End of Postcolonialism and the Challenge for ‘Non-European’ Thought

Posted: 19/05/2013 by Aditya Nigam in Knowledge, Philosophy, Postcolonial, Postnational, Theory
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A lively debate has been going on lately in Al Jazeera, following the question posed by Hamid Dabashi in an article provocatively titled “Can Non-Europeans Think“? Dabashi’s piece, published earlier in January this year was a response to an article by Santiago Zabala, Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. Zabala’s article, entitled “Slavoj Zizek and the Role of the Philosopher”, was actually on an entirely different issue, as will be evident from the title. Zabala attempts, in this article, to read in Zizek’s persona and oeuvre, the possible implications for the philosopher as such. He dwells on Zizek as a figure who is at once a philosopher and a public intellectual – a role not very easily available, according to him, to academic philosophers.

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

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

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

This is an interesting issue that has a lot of relevance for the question Dabashi takes up in his response, namely that of non-European thought.  Unfortunately, Dabashi does not go into this question at all – though it is very much at the heart of the issue of intellectual life outside ‘the West’.

One cannot really blame Dabashi for not having any particular interest in Zizek’s persona or oeuvre, for, as Walter Mignolo points out in a thoughtful contribution to the ongoing debate, the non-European thinker may have “better things to do”. Or as my friend and colleague, Rakesh Pandey puts it, tumhara gharana, tumhara raag! (Gharanas are schools of classical Hindustani music and ‘raagas‘ are distinctive melodic compositions/ modes. Its meaning can be translated as “Your terms, your discourse, your debates!”). Thus, a contemporary non-European thinker or scholar might prefer to engage with her own times in more direct ways – that is to say, without the necessary mediation of Western philosophy or thought; she might find, as many indeed do, the elaborate invocation of the (Western) philosophical pantheon before embarking on any journey of thought, irrelevant if not positively irritating. S/he may not find discourses on ‘communism’ and the ‘truth of the proletariat’ – as in the thought of a Slavoj Zizek or an Alain Badiou – relevant at all to her condition.  For these are discourses which, with each successive defeat in the real world, retreat one more step into abstract metaphysics, till there is no relation left whatsoever between the actually existing ‘working class’ and the Zizekian proletariat.

This is not to say, of course, that intellectuals in the East are not interested in the struggle against capital and the questions posed by the Marx’s thought. But perhaps in a very different way. Mignolo himself is not interested in this exercise and concedes that though Zizek and others may actually be engaged in ‘rethinking communism’, that can hardly be considered a goal for all humanity. He therefore puts it quite starkly,

My readings of continental philosophy are not in search of guiding lights to deal with issues of non-European histories, but an interest in what are “they” thinking, what are “their” concerns, what are “they” up to.

This is, to my mind, an important move that many intellectuals in Asia and Africa have already effectively made. Not all among such intellectuals might agree that continental or western philosophy is irrelevant for us, but we surely do not see it providing “guiding lights” in contexts vastly different such as ours.

So, if we set aside Zabala’s insistence on Zizek as “the thinker of our age” (and it is debatable whether we  all live in the same ‘capitalist’ age), his question about the role of the philosopher nevertheless remains. This is an issue of critical importance in the global south and I will return to it later in this essay.

The End of Postcolonialism?

For the present, I wish to go back to Dabashi’s response, which seemed to me to avoid this central issue and in fact segued into another (no less important) question – though it was not central in anyway to Zabala’s article. Dabashi’s response has to do with the following opening paragraph from Zabala’s piece:

“There are many important and active philosophers today: Judith Butler in the United States, Simon Critchley in England, Victoria Camps in Spain, Jean-Luc Nancy in France, Chantal Mouffe in Belgium, Gianni Vattimo in Italy, Peter Sloterdijk in Germany and in Slovenia, Slavoj Zizek, not to mention others working in Brazil, Australia and China.”

Hamid Dabashi is legitimately irritated by what he terms “the unabashedly European character and disposition of the thing the author calls ‘philosophy today’ – thus laying a claim on both the subject and time that is peculiar and in fact an exclusive property of Europe.” Dabashi is also annoyed at the cavalier fashion in which philosophers from other parts of the world are referred to (“‘working in Brazil, Australia and China’, not meriting even a specific name”). But in letting his legitimate irritation get the better of him, Dabashi misses an opportunity of posing a question that we all need to contend with: Why is ‘philosophy’ today, always-already Western? Is it merely a question of Zabala’s arbitrary selection of names that is at issue here, or is there something more?

To put the matter slightly differently, why is all thought in the ‘non-West’ always colonized by the political? If one looks at the situation in India, there is little doubt that there were pretty robust traditions of abstract philosophical thought – preoccupied with questions of logic, epistemology, causation and being, disquisitions on language and meaning and similar questions – in the pre-colonial period. Why is it that from the 19th century on, ‘politics’ takes centre stage? It is not just that ‘politics’ becomes the key object of inquiry; rather it is that all inquiry and thought comes to be colonized by it. This is not a simple matter and a lot more work needs to be done on it. However, one thing seems quite clear – in the ‘cramped space’ of colonized life, politics alone provides the space from where a challenge to the colonizers’ knowledge can be mounted. Philosophy retreats into the mists of time – in the Indian case, into an excavation of Buddhist, Vedic or Vedantic philosophy, except where it concedes defeat and adopts various forms of colonizers’ philosophies (positivism, utilitarianism and so on). Marxism perhaps was an exception because, for the Indian – and I suspect generally colonial – subjects, Marxism is not philosophy properly speaking but a discourse on politics, that provided at once a language to critique colonialism and one’s own tradition.

