Escaping intelligibility: Translation and the Politics of knowledge

Posted: 28/04/2012 by Nivedita Menon in Feminism, Modernity, Philosophy, Theory
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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.

Productive misreadings or closures?

Ibn-Rushd is a key 12th century figure in what Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow  (2012) call Aristotle’s ‘Arab afterlife’. Ibn Rushd followed Ibn Sina who developed the Aristotelian distinction between Form and Matter to assert human free will, which mediates between essence and existence. This free will, said Ibn Sina, enables man to act and change according to his ethics, which he saw as “man’s way of reading the mind of God” (44). Ibn Rushd took this idea further, asserting that it was the philosopher, not the jurist or the theologian, who was to establish the true inner meaning of religious beliefs in the event of a dispute because of “his ability to deal with doubt, ambivalence and criticality.” (80). In the period between the 8th and 15th centuries, the Islamic world experienced a continuing struggle between Faith and Mysticism on the one hand, and Reason on the other, and eventually, Ibn Rushd and the party of Reason were set aside. But just as Aristotle, lost to Greece, had an Arab afterlife, so Ibn Rushd emerged in 12th century Europe as the standard bearer of the rebels against Catholic authoritarianism, calling themselves the Averroists. Between St Augustine and the Averroists lies “an intellectual wasteland of seven centuries” during which the clergy held the monopoly on truth. The Christian intellectuals who drew on Averroes to develop their own ideas in consonance or in disagreement with him, had read Aristotle in Latin translations as well as through the extensive commentaries of Arab Aristotelians, and made no distinction between Christian, pagan and Muslim authorities while arguing points of Christian doctrine. The Church reacted with predictable anxiety and a concurrent brutality, through the first half of the 13th century wiping out the mass movement of the Cathars, banning Ibn Rushd’s commentaries on Aristotle and then the study of Aristotle himself. However, Ibn Rushd continued to remain a powerful force in the Renaissance. Say Hoskote and Trojanow, European accounts usually reduce the contribution of Arabic thinkers to the safeguarding and forwarding of ‘our’ treasures, but far from being ‘couriers delivering precious messages from classical antiquity to the Renaissance’, the falasifa ‘were guides who – by personal example, erudite commentary, polemic and teaching – paved the way for critical enquiry…and the primacy of individual reason over the totalitarian claims of ecclesiastical authority’ (95)

Umberto Eco however, tells the story of Ibn Rushd as a ‘blatant example of cultural misunderstanding’ (85). Averroes wrote his commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics, knowing no Greek and ‘hardly any’ Syriac. He read Aristotle through a tenth century Arabic translation of a Syriac translation of the Greek original. ‘To increase this mish-mash’, says Eco, Aristotle’s Poetics was accessed in Europe in a Latin translation of Averroes’ commentary to the Poetics in Arabic.

What Eco sees as a mish-mash, was a massive and complex project of translation located on “a bridge between languages” (Hoskote and Trojanow 2012:71) in the 12th century, in which texts ‘began to flow in various directions’ among Greek, Arabic, Hebrew and Latin, and into the emerging languages of Castilian, French and Italian. ‘A special process of collaborative translation…was developed: usually a Jew, (occasionally a Muslim), translated the Arabic text orally into Romance or Castilian, and then a Christian rendered this oral version into written Latin’. (H and T P 71) The Jewish interpreters and Latin scribes also translated Greek originals and the Arabic commentaries.

Eco’s other problem is that Aristotle’s text is full of references to Greek theatre, which Averroes and his forerunners tried to adapt to the Arab literary tradition, but failed.  In order to buttress his point, Eco relates Borges’ short story ‘The Quest of Averroes’, in which Averroes is shown, says Eco, as ‘unable to catch the proper meanings of’ words such as tragedy and comedy because such literary genres were alien to the Arab culture. The irony is that while Averroes wrestles with the meaning of these obscure terms, in the courtyard below, children play, one imitating a muezzin, another a minaret and so on; that is, they are performing a theatrical action, but Averroes does not realize it. A guest of Averroes recounts the story of a strange ceremony he attended in China, which the readers – but not the characters – recognize as a drama. Eco concludes that this story is not merely the imagination of Borges, but exactly what happened to Averroes – he is simply incapable of ‘getting’ Aristotle, lacking the cultural resources to do so. (Eco 2003:86) So it’s only when a Latin translation is made directly from Greek in the 13th century that Aristotle can be properly accessed in Europe.

In turn one could see Eco’s reading of Borges’ story as another ‘blatant example of cultural misunderstanding’. For one thing, Erika Spivakovsky (1968) points out that Borges himself could not have read Averroes in the original, and most probably did not even read his work in translation, but only accessed it through the secondary works, especially by Renan, which he cites in his afterword (to which we will return in a moment). This resulted in Borges misunderstanding the limits of Averroes’ comprehension of Aristotle. Borges assumes the philosopher (and his cultural environment) to have been ignorant not only of Greek drama but of theater itself. But although the  texts  of  Greek  and  Latin dramatists were unknown  to them, they did regularly perform a mystical religious  play  and  had  other  kinds  of  spectacles. Borges writes of Averroes’ quest or search for the meaning of the  terms  tragedy  and comedy, but this is due, says Spivakovsky, to Renan’s misreading, who  did  not  work  from  the  Arabic  text which  was  still  unpublished,  and used  a  Latin  version. It is unlikely Averroes would have ‘searched’ for the meaning of those terms, says Spivakovsky, because Averroes was reading Poetics in an Arabic translation (by Abu Bishr Matta) who had already translated the terms – tragedy as madih  (panegyric) and comedy as hidja’  (invective,  satire).

Thus, if Eco considers Averroes’ access to Aristotle a mish-mash, then Borges’ access to Averroes is no less so. It is also evident that Borges understands Islamic scholarship within a 20th century world-view, depicting Averroes and his dinner conversations as ‘bounded within the circle of Islam’ and the Quran (Borges 1947/2000). But as we have seen, in the 12th century world, philosophical endeavours did not respect such borders.

