Thinking about ‘the Contemporary’: Between Interdisciplinarity and Indisciplinarity

Posted: 07/03/2011 by Aditya Nigam in Knowledge, Modernity, Political Science, Postcolonial, Theory
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[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. The first serious challenge in this respect came very early on, soon after institutions like JNU were set up – and needless to say, this was from feminism. The epistemological challenge of feminism, as we know, came from its very fundamental challenge to notions of objectivity and the valorization of certain kinds of masculine values within notions of scientificity. Feminist scholars attempting to study structures of women’s oppression increasingly found themselves running up against dominant assumptions in various disciplines. An early example in the history of international feminism, for instance, could be psychiatry and later psychoanalysis and its assumptions about ‘lack’, ‘penis-envy’ etc – aptly termed ‘phallogocentrism’ by Derrida. Over time, feminists also presented a serious challenge in terms of substantive questions for disciplines: notions of labour, paid work and unpaid work, notions of reproduction of labour in economics and say, notions of public and private in political theory. Indeed, at one level, some of the feminist critiques of disciplines eventually tied up with emerging ecological critiques which were beginning to raise serious questions about the logic of instrumental rationality that governed the ‘hard’ disciplines like economics and the sciences. And at some level, these were foundational questions.

And yet, unfortunately, none of these managed to seriously make a dent in the overall armature of different disciplines. Consequently, two things happened. First, feminist scholars had to individually ‘secede’ from their disciplines in terms of their research, even while remaining institutionally located within for professional reasons, which in the best of times is a big risk to take. Second, over time, they had to set up separate Women’s Studies departments in universities – a process of institutionalization which has its own attendant dangers, some of which came to fruition. Nevertheless, women’s studies did draw from a range of different disciplines and to that extent belongs (in India, at least) to that moment of interdisciplinarity. But for feminists who had to stay within their disciplines and secede at the same time, the act was truly one of ‘indiscipline’ – of violation of discipline, hence ‘indisciplinarity’.

However, the term indisciplinarity here should be understood also in another sense – as the breaking down of boundaries, of the bringing into view newer ‘objects’ of knowledge. This sense of the term resonates to some limited extent with the way Jacques Ranciere uses the term but I would like to suggest a much wider meaning as we go along. As an instance of this let me take the example of political science once again. Some of us, part of a project called Critical Studies in Politics, have lately been involved in studying politics beyond political science, largely because we have felt the discipline to be very, very limited in terms of its resources in understanding politics as such. And for this reason, let me state in parenthesis, that I consider my current ‘discipline’ to be ‘politics’ rather than political science. I would like, here, to bring in a couple of instances by way of which I think I can show how limited the disciplinary apparatus of political science actually is in terms of understanding politics today.

It is elementary now that politics is not simply about constitutions, governance, elections, parties, or even institutions and political behaviour. Conventionally these are the concerns that define the province of political science and almost always, without exception, political scientists focus on these questions from the point of view of content alone. And yet, any politician knows that politics is almost always much more about style, performance, discourse. So whether it is Mahatma Gandhi donning the loin-cloth after his return to India or whether it was Ambedkar selecting the western suit, Nehru or Maulana Azad wearing a sherwani and chooridaar to Mayawati’s taste for ornaments or Dalit leaders’ distaste for khadi – in the very ‘presentation’ of the body in public, a statement is sought to be made. Right from matters of sartorial preference and body language to questions of selecting the modes of political intervention, forms of political speech – everything is designed to (a) ‘produce’ the public one wants to address and (b) gesture therefore to what one wants to reject. It is, for instance, difficult to see a Gandhian ‘public’ in existence before the entire set of elaborate Gandhian rituals from kahdi, to charkha, ashram-life, fasting, self-purification and so on are put into place. It is likewise impossible to imagine the emergence of a Dalit public in contemporary India, without its emphatic rejection of the Gandhian khadi in the presentation of the Dalit political body (from Ambedkar’s western suit to Ram Vilas Paswan’s raw silk kurta, Kanshi Ram’s shirt and trousers or Mayawati’s ostentatiousness).