At one level, politics becomes the key issue – one that defines the oppositional character of thought of the colonized in relation to that of the colonizer. Politics comes to define not merely issues that are explicitly political but for a subject population, often comes to provide a route to thought in other domains as well – reducing all intellectual questions to questions of justice and power. This is a very complex issue that I cannot go into here but hope to come back to at some point later.

Unfortunately, Dabashi ends up spending a lot of his time and energy in supplying specific names from India, Africa and the Arab world. He marshals a formidable list of names which include Ashis Nandy, Partha Chatterjee, Wang Hui, Sudipta Kaviraj, Henry Odera Oruka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Okot p’Bitek, Taban Lo Liyong, Achille Mbembe, Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, Azmi Bishara, Sadeq Jalal Al-Azm, Fawwaz Traboulsi, Abdallah Laroui, Michel Kilo, Abdolkarim Soroush. They are undoubtedly very important thinkers but are they actually doing philosophy? I think some of them are, but most of them think at the borders of philosophy. I think it is important to raise this question for reasons I will return to shortly.

One consequence of this exercise is that it draws Dabashi into the same West versus Non-West binary that in a sense, he has himself been trying to dismantle over the past few years, laying his intervention open to attacks like the one by Michael Marder. Marder’s is an attack that depends to a large extent on caricature and oversimplification. Consider this:

In contrast to this simplistic construal, post-colonial theorists agree that there is no strict division between the coloniser and the colonised; that both colonial and post-colonial structures of power and domination are complex and multilayered, as they are shot through with class, gender and other differences; that claims to a rightful political representation of the subaltern are usually ungrounded, as they are voiced by those most privileged in the colonial or post-colonial societies – men, wealthy elites and so forth. (emphasis added)

Which postcolonial theorists are these who ‘agree’ that ‘there is no strict division between the colonizer and the colonized’? And what precisely is meant by the statement that ‘claims to a rightful representation of the subaltern are usually ungrounded, as they are voiced by those most privileged in the colonial or postcolonial societies – men, wealthy elites and so forth’? While there is a grain of truth in each of the above statements, the sweeping assertion of the order suggested above – almost implying that there is really no difference between the colonizer and the colonized – is nothing short of a caricature. A recognition of the multiple layers of power and domination within ex-colonial societies does not by any stretch of imagination exonerate colonialism for the multiple layers of violence that it has perpetrated on the societies it colonized. Nor does it exonerate Western theorists and philosophers of the charge of smugness  – even those who have  lately begun to recognize that some thought possibly takes place outside the precincts of their academies, but who seem to be content with making some superficial gestures to that effect, without letting that thought disturb their own philosophical apparatus in any way.

A good example of this would be Zizek himself, whose Living in the End Times,  published after a flying visit to India [1], displays characteristic audacity in making theoretical pronouncements about India and Indian tradition to which I will return below. He also makes some passing references to conversations he had with some individuals and throws in some references – now mandatory for all those claiming to be radical – to ‘untouchability’ and the Dalits. These references are actually nothing more than ‘authenticity gestures’ in the Western academy.

In other words, despite the multi-layered and complex nature of both colonial and post-colonial structures of power and domination, the divide is quite stark. And radicalism of any sort is no guarantee that a Western/ European philosopher will even attempt to transcend his/ her geographical, historical and cultural limits.

This is not to say that postcolonial theory is free of all problems. For many of us living in India, the moment of postcolonial theory, inaugurated by the work of Edward Said but also, in our context, by the work of Ashis Nandy and Subaltern Studies, constituted a crucial and liberating moment. For the first time the enterprise of social sciences, of political and social theory and of Marxism, began to be examined as specific knowledge formations that arose in a specific historical context, in a specific part of the world. In other words, both the universalist claims of these knowledge formations as well as their intellectual and cultural hegemony came to be challenged over the subsequent decades. The effects of this recognition were dramatic. For it initiated a renewed engagement with our own intellectual traditions alongside a serious scrutiny of the received wisdom of Western thought. But there was a serious difficulty here as well. The critique of Western knowledge and philosophy soon got inserted within a very unproductive discourse of ‘indigenism’ that draws on a diet of a high-pitched anti-Western rhetoric. Needless to say, this division unwittingly reinforced the old nationalist one of ‘Indic tradition’ versus the West, sometimes despite itself. Everything of Western and colonial provenance was considered worthy of being rejected. The ‘long amnesia’ inaugurated by nationalist thought enforced a certain territorial closure on a thought-tradition that had thrived on long exchanges with Greek, Chinese, Arab and Persian traditions. There was no unadulterated ‘Indic’ tradition, it had been severely and seriously internally contested. (For a sophisticated recent exploration of the impact of one aspect of this precolonial philosophical confluence in India, see Jonardon Ganeri, The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India 1450-1700, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011).

It is for this reason that some of us based in South Asia prefer to speak of the ‘postnational’ condition, rather than the postcolonial (See the set of essays in ‘The Postnational Condition‘ Economic and Political Weekly March 7, 2009). For it is clear that the internal conflicts within this so-called tradition had often been so violent that it was always the presence of the ‘outside’ – now in the form of Islam, now in the form of colonial rule – that proved empowering to the excluded and dispossessed. No wonder then that numerous lower caste movements through the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries, found in the colonial power an ally. It is the presumed unity of ‘the nation’ that becomes the object of investigation now, rather than the formations of colonial power – on which we have by now have a substantial body of very serious work.