To be fair, Borges himself does not imply the closure that Eco attributes to him. In his afterword to the story, Borges says:

“I felt that the work mocked me, foiled me, thwarted me. I felt that Averroes, trying to imagine what a play is without ever having suspected what a theater is, was no more absurd than I, trying to imagine Averroes yet with no more material than a few snatches from Renan, Lane, and Asín Palacios.”

Thus, as Spivakovsky puts it, even as Borges makes  this great  transmitter  of Greek wisdom to the Western world stand as  a  symbol  for  failure, he is ‘a multiple Borges-symbol’; for Averroes’  supposed  inability to  imagine the past symbolizes  Borges’  own  failure  to  imagine Averroes. The incident of the children playing too, is interpreted by Spivakovsky in a very different way, because her reading of Borges is that he is deeply influenced by Arab philosophy, and he could not have been portraying Averroes in any simple sense as a failure, as Eco reads him. Averroes is distracted by the sound of children playing, goes to the window, sees them playing ‘Mosque’, and returns to his intellectual labours. This interlude, suggests Spivakovsky, should be understood  as one of  the  story’s more  deeply  hidden  meanings:  Averroes’ story  is thus, not only  that of  a  failure but also that  of  a  success, for Borges is implying that Averroes  knew all along what a  dramatic action is. Everybody acts, every child is a born actor, Borges seems to tell us. If Averroes, who is a stand-in for Borges’ own quest, fails to understand what he sees, that failure is the human condition. Says Spivakovsky, Borges is suggesting that ‘if we would really see what we look at, we would know all there is to know – except, possibly, ourselves.’

Charles Butterworth (1994), addressing critics who assume that Ibn Rushd and his\predecessors made mistakes due to difficulties they had in understanding Aristotle’s text as they received it, argues while that Ibn Rushd does seem to understand some parts of Abu Bishr Matta’s translation of Poetics ‘in a manner that goes against the surface appearance of the text’ (23), this is a deliberate appropriation, for he, like others of his contemporaries and forerunners, were as much authors of books on political philosophy as they were of commentaries on Aristotle’s writings. In his books on political philosophy, Ibn Rushd is very clear about the role of philosophy in a well-ordered regime, says Butterworth, urging us to recognize that when scholars translate the texts of earlier thinkers, they do so because they intend to reflect through these, on problems that perplex them in their own times. (26)

What we see in my telling of the story of Ibn Rushd is a series of ever receding misreadings, which is all we have, really; but some misreadings seek to produce closure, others open up thought in multiple directions.

Knowledge as translation – learning to enter a stable universe

In The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1987) French philosopher Jacques Ranciere writes about Joseph Jacotot, a schoolteacher driven into exile during the period of monarchical restoration in France in the early 19th century, who developed a method of showing illiterate parents how they could themselves teach their children to read. This text is universally read as a radical reworking of traditional pedagogy, but I find it deeply conservative and problematic. Jacotot, landing up with a job in a Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, had to teach children who spoke no French, while he spoke no Flemish. He tried an experiment with a recently published bi-lingual edition of Homer (in French and Flemish) – he asked his students through an interpreter, to learn on their own, the French text with the help of the Flemish translation. After some time, he asked them to write about the text in French, and he was astonished to find they could do so as well as French students would have done. He had not taught them the first elements of French, neither spelling nor grammar. The students had looked for the French words that corresponded to words they knew in Flemish, and figured out the grammar by themselves. Thus, says Ranciere, “in the mind of Joseph Jacotot a sudden illumination brutally highlighted what is blindly taken for granted in any system of education: the necessity of explication”. Why should one mind explicate a text to another mind? Why couldn’t the student figure out what the text meant with her own mind? And yet, the method he proposed, of an individual learning  something without having it explained to her, is as Ranciere says, the oldest in the world, everyone has learnt something in this way at some point in their lives. But “the social circle, the order of things, prevents it from being recognized for what it is: the true method by which everyone learns”; no one wants “to cope with the intellectual revolution it signifies.”

The pedagogical problem then, is “to reveal an intelligence to itself”. Anything can be used, a song, a prayer that the student knows by heart, there is always something the student knows that can be used as a point of comparison. The master’s two fundamental tasks then, are interrogation – he demands speech, the manifestation of an intelligence that was not aware of itself; and verification, that the work is done with attention. To do this, a highly skilled master is not required, and is even a liability, because his knowledge discreetly leads the students to the right answer rather than allowing their own intelligence to do the work. The Jacotot method thus, the method of the ignorant schoolmaster, says Ranciere, differs from that of the Socratic master: “Through his interrogations, Socrates leads [the slave] to recognize the mathematical truths that lie within himself. This may be the path to learning, but it is in no way a path to emancipation.”

In this method, called “universal teaching”, equality is not a goal to be attained but is assumed as a starting point. Anyone is capable of grasping the most difficult of ideas since the same intelligence is at work in all human endeavour.

Now, while this is the kind of radical pedagogy of which we can immediately see the progressive potential, it seems to me that it addresses only one kind of knowledge and one kind of learning. That is, its radicalism lies in using one’s own intelligence rather than that of a teacher to enter into an existing body of knowledge, with its own established rules, “to learn how to do x”. But what if one thinks of knowledges as having to be subverted, of existing knowledges as embodying dominant discourses of power? Then the point would not be to learn the rules well, but to subvert them, to constitute new bodies of knowledge and counter-selves.

