Saturday, August 30, 2008

Politics of Theory and Theory of Politics

The distinguished Professor of English from the US Prof Radhakrishanan delivered a stimulating lecture on the status of Theory in present times yesterday in our dept.The Professor said that theory is not really `about' anything and it is precisely a critique of `being about something' that is about representation in all senses of the word representation and that it can give its own `jouissance'.

I raised my usual doubts about theory becoming a canonical genre today. I said that it has become more of a self-indulgent academic language-game in these days, and it has become a cliche and jargon. The respectable Professor talked about women in America mourning for her son and women in Iraq mourning for their son too. He suggested that theory can be empowering for them as it can enable them to ask why they had lost their dear ones. In my usual irritatingly skeptical way I asked whether you need Foucault or Derrida to enable Iraqi and American women to ask why they lost their children. Theory, it seems to me, which began by questioning the premises of the traditional ways of thinking about culture, society and history has become canonical and `established' in its own right. I feel the need to reinvent theory as a language and a language game itself today. That does not mean that we should behave as if there was no theory and try to go back to the `age of innocence' which was never innocent once again.

There was a discussion on Ranajit Guha's recent book on World History at its limit or something like that. I again raised my doubts about elitism of the subaltern historiography itself and complained that subaltern studies were being done in the very language which oppresses and excludes the subalterns. I also said that the Subaltern Wallahs who shouted against the tradition historiography being elitist themselves as as elitists. So whats the point about raising ruckus over elitism in historiography? I compared the situation with Derrida's critique of Foucault's history of madness where Derrida points out that Foucault is using the very language which has `othered' and repressed madness for centuries and whether it was possible to write `history of madness' in the same language.

I also asked why Foucault's notion of power as something which demands resistance and opposition to assert and affirm itself was not being dealt with in all the discussions of resistance and opposition and dissidence. I feel that the people who who were celebrating theory today were selective in what is meant by theory due to their own political compulsions in the context of contemporary Gujarat. Not that is is incorrect but I don't feel thats being very honest.

Foucault's model of power sees power being immanent and pervasive rather than being limited to state apparatus ( favorite whipping boy for the Marxists) and functioning in `bottom-up' rather than `top down' way in society. If power is so ubiquitous than the concept of power looses its effectiveness as a critical notion, I said, because once you `everything is political' than what's the whole point of saying this is political and that is political?

My friend Deeptha said that the idea of `political' has a very significant critical function in our times when universalistic discourses were rampant. The political, she said, can expose the historicity of things . I pointed out that the very notion of the political as it reaches us itself comes through certain universalist ( Western)discourses and what we are doing is we are choosing a particular universalism over another. Besides the historicity of theory itself needs to be taken into account.

I recalled Derrida's words in the over anthologized essay `Structure,Sign and Play' where he says that we cannot utter a single destructive proposition without slipping into the same language and idiom that one seeks to destroy. The status and situation of critique itself becomes a problematic that needs to be addressed. Being critical of the non-critical as well as being critical of the critical is the need of the hour I feel today.

Though one cannot avoid taking political positions, there is need to be critical of our political positions as well. I would go along with Foucault who talks of ` issue based politics' and `micro-politics' rather than subscribing to some grand narratives like Marxists or Hindutva or Secularism or Capitalism or whatever.

Some friends were very disturbed by the discussions and pointed out that in the present times ( that is in the times of rampant religious fanaticism)in which we were so embedded,questions such as mine can have a very different slant to it and the traditionalists and Hindutvawallahs would be happy at the idea of critiquing the critical spirit itself. I would like to reassure my friends that I don't have very pleasant things to say about Hindutva either. I feel that it is Brahmanism at its worse and wont succeed fooling all the people all the time.

1 comment:

Feste said...

I agree with your peeves. I share the same peeves and thus many are peeved at me ;-)
On a serious note: I really think you should also read theology ( even if you do not believe in any Prime Mover) --- right from Adi Shankara to Rahner, Barth etc.
They'll tend to clean up the morass of dead ideas which do the rounds of these seminars...