A caveat is however, necessary here. There were other oppressed sections, especially the tribal/ indigenous people, the peasantry and the urban working class, who found themselves in serious opposition to the colonial power – their struggles often going beyond the confines of nationalism – a point that Subaltern Studies scholars have been at pains to underline. The anticolonial struggle is therefore not reducible to nationalism – nor was it merely the struggle of a middle class elite. This is a complex story – not easily amenable to Marder’s oversimplified account of the colonial/postcolonial relationship.

To return to Dabashi then, one is a bit puzzled as to why he resorted to this West versus non-West rhetoric, when his own work over the years has tended to warn against this false polarity. After all, in his recent book The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism (Zed Books, London, 2011), he had very forcefully put forward the argument that “these revolutionary uprisings are post-ideological, meaning that they are no longer fighting according to terms dictated by their condition of coloniality, codenamed ‘postcolonial'” (p. 11). In an interesting formulation, he had argued that these movements represent a new constellation where a societal modernity supersedes political modernity. Political modernity, he suggested, was ultimately a defeated project because it was predicated on the dichotomous frame that pitted it against European colonialism and American imperialism, where

These direct contestations had produced three distinct (prototypical) ideological grand narratives: anticolonial nationalism, Third World socialism, and militant Islamism (p. 13)

He therefore argued, even more starkly,

We need to overcome the anxiety of Orientalism and shift our theorizing lens to our evolving history and stop trying to explain things to that fictive white man who sat in Edward Said’s mind for a lifetime. That fictive white man is dead – he was never alive. He was a chimera manufactured by a postcolonial age that had prolonged the life of the grand illusion of ‘the West’ with its corresponding ‘the Rest.’ (emphasis added, p. 75)

Clearly, ‘postcolonialism’ defined in this way is an entirely different entity from what we identify as ‘postcolonial theory’ or ‘postcolonial studies’. And yet, in  terms of its defining binary, postcolonial theory too shares a common ground with this ‘political postcolonialism’ – and Dabashi’s call to move beyond it is an important one that we need to take seriously.

Zizek, Thought and the Non-European

Before we discuss what I see as the major challenge before non-European thought, let me turn to Zizek’s thought insofar as it concerns us, non-Europeans, directly. Zizek here is only an instance of what I understand to be a more general problem of the Western philosopher. (Another recent instance of this sort is the more pernicious but also more trivial book by Perry Anderson, The Indian Ideology, that basically takes to task almost all Indian intellectuals for not criticizing what he calls  ‘Indian Ideology’ – while actually drawing all the elements of his so-called ‘critique’ from the work done by Indian scholars.)

I will confine my remarks here to some sections of Zizek’s recent Living in the End Times (Verso, London/ New York 2011) as an exhaustive treatment of Zizek’s thought does not interest me. Zizek is only the most stark symptom of a wider syndrome. At the very outset, Zizek lays his philosophical cards on the table:

“Though one may be tempted to oppose these perspectives – the dogmatism of blind faith versus an openness towards the unexpected – one should nevertheless insist on the truth contained in the second version: truth as opposed to knowledge is like a Badiouian Event, something that only an engaged gaze, the gaze of a subject who ‘believes in it’, is able to see…Lacking this engaged position, mere description of the state of things, no matter how accurate, fail to generate emancipatory effects – ultimately they only render the burden of the lie still more oppressive…” (Introduction, p. xiv)

This is something a good Hindu or a good Muslim too would say: you have to have faith in the word of God to be able to see Him. Structurally, both these claims are of the same order: ‘Truth’ is a priori, and the empirical world always a corruption, always ‘Maya’ (an ontological delusion) as a good Hindu would put it. I should therefore lay my own philosophical cards on the table: I begin from this, messy, disorderly empirical world. Even though I agree that we have no direct access to it – outside of our categories of thought, that is – I nevertheless insist that the real challenge to thought is to confront this world, over and over again, each time the encounter with the empirical reveals the limits of our thought-categories.

Very early on in the book (p.x), we read about the underlying premise of the book (a simple one, according to him): “the global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point.” And we can easily see that this is the ‘end time’ referred to – the end of time, according to Christian theology – though many cultures across the world may find it impossible to understand this idea of a beginning and an end of Time. In many cultures, time is eternity: there is no sharp distinction between Eternity and ‘historical Time’, marked by the Fall. But more interesting is the implication here that this end-time is not merely the end of ‘global capitalism’ but of Time as such. This is the corner that many Western Leftist philosophers have painted themselves into  – they have made capitalism integral to the ontology of the human condition. That is why Zizek often says that it is easier to imagine the end of the world rather than the end of capitalism.

Zizek explains this condition with reference to ‘four riders of the apocalypse’ (another Christian metaphor), namely, (i) the ecological crisis (ii) the consequences of the biogenetic revolution (iii) imbalances within the system itself (intellectual property, forthcoming struggles over raw materials, food and water) and (iv) the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions. Tellingly, he then ‘takes up only the last point’ for illustration for it signifies something very specific to him. Consider the following statement: “nowhere are the new forms of apartheid more palpable than in the wealthy Middle Eastern oil states – Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.” He talks of how “hidden on the outskirts of the cities, often literally behind walls, are tens of thousands of ‘invisible’ immigrant workers doing all the dirty work..” (p. x) “A country like Saudi Arabia he says, “is literally ‘beyond corruption’: there is no need for corruption because the ruling gang (the royal family) is already in possession of all the wealth…” (Ibid). He goes on in this vein till we come to this gem of a statement:

“Should the situation persist, can we even imagine the change in the Western ‘collective psyche’ when (not if but precisely when) some ‘rogue nation’ or group obtains a nuclear device, powerful biological or chemical weapon and declares its ‘irrational’ readiness to risk all using it? The most basic coordinates of our awareness will have to change, insofar as, today, we live in a state of collective fetishistic disavowal: we know very well that this will happen at some point but, nevertheless cannot bring ourselves to really believe that it will. The US attempt to prevent such an occurrence through continuous pre-emptive activity is a battle that has been lost in advance…” (p. x)

A number of things need to be noted. The ‘we’ who live in a ‘collective fetishistic disavowal’ – the addressee of this discourse – are the inhabitants of the ‘West’. That is precisely why this European philosopher can make the statements about nuclear, biological and chemical weapons that he does without a moment’s pause. Is he really not aware that only once have nuclear weapons been actually used – not by ‘Middle Eastern’ lunatics but the very USA, who he thinks is fighting a legitimate battle – lost but not unjust? And is it not true that western powers still remain the ones to have used biological and chemical warfare most prolifically? Where then do Zizek’s confident claims come from? It seems to me, they come from a continuing understanding that it is in the West alone that ‘world-historical’ agency lies – all others are lunatics and ‘irrational’ people. Notice how the apocalyptic crisis of capitalism is ultimately reduced to its Saudi Arabian and Kuwaitian avataar! That is where the end of time ‘begins’. Not unsuprisingly, Zizek is of course, the same philosopher who had once made a “Leftist Plea for Eurocentrism“?

No less important is the completely cavalier attitude with which he treats his non-Western ‘subjects’ – for they generally figure in the book to show that he is no longer ‘Eurocentric’ in the way he once was, he is now familiar with the world beyond. A few instances should suffice. Having talked about the apartheid in ‘middle eastern’ cities, he then comes to his new discovery – the slums of India. His observations are simply breathtaking:

“A more standard form of ‘inclusive exclusion’ are the slums – large areas outside of state governance. While generally perceived as spaces in which gangs and religious sects fight for control, slums also offer the space for radical political organizations, as is the case with India, where the Maoist movement of Naxalites is organizing a vast alternate social space.” (emphasis added, p. xi)

Where did Zizek get his information about the Maoists? A half-way intelligent journalist knows that the Maoists exist nowhere in urban slums in India. Their areas of activity are in dense forest areas, generally inhabited by indigenous people (adivasis). Equally stunning is his claim that ‘slums are large areas out of state governance’. Clearly Zizek has not read any of the most easily available material – empirical and theoretical – on contemporary India but has the gumption to opinionate – indeed philosophize – on its condition. Any study – and certainly the now very influential and easily available work of Partha Chatterjee on ‘political society’ – would have made him see that slums of all places are hardly outside governmentality (state governance in his terms). But I doubt that such an enormous factual error would embarrass him.

In the very next sentence he then quotes “an Indian state official” on how lack of governance creates the space for Maoists – here we get a footnote to Sudeep Chakravarti’s well regarded book on the Maoist movement (The Red Sun). Tellingly, Sudeep is spelt Sudep – imagine if I were to spell Zizek as Zizik. The point is that ‘Sudep’ does not matter. For despite the citation, Zizek is unable to understand that the Maoist movement simply does not exist in the cities but in remote and inaccessible forests. The dishonesty of the citation is also worth underlining for this pernicious style of citation runs through the book. Sudeep Chakravarti is cited not for his work on Maoism but as a native informant from whom Zizek simply takes the quote of the anonymous Indian state official.

But as if this was not enough, Zizek performs another mind-boggling feat within the next few pages. This time he philosophizes on the Hindu tradition of ‘Tantra’  – all on the basis on having read one book! The book in question is Hugh Urban’s Tantra: Sex, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion, (University of California Press, Berkley 2003). Urban’s work too is generally very highly regarded in the field but can anybody from the non-West have the audacity to write about some spiritual practice in England or France or Germany on the basis of having read just one book? My point is the audacity of the assumption that all you need to know about India (or the non-West) are ‘facts’ which you can pick up from anywhere. After all, these are places where no intellection or debate takes place. Dabashi’s question, ‘Can the non-European think’ hits you with full force, when you encounter Zizek.

But what about the argument itself? What exactly is Zizek telling us here? Sample this:

“The gap between the official text of the Law and its obscene supplement is not limited to Western cultures; in Hindu culture, it occurs as the opposition between vaidika (the Vedic corpus) and tantrika – tantra being the obscene (secret) supplement to the Vedas, the unwritten (or secret, non-canonic) core of the public teaching of the Vedas, a publicly disavowed but necessary element. No wonder that tantra is so popular today in the West: it offers the ultimate ‘spiritual logic of late capitalism’ uniting spirituality and earthly pleasures, transcendence and material benefits, divine experience and unlimited shopping.” (emphasis added, p. 7)

Now, for one thing, Tantra is something that pervades both Vedic and non-Vedic (nastika) faiths like Buddhism, Jainism and even Sikhism. It is not something that is simply reducible to the ‘supplement’ – obscene or otherwise – of the Vedas – as a disavowed but necessary element, as he tells us. Zizek’s mode of theorizing however should not surprise us, for this is simply the Western Left’s theorization about capital(ism) projected backwards in time and sideways in space. Just as capital alone has agency and posits even its own ‘outside’, its heterogenieties, so here the philosopher sees the diverse practices of Tantra as mere appendages or outgrowths of ‘Vedic teaching’ – whatever that means.

