Guest post by MAHMOOD MAMDANI. This paper is also available at the site of Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR)

Reading Ibn Khaldun in Kampala[1]

“No action resulting from choice is natural.” The Muqaddimah, p. 412

Why would a reading of The Muqaddimah[2]  by teachers and students in the Ph D program at Makerere Institute  of Social Research (MISR) be of interest to a wider audience?  One could put this question differently: why would a reading of a 14th century North African text be of interest to academics in 21st century Kampala?  Both questions belong to a wider reflection on the subject of universalization and particularization as aspects of a single process.  The universalization of particular modes of thought goes alongside the particularization of other modes of thought.  The centuries between the conquest of the Americas and the decolonization movement signified by Bandung witnessed two related movements in the history of thought.  On the one hand, Eurocentric thought was elevated to a universal; on the other, non-European modes of thought were containerized as so many “traditions” of no more than local significance.[3]  An assessment of the intellectual legacy of this period calls for a double task: alongside a critique of Eurocentrism, an exploration of engagements across various non-European modes of thought bounded as so many discrete “traditions.”  This paper hopes to explore the difficulties involved in such an engagement in the period after Bandung.

Let me rephrase the question in line with the dominant African imagination: Why study a late 14th century text today, in sub-Saharan Africa?  I can think of at least three reasons why a study of The Muqaddimah in an African academy is important today.  Most importantly, it provides us with a resource to think of an alternative to Eurocentrism.  If Eurocentrism claims to give us a universal history of reason anchored in Greece, the Muqaddimah offers both a discourse on the human and human reason and calls on us to think of the relation between Greeks and Persians as a way of de-centering Greece-focused Eurocentrism.  At the same time, it raises critical questions about Afrocentrism which has come to identify Africa with sub-Saharan Africa, as the product of a singular experience, slavery, but with a historical archive in Pharaohnic Egypt, not very different from how 19th century Europe fashioned classical Greece into an archive for European civilization.[4]  How do we historicize Africa before the Atlantic slave trade?  As a continent or as different regions?  Both Ibn Khaldun and The Muqaddimah suggest that it may be productive to think of Africa before the period of Atlantic slavery in regional rather than continental terms, and that one such regional imagination would bring together the Mediterranean and West Africa in a single history.

Second, The Muqaddimah has the potential of broadening our understanding of how to use oral tradition as a resource in the writing of African and regional histories.  The use of oral tradition as a source for historical information has been central to debates on the production of a history of Africa.  But these debates have remained confined to the history of stateless societies in Africa.  Ibn Khaldun’s discussion of isnad (the chain of transmission) has the potential of connecting it with a scholarship that has been totally set apart until now. Read the rest of this entry »

A lively debate has been going on lately in Al Jazeera, following the question posed by Hamid Dabashi in an article provocatively titled “Can Non-Europeans Think“? Dabashi’s piece, published earlier in January this year was a response to an article by Santiago Zabala, Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. Zabala’s article, entitled “Slavoj Zizek and the Role of the Philosopher”, was actually on an entirely different issue, as will be evident from the title. Zabala attempts, in this article, to read in Zizek’s persona and oeuvre, the possible implications for the philosopher as such. He dwells on Zizek as a figure who is at once a philosopher and a public intellectual – a role not very easily available, according to him, to academic philosophers.

If most significant philosophers become points of reference within the philosophical community, he says, “few have managed to overcome its boundaries and become public intellectuals intensely engaged in our cultural and political life as did Hannah Arendt (with the Eichmann trial), Jean-Paul Sartre (in the protests of May 1968) and Michel Foucault (with the Iranian revolution).” Zabala explains this rare ability/ possibility by invoking Edward Said on the ‘outsider’ status of the intellectual and by underlining the direct engagement of the thought of such philosophers with contemporary events. He says:

These philosophers became public intellectuals not simply because of their original philosophical projects or the exceptional political events of their epochs, but rather because their thoughts were drawn by these events. But how can an intellectual respond to the events of his epoch in order to contribute in a productive manner?

In order to respond, as Edward Said once said, the intellectual has to be “an outsider, living in self-imposed exile, and on the margins of society”, that is, free from academic, religious and political establishments; otherwise, he or she will simply submit to the inevitability of events.

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Keynote Address at The Ninth Annual South Asia Graduate Student Conference, University of Chicago, April 5, 2012.

Translation as paradigmatic of any conversation, and every act of translation as shot through with power relations – this understanding is now very much part of a certain common sense arising from a formidable body of scholarship. One point of departure from here is in the direction of seeing translation as a hermeneutic project of understanding, an ethical project of destabilizing the Self through engagement with the Other; another is in the direction of recognizing the constitutive misreading underlying any project of translation.

