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V Theory/Praxis Course: A Report

Aruni Mahapatra, Department of English

Ramjas College, University of Delhi B. A. English Honors Student

 

The fifth Theory/Praxis course was organized in association with the Department of History, Berhampur University from June 18 to July 14 at St.Vincent’s Retreat, Gopalpur-on-Sea, Orissa. The Course was divided into three sub-units.

 

Following are the titles of the courses taught by the core faculty:

 

1. “Language Revisited: From Saussure to Derrida,” taught by Vicki Kirby

2. “The Poetics of Game-Play,” taught by Sura P. Rath

3. “Rethinking Cosmopolitanism,” taught by R. Radhakrishnan

 

Apart from these courses, a number of public lectures were delivered by the guest faculty which included Bishnu Mohapatra, Prafulla C Kar, Kailash C Baral, Dilip Das, Deba P Patnaik and Subramanian Shanker. The following were the topics of the public lectures:

 

1. “Abstract Anger and Collective Living” by Bishnu Mohapatra

2. “When Scientific Objects Turn into Language” by Vicki Kirby

3. “Deconstruction at the Time of Terror” by Prafulla C. Kar

4. “Necessity and Desire: Coca-Cola, Culture and Globalization” and “Caste,   

    Cosmopolitanism, and the Vernacular” by Subramanian Shanker

5. “Playing the Grotesque: Wrestling Bakhtin” by Sura P. Rath

6. “European Images of the New World” and “Methodological Issues in Cultural

    Studies” by Dilip Das

7. “Reading Seeing: Contemporary Oriya Painters” and “Passport/Green Card” by

    Deba P. Patnaik

8. “The Pragmatics of Reason: Gandhi and Tagore” by R. Radhakrishnan

9. “Territory and the Politics of Identity” and “Curriculum, Critical Theory,

    and English Studies  in India” by Kailash C Baral

 

The inauguration function in the morning of the 18th June was followed by a short speech by Bishnu Mahapatra on the Ford Foundation’s contribution to the Forum’s activities and also on the various areas of the Foundation’s intellectual concern such as South-Asia, violence, gender and cultural studies. His public lecture on “abstract anger,”’ which followed, brought up many interesting and thought-provoking ideas, especially those concerning issues of violence in South-Asia.

 

The place where the Course was organized was absolutely breath-taking in the sheer beauty of its surroundings. Everyone enjoyed walking on the beach in the mornings and evenings. It was indeed very refreshing to walk down to the beach, through a vast area of sand dunes, to climb a small hillock of sand and then to just let the immensity of the sea seduce you with its oceanic grace. The place had a charm of its own, with the local people and the small-town aura that had infected everyone with that excitement only we can know. People would walk down to the beach almost every day, some even twice a day, and spend a little while on the beach, or have some snacks, or buy some sea-shells, an experience that would do wonders to rejuvenate one’s body and mind. And this rejuvenation was both necessary as well as well-deserved for us after grueling and rigorous lecture sessions that started at 9 in the morning and went on to about 4 in the evening. It was literally, as Dr. Kar put it in the introductory speech, like going to a gymnasium of the mind; negotiating with so many insightful, sharp, blistering and intellectually exciting ideas in those lectures was quite similar to wrestling in the mind. Of course, there is no doubting the excitement of the lectures, and no amount of words can fully express their sheer intensity. So attempting to do justice to the enormity of the lived experience through my words is something I will try to do in this report.

 

On a Sunday a trip to Chilka Lake was organized, and everyone had a wonderful time looking at the lovely sights which included the surrounding hills, islands and the temple of Kalijai. On another weekend, a trip to Puri and Konark was organized and those took this trip came back with very fond memories of the places.

 

The course for the first two weeks, “Language Revisited: From Saussure to Derrida,” was conducted by Vicki Kirby, who had come all the way from New South Wales, Australia. The course consisted of a vast amount of readings from linguistics and poststructuralist theory including select work by Edward Sapir, Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, Helene Cixous, Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Walter Ong, and Derrida. The course was structured in such a way that the sessions alternated between presentations by participants and full-fledged lectures by Kirby. Beginning with a brief anthropological introduction to society, culture and the patterning of life, the discussions steered into the thick swampy waters of linguistics, and finally to a broad, rudimentary closure hinted at through an analysis of Derridean complexities such as the metaphysics of presence and the transcendental signifieds. One of the most key questions dealt with was this: how neatly can the nature-culture divide be seen as a very significant pre-existence of reality, of the reality defined by sense-perceptions, before and above the frame-works of language and society? Of course, in the interesting debate many exciting ideas were exchanged. It will be futile to even try and mention all of them within the limited confines of this report. The politics of language as a signifying tool was touched upon in almost every discussion. The idea that nothing, not even language, is free of the relations of power and that language is inherently political was very thought-provoking. While doing the texts by Eco and Cixous the emphasis was on not just how much of cultural conditioning goes into each of us as individuals, but how culture works in two ways: it individuates itself in the people, but the people themselves also accelerate the mutations of culture in a drastic way. By challenging a simplistic cut, or a schism in the nature culture divide, Kirby opened up the field for a feminist and post-colonial critique of the essentialising tendencies of typically phallocentric and logocentric studies of society. For instance, the views of Claude Levi-Strauss in his anthropological surveys of the people of the Nambikwara regions were exposed for the horrifyingly elitist, hegemonic and colonial views that they actually are. The essay by Walter Ong, “The Psychodynamics of Orality,” was once again read as reinforcing the nature culture divide by privileging speech as a definitive precursor of written language. It was discussed how vividly this neat bifurcation and the assumption that speech is spontaneous, immediate and writing is intelligent, rational and therefore, somehow superior to speech, is founded upon a false thesis.