More significantly, Tantra as it existed in India, from at least the 5th century CE onward, can only be read by the European philosopher ‘retroactively’ – through the experience of some 21st century fad in the West (the ‘spirit of late capitalism’!). Can one do any better in reducing the non-West to Europe’s ‘obscene supplement’ – the non-West exists only to the extent that it is ‘posited’ by Europe/ West?

It may be useful at this stage now, to contrast what Zizek says to what scholars in the field – both Western and Indian – who have spent years studying the phenomenon, have to say about Tantra. Notice the huge diversity of meanings and practices that Tantra embodies, according to these scholars. In the words of Paul E. Muller-Ortega, Abhinavagupta, the 10th century Kashmiri Saivite philosopher, shows

“(The) early Hindu Tantra rejects the dry vistas of traditional philosophical debate, which seek only representation of the Ultimate through conceptual truths. It rejects as well the self-enclosing renunciation of traditional Indian monasticism, which protectively seeks to isolate the monk from the imagined stain of worldliness. Transcending the dualities and distinctions of conventional thought and morality, the Tantra demonstrates an outward gesture of embracing delight in all of reality. ” (cited in ‘Introduction’, by Robert Brown, in The Roots of Tantra, (ed. Katherine Anne Harper and Robert L. Brown, State University of New York, New York, 2002, pp. 10-11)

Robert Brown himself observes:

“The way for Tantric practitioners to reach dual goals, comes by connecting themselves to a power that flows through the world, including their own bodies, a power usually visualized as female. Tantrins identify the power, locate it, activate it, and use it for their own desires. ” (Ibid: 3)

 He sees Tantra as “an accumulation of practices and ideas from various sources distributed unevenly in different times, places and among individuals.” (emphasis added, Ibid: 1)

Andre Padoux underlines:

“The use of sex is not found in all Tantric traditions. It is not prevalent but present nonetheless in the Saiva and Sakta groups that have a Kapalika origin or background and that have kept, if only symbolically, the Kapalika culture of the cremation ground with its cult of the Yoginis and its erotico-mystic rites and notions.” (Padoux, ‘What do we Mean by Tantrism?’ in Ibid: 20)

These are just a few citations to illustrate the complex set of practices that constitute Tantra. Let me now turn to Zizek’s philosophizing on Indian civilization and culture at large. Here is what Zizek has to say in one crisp and pregnant paragraph: 

“What we find in the Veda is a brutal cosmology based on killing and eating: higher things kill and eat/consume lower ones, the stronger eat the weaker; that is life is a zero-sum game in which one’s victory is another’s defeat. The ‘great chain of being’ appears here in the ‘food chain,’ the great chain of eating: gods eat mortals humans, humans eat mammals, mammals eat lesser animals who eat plants, plants ‘eat’ water and earth…such is the eternal cycle of being. So why does the Veda claim that the top social stratum consists not of warrior-kings stronger than all other humans, ‘eating’ the all, but of the caste of priests? It is here that the code’s ideological ingenuity becomes apparent: the function of the priests is to prevent the first, highest, level of cosmic eating, the eating of human mortals by gods. How? By way of performing sacrificial rituals. Gods must be appeased, their hunger for blood must be satisfied, and the trick of the priests is to offer the gods a substitute (symbolic) sacrifice: an animal or other prescribed food instead of human life.” (emphasis added, pp. 16-17)

Zizek begins this section with a prefatory sentence which says, linking to an earlier discussion on Confucianism,

“This same materialism is also clearly discernible in the Laws of Manu…“,

where a footnote attached to ‘Manu’ gives the following reference: “Laws of Manu, trans. Wendy Doniger, New Delhi: Penguin Books 2000″. Two other references to this text follow two pages later, after a long discussion where Zizek seems to be talking as though he has full command of the original text. This second footnote refers to the ‘Translator’s introduction’! Either Zizek himself does not know or he wants to deliberately mislead his readers: Wendy Doniger is a scholar of many decades’ standing on Hinduism and not merely a ‘translator’ whose introduction the philosopher so dishonestly cites.

But let that pass for the present. Let us look closely at the quote above. His claim about the great chain of being becoming the ‘great chain of eating’ is not his at all, but a formulation of 19th and 20th century scholars of Indology like Sylvain Levi and Francis Zimmerman whose work Wendy Doniger discusses at some length, all three un-cited of course, by Zizek.  In other words, it is a specific reading and not just some ‘Truth’ about Indian civilization. It is an important and interesting formulation but one that is, like everything else, open to debate. Doniger herself does not present it as anything more than a much discussed but plausible proposition. It is once again the Philosopher who steps in to transform this specific reading into a truth about an entire civilization. And then, most amazingly, the emergence of ‘priesthood’ and its special place in this culture is reduced to a simple matter of an expedient, a ‘trick’ to deceive the gods! This point too, with the added grandiose philosophical flourish of course, is drawn straight from Doniger’s work but presented as original insight.

“This”, says Zizek with great flourish, “was the first contract between ideologists (priests) and those in power (warrior-kings),” (17) extending without any self-consciousness, the modern Western fiction of contract onto a civilization whose history and thought he has no clue about.