Today, taking on board much of this work, I would like to reflect particularly on another aspect of translation – as a project of rendering intelligible. What are the limits to this project? Who seeks intelligibility? Who evades it or simply in daily quotidian ways, by-passes its operations? Is the quest for mutual intelligibility implicit in all social interaction? But more critically – is this very assumption of the possibility of mutual intelligibility complicit in projects of power?

I will lay out four stories that speak to these questions in different ways – the story of Arabic philosopher Ibn Rushd and his encounter with the Greek philosopher Aristotle (also known, in an act of translation of a more banal kind, as Averroes and Arastu in each other’s cultures); the story of the ignorant schoolmaster, Jacotot, as told by Ranciere; the story of The Spirit Eaters, a piece of performance art recently enacted by the artist Subodh Gupta in Delhi; and finally, the story of the struggle of practising psychoanalysts in India to establish proper masculine subjectivity in Freudian terms. Read the rest of this entry »

[An earlier version of this note was presented as keynote lecture for the Arts Faculty Seminar on Interdisciplinary Research in Humanities, Benaras Hindu University, 9-10 September 2010]

It cannot be emphasized enough how critically important the theme of the Seminar is – especially for us in India today but more generally in the world at large. We need to think of the idea of interdisciplinarity in much more fundamental and radical ways today if we are to even begin to meet the intellectual challenges posed by ‘our contemporary’.

Before I proceed, let me also clarify that the term ‘indisciplinarity’ in the title of my talk, is not simply there for its shock-value. I believe that we are today at the threshold of a fundamentally new condition where there is a serious question mark over old knowledges and disciplines as they emerged in the course of the last few centuries. The crisis of these disciplines and bodies of knowledge stems, in the first place, from a recognition that those knowledges, despite their very important role and contribution, actually arose from within a very specific cultural-historical universe – that of post-Enlightenment Europe.

But it also stems from the fact that we are living in fundamentally new times, in times when most of what we know of the world, what older disciplines taught us, are being seriously questioned. Let us take the instance of the ‘economy’ and its relation to what we today call ‘ecology’. We have hitherto known the latter to be a mere ‘subset’ of the former: we have know all along that the latter exists only as ‘natural resources’ that go into the economy as raw material. Our contemporary moment presents us with another possibility – that the relationship might indeed have to be reversed and that we must begin to see the economy as a subset of the ecology.

However, this is not the only way in which the discipline of economics stands problematized. Take the problem of waste: everything that the economy was supposed to eject, expel, excrete in the course of producing the supposedly healthy, ‘high-growth’ body, has now come around to haunt it. Of course, waste still does not form the province of economics but everywhere we are haunted today by that excess, that remainder – from toxic and nuclear wastes to mountains of crushed cars, unhandleable e-waste etc – not to speak of the clogged drains, overflowing plastic and other garbage that adorns life in urban India. I shall suggest below that ‘waste’ can indeed be seen as the paradigmatic question that will haunt the 21st century just as production has dominated the last two. I will also suggest later that this is true not only of economics but also of disciplines like ‘political science’ that have yet to recognize the waste, the excess, the excreta that two centuries of its dominance have produced. In this context, it is possible that interdisciplinarity in itself may not really be enough and some indisciplinarity might, rather be in order.

In order to illustrate what I mean, let me return briefly to the history of interdisciplinarity in India. I will try to argue that the situation today is not anything like what it was in, say, the 1970s, when an institution like the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) was set up to encourage interdisciplinary research and study. Even though that project failed miserably and very soon the disciplinary impulses took over, there was a serious attempt at the level of thinking institutionally about interdisciplinarity, as a result of which students were allowed (and still are), to opt for courses in centres and schools other than theirs, that is, form very different disciplines. Nonetheless, that idea of interdisciplinarity – whether in JNU or elsewhere – was based on the assumption of a secure body of knowledge known as a ‘discipline’. Interdisciplinarity meant cutting across these fully formed disciplines with their own very clearly defined objects of knowledge and very specific protocols of research. It is much less certain today, how far these disciplines are secure today either in terms of their objects of knowledge or in terms of their protocols of research. Read the rest of this entry »

[The following is a revised version of some comments made during a discussion with Sudipta Kaviraj at the Centre for the Study of Developing Socoeties, Delhi on 21 October 2010. Kaviraj made a presentation based on a recent essay of his ‘Marxism in Translation: Critical Reflections on Indian Political Thought’ (published in Political Judgement: Essays in Honour of John Dunn, Eds Raymond Geuss and Richard Bourke) to which some of us responded. AN]

It is interesting to revisit, with Sudipta Kaviraj, the field of ‘Indian Marxism’. It is an abandoned field, a piece of haunted land where no living beings go – at least not in their senses. What is more, it is a field that ‘Indian Marxists’ themselves are afraid of revisiting. It is their past – the land of the dead, of unfulfilled ancestral spirits, where the ghosts of yesteryears hang like betaal from every tree. The terror of this forbidden territory has redoubled, after the collapse of socialism. It is as if some deep secrets of the past lie buried there which they would rather not bring back to life, for fear of what might be revealed to them of their own selves. It is strange but true that Marxists who swear by history are perhaps as afraid of it as anybody else.

