan-Semitic divide, it posed distinct problems for many of its adherents, many of whom unwittingly or tacitly accepted the notion of Protestant Christianity as representing the acme of an authentic and proper religion.  To become a proper religion, and be viewed as one, having, that is, the notion of a singular savior, a single book, and a clear and unambiguous theology, became the aspiration of many modernizing Hindus as well.

 

To admit all this is only to say that we must begin with a deep recognition of the limitations attached to the idea of ‘religion’.  Moreover, in speaking of religion, one is already severely compromised into using a language that cannot fully describe the various modes in which peoples experience the divine, the transcendent, the notion of the after-life, or, even, the ethical life.  But once we are past this admission, the problem persists:  it is all but clear that postcolonial theory had almost nothing to say about the place of religion in the public sphere, and that too at a time when the world over religion was making inroads into politics and the everyday life of communities.  If there is a larger and entirely legitimate question about how postcolonial thought was positioned in the public sphere, it is in the realm of religion that postcolonial thought proved to be wholly inadequate.  This lacuna is most evident in the work of Said himself:  insofar as he engaged with the question of religion, he did so by talking about the representations of Muslims in the western world, whether in the media or in works of scholarship.  He adverted, as well, to the rise of religious fundamentalism or rather we should say extremism; to the extent that he acknowledged religious belief, it is only the perversion of such religious belief that came to his attention.  Said’s critical scholarship is equally an illustration of his steadfast indifference to religious works, theological treatises, the religious life, the nature of religious practices and rituals, or even the philosophy of religion.

 

This indifference to religion, in Said and many other postcolonial thinkers, can be described in part as stemming from their fear that religion claims dominion over “universal ideas”.  The postcolonial scholar has always found it easier to engage with works that fall under the rubric of ‘reason’ (in all its registers, from ethical reason to the brute instrumentalization of reason).  Said’s response was to put into place a critical humanism that he hoped would serve, in the manner of religion, as a template to generate competing universal ideas.  It is in this rather odd fashion that we can think of Said as a religious thinker.  But, more to the point, the consequences on the part of secular and postcolonial scholars of abandoning the public sphere are there to be seen – in, to take three examples, the dramatic rise of Christian evangelicals and their forging of a worldwide network, the ascendancy of the Hindu right and its heady if often inadvertent embrace of what were once colonial conceptions of Hinduism, and the numerous manifestations of violence in Islam.  Postcolonial secular scholars never had anything that can remotely be described as an adequate response; and they never even contemplated the possibility that perhaps the greater ethical response from a committed non-believer is to come to the defense of religious belief.

See also the previous posts in this series:

Thesis Seven: The Geography and Psychogeography of Home

Thesis Six: In incommensurability is the promise of more democratic futures

Thesis Five: The Moral and Political Imperative of South-South Dialogues

Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

Thesis Three: Postcolonialism’s critique of the nation-state remains inadequate

Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue)

 

*Thesis Seven: The Geography and Psychogeography of Home

In a trenchant and famous critique of Edward Said to which I have previously alluded, the Marxist scholar Aijaz Ahmad drew attention to what he described as postcolonialism’s fetish with the idea of exile.  Ahmad had in mind the fact that the most compelling figures in Said’s intellectual landscape – among them Conrad, Adorno, Auerbach, Mahmud Darwish, C L R James, and Faiz Ahmad Faiz — lived as exiles.  Said placed himself squarely in that lineage, but went much further in his claim that modern Western culture was fundamentally a creation of exiles.  Said advanced this claim in yet another,  perhaps more compelling, language:  modern culture, he wrote, could be described as the product of a conflict between the ‘housed’ and the ‘unhoused’.  Ahmad’s criticism that Said and postcolonial intellectuals who have fetishized the idea of exile are quite oblivious to their own positions of immense privilege is not without some merit, but can we locate a different and less acrimonious point of entry into this question?  There are obvious and pertinent considerations that remain tacit in Ahmad’s critique.  We are living in an era characterized not only by the mobility of émigrés and exiles, but by nearly unprecedented movements of masses, such as domestic and sex workers, political and economic refugees, stateless persons, immigrants, and so-called undocumented aliens.  The intellectual émigré is surely member of a miniscule minority, but does such an admission suffice as a basis on which Said might be critiqued?