This breathtaking reduction of an entire civilization to a matter of trickery and contract is done entirely on the basis of the reading of a single text in the English translation by one scholar. For Zizek’s information, we could mention that there are at least three other English translations of the same text, by different scholars (starting with William Jones in the 18th century), with their own readings of the text – not to speak of entire libraries of books in Sanskrit, Persian, Pali and other regional languages that give a sense of the mind-boggling range of beliefs, practices and intellectual debates that comprises the thing we know as ‘Indian civilization”. Scholars working in the field have long grappled with this ocean of material – but the Philosopher requires none of all that nonsense. His engaged subjectivity  gives him direct access to ‘the truth’, merely on the basis of a superficial reading of a single translation of a single text.

If Zizek had even read a fraction of what serious scholars of Indian thought and politics have been writing for the past decades, he would have realized how ridiculous his ‘theorization’ sounds. It is not for me to give Zizek the reading list for these texts but he could profitably look up the works of Sheldon Pollock and his students, for starters. He could read the work of David Shulman whose recent work explores the relationship of imagination, thought and reality in South India or at the work of Lawrence MacCrea that shows that up until the 8th and 9th centuries, Indian philosophy was largely materialist in its orientation. He could read the works of 20th century Indian philosophers like KC Bhattacharya, JL Mehta, Bimal Matilal, JN Mohanty and more contemporary scholars of Indian philosophy like Jonardan Ganeri, Arindam Chakrabarty and others. I am not sure though that even all this will encourage the Philosopher to revise a word of what he has to say, or that he will start treating the non-West as anything more than a field of native informants – after all, his philosophy is a priori and other worlds are merely posited by what he believes to be the higher life-form.

However, let me not complain here any more about Zizek’s ignorance about India, for my problems with him are in fact far more fundamental.

In an argument with Badiou regarding the status of ‘classes’ in ‘society’, Zizek accuses Badiou of “reducing classes to parts of a social body”, apparently “forgetting the lesson of Louis Althusser, namely that ‘class struggle’ paradoxically precedes classes as determinate social groups, that is that every class position and determination is already an effect of the ‘class struggle.’ This is why ‘class struggle’ is another name for the fact that ‘society does not exist’ – it does not exist as a positive order of being.” (198)

So far so good, and one could perhaps agree with the latter part of the statement (society does not exist as a positive order of being) without necessarily agreeing that something called ‘class struggle’ is what accounts for it. Anybody who has read Ernesto Laclau  and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (written in the mid 1980s) would be familiar with this idea of the ‘impossibility of society’ and the difficulties of taking the ‘positivity of the social’ for granted – though one might not agree with the details of their elaboration. However this is not where my problem lies. It lies rather in the further explication of this proposition through a theoretical instance:

“In other words, one should always bear in mind that for a true Marxist, ‘classes’ are not categories of positive social reality, parts of the social body, but categories of the real of a political struggle which cuts across the entire social body , preventing its ‘totalization’ (emphasis added). True, there is no outside to capitalism today, but this should not be used to hide the fact that capitalism itself is ‘antagonistic’, relying on contradictory measures to remain viable (emphasis added) – and these immanent antagonisms open up the space for radical action. (198-199)

Zizek, like most Western Marxists, finds himself in a bind here [2]. Having once proclaimed ‘capitalism’ to be a ‘totality’ with its own internal logic and then having proclaimed – on the basis of their own narrow experience – that ‘there is no outside to capital’, how is he to understand dissonances and ‘radical political action’? How then do you understand practices that do not quite fit the notion of an immanent ‘logic of capital’? Here we are presented with a ‘subterfuge’: capitalism is self-antagonistic – that is to say, in order to remain viable, it also posits its own potential negations. Thus, as an instance of this process, Zizek says: “If, say a cooperative movement of poor farmers in a Third World country succeeds in establishing a thriving alternative network, this should be celebrated as a genuine political event.” (emphasis original, 199) Notice that this is very different from Marx’s claim that capitalism brings with it its own grave-digger in the form of the proletariat – which in his scheme of things was the necessary consequence of the uprooting of ‘precapitalist’ life-forms, on which alone the edifice of capitalism could be erected. In Zizek’s case, on the other hand, it is clear from his very example that between Marx’s time and his, the ‘poor farmers in the third world’ have not disappeared into the pages of history; they are alive and kicking, fighting and forming cooperatives. Nonetheless, for Zizek there ‘is no outside to capital’ and these poor farmers are doubly poor in that they do not realize that they “are posited by capital itself”, by the very force they are supposedly fighting.

The problem here with Zizek as with most Western Marxists is that they have no way of seeing dissonances and life forms other than capital as anything but the effects of capital, just as in some other variants, they are seen as the effects of modernity: there is no such thing as ‘tradition’ (even reconstituted tradition), but something that is already an effect of modernity. If one were to trace the philosophical genealogy of this idea, one would have to go back to the Hegelian/Marxist (but also the Enlightenment) moment where all these societies outside the ‘modern’, capitalist west, were seen as societies/ peoples without history, without change or the capacity for change. They were inert masses brought into the orbit of history and civilization by the West. Anything that produced change in them could only have been introduced from outside.

The world looks very different, however, when seen from this side of the divide. That is why the 1960s debate on capitalist development in the ‘peripheries’ – dependistas and unequal exchange, for instance – was marked by this anxiety among Marxists as to why capitalism was not developing in the non-West. That is why, when Subaltern Studies scholars began to engage with the history of peasant revolts and the working class movement, they had to inevitably confront the history of capital in India. They came to the conclusion that the ‘universal history of capital’ had failed to play itself out in these societies. This is why Dipesh Chakrabarty refers to ‘two histories of capital’ (H1 and H2), where the latter refers to lifeworlds that are in some sense external to capital’s universal history. Zizek enters into a debate with Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe and follows the latter’s argument through parts where Chakrabarty seems to concede that co-existence of non-capitalist lifeworlds, gods and spirits and so on with capital may actually have been a more general condition (pp. 280-285).