And yet, we must visit that forbidden land, ‘summon up the ghosts of that nether-world’ in the hope that there may yet emerge another tale, maybe many other tales, that may throw some light on an idea that once seduced generations of modern Indians. For, it is all too easy to dismiss marxism as such, and Indian marxism in particular, as a bad dream, as some illegitimate idea that once took hold of us and kept us in that trance-like situation for almost a century (one could say, from the 1920s, at least). It is almost as if there was nothing to Indian Marxism except that it pathetically tried to copy one strand of European thought and history and implant it on Indian soil. It is all too easy, as has been often done in the past, to dismiss this episode as one where entire generations supposedly sleepwalked in the mistaken belief that they were awake – living a misrecognition, as it were.   How exactly did that happen? Presumably, if this rendition of our history is to be believed, the marxists of yore were doped (or duped) by the material successes of the West into believing that they could also all become Western/ modern overnight. The problem with this all too familiar, populist representation is that it forgets that it was not only the English speaking, west-oriented middles classes who were drawn towards marxism, but also large sections of the non-English speaking people of the regional language universe. It forgets too, the tremendous attraction that this vision held for the poorer and more underprivileged sections of Indian society. Thus we owe it to ourselves and to future generations, to take a fresh look at that entire episode. It is necessary for us to revisit the haunted land.

And so, Sudipta Kaviraj must be complimented for having made this foray, if somewhat too briefly, into that world.

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Presented at conference organized by  Department of English (Delhi University)  February 14, 2011. The title of the  conference was “Postfeminist Postmortems?  Gender, Sexualities and Multiple  Modernities”.

Cross-posted on kafila

To paraphrase Anthony Appiah’s famous and oft-quoted question – Is the post of postfeminist the post of postmortem? That is, as in postmortem, does “post” mean definitively over, after, having transcended, gone beyond? To those who would answer “yes”, those privileged young women who float through their empowered lives in the wake of over a century of feminist struggles but disown their own heritage, to them I can only say – I’ll be a post-feminist in post-patriarchy. Or – not for a long time yet, baby.

But my answer to that question is “no”. I understand the post of postfeminism in the sense that Laclau and Mouffe understand their postmarxism. That is, post-feminist as indicating “having passed through” that body of thought; having lived through, experienced, feminist theory and politics in such a way that the terrain one now inhabits has been decisively transformed; but alsopost-feminist in the sense that in the course of this passage new objects have been configured that the old feminism could not have seen, or recognized.

It is in this kind of postfeminist moment that I locate my presentation today.

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Aditya Nigam

[This essay was first published in the Journal of Contemporary Thought, No 27, Summer 2008]

Nicos Poulantzas once made a distinction between ‘the political’ and ‘politics’ as such. In his rendering ‘the political’ referred to what can be called, with appropriate modifications, the juridical-political level of ‘the state’ (and we can include parties, elections and mobilization), while ‘politics’ referred to political practices (Poulantzas 1968: 37).[1] ’Political practices’ referred in his writings to ‘class practices’ but we can once again, suitably modify the term to include different kinds of political practices along different axes – class, caste, gender, religious or linguistic community and so on. Politics, thus seen, pervades life as such. We can also call it, after Michel Foucault, the micropolitics of power. Politics is there wherever there are power relations. And as feminism once struggled to establish, at this level, the personal is political. That is to say, from relations within the family, to relations between ‘loving couples’ and between parents and children, nothing is free of the relations of power. Indeed, the world has never been the same after that devastating intervention, however much formal political theory may try to ignore it. The great classical distinction between the polis and the oikos, reworked by moderns into the public and the private, seemed to suddenly wither under that attack.

At this stage I would also like to point out that what applies to ‘the private’ domain also holds for the more everyday and local forms of domination and power such as in the ways in which the caste rules operate in the villages or acquire a somewhat modified class/caste form in towns and cities, structuring what appear might to be ‘inter-personal’ relations. We can witness this in the hundreds of daily interactions, say for instance, between middle class families and their domestic employees, or their interactions with rikshaw pullers, vendors and such like. These are certainly not ‘private’ but bear the characteristics of the private insofar as they lack ‘publicity’.

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