Archive for the ‘Modernity’ Category

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

Reading Ibn Khaldun in Kampala[1]

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

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

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

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

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. (more…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Nivedita Menon

Foucault has had enormous and wide-ranging influence on Indian scholarship, (and scholarship on India), but I am going to focus here only on one concept – governmentality. This concept has implicitly and explicitly shaped some very significant work trying to understand the shape, form, nature and content of “modernity” in India. I will take up two such bodies of work: first, a debate among a number of scholars (largely historians) about the nature and impact of colonial intervention in the 18th and 19th centuries, and second, Partha Chatterjee’s take on the idea of governmentality, through the lens of which he reworks, in the context of postcolonial democracy in India, conventional political theory understandings of the civil society/political society distinction.


By Nivedita Menon

(This paper was originally delivered as a public lecture in December 1999 at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore as part of a series called State of the Discipline in the Social Sciences jointly organized by NCBS and Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore.)

Why does political science call itself a “science”? The tag of “science” is an aspiration towards the high reaches of verifiability, quantifiability, systematization and applicability to “real life” which are seen as characterizing the natural sciences. Standard text-books on political science, for instance the excellent series produced by IGNOU, make a claim for the label of “science” because political analysis is about the study of “political reality”, while “political philosophy” for example, is partial because it excludes “practical aspects.” Further, behavioural and post-behavioural approaches are characterised as “modern”, as opposed to “traditional” historical and normative methods. It must be recognized that here, “traditional” means traditional within the discipline – which is itself modern. “You would come across the claim,” the student is told, “that approaches which are identified as modern, are considered more scientific.” Despite all the critiques of the fact/value dichotomy that was brought into social analysis by the behavioural revolution, the presumed (and desired) link between science and transformation continues to inform the self-styled social sciences. Society is to be studied in scientific ways, in order that it can be effectively transformed in accordance with scientific values.


Caste and the Writing of History

By Prathama Banerjee

Caste is seen as both the most archaic and the most contemporary reality of India – a persistent but paradoxical presence in historical time. Perhaps for this reason, caste seems to act as a challenge to the writing and teaching of history. This essay seeks to understand the ways in which caste as a category has, for a long time, escaped history as a discipline. It also explores the newer ways in which historians today try to interrogate and renegotiate history itself, in their effort to fashion modes of writing adequate to the workings of caste in India. This essay therefore is as much about history-writing as it is about the category of caste.


The Post-colonial State: The special case of India

By Sudipta Kaviraj

No story of the European state can be complete if it does not take into account its successes/effects outside Europe. Francois Guizot’s classic history of the European state requires a supplement:[1] he tells half the story. His magisterial account presents the picture of the state inside Europe’s own history. But the story of the European state has an equally significant counterpart, a history that happens outside. Outside Europe the modern state succeeded in two senses – first as an instrument, and second, as an idea.