In other words, they tell us a lot more about their politics than a simple preoccupation with the ‘content’ of their politics can tell us. We can also extend this argument to look at the ways in which early Dalit politics used the statue of Ambedkar in blue suit as a ubiquitous sign of marking its space and political presence. If Dalit presence in the village context had to be hidden from view, here in a new setting were these statues not announcing the presence of the hitherto proscribed population? And what of its transformation into something quite different with the coming to power of BSP and Mayawati, where we now have huge monumental statues, special parks and designated public areas that mark this transformation. Does a study of this transformation tell us something about politics and power in contemporary India? And if we do want to study these, what are the tools that political science makes available to us? If the very same statements were made by Mayawati or other Dalit leaders in speeches or in press statements, political scientists would consider it their domain. They can deal with that ‘material’: newspaper reports or public speeches, even private interviews. But when it comes to dealing with materials like reorganizing space and time, erecting statues, the forms (architectural or otherwise) used in doing so, then the problem really reduces itself to a ‘methodological’ one: it is not that these are not political questions but our discipline does not equip us to deal with them. If we want to study these phenomena we have to look into literary and cultural studies to find tools that help us engage with forms and styles of speech, rhetoric, performance etc.

Thus, as with feminist scholars in an earlier time, Dalit scholars today are increasingly moving into arenas that have to do with ‘cultural politics’. They are engaged not only in excavating their own traditions but also interrogating the encoded cultural power of upper caste Hinduism by subjecting literature and art as well to political critique. I want to underline the term ‘political critique’ here, for this critique does not arise simply out a purely aesthetic engagement. Thus when Dalit scholars critique canonical texts of upper caste radical intellectuals, writers, artists and political leaders, and in doing this go beyond the confines all disciplinarity, an insistence that ‘this is not political science’ can only sound ridiculous. So much the worse for political science, one might say.

Or to take another instance, let us look at the Maoist movement. At one level, we might say it is a movement led by a party and a conventional political scientist is only equipped to look at its leadership, its background, the organizational structure of the party [CPI(Maoist)] and the PGLA, its ideology and so on. However, such a study would tell us very little about the movement. What we would really need to look at is also what is going on at the economic levels in terms of exploitation of tribals and extractive mining etc that is going on in these areas; we would have to look at the place of violence that is endemic to rural Indian society and how violence of different kinds produces specific kinds of subjectivity; we would have to look at the cultural world of the tribals and how they see and understand the encroachment of the state and corporations into what were their traditional habitats. We would also have to look at the ways in which historical memory of the 19th century Santhal rebellions is being invoked and re-presented in these current battles.

The question of cultural memory is central to all kinds of politics – including the Dalit and the ‘Maoist’ tribal movements that I have referred to. It is equally central to the project of the state which therefore strenuously exercises itself in order to organize it in specific ways. Now matters like these are not amenable to study through the traditional tools of discipline like political science and we cannot but draw from the resources of other disciplines if we wish to explore these realms.

Postcolonial Studies and Cultural Studies

Today, we stand at the threshold of new times, as well as at the point where scholarship from different parts of the world has already revealed the cultural-historical limits of the knowledge-disciplines that emerged alongside the rise of modern Europe. A key moment in constituting this challenge is what we could call the post-structuralist but more specifically, the Foucauldian moment that illuminated the role of knowledge in not simply ‘representing’ the real world but in actually constituting it. Knowledge and disciplines could no longer be seen as innocent activities, living their lives outside power, governed by rules of scientificity and objectivity; they were now seen as implicated in specific regimes of power, producing their own truths/ truth-effects.

To take a now well-known example, we could look at the way in which the work of Edward Said (and in some sense, in our own country, Ashis Nandy), laid bare the assumptions that under-girded the literary and sociological discourse of Orientalism that, in very fundamental ways, framed a number of disciplines. Orientalism was not merely a representation of the ‘East’ but its ‘production’, insofar as the production of knowledge about the Orient was to inaugurate a way of seeing the Orient in which the Orient itself thereafter participated. Ashis Nandy’s work, in particular, is shot through with the idea of middle class, western educated Indians living lives structured by western categories.

