The Pub Crawl and the Sprint of the Virus: Britain, COVID-19, and Englishness

(Seventh in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

Part II of “A Global Pandemic, Political Epidemiology, and National Histories”


“The Tavern Scene”, also known as “The Orgy”, third in a series called “The Rake’s Progress”, painting by William Hogarth, 1735, from the collection of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London.

The diary of Samuel Pepys, which gives us unusual insights into everyday life in London among the upper crust during the Great Plague, raises some fundamentally interesting questions about what one might describe as national histories and the logic of social response in each country to what is now the global pandemic known as COVID-19.  The diary is taken by social historians to be Continue reading

The Coronavirus, the Enemy, and Nationalism

(Second in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)

The novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has been making its way across the world, conquering one territory after another, since it first emerged in China around three months ago.  There are now 185 countries where the virus has taken hold, and most of them, barring a few that took early and concerted measures to mitigate it, are finding it difficult to restrain the advance of the virus within their territories.  Much like a world conqueror, the virus respects no borders, recognizes no nation-states, and cares not an iota for sovereignty.  This may be one reason why the leaders of many countries, and even Donald J. Trump, an open exponent of the idea ‘America First’, have declared that the wholly unprecedented situation created by the virus concerns all humankind.  “Let’s look out for each other,” the WHO’s Director-General said in pronouncing the virus a pandemic, “because we’re in this together, to do the right things with calm and protect the citizens of the world.” Musicians, actors, and major public figures are all part of the choir reassuring the world that “we are all in this together”.

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

It is nearly an axiom of contemporary thought that we live in a shrinking world, in a world of unprecedented transnational exchanges, the global movement of peoples, flows of goods and ideas, and so on. The world has never seemed smaller, some commentators argue, and clichés about the present situation abound, among them the idea that the world is a ‘global village’; others, in a variation of this argument, speak of a world that is increasingly ‘flat’.   Global village sounds trendy, chic, even sexy and, in some vague way, ethically responsible.  It gives rise to the satisfying idea, which however demands no action on our part, that our humanity links us all.  We may be all connected, in much the bland way envisioned in cell phone ads; at the other end, if one is to take a highly optimistic view of the matter, perhaps the idea of ‘global village’ may be said to have been anticipated in John Donne’s famous observation, ‘No man is an island’.

There are obvious rejoinders, of varying complexity, to the notion that our world has shrunk and that information travels at immense speeds not even remotely imaginable a mere few decades ago.   Visa and passport regimes have been considered tightened, borders have never seemed so hostile and insurmountable, and walls – in Palestine, between India and Bangladesh, along the US border with Mexico, and many others — have come up where they never existed before.  The increasing turn towards biometric measurements and national identity cards points to the fact that surveillance regimes have the world over become normalized.  One wall, in Berlin, came down, but many more have come up in its place. There are, of course, many walls besides those built with brick and mortar, or with electric wiring calculated to leave dead or shock into submission those daring to transgress the law of borders.  It is not even necessary to enter into discussions about whether the Euro will survive over the next decade or two; of more interest is the question whether the EU is at all the harbinger of a freer and more ecumenical world as it is sometimes made out to be.  Free trade agreements offer relatively unhindered movement of goods, but no nation-state will even remotely contemplate the free mobility of outsiders across its borders.  Those living in the Global South can barely indulge in the idea of wanderlust.  (On a recent visit to Germany, the Schengen visa issued to me, a citizen of India with permanent residency in the United States, holding professorships at leading universities in India and the US, specified the exact dates during which I was permitted to be present in the land of former Nazis:  21 to 25 November 2010.  Just how easy is it for those without invitations, immediate family members in the country of destination, professional positions, or reasonably lucrative businesses to travel to the Schengen zone or North America?)  Leaving aside, however, for the present such obvious criticisms of the regnant ideas of the day about our so-called ‘global village’, what would a more trenchant critique look like?

There is much talk of ‘knowledge cities’ and ‘knowledge societies’, and no one doubts that the sum total of our ‘knowledge’ of the natural and social world is much greater than it has ever been before.  But everything hinges on what we mean by knowledge, and what relation knowledge has to awareness, wisdom, perspicaciousness, and insight; moreover, any pride we may feel in our capacity for knowledge is at once moderated when we begin to ask, whose knowledge, to what end, and for whom?  Even as our knowledge of the world has perhaps grown, the means by which we oppress and remain oppressed have grown dramatically.  Oppressive class relations, the military-industrial complex, feudal norms that stipulate the place of overlords and servants, the brutal exercise of sheer military force:  all these have persisted through the advent of modernity.  Nevertheless, there is little if any awareness of the fact that oppression is increasingly exercised through what might be described as the imperialism of categories established by modern knowledge systems.  What are the categories of knowledge bequeathed to us by the social sciences through which we are induced to comprehend the world around us, and how have these categories become nearly impermeable to critique?

One of my earliest books, Empire of KnowledgeCulture and Plurality in the Global Economy (Pluto Press, 2002; enlarged Indian ed., Sage, 2005), is largely orchestrated around the idea that, if knowledge helps to liberate us, it also enables a more thoroughgoing and rigorous oppression than anything else that we have so far witnessed.  Even concentration camp inmates understood that it was possible to be broken in the body but not in the mind.  From there we move to the more complex idea that the interpretive categories through which we understand the world have shrunk rather than grown, even as disciplines have developed and multiplied and the entire knowledge industry has grown by gargantuan proportions.   The social scientist may object that certain categories are dropped as they are found to be inadequate, false, misleading, or unproductive, but in truth the social scientist establishes an imperialism of categories.  If the idea of the nation-state holds us in captivity, as is obvious to those who have thought about the fact that the nation-state appears to be the only form in which corporate political community is now conceptualized, why should we expect that the categories with which economists and social scientists work, such as ‘development’ and ‘growth’, or ‘poverty’ and ‘scarcity’, to be any less compromised?  The Palestinians and Kurds may simply want ‘freedom’, but why does freedom necessarily have to take the form of a nation-state?  [See Thesis Three, next, for a greater elaboration of this point.]

How did a category such as ‘literacy’, if I may take another example, become so normalized as to become sacrosanct?  The Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, usefully, that though the word ‘literate’ was first used in the English language around 1432, the word ‘literacy’ only entered the language in 1883.  [See the essay on literacy by Barry Sanders in Ashis Nandy & Vinay Lal, eds., The Future of Knowledge and CultureA Dictionary for the Twenty-first Century (Viking Penguin 2005).]  There have always been literates and illiterates, but ‘literacy’ as an evaluative scale, used to judge one nation-state in relation to others, only came into use in the age of eugenics.  To reiterate: even though military domination, class relations, and other familiar structures of hierarchy may not have diminished, increasingly oppression will be exercised through the imperialism of categories established by modern knowledge systems.  The corollary is that our conceptual categories have, contrary to received opinion, shrunk dramatically.  The implications of this are all the more frightening to contemplate when we consider that the Global South cannot even remotely claim intellectual autonomy since the practice of the social sciences is borrowed lock, stock and barrel from the West.

See also previous and subsequent 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 One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

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