To the extent that the ‘nation’ remained, if only as the subject of critique, the fundamental operative category in postcolonial writings, the idea of home went unexamined.  Just what is this thing we call home, and does the geography of the landscape that might be called ‘home’ correspond to the psychogeography of home?  That little-noticed passage in Said, where he characterizes the problem of modern culture as the conflict “between the unhoused and housed”, helps to push his insights further.  The death, less than two years ago, of Samuel Hallegua, a Jew whose family had been resident in the coastal city of Cochin for a little more than four centuries, brought home to me the problem of ‘home’ in modern thought.  Every scholar of global Jewish history admits that, in India at least, Jews never encountered the slightest trace of anti-Semitism. Nathan Katz, author of Who Are the Jews of India?, writes candidly that “Jews navigated the eddies and shoals of Indian culture very well.  They never experienced anti-Semitism or discrimination.” He goes on to describe in what respect India could have served as a model for the world:  “Indians Jews lived as all Jews should have been allowed to live:  free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host country.”  Yet, in the aftermath of the creation of Israel, there was an exodus of Indian Jews to the new Jewish state. How and why their numbers dwindled will seem no mystery to those who, citing the horrendous experience of European Jews, the long history of anti-Semitism in many parts of the world, and the passage of the Law of Return, deem it but natural that India’s Jews also sought to migrate to Israel.  But is it really all that ‘natural’ that the modern nation-state should be construed as the only entity capable of commanding the loyalties of human beings, and should we effortlessly concede that primordial ties, of blood and religion for instance, reign supreme in human affairs?

In their passage from India to Israel, many Indian Jews may have gained much – solidarity with other Jews, perhaps new employment prospects, and the sense of freeing themselves from their hitherto eternal diasporic condition.  Some of them, it is certain, would also have experienced a sense of loss – not just a feeling of nostalgia, but even discrimination as they found themselves representing strands of Judaism all but foreign to other Jews.  Their children and grandchildren will perhaps not be privy to such sentiments.  But what of Mr. Hallegua’s contemporaries?  If they desired the comfort of numbers, what enabled Mr. Hallegua, who never left Cochin, to resist that easy temptation?  Should we conclude that he was less enterprising than his peers and less willing to take the risk of dislocation?  Or should we entertain the possibility that Mr. Hallegua, in his own quiet manner, was registering a dissent against the ethos of modern political and social identity?  The Hindu, in reporting the death of Mr. Hallegua, quoted him as saying of India, “It has been more than tolerant.  The Santa Cruz High School I went to was run by Jesuit priests.  My sister studied in a school which was managed by Italian nuns.  But we were never under pressure to shun Judaism.  The country accepted us as we have been.  I’m a proud Indian.  I’m also a Hindu in an apolitical sense.”  With the decimation of Cochin’s Jewish community in the aftermath of Indian independence and the creation of Israel, we might say that the logic of the nation-state prevailed over the possibilities of civilization, and that the modern political arithmetic of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ triumphed – as it has so often in our times.

I do not wish to say that Mr. Hallegua heroically mounted a resistance to the arithmetic of modern politics; but he nevertheless refused to give this arithmetic his endorsement.  He did not speak the language of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’, and he refused to be drawn into thinking that identity is reducible to some primordial markers of religion, ethnicity, and the like.  Or, let us put it this way, Mr. Hallegua had an expansive conception of the politics of home.  He may even have recognized Israel as the longed-for home, but perhaps it was the home to which he could not or would not return.  He may have refused to idealize Israel; or, if he did, he could have thought that it would be best to hold up the idea of Israel and yet have no truck with the reality of a nation-state predicated on the notion of religious identity.  What is  certain to my mind is that new paradigms in the aftermath of postcolonialism will have to help us resist the debilitating arithmetic of modern politics.

See also previous posts in this series:

Thesis Six: In incommensurability is the promise of more democratic futures

Thesis Five: The Moral and Political Imperative of South-South Dialogues

Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

Thesis Three: Postcolonialism’s critique of the nation-state remains inadequate

Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue)

*Thesis Six: In incommensurability is the promise of more democratic futures

One narrative of colonialism insists that, however adverse the consequences of colonialism for the peoples of the Americas, Asia, Africa, Latin America, Polynesia, and so on, it opened up these worlds to the modern West and its scientific, technological, intellectual and political advancements.  This argument has seen an extraordinary resurgence over the last two decades, and its advocates point sometimes to the ‘failed states’ of Africa, and at other times to the rise of militant Islam, to suggest that the colonial powers let down their subjects by pulling out too early.  Some commentators insist only on the supposed ‘fact’ that the colonized subjects have repeatedly shown themselves incapable of (good) governance; others advance the view that colonialism can productively be understood and condoned as the narrative of provincial and insular cultures being opened up, even if forcibly, to the salutary and progressive influence of the West in all domains of life.  Some historians of empire continue to indulge in a similarly puerile exercise, weighing the ‘good’ that colonialism wrought for the darker races against the ‘bad’ that, mostly ‘inadvertently’, was done by a few rotten specimens of the white ruling elites in the colonies.  Paul Johnson, Niall Ferguson, and Dennis Judd are among the many commentators and academic dons who have never been in doubt that the ‘good’ easily outweighed the ‘bad’; they have been joined by politicians such as Gordon Brown, who declared on an official visit to Britain’s former East African colonies in 1995 that Britain no longer needed to apologize for colonialism since it had contributed many ‘positive’ values to the lives of its colonial subjects. (Engulfed as we are by apologies, it is for the better that Gordon Brown decided not to contribute to the epidemic.)