Zizek’s response is not unexpected:

“Such co-existence holds not only for India, but is present everywhere, including in the most developed societies. It is here that one should apply the properly dialectical notion of totality: capitalism functions as a ‘totality’, in other words, elements of pre-existing life-worlds and economies (including money) are gradually re-articulated as its own moments, ‘exapted’ with a different function. What this means is that the line separating H1 and H2 is by definition blurred: parts of H2 ‘found’ by capitalism to be external to it, become permanently re-articulated as its integral elements.” (284, emphasis added)

So thinks the philosopher for whom capitalism as a coherent totality is an a priori assumption (though he has forgotten his own subterfuge by now – that ‘class struggle prevents totalization’). Needless to say, such an a priori assumes a highly problematic form from the perspective of those who are not only challenging, resisting or fighting their integration into the totality but also from the standpoint of those who continue to engage in practices that capital/ism cannot really always deal with or articulate within itself. This is an argument that needs to be both demonstrated empirically and argued theoretically – a task that is not possible within the confines of this essay but which I have undertaken elsewhere (‘Molecular Economies: Is there an ‘Outside to Capital?’, in Menon, Palshikar, Nigam (eds), Critical Studies in Politics, Orient Blackswan and IIAS, forthcoming 2013). As an a priori assumption, however, it makes more sense for us to see these opposing forces as forces arrayed in battle, none really able to contain, appropriate and re-produce the other as its own moment. That is to say, it makes more sense for us to see them as what Laclau would say is the ‘failure of the structure to be’ – a structure that is always threatened, indeed, constituted by its ‘outside’. In such an understanding, the ‘structure’ has no existence except as what its conditions of existence make it out to be. It is a structure that is therefore, never in control of itself – things always escaping it, if one were to get Deleuzian.

All the empirical instances that Zizek marshals in order to demonstrate that capitalism can appropriate all dissonant elements and re-produce them as its own moments, will then appear in a very different light. Capital, at the end of the twentieth century, before the onset of neo-liberalism, was not a totality in command of the universe but actually seriously threatened by the combined power of labour and environmental movements. The victory of neo-liberalism and the collapse of the Soviet bloc gave it a shot in the arm that was certainly not immanent to capital’s inner logic. Indeed, the debate around the social clause in the mid-1990s, during the final stages of the Uruguay Round of the GATT negotiations, when the WTO was being put in place, showed serious fissures and divisions between capital in the west and Western governments, between capital in the west and capital in the ‘third world’ – so much so that western governments were willing to demand union rights and other important labour and environmental standards of their rivals in the third world. They were prepared to go so far as to link these standards to ‘fair trade’, not because they represented the ‘enlightened bourgeoisie’ of the ‘advanced West’ but because this would help undercut the trade advantage that these gave their rivals. There was no immanent logic of capital in evidence here – only various components of ‘capital’ in confrontation with each other. We could go on but let these instances suffice for now.

Thinking Otherwise

This brings us then, to our final question. If even our most basic engagement with the empirical must take some a priori assumptions as our starting points, we will do well to reject the totalizing metaphysics of the Hegelian-Marxist kind and look for other metaphors. My own preference, as I have indicated above, is for the idea of a ‘structure’ that is constituted by its ‘outside’, and therefore always incomplete. We can also see the encounter of these different forces in terms of other metaphors – such as that of ‘confluence’, as used for instance, by Ranjit Hoskote and Ilija Trojanow (in their book Confluences) – which are not simple flows merging together but complex processes involving conflict as well. The idea of confluence works especially in the case of ideas in the precolonial context where it was not the power of the barrel of the gun that settled the superiority of ideas. Indeed, superiority and in inferiority were not even terms in which these exchanges took place. One thinks of the great centres of learning in medieval Baghdad or Cordoba where scholars from all over the world were invited, where translations and transmissions of different texts and ideas from China and India took place. One thinks likewise of the influence of Arab philosophers like Al Farabi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd in the early European institutions of learning – especially from the 13th century on. Colonial domination and capitalism transformed even this terrain of intellectual and cultural transactions – the battle of ideas , never an easy or simple affair, now became akin to a real battle across cultural divides where political power determined the ‘superiority’ or otherwise of ideas.

I take Dabashi’s injunction mentioned above – that of the need to transcend the West versus non-West binary instituted by the colonial condition and continued through the postcolonial, seriously. In so doing, I also want to raise some questions about the challenges for the non-European thinker today.

One way of taking Dabashi’s injunction seriously is to move beyond this need to say that ‘we also have philosophy’ or ‘we also have thought’ – to the same white man who he describes as a chimera. For some us grappling with the issues of what it is to think in India/ South Asia today, it is becoming increasingly clear that this task is impossible to accomplish  – indeed even begin meaningfully – without challenging the canon itself. The canon of philosophy in particular. For there is a certain self-referentiality within which philosophy circulates – its universalism is always already established, a priori – such that it can endlessly talk to itself, in endless circular exegeses. Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Descartes, Spinoza, Hegel, Heidegger, Deleuze, Badiou, Zizek, Ranciere…the circle sometimes expands a bit to induct a Spinoza or Heidegger or a Ranciere – but never an Al Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd or Ibn Khaldun. The charmed circle is impossible to break into – unless of course you decide to reconcile yourself to the terms laid out and leave your skin behind – which is to say, the history that makes you! Every time you want to do philosophy, you must demonstrate that you are ready to undergo plastic surgery, change the colour of your skin and with it, the mind that you possess.