For instance, Ranciere does not explicitly consider the politics of the gradual eradication of Flemish by the French nation-state in the making, so that it would always be Flemish speakers having to learn French rather than vice versa. He does not consider the ways in which modernity in general introduced standardized forms of organizing time and space (maps, calendars) that did considerable violence to the peasant knowledges it was still replacing in Jacotot’s time. Thus, Ranciere/Jacotot says that the locksmith who does not know the alphabet can look at a calendar – “Doesn’t he know the order of the months and can’t he thus figure out January, February, March… He knows that February has only 28 days. He sees that one column is shorter than the others and he will recognize ‘28’” (P 28). However, the Gregorian calendar that Ranciere takes for granted has nothing to do with the natural cycles by which peasants live, and illiterate people have to learn to read the calendar as much as they have to learn the alphabet; it is not a knowledge that is inborn, or naturally imbibed in all worlds and contexts even in the 20th century.

This way of learning appears to be about learning to enter and negotiate existing formations of knowledge. In addition, Ranciere uncritically reproduces Jacotot’s argument that “universal teaching” belongs to the family. Here “family” is opposed to “society”, which exemplifies “social order”. Thus, in Jacotot’s understanding, the social order requires “citizens produced by society (and schooling), but “men” are produced in the “sanctuary” of the family “where the father was the supreme arbiter, and…it was there and there alone that intellectual emancipation can be fruitfully sown.” In short, Ranciere/Jacotot’s critique of “social order” leads only to “the family” as the place of self-education – the family whose core is patriarchy and compulsory heterosexuality, the family that is the very basis of unequal property relations, the family whose main function is the reproduction of traditional values. Thus our suspicion that Jacotot’s understanding only results in teaching oneself how to immerse ourselves in existing knowledge formations, appears justified.

It is useful here to consider an argument made by Peter Winch, who, writing about the relationship between language and reality, makes a distinction between two kinds of “languages” (Trying to Make Sense 1987). One is a set of linguistic conventions, such as English, French and so on. When one knows one language of this sort and wants to learn another, one remains within the same world, learning English names for the objects and experiences one already knows in French. So for instance, when one learns to command, say, in English (to say “do this”), one is not learning to command per se.

The second kind of difference between languages is produced by the different world-views they are called upon to express. This is the difference between say, the language of science/modernity on the one hand, and those of other world-views (Winch uses the example of magic practices of a tribe called the Azande). When one learns mathematics or science, those languages express an entirely different world-view from magic or religion, they give expression to a set of beliefs that can be expressed in no other language, just as magic cannot be expressed in the language of science. Learning to prove something mathematically is not simply learning a new way of expressing something I already know in another language. I am learning a new action that can only be performed in that language.

The reason Jacotot’s method requires no teacher or the “ignorant teacher”, is that education is seen, in Winch’s first sense of language, as simply learning to do in a new language what you already know in another, when in fact modern education is about remaking the self altogether. Jacotot’s peasant students must translate their experiences into a language that expresses another reality, a new world. Their own experiences acquire a new life and meaning by being rendered intelligible in the new language – their own world-view becomes superstition or culture, as opposed to universal scientific fact. The calendar can teach you numbers and the alphabet only because all of these are part of the new world in which you must learn to live, setting aside knowledges you already possess.

Contrast this to Brazilian scholar-activist Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972) in which knowledge and learning is a process of mutual translation. In “problem posing education”, as he calls it, no one teaches another, but nor is anyone self-taught. Through dialogue, the teacher-of-students and students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and the teacher-student and students-teachers emerge – they become jointly responsible for a process in which they all grow. Thus, while Freire too, gives up on the idea of the all-knowing teacher, he does not give up on the idea of a teacher altogether. It seems to me that the term “teacher” in this understanding, is the entry of the outside into one’s world, destabilizing its codes of meaning, common-sense and order. In this sense, the students are the outside of the teacher’s world, and she of theirs. The teacher knows  ten things her students do not know, but they know ten things she doesn’t, as Freire finds when he plays a game with the peasants’ group he is visiting, in which they ask him ten questions (What’s soil liming? What’s green fertilizer?) and he asks them ten (What’s an intransitive verb? What’s epistemology?).

The translation in Freire then is closer to the 12th century project that we discussed, where there is a mutual flow of intelligibility and potential misreadings that could be productive.

Rendering the Other intelligible to the Self

In January 2012, artist Subodh Gupta was one of the performers listed in an evening of performance art organized by Khoj, an artist-led organization in Delhi. His performance was about 30 minutes during which he remained in the audience.

The performance began with three men stepping up to the stage, evidently lower-middle class men by their dress. They did not seem poor, but certainly were not of the same class or cultural background as the audience.  They sat in a row on the floor of the stage, cross legged, before three steel plates and glasses. (Gupta is most well-known for his enormous installations using traditional steel vessels).

After they seated themselves, two other men stepped on to the stage one by one in silence, to serve on the plates mounds of what looked beaten rice or chidwa, and then large dollops of curd. The three men sat looking silently at the food for a moment, then raised their voices in a chant not immediately decipherable, then dug their entire right palms into the mass of chidwa and curd, lifted huge sloppy handfuls almost up to their mouths, and then let it all drop back on their plates. At this point, one of the men looked at Gupta in the audience and started to argue loudly, in a Bihari accent and vocabulary not immediately comprehensible to most non-Biharis in the audience. From the audience, Gupta responded with a muttered “chalo shuru karo, shuru karo”, (“go on, start”), and once again the chant by the men on stage, once again the food taken up to the mouth and then dropped, once again the arguing, once again the “chalo chalo, shuru karo.” This process was repeated several times over, and it soon became clear that some sort of bargaining was going on, with the spokesperson of the eaters demanding initially a lakh of rupees each, and gradually, with repeated, unmoved urgings to continue eating, coming down to a lakh for all three, then finally settling on an even smaller amount when Gupta finally appeared to become irritated and said “toh mat kha” (“well, don’t eat then, leave.”)

This process of bargaining was amusing and soon engaged the audience, who were laughing at the repartee and eventually applauded when the eaters lost the battle and started eating. The man who did most of the speaking for the eaters was flamboyant, good-humoured and appeared to be utterly relaxed during the performance, while the one who appeared the youngest did not speak at all, and  looked embarrassed and shy.

After the negotiation was complete, the remaining 8 to 10 minutes of the performance was taken up entirely by the men eating silently – very sloppily, using their entire palms (not just the fingers as most North Indians normally do), smearing their mouths and moustaches with the food, dropping some on the floor and around their plates – first the chidwa and curd, and then a succession of huge amounts of rotis, curry, dry vegetable, and sweets. All the while, the well-clad-for-Delhi-winter, upper-class audience watched – murmuring, giggling, or simply attentively.

The Khoj site describes the performance in the following words (March 27, 2012).

Spirit Eaters explores notions of identity, cultural specificity, aspiration and excess that preoccupy Subodh Gupta’s art making. De-contextualizing the presentation of specific cultural practices, Spirit Eaters harks to his childhood experience of watching kanthababas, a group of paid, professional eaters in Bihar who rapidly consume vast amounts of food for the appeasement of the souls of ancestors and elders. The performance is simultaneously repulsive, vulgar, amusing and awe-inspiring.”

I saw a video of the performance made by two cameras that Khoj used to record the evening, not the performance itself. (I also did not manage to contact Gupta in time for permission to show you clips from the Khoj recording.) From detailed conversations with many who did see it live, I gathered that the information above had not been accessed by most viewers before the event, and the general feelings reported were of bewilderment and deep discomfort with the class politics of a performance involving men clearly poorer than the audience, who were bargained down before they could eat. Many also wondered at the strange, messy manner of eating, so unlike normal eating practices of most Indians, even poor people. It seemed to many then, that the performance objectified economic and cultural difference in an elite art space.

As one artist disturbed by the performance said to me, “This kind of collapsing of two worlds in a performance space could have been interesting, but the terms of the collapsing are important.” She was suggesting, it seemed to me, that there was no mutuality in the collapsing, their world was simply collapsed into ours.

It was only gradually, in newspaper interviews, that the context emerged, and as the Khoj website now makes clear, Gupta had deliberately in his performance (or one should say, the performance he produced), de-contextualized the practice of mourning in Bihari Hindu society. The terms ‘vulgar’, ‘repulsive’ ‘amusing’ and ‘awe-inspiring’ on the Khoj website are noteworthy, while another newspaper report described the amount of food consumed as “obscene” and the performance as “simultaneously brilliant and bizarre” (Nath 2012).

RoseLee Goldberg, American art historian and curator, said in an interview:

“I loved Subodh Gupta’s piece. Beginning with physical objects, he brings in the references of rituals, history of class and politics in his work… The work was funny and beautiful… This is what is performance art. Here is a visual artist who is working in time and space but with such beautiful objects. And whatever he set up for the viewers to see was exquisite — the three eaters, vessels and six screens placed at different places on the terrace for people to watch it comfortably. The angles and the frames showing the hands of the eaters, the lighting… it was all really nice. I learnt so much about a place and its culture in just 20 minutes.” (Tripathi 2012)

What is fascinating in this whole story is the process by which an embedded local practice is decontextualized in a manner that enables it to be translated, or rendered intelligible entirely – and only – in cosmopolitan terms – “obscene” amounts of food, “repulsive, “amusing”, “funny and beautiful”, “bizarre”. What is missing is precisely what Goldberg claims to see – “references of history and class”, precisely because it is de-contextualised. One wonders what she or any viewer learnt about the place and its culture – that was precisely what the performance was not about. One did not even learn the names of the performers who enacted a ritual familiar to them, but in a space that was utterly alien, and in a context that could have held no meaning for them. I did wonder if they were all actors after all, but then their names would have been in the Khoj catalogue and website, or they would have been interviewed themselves. Not one newspaper spoke to any of them – they remain indecipherable, except in a language that is ours alone, not theirs. It is because they performed the same role that steel utensils play in Gupta’s work that they remain anonymous and unheard, outside of the performance.

The comparison may be extreme, but the protocols of this performance bring to mind the exhibition of Sarah Baartman, the woman of the khoikhoi tribe and a slave, who was exhibited all over Europe in the 19th century, entertaining audiences with what were considered to be her unusual  physical features, under the name of the Hottentot Venus, the only name she was known by in Europe for a long time.

I should add that Gupta himself had positioned six cameras to record the performance, and in an interview, referred to Spirit Eaters as ‘video art’. I can hazard a guess that the video Gupta produces will not be a simple realist recording, but an art object in itself, which may well escape the terms of my critique. The afterlife of installations and performances as videos, photographic stills, catalogues and so on, is another register of translation that distances even further the ‘real’ objects involved from the contexts from which they were brought into the art-work. This can at least potentially, be a radical move to question context itself, but the initial performance  lingers spectrally over all its afterlives.

Rendering the Self intelligible to the Other

It has seemed to many scholars that Freudian psychoanalysis universalizes as a human condition, what is essentially a narrowly parochial experience, that of (male) European modernity. Fatima Mernissi, comparing Imam Ghazali and Sigmund Freud on female sexuality (1975/2002), shows that while Ghazali, writing in Persia in the 11th century believed he was attempting to reveal the true Muslim belief on the subject; Freud, at the triumphant inception of modernity in Europe, could claim the authority of Science to elaborate, not just a theory about European sexuality, but a universal explanation of the human female. Mernissi argues that in comparing Freud’s and Ghazali’s theories, we are in fact comparing the two cultures’ different conceptions of sexuality, the former’s assuming female sexuality to be passive, the latter to be active, but with each seeing women as destructive to the social order, for those entirely opposite reasons.

Indian psychoanalysts have long struggled with what they saw as the difference between Indian and Western patients when it comes to becoming proper masculine subjects. Girindrashekhar Bose, who founded the Indian Psychoanalytical Society in 1921, wrote to Freud that “my Indian patients do not exhibit castration symptoms to such a marked degree as my European cases. The desire to be a female is more easily unearthed in Indian male patients than in European…The Oedipus mother is very often a combined parental image, and this is a fact of great importance…” Freud’s reply is bland – he promises to keep in mind the difference mentioned by Bose, but warns against any hasty decisions.

Another practicing psychoanalyst, our contemporary Sudhir Kakar, drawing our attention to this correspondence, has noted that the relationship Bose invoked in his analytic encounters was in fact the guru-shishya (teacher-student) tradition that would be immediately familiar to any Indian patient (1990). Ashis Nandy (1995/2000) argues that Freud’s project of attempting a new concept of self that would accommodate an underside repudiated by 2 centuries of European modernity – a ‘more real’ self operating according to principles the ‘apparent self’ knew nothing about or rejected as immoral – was a project relevant in India only for a small minority of modernizing elites who had internalized Victorian moral codes. Nandy reminds us that psychoanalysis and other sciences came to India neither through apolitical cognitive choices nor through some sort of cultural diffusion, but through the colonial project of civilizational transformation, attempting to devalue all surviving native systems of knowledge. The science of psychology was one of a series of techniques that sought to retool Indians into a prescribed version of the 19th C European (139). Bose’s ‘vernacular self’, says Nandy, tried to find a way of the predicament by rediscovering an older version of psychological man through older theories of consciousness in India. But he failed to inflect the discipline in this mode, either in India or in the world, and by the time he died in 1953, he was already being seen both in India and abroad, as a pioneer whose days were past. (139)

Sudhir Kakar (1990) says that in reading early Indian case histories, he was struck by the fluidity of patients’ cross-sexual and generational identifications. His own argument is that the hegemonic narrative of Hindu culture as far as male development is concerned, is neither that of Freud’s Oedipus nor of Christianity’s Adam. One of the more dominant narratives is that of Devi, the great goddess, especially in her manifold expressions of mother in the inner world of the Hindu son. Further, myths in India are not “vestiges of infantile fantasies of whole nations” as for the European Freud, but vibrantly alive, with their symbolic power intact. Kakar tells a familiar story from Hindu mythology, of Skanda (Subramanian) and Ganesha, sons of Parvati and Shiva, competing to win a fruit offered by their mother as a gift to whichever of them raced around the universe first. When Skanda triumphantly returned after circumnavigating the universe, he found Ganesha ensconced at his mother’s feet, eating the fruit – he had circumambulated his mother, worshipped her, and declared, ‘you are my universe’.  Furious, Skanda rushed away to an inaccessible mountain top, to which an annual pilgrimage is conducted to this day.

Kakar’s point is that Skanda’s punishment is exile from the mother’s bountiful presence and the reward, the promise of functioning as an autonomous adult man.  Ganesha remains an infant, and his reward is never to know the pangs of separation from his mother – and the fact that Ganesha’s lot is considered to be superior to Skanda’s is “perhaps an indication of the Indian man’s cultural preference in the dilemma of separation-individuation”.

Thus, even while remaining within the framework of Freudian psychoanalysis, with its daddy-mommy-me triad that Deleuze and Guattari are rightly dismissive of, Kakar enables a deconstruction of the universality assumed by psychoanalysis for itself.

Freud famously said about Oedipus, “It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father.” I wonder about the applicability of that confident ‘all of us’ with our assumed parricidal desire. In Hindu Indian culture, the living myths with contemporary resonance are about Yayati’s son Puru and Shantanu’s son Devavrata, both of whom attained to full masculine subjectivity through sacrificing their youth and sexual desire for their fathers. Puru took on the untimely old age that was cursed upon his father, and in turn ascended the throne, though he was the youngest son. It was his lineage that according to legend produced King Porus, who valiantly lost to Alexander the Great on the banks of the Jhelum or Hydaspes. Devavrata took an oath of life-long celibacy so that his father’s desire for the beautiful Satyavati could be fulfilled, for she would not marry him unless he promised that her son would be king after him. This vow made the gods shower flowers on Devavrata, proclaiming him Bhishma, he of the terrible oath, and his father granted him the boon of Sweccha Mrityu (control over his own death). Bhishma went on to become the revered patriarch of the Mahabharata.

When one moves to feminist readings of Hindu myths (and it should be clear that I remain with Hindu myths because that is the scholarship that I am familiar with; and indeed, the opening up of other kinds of cultural resources to such readings can only further dismantle the universalist claims of psychoanalysis) we come across the disruption of the gendered self itself, as well as the disruption of the Mother. Wendy Doniger (2000) has discussed the fact that Hindu deities are “serially transsexual”, and this is an attempt to “recover a lost possibility, to express an ambiguity that is present from the start…”

The legendary contemporary dancer Chandralekha is said to have answered a question in a public interview in New York about whether she regretted not having had children, by flamboyantly outlining her breasts in the classical Bharatanatyam style, and declaring, “My dear, we worship the Goddess as apeethakuchaambal – She whose breasts have never suckled.”

Through the figure of female deities powerful in folk and urban cultures till this day from the dim past of pre-history, Chandralekha has insisted on the disruption of the fertility/maternality dyad – for her the fecundity principle is a mysterious force, over time being sought to be domesticated into the figure of the “mother goddess”.

She demands (1992): “On what basis do you call them mothers, these dynamic figures of fierce power who look so calm and confident on the bull, lion, tiger; who wear weapons as ornaments in their hair, who are not at all maternal?”

Psychoanalysis then, in non-Western cultures (and there too, as Deleuze and Guattari attest), is an on-going translation of the Self into proper subjectivity, defined in terms set by norms assumed to be universal. Thus, Freud in responding to Bose, acknowledges the difference in Indian patients from what he assumes to be the human norm, but advocates the need not to reach hasty conclusions on the basis of Indian experiences; while it seems to me that Bose could legitimately have asked Freud not to reach hasty conclusions on the basis of his own limited experiences of European patients.

The pressure to be intelligible in ‘global’ and ‘transnational’ spaces

Let me now attempt to bring together the larger point about translation that I hope to make here. While the story of the 12th century project of translation indicates something close to what Naoki Sakai (1997) terms a heterolingual mode of address (to which we will return); the other three stories illustrate the ways in which, all too often, ‘global’ and ‘transnational’ spaces are the brave new world of HSBC advertisements in which all heterogeneity is rendered transparent to the global cosmopolitan imagination.

Even the 12th century story, in its 20th century afterlife, revealed the appropriative moves of the post-Enlightenment project. The pressure to be intelligible in cosmopolitan terms is always expressed benignly, in an inviting tone, it is an invitation to Enlightenment, no less.

More than half a century of critique of this project later, we see it animated anew in the 21st century under the sign of ‘cosmopolitanism’, ‘global public sphere’ and a ‘global Left’.

Jurgen Habermas counterposes, to the imperialist agenda of the United States of America, the idea of world citizenship based on a European vision of “enforcement of a politics of human rights…aimed at establishing the rule of law in international relations” (1999). However, from the perspective of the global south in an unequally structured global economy, the distinction between US hegemony and European hegemony with regard to a “politics of enforcing human rights” does not appear to me to be a significant one.

One of the qualities of a distinctively European, as opposed to an American public sphere, according to Habermas, is secularism in politics – that is, “Citizens here regard transgressions of the border between politics and religion with suspicion”. But this unproblematic definition of secularism begs the question of Europe’s internal Other, Islam. The controversy over the French state’s attitude to the headscarf (what was termed “conspicuous religious symbols”) in schools, surely has produced discussion of sufficient complexity to counter Habermas’s simple assertion that citizens in Europe “regard transgressions of the border between politics and religion with suspicion”. Disagreement over what exactly constituted the transgression of that border – the state’s banning of religious symbols or citizens’ wearing of them – was precisely at the heart of the controversy. Moreoever, it was apparent that the category of “citizen” was internally split – the question of which groups of citizens objected, and to what, brought every tension in the classic European conception of secularism into focus.

Or take Susan Buck-Morss (2003), whose conception of a global public sphere, while recognizing that it is marked by contradictions and lack of mutual comprehension, still asserts that “we exist in the same discursive space.” (Buck-Morrs 2003: 6) It is precisely this assertion that performatively produces homogeneity out of a radical heterogeneity. Buck-Morss, in an attempt at developing mutual comprehension, argues that any ethical project of political translation should mutually open up languages, but her understanding is till fixed within Sakai’s ‘homolingual mode of address’. Translation in Sakai’s sense needs to be a ‘heterolingual’ mode of address, which assumes a ‘non-aggregate community of foreigners’, as opposed to a ‘homolingual’ address that assumes the normalcy of reciprocal and transparent communication in a homogeneous medium. In a heterolingual mode of address, the addressee could respond with varying degrees of comprehension, including missing the signification completely (Sakai 1997: 4-5). The heterolingual address thus assumes that every utterance can fail to communicate, because heterogeneity is inherent in every medium, and therefore, translation is endless. (Sakai 1997: 8)

Buck-Morrs on the other hand, like other philosophers in this mode, assumes that all thought can be rendered into modes familiar to the cosmopolitan intellectual. Thus, she asks for example, why the idea of ‘Islamic economy’ takes ‘the easy way of identity politics’, defining itself as an economy belonging exclusively to Muslims, rather than considering the anti-globalization movement as the most authentic contemporary political expression of Islamic principles. (Buck-Morrs 2003:13)

Consider this – is it even possible to pose this question the other way around? “Why cannot the anti-globalization movement recognize that Islamism is today the most authentically anti-capitalist philosophy available, and consider itself part of global political Islam?”

Consider also this astonishing assertion that Buck-Morrs makes:

“If we are interested in the genealogy of a global public sphere, we will need to note that the first radically cosmopolitan critique of Western-centric thought did not come to the Islamic world from within. It came from French-speaking Caribbean, via secular, Marxist transport with a detour to Algeria – and when it appeared it came with a Western wrapping. I am referring to Frantz Fanon’s remarkable book The Wretched of the Earth, which (paradoxically introduced by the European Marxist Jean Paul Sartre) called on the non-Western world to leave Europe ‘behind’…” (2003:99-100).

With the qualifying phrase “radically cosmopolitan” (emphasized by her in italics), Buck-Morrs is able to dismiss all previous (and future) debates on Euro/West centrism in Islamic thought as parochial. In her view then, 19th century Egyptian thinker, the modernist Muhammad Abduh (to cite just one random instance), who responded to European ascendence through the revitalization of Islam as the “religion of reason” (Euben 1997: 434), can only be seen as asserting a parochial particular identity. But more crucially, the simultaneous rendering of Fanon as ‘cosmopolitan’ in Buck-Morrs’s terms – that is, as bearing no identity but that of the secular Marxist – is equally untenable. The Fanon who came hygienically packaged in Sartre’s Introduction, is not the Fanon of “The Fact of Blackness” (1952), who celebrates his blackness and the explosive solidarities produced by the poets of Negritude. Buck-Morrs in effect denies the Fanon who cries out at Sartre’s betrayal in “Orphee Noir”, his essay introducing a collection of poetry from Francophone Africa, in which, Fanon says, Sartre aridly intellectualizes the experience of being black. Sartre presented negritude as “a minor term of a dialectical progression”, as merely a transitory stage on the way towards the universal and abstract class identity. “When I read that page”, says Fanon, “I felt as if I had been robbed of my last chance…Jean Paul Sartre had forgotten that the Negro suffers in his body quite differently from the white man.”

The idea that something called “identity politics” exists, in contrast to another politics that is universal, is of course, the classic act of power, as universalism is simply a particularism that claims universality. Not to mention the problematic assumption that it is somehow the ‘easy way out’ to assert identity.