We know what the ‘opening up’ of Australia and the Americas, to take two obvious and gruesome examples, meant for indigenous peoples.  It is barely necessary to rehearse the histories of genocide, the devastation of lifestyles and cultural inheritances, and destruction of ecosystems that must be understood in their most expansive sense as encompassing complicated relationships between humans, animals, plants, the soil, and the elements.  Scholars engaged in postcolonial criticism scarcely need to be reminded of the manner in which histories of European expansion and genocide are inextricably intertwined.  The question before us, rather, is whether the theoretical trajectories of the last few decades have not, inadvertently or otherwise, also opened up formerly colonized subjects to the knowledge systems of the West and thereby paved the way for the extinction of the little cultural and intellectual autonomy that might have remained in colonized societies.  There is a legitimate question to be asked whether there are ever any ‘pure’ categories of thought, and it may even be that the scientific methods and categories of the West have themselves been deployed to stake arguments about the history and authenticity of a local knowledge tradition (as, some would argue, is true of Ayurveda).  Nevertheless, what cannot be doubted is the massive inequilibrium between modern knowledge systems and knowledge systems that remain local, indigenous, suppressed, or marginal.  On the liberal view, to take one instance, the West has shown itself to be increasingly accommodating to alternative knowledge systems, and in medicine liberals will point to the growing acceptance of homeopathy, acupuncture, Ayurveda, traditional Tibetan medicine, and naturopathy in the US and Europe.  But are these merely viewed as complementary systems, or do practitioners of allopathy permit their assumptions about medical care to be seriously put into question by practitioners of other medical knowledge systems?

Let us consider an analogy:  Foucault’s History of Sexuality has had a seminal place not only in recent understandings of sexuality in Europe and the Americas but also in the attention being lavished on sexuality in Indian variants of cultural studies.  As in economics and anthropology, the assumption persists that Foucault has furnished a universal template for the study of sexuality, even if notions of femininity, masculinity, sexual conduct, the care and practices of the body in India may not be amenable to his cultural histories.  Fortuitously, another bespectacled bald man, this one in India, had an abiding interest in sexual practices.  I have in mind, quite surprisingly, Mohandas Gandhi.  Unlike the two bald men fighting over a comb, Jorges Luis Borges’s memorable description of the squabble between Argentina and Britain over the Falkland Islands, Gandhi and Foucault would, I suspect, have disagreed over much that is truly substantive for our understanding of human sexuality.  I wonder when the history of sexuality in Europe will be opened up to the penetrating gaze of the sexual practices of Gandhi, who had firm and deeply rooted ideas about the public and the private, masculinity and femininity, the violence of sex and the sex of violence, and the joys of sexuality without sex.

Though it is now an axiom of modern thought and sensibility that the moral imperative of the day is to enhance cultural cooperation and comprehend the various ways in which the world is shrinking, it is rather the case that conditions for even remotely equal exchanges and flows do not exist.  In the present state of affairs, keeping in mind the enormous iniquities in the world system, little diminished by the alleged erosion of American power or the ascendancy of China, and nowhere better manifested than in the fact that modern knowledge systems are generally derived in toto from the West, there can be no more desirable outcome than to reduce certain contacts, for instance between the Global North and the Global South, and repudiate certain conversations.  In the totalizing conditions of modern knowledge, we have the intellectual, political and moral obligation, at least from the standpoint of those living in the Global South, to increase incommensurability.  To deny the South this choice, to compel it to enter to the stream of world history the teleological center of which remains the Euro-American world – Fukuyama’s bland “end of history” being a case in point — notwithstanding all the critiques of recent decades, would be the clearest sign of surrender to a resurgent colonialism masquerading as the harbinger of the familiar universalisms of freedom, progress, development, and the like.

See also previous posts in this series:

Thesis Four – Nonviolence: A Gaping Hole in Postcolonial Thought

Thesis Three: Postcolonialism’s critique of the nation-state remains inadequate

Thesis Two: Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories

Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue)