Archive for March, 2011

[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. (more…)

[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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