The rise of postcolonial studies, in the wake of Said, even though primarily confined within the Western academy, animated a range of serious engagements and interrogation of western thought and of established disciplines. We could add to this the work on race that emerged from a new discipline like cultural studies and through the work of scholars like Stuart Hall. We are today much more aware, for example, of the ways in which Europe’s construction of the Oriental ‘Other’, also framed a whole range of disciplines from anthropology (which is of course the most well-known and the one to have made some of the most significant auto-critiques) and history (recall Dipesh Chakrabarty’s idea that Europe is always the sovereign subject of history while other societies seem to live permanently in the waiting room of History) to political science (the least self-reflexive but certainly as much constituted by notions of modernization, statehood and democracy as markers of ‘political development’ etc).  With respect to political science we can also see how its entire conceptual paraphernalia has been thoroughly implicated in the somewhat ‘foundational experience’ of what is known as ‘secularization’ and the emergence of a state disengaged from religion and the rise of a secular public sphere of rational-critical discourse. We could in fact, also look at something like Religion and religious studies as another body of knowledge that has been fundamentally framed by the idea of ‘religion’ as understood within the Judaeo-Christian tradition. A wholesale re-examination of this field of religion and the secular has been undertaken by scholars like Talal Asad whose own disciplinary location in anthropology is quite clear but which has wider resonances for other disciplines like politics.

In a sense, the rise of postcolonial studies – and alongside it, cultural studies – presented many scholars in this new field with almost the same kind of problems that had once confronted feminists. For, their preoccupation with colonial modernity made it impossible to reduce its experiences within specific disciplinary boundaries. In that sense, this moment was different from the earlier marxist one, where it was still possible to study specific trajectories of capitalism in the non-Western world, as deviating from the norm and being ‘retarded’, ‘backward’ etc but still pretty much within a certain frame of political economy. Scholars working in the field defined by postcolonialism – say those working on nationalism, like Partha Chatterjee, could no longer read western scholarship in the way marxists would read western Marxism. So, for example, even in Imagined Communities, the famous work by Benedict Anderson, it was no longer possible for Chatterjee to miss the formulation that nations were produced in the West in particular modular forms and simply exported to the colonial world. If nations are imagined communities, Chatterjee asked, then to suggest they were simply exported to the colonies left little to be imagined by the protagonists in that world. Dalit (and dalitbahujan) scholarship would later interrogate that very nationalism for its upper caste, Hindu character and look at constructions of the lower caste self in the writings of a Phule, Periyar, Sree Narayana Guru or Ambedkar in ways that would problematize the nation idea itself. At any rate, neither nationalism nor Dalit identity was possible to be read or understood within the disciplinary confines of either political science or sociology or literature alone. What these scholars were dealing with were a range of materials ranging from political speeches, political writings in newspapers, cultural texts (say the Bhagwad Gita by the nationalists or Manusmriti by Ambedkar), autobiographies, fiction etc – all at once. Many of them were combining methods of textual interpretation with ethnography and field interviews with archival work.

New Challenges in the Contemporary

If some of these instances reveal the cultural-historical limits of these disciplines and call for their reconstitution, we could take another set of examples which reveal their limits in dealing with the new constellation of our contemporary. Here I wish to return once again to my own formal discipline, ‘political science’. In a manner of speaking, there is a fundamental difficulty in identifying what exactly we mean by ‘the contemporary’ and when exactly it begins. I would like to clarify two things in this respect before proceeding further. First, the sense of being contemporary involves living in a shared time. Scholars like Johannes Fabian have made serious critiques of their disciplines in terms of how ‘denial of coevalness’ has been central to anthropology’s construction of the Other. In a sense, this was the case with philosophy itself and constituted the common sense of an entire age: the present was singular and existed only in the most ‘advanced’ parts of the world. The rest of the world was in different stages of the past (premodern etc) and slowly ‘catching up’. A big change has taken place in this respect over the past couple of decades and it is now accepted in larger and larger circles that this way of looking at Time is highly problematic. At the very least, there is a recognition of the fact that different ‘people’ might in fact be inhabiting different temporalities (i.e. have different pasts, presents and more importantly, different futures) and yet be ‘contemporary’. That is to say, they might not all be headed to the same place.

Second, we need to mark this sense of the contemporary – as in the present, generally speaking – with reference to a certain newness of experience. Very few today would disagree that we are passing through times when, quite often, we find old certainties have collapsed and old categories do not serve to illuminate our times any more.

So, what is it that marks our contemporary today?

It should be evident that we cannot really define it in terms of any single feature. However, in relation to the knowledge domain, it seems to me, our contemporary is marked by the growing sense that the problem may be more than simply one of inadequate categories; it is marked, rather, by the way in which the ideas of ‘the social’, ‘the political’ or ‘the economic’, themselves were put together or assembled. To put it metaphorically, the ‘waste’ produced by one discipline cannot be the province of another discipline.