Referring to the famous incident of the Haitian revolutionaries singing the Marseillaise, Slavoj Zizek (2009) says the message of it was this: “we are more French than you, the Frenchmen. We stand for the innermost consequences of your revolutionary ideology.” He adds that if we imagine a situation in which those confronting the US Army might sing the Stars and Stripes “there would be nothing a priori problematic in doing so.”

Of course, the problem precisely is that those confronting the US Army today refuse the universal emancipatory project, refuse to claim ownership of the Stars and Stripes. The Haitian claim to the emancipatory French heritage was certainly a deeply unsettling message to send the colonizers. But historically, another response to colonialism has been the repudiation of the Western heritage as flawed – and not just contingently flawed, but constitutively flawed. But Zizek’s Kant for instance, is forever the pure philosopher of universality, even as he draws Kant’s legacy directly from Christianity and St. Paul – Christianity can claim the universal status denied to Islam, Judaism or Hindusim And of course, Kant the anthropologist, the first systematic theorist of race with his taxonomy of hierarchically ordered racial difference, we will inevitably and always have to discover through African and Caribbean scholarship – Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, Walter Mignolo.

Zizek, the proud self-described Eurocentrist, rejects the politics of (other) identity by inviting them – us – instead, into the universal. Refuse the pact with power, he says, refuse to be who power says you must be – woman, African-American, peasant. In a lecture in Delhi in 2010, he spoke about Bertolucci’s film 1900 in which, in a gesture of defiance, a peasant cuts off one of his own ears and hands it over to the tyrannical plantation manager. Zizek said that this is the proper gesture of refusal to power, you refuse to be who it wants you to be. The problem is that in his understanding, you have to refuse who it wants you to be only by singing the Marseillaise, as it were. The banquet hall of the universal – elegant, spacious – awaits us. It’s filled with charming Europeans, there’s fine wine, the best cheese, they are smiling welcomingly, do come in they say. Just leave your ears outside.

Escaping intelligibility

When I use the phrase ‘escaping intelligibility’, I’m suggesting that in a world in which dominant discourses valorize “flows”, “fluidity” and “translatability”, there is a need to be alert to assertions of location in the face of translatability. The term location does not imply indigeneity or authenticity; the point is not to claim authenticity for being located in the non-West. Rather, with the term location, I mean to gesture towards the materiality of spatial and temporal co-ordinates that inevitably suffuse all notions of the self, all theorizing. A sensitivity to location would invariably lead to a productive contamination of the purity of empty universalist categories and challenge their claim to speak about everywhere from nowhere.

There are two dimensions along which we may see this stance in operation.

The first, visible (but not necessarily intelligible) wherever cultures, living practices and peoples seek to evade legibility, resist the modern pressure to engage in dialogue. I find Partha Chatterjee’s notion of “political society” and James Scott’s Zomia productive here. I use the former term in a sense that runs counter to Partha’s own usage, but which I believe to be more true to his own phrase describing it – as a “thicket of contestations”. I would understand the point here to be that political society styles of functioning are not legible in cosmopolitan terms. Scott’s ‘Zomia’ too, I use not literally, but as a metaphor for a kind of politics that either seeks to remain illegible to any kind of national or global public, or often, is not even aware of such publics much of the time.

The large majority of people in most of the world do not seek entry into global spaces, or even the national space. Their selves are ‘incommunicable’ (Nandy), and do not seek communicability. In this sense, they are “ungovernable” and inaccessible to capital, to the state, to governmentality, and to the benign invitations of a cosmopolitan global public sphere. Over a hundred “uncontacted” tribes in the Amazon, for instance, enter our universe only when intruded upon by oil and timber companies, and then we must step in to ‘protect’ them. Which we must do, but the point is that the world outside was irrelevant to them, until they were dragged into it. Similarly, the kantahababas of Bihar never sought to be read by a literate art public of Delhi, and soon, the world.

Escaping intelligibility does not necessarily imply conscious political acts, but just the living of myriad everyday practices – from “public” and visible acts such as squatting on public land; to “private” and invisible acts of intimacy, or practices of sharing that in yet another act of translation, have come to be designated as ‘piracy’ – continuously, unselfconsciously, embodying breached boundaries and disrespected limits. It is not that in such practices the attempt to communicate is absent, there is communication within one’s chosen forum, but not necessarily reaching out to other publics.

The second dimension is located within academic and intellectual spaces. Here, the process of translation of all thought, theorizing and intellection into cosmopolitan terms can result either in a total breakdown of communication or the living nightmare invoked by Meaghan Morris, in which:

“…scholars from different university systems give papers formatted perfectly for international publication in a coherent volume and a single language, understanding each other fluently as they discourse about incommensurability and disjunction” (Foreword  to Sakai 2003: xii).

These two scenarios of recriminative breakdown and successful translation play out in much the same way within the space of the nation-state, and not only globally. For instance, it is fairly common in Indian university spaces to hear articulate accusations of appropriation from Dalit scholars, against non-Dalits studying Ambedkar or other Dalit intellectuals. Such charges are received with much the same degree of consternation, claims of being misunderstood, and charges of identity politics by the Indian cosmopolitan academy (in which I locate myself), as such critiques are received by the global cosmopolitan elite.

These two scenarios need not necessarily produce a dead-end for intellectual engagement. A third possibility is open – to recognize that there are on-going conversations in different publics, in their own terms, in diverse languages (in both the senses that Winch outlines); to be prepared to overhear these conversations with the certainty that we will not necessarily immediately (perhaps never) understand what is at stake; to resist the temptation to translate the unfamiliar into the familiar.

An instance of such engagement is the work of Benno Glauser (2011), the scholar-activist who has worked with indigenous peoples in Latin America for over three decades. He says: “When talking to indigenous peoples, we communicate with a radically diverse realm…[the two] paradigms are essentially incommensurable…” He finally had to recognize that it was an “absurd pretention” to think that he could write about his conversations in methodological terms acceptable to the academy. “We discover that speaking to indigenous peoples forces us to abandon our own method” (2011:23-24)

In this, our 21st century world, there is a radical heterogeneity of voices in public spaces, which we cannot help colliding with, and cannot hope to contain. All thought, all practice does not inhabit the same discursive universe, cultures do set limits to intelligibility (Winch), and the modernist conceit that everybody seeks to be understood by a cosmopolitan public sphere, and can in fact be thus understood – far from being an expression of equality and democracy, can be an act of violent appropriation.