In the list of philosophers that I have mentioned above, there are some easily recognizable absences – Marx, Foucault and lately Latour. All considered to be lesser philosophers but perhaps precisely for that reason, closer to our notion of what philosophy might be or can be. For neither Marx nor Foucault nor Latour demand that before you start reading them you must first bow before the great canonical figures of philosophy. On the contrary, they invite you to read and engage with them from your own vantage point. If you want to understand capital or power, the modern institutions of discipline and labour, human relationship with the non-human, then the door is wide open for you to enter. In a manner of speaking, bringing up Marx and Foucault, in particular, also brings up another important issue: that of the relationship between philosophy and history.

Note that what I am talking about here is the style and mode of ‘doing philosophy’ by bringing it down from its metaphysical heights into the messy world of the social and the historical. It is not that Marx or Foucault are exempt from Eurocentric assumptions but the point is that they are engaging with their times in ways that are open – and in so far as such processes, institutions and disciplines exist outside the West, these ‘philosophers’ might have something to say to thinkers in other contexts as well. In a sense, the challenge of doing philosophy in the non-West too involves a similar move – of bringing thought down from its assumed universalist pedestal to speak to different histories – in other words, to become historical.

Instead of claiming that ‘we too had/ have philosophy’, it is important, it seems to me, to underline that we have today the responsibility to think differently. To think in ways that are at once historical and philosophical. Or to put it somewhat differently, the challenge is to think at the borders of  history and philosophy. We do not have the luxury of indulging in the universalist mode of self-referential philosophizing that philosophers in the West have. For them, every thing has always been already thought in its essentials from the narrow ground of their experience, and every new philosopher has to prove himself or herself to first be an exegete – whose only point of reference is the text. For us, on the other hand, thinking involves challenging the given-ness of that universality of thought; it involves challenging the canon itself. And for this reason, more importantly, thinking for us involves a withdrawal, a stepping back, from entering into ‘a dialogue’ with Western philosophers, the terms for which are always-already set for us. A dialogue, we might say from our experience, is not always a desirable thing.

This may be the reason why the names that Dabashi cites as ‘philosophers’ are not easily recognizeable as philosophers. Perhaps these thinkers have already made the first move in the manner stated by Mignolo, from pure, speculative philosophy to thinking at the borders. Let us recognize that this move, however, is only the first step of a long journey. A critique of Eurocentrism is all very good but the task of reconstituting thought and with it the human sciences has just begun. 

[Many of the above ideas have been developed in ongoing conversations with Nivedita Menon and my friends and colleagues Rakesh Pandey and Prathama Banerjee. It may be difficult to disentangle the authorship of many ideas expressed here.]

[1] Nivedita Menon’s response to Zizek after his talk in Delhi (2010) – The Two Zizeks

[2] My earlier 2-part critique of a certain Western Marxism written after attending a star studded conference in London “On the Idea of Communism” (2009)

Rebooting Communism or Slavoj Zizek and the End of Philosophy – I

Evangelist Zizek and  the End of Philosophy – II

  1. […] Read the full essay here at Critical Encounters. […]

  2. imanol galfarsoro says:

    My contribution to the debate: http://basque.criticalstew.org/?p=9910 Did Somebody Say Decolonial harmony?

  3. Adnan R. Amin says:

    Extremely engrossing – though difficult for an untrained mind. Thanks for pointing out the disconnect between the Zizek and Dabashi pieces at the very outset – clearly the latter wasn’t really a response to the former.
    Thought Dabashi’s argument was summed up by: there is a structural link between an imperial frame of reference and the (presumed) universality of a thinker hailing from that empire. If the Chinese dominate the world for the next 200 years, people will end up thinking in Confucian terms. Regardless of whether China ostensibly colonizes the world or not. Its ‘Referent Power’.
    Thanks again.

  4. […] A much-circulated follow-up piece on the discussion between Santiago Zabala and Hamid Dabashi (and less on Slavoi Zizek) by Aditya Nigam in Critical Encounters about the End of Postcolonialism and the Challenge for ‘Non-European’ Thought: […]

  5. Sushil Suresh says:

    great essay, although I wondered why Spivak was not mentioned anywhere in the essay, since a lot of her work explicitly concerns itself with the problems the author has raised about philosophy and the subaltern and colonial knowledge formations. I, however, if I understood the author right and read him carefully enough, don’t understand why the author thinks that prior to the colonial encounter the exchange of ideas between cultures was less violent? To the extent that any idea or system of thought gains ascendance in ‘society’ can there be an absence of forces and power and ultimately violence behind this ascendance or prevalence of ideas or ‘philosophy’?
    Also, saying that the divide between the colonial and the coloniser is not neat does not constitute an exoneration of past violence (in all its forms and in all areas of life, including “thought and knowledge”), does it? Isn’t that observation a challenge to think?
    Lastly, I’d like to add to the author’s brilliant critique of Zizek by asking how representative are the popular wise men like Zizek of contemporary social formations in the ‘west’? Does his philosophy have anything to say about migration, citizenship, diversity etc. Perhaps it has a lot to say, but a lot more interesting and instructive stuff can be gained from plenty of other scholars and intellectuals, especially people who are not ‘philosophers’.

  6. […] which the nationalists appropriated. This, then, would be a good example of Aditya Nigam argues as a postcoloniality that is an echo of modernity. If we look at the regional anti-colonial […]

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