And so here, I turn to my example of political science or politics, once again. We have had a whole tradition of theorizing that sees ‘politics’ as that secular activity related to statecraft that emerges with the disestablishment from the Church. In this tradition, we have the idea of sovereignty as vested in the state, and in some ways related to popular will. The idea of democracy as the ‘rule of the people, by the people and for the people’ is only an extension of this idea. This was also the idea championed by Rousseau – that sovereignty was the embodiment of the General Will and that this will could not be represented. Popular sovereignty was not transferable. In actual practice, political theory recognizes that this is an unworkable idea and at some level, ‘representation’ is unavoidable. It therefore, institutes the idea of citizenship through which ‘the people’ (that is, rights-bearing citizens) participate in sovereignty. ‘Democracy’ comes in to stand for this complex of will, popular sovereignty and citizenship – defined differently in different traditions (say the liberal and the republican) but the categories broadly remain common among them. You will also note that the overall framing of this constellation is possible only within the bounds of a certain idea of a political community – and that is the nation, and its territorial boundaries. Gradually, the idea of the nation seems to have lost its sheen in the West, but the nation-state continued to frame all the categories of politics. Now, some theorists (like Nancy Fraser or Habermas) have argued that all that has changed. Nation-states no longer provide the framing horizon for politics and that what we see increasingly coming into view are a global civil society, global institutions of governance, global public spheres and so on. This immediately creates a difficulty in understanding these concepts. Earlier these concepts were based on an idea of ‘the social’ that was more or less assumed to be homogeneous within the national society – the same language/s, the same law and juridical structure, broadly the same history etc. Suddenly transposed in the global context, these concepts cease to make the sense that they did.

However, this not the sense in which I am suggesting our categories fall woefully inadequate. There is another sense in which these categories can appear problematic. Foucault had, in fact, already suggested that notions of state, sovereignty, will etc are all highly metaphysical and essentialist notions and that what politics is really about is not state and sovereignty but about governmentality – about the actual practice of government where Law and normative concerns are not really what matter; what matters is ‘tactics’. All governments in fact rule, suggests Foucault, by often placing the Law and its normativity in abeyance – what he calls the margin of tolerated illegalities. And this, for the simple reason, that rule and governing are messy businesses. Foucault’s writings therefore already lead us to one kind of difficulty in sustaining the conceptual paraphernalia of political science. However, things go far beyond even what Foucault imagined.

For these have to do with another kind of waste: the waste or the excreta of nation-states and Development, in the form of their endless production of non-citizens, refugees, stateless people and development refugees. Reflecting on the twentieth century experience of nation-states and its idea of citizenship, Hannah Arendt, as far back as in 1943, published an article entitled ‘We Refugees’ in which she proposed looking at the figure of the refugee (also at that time the situation of the Jews, we must remember) in a radically different way. Arendt proposed that this figure of a person without a country and therefore without rights (remember rights accrue from membership in a political community) can be seen to constitute a new paradigm. To quote Arendt: “For him history is no longer a closed book, and politics ceases to be the privilege of the Gentiles. He knows that the banishment of the Jewish people in Europe was followed immediately by that of the majority of the European peoples. Refugees expelled from one country to the next represent the avant-garde of their people.” Fifty years later, Giorgio Agamben takes up this essay to reflect on the state of citizenship in the world in the era of the crisis of the nation-state and suggests that we take seriously Arendt’s suggestion of treating the figure of the refugee as the paradigmatic figure of politics.

Agamben’s argument begins by taking the historical appearance of refugees as a mass phenomenon from the time of the end of World War I and the collapse of the empires – the Russian, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman. The new order created by the peace treaties immediately brought into view a new situation: “In just a short time, a million and a half White Russians, seven hundred thousand Armenians, five hundred thousand Bulgarians, a million Greeks, and hundreds of thousands of Germans, Hungarians, and Romanians left their countries and moved elsewhere. To these masses in motion should be added the explosive situation determined by the fact that in the new states created by the peace treaties on the model of the nation-state (for example, in Yugoslavia and in Czechoslovakia), some 30 percent of the populations comprised minorities that had to be protected through a series of international treaties (the so-called Minority Treaties), which very often remained a dead letter. A few years later, the racial laws in Germany and the Civil War in Spain disseminated a new and substantial contingent of refugees throughout Europe.”