Borges, Jorge Luis (1947/ 2000) “Averroes’ Search” The Aleph and other stories, (Tr Andrew Hurley) Penguin.

Buck-Morss, Susan (2003) Thinking Past Terror Verso

Butterworth, Charles E. (1994) “Translation and Philosophy: The Case of Averroes’ Commentaries”

International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Feb) pp. 19-35

Chandralekha (1992) “Who are these age-old female figures?” The Economic Times, March 8

Doniger, Wendy (2000) Splitting the difference  OUP

Eco, Umberto (2003) Mouse or rat? Translation as Negotiation Phoenix, London

Fanon, Frantz (1952)  “The Fact of Blackness”

Euben, Roxanne L.  (1997) “Premodern, Antimodern or Postmodern? Islamic and Western Critiques of Modernity” The Review of Politics, Vol. 59, No. 3, Non-Western Political Thought (Summer),

pp. 429-459

Glauser, Benno (2011) “Being indigenous: the concept of indigeneity, a conversation with two Ayoreo leaders” in Sita Venkateshwar and Emma Hughes eds The Politics of Indigeneity. Dialogues and reflections on indigenous activism. Zed Books.

Habermas, Jurgen (1999) “Bestiality and Humanity: A War on the Border between Law and Morality”, translated from the German, Franz Solms-Laubach, Die Zeit 54, 18, April. English version available at Global Library, 2000,

Hoskote, Ranjit and Ilija Trojanow (2012)  Confluences. Forgotten Histories from East and West, Yoda Books, Delhi

Kakar, Sudhir (1990) Intimate Relations. Exploring Indian Sexuality Penguin Books

Mernissi, Fatima (1975/2002) “The Muslim Concept of active female sexuality” in Christine L Williams and Arlene Stein eds., Sexuality and Gender Blackwell

Nandy, Ashis (1995/2000) The Savage Freud and other essays on possible and retrievable selves OUP.

Sakai, Naoki (1997) Translation and Subjectivity University of Minnesota Press

Spivakovsky, Erika (1968) “In search of Arabic influences on Borges” Hispania, Vol. 51, No. 2 (May, 1968), pp. 223-231

Zizek, Slavoj (2009) First as tragedy, then as Farce Navayana, Delhi

  1. William Robert Da silva says:

    Excellent essay. In gender translation the mediation has been male, structured male:female; when the rules of mediation in translation change, the structure is female:male. There is a loss and gain in transmediation by gender. The Deconstruction to defer the strucutre, one way or the other, leads to perpetual loss of meaning, shifted, played with, disseminated around and without the transgression of Tamar.
    William R. Da Silva

  2. Sushil Suresh says:

    I enjoyed reading this essay. Some thoughts: in the first section where the author discusses learning, teaching, translation and knowledge, I couldn’t help wondering if Prof Menon’s essay is animated by the idea of knowledge as emancipatory/rebellious, an act of autonomy/independence on the part of the individual shaped by his/her spatio-temporal coordinates/context. Isn’t knowledge primarily, not entirely, a tradition, a set of practices and codes that have attained the status of a body of knowledge? The ‘mastery’ over this codified knowledge is what gives the teacher the ability/right to teach, and the mastering of this tradition is the challenge/path/task of the student. Of course, mastering the tradition is an ongoing task for the teacher as well, and teaching and the dialogical aspect of teaching is a crucial part of this. But what enables the student to contest the codes of wisdom or knowledge, exposing limitations or contradictions in the tradition? Isn’t it the mismatch between the teacher’s locus and the tradition she speaks for vis-a-vis the student’s locus that sparks the act of “rebellion” or “autonomy”. Isn’t this mismatch what speaks through the students when they are in dialogue with the master, and so reveal another knowledge? So, the peasant’s local knowledge, in challenging the dominant knowledge the teachers speaks for, not just shows the limitations or errors of the teacher’s instruction but in the process it creates something else (not dialectically), even if that something else is a deadlock where might becomes right.
    If one sees the process of knowledge as something like this, there is no emancipation or liberation, only a constant interrogation which leads to seeming clarifications and further aporias. For instance, in a university course taught by Prof Menon, would it be possible to challenge the codes of a tradition (the conventions of the academy) through other practices and ideas that escape the concerns and domain of academic scrutiny and so shape the very nature and language/categories/themes of academic work? Practices that escape intelligibility? If this happens and in the process it reveals the limitations of the academy and theory, wouldn’t it also show the futility of social theory itself as a practice that cannot go beyond the debates and paradigms of its traditions and so is fated to miss the emergence and existence of other alternative developments in society?
    In thinking of the global and the local isn’t it possible, as many scholars say, that the local appropriates the discourses and knowledges of the global homogeniser and uses it to different ends? not necessarily to be in the banquet hall of the universal?
    Prof Menon’s argument, if I read it right, is one for the value of local and alternative knowledges against the universalising cosmopolitan pressures prevalent today. But isn’t it also possible that the dignity and the value and the intellectual strength and the vitality of a local tradition become apparent in the encounter with a tradition/culture that believes it is superior and so the future?
    I might have misread Prof Menon’s essay or maybe these are cliched superficial responses. However, I find a similar sentiment in some other essays on similar topics in this blog, particularly Aditya Nigam’s essay on the end of post colonialism.

  3. Sushil Suresh says:

    Not sure if I can delete my reply as I realised after I posted it that Prof Menon’s point is about teaching being process where the teacher encourages or provokes the student to think and learning being an act of individual insight etc I think I was hasty in reading things into the early part of her essay.

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