Agamben further remarks:

“We are accustomed to distinguishing between stateless persons and refugees, but this distinction, now as then, is not as simple as it might at first glance appear. From the beginning, many refugees who technically were not stateless preferred to become so rather than to return to their homeland (this is the case of Polish and Romanian Jews who were in France or Germany at the end of the war, or today of victims of political persecution as well as of those for whom returning to their homeland would mean the impossibility of survival). On the other hand, the Russian, Armenian and Hungarian refugees were promptly denationalized by the new Soviet or Turkish governments, etc. It is important to note that starting with the period of World War I, many European states began to introduce laws which permitted their own citizens to be denaturalized and denationalized. The first was France, in 1915, with regard to naturalized citizens of “enemy” origins; in 1922 the example was followed by Belgium, which revoked the naturalization of citizens who had committed “anti-national” acts during the war; in 1926 the Fascist regime in Italy passed a similar law concerning citizens who had shown themselves to be “unworthy of Italian citizenship”; in 1933 it was Austria’s turn, and so forth, until in 1935 the Nuremberg Laws divided German citizens into full citizens and citizens without political rights.”

Agamben concludes this discussion with the following observation:

“These laws – and the mass statelessness that resulted – mark a decisive turning point in the life of the modem nation-state and its definitive emancipation from the naive notions of ‘people’ and ‘citizen.’

What this discussion shows clearly is that it was precisely the rise of the nation-state that, in producing the idea of the rights-bearing citizen produced, in the same stroke, masses of refugees and stateless people. In our own experience we have seen how the partition that brought into being two and later three nation-states, simultaneously gave birth to millions of displaced people. It also immediately brought into being the figure of the ‘minority’ referred to by Agamben. And lest we forget, it was this figure of the ‘unabsorbed minority/ies’ that animated a range of fascist and proto-fascistic movements all over the world including in India. MS Golwalkar, the chief of the RSS, in fact refers to precisely these ‘unabsorbed minorities’ and the threat they pose to nationhood (his favourite example being the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia, whose fate invited Hitler’s aggression), when he makes his case for Hindu Rashtra and the Indianization of Muslims. We in India or in the subcontinent have seen no end of such anxieties about unabsorbed minorities that have been produced precisely by the discourse of the nation-state and have spurred perennial violent conflicts.

And how can we forget that it was this concern with citizenship that transformed the simmering anti-Semitism of Western societies into active expulsion of the Jews and their displacement onto another of those endlessly tragic sites – Palestine. The unending tragedy of the Arab world, the tumorous presence of the Israeli state implanted therein by Western guilt – all this is unthinkable without the thought apparatus of political science – citizenship, nation-state and what have you.

If we see the conceptual paraphernalia of the discipline of politics from this vantage point, that is, the vantage point of the refugee or the displaced person, we will be able to appreciate how much the problem has to do with the way the domain of politics and ‘the political’ was assembled in the last two centuries or more. Notions of people and citizen that continue to frame the discipline of politics, are nevertheless, fictions of mass democracies. At this point, I would also like to draw your attention to another possibility – and this arises from our own experience of democracy as well. The ‘people’ or the ‘citizens’ in whose name the business of politics and democracy goes on really seem to have a very ‘strange’ relationship to politics: ‘strange’ because they do not ever see themselves as participating in any sovereignty or being ‘rulers’. They hardly every see their so-called representatives as ‘representing’ them. Even in the best of times, most of them do not even vote and when they do, they do not always do so because they are choosing their representatives. Often they vote in a tactical way – to keep the players of power in good humour and thereby secure a little space in their own daily lives, free of interference from unwanted intrusions by state officials. In other words, is it possible to ask as Jean Baudrillard once did, whether notions of will, power, representation and so on are merely the concern of the political avant-garde? How does politics look like then, if we start thinking from this end – that of the refugee and the ‘people’? At this stage, we can only raise these questions. We do not have answers. But the very raising of these questions will allow us to begin the process of rethinking the direction in which our indisciplinarity must go.

  1. This post is nothing less than a clarion call for us to re-evaluate and re-assess conventional knowledge in the traditional academic domains. It presents an exciting prospects for us, students, to break away from dominant paradigms as far as culture, economy and politics go and construct new ones which recognise the fact that the normative ideals embedded in mega-theories are often far removed from the post-modernist realities.

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