 

One idea that found resonance in almost all the discussions was the critique of binaries, whether it was nature-culture, speech-writing, or simply theory-praxis. In her public lecture Kirby used this critique to explore the subtle connectivities between nature and culture. The seed of post-colonial and feminist studies was sown when she posed the question: why are not men and women equally weakened by this insufficiency of language to bring the materiality of the body into a linguistic reality? All these ideas found resonance in the discussion of the texts by Cixous and Eco. The naturalization of woman as inferior, which is supported, indeed catalysed, by language and the untranslatability of colours from chromatic perception to a linguistic reality threw up very powerful questions that were reflected in Kirby’s lecture. While doing Saussurean linguistics, questions were raised on the signifier-signified relationship, as well as on Saussure’s concept of relative motivation. While it was recognized that what Saussure said in his study did play a huge role in shaping the way we look at language, there are problems in this view, particularly in the attempts to put down everything in the mould of a structure. This flaw is picked up in a post-structuralist critique of Saussurean linguistics: the attempt to tame the untamable, which lies at the core of the Saussurean dilemma, fails at some level to appreciate the complexity and dynamism of language. This failure makes some conceive of language as a prison house, not realizing that the experience that pre-exists language is actually not linguistic. And hence, language itself, however beautiful, is not linguistic after all.

 

The next week’s course on “The Poetics of Game-Play” was taught by Sura P.Rath. It was an extremely interesting study of the theory of game-play in its philosophical, sociological dimensions, and in its usefulness to the reading of literary texts. Analyzing man as a player of games rather than as a thinker led us to many interesting ideas, including consideration of human beings as homo ludens. Seminal texts such as J. Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World were discussed. Rath’s paper on game-play as a critical paradigm of fiction, where he talks about Faulkner’s Light in August, gives us a very lucid model of any literary text’s journey through various stages of the game-play structure. Rath explained this emphasis on game and play by drawing parallels between games and life and put this theory in perspective with reference to both structuralist thought and Plato’s philosophy. He said that the theme of play as an essence can be seen as the langue and each of the games, the micro-level performances of this over-arching principle of play, can be seen as games. This model is parallel to Saussurean models of linguistics, and structuralist theory. Taking this principle further, he explained how Platonic thought also conforms to this theory by talking about two forms of knowledge, namely scientia (scientific knowledge) and sapientia (intuitive knowledge). His assertion was that just as in games there is a temporary creation of an alternate reality, a reality in which conventional hierarchies were not adhered to, similarly in literature this sort of a game is played. He found the notion of game-play effective in such literary texts as Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale-Fire, Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” and countless others. By using Gadamer’s Truth and Method Rath pointed out that the theory of game-play could be better understood by viewing the philosophical side of things. Schiller’s view that man is truly and essentially a man when he plays is asserted in terms of the convergence of the sense drive and the form drive, both of which are necessary in order to achieve the level of the “sublime” and sincere “playfulness.” Towards the end of this course we were drawn to a realization that eventually games and play take language from an autonomous pleasure-seeking zone to a self-conscious enactment of its own manifestations by way of games that are played between the author and the reader, between the author and the genre, and so on.

 

The two public lectures given by Dilip K. Das, “European Images of the New World” and “Methodological Issues in Cultural Studies,” addressed the notion of representational politics of the artists, painters, poets and writers of European origin depicting the images of America, the New World. The study of politics in this entire body of cultural production, ranging from John Donne’s “Elegie: To His Mistress Going to Bed” to paintings of America by several Dutch painters such as Jan van der Street (“Vespucci Discovering America”) showed how the representation of a sexualized American land worked toward a cultural colonization of the New World through an exchange dominated by a proliferation of textualized meanings. These 17th century texts that served as the template for the production and exchange of cultural significations are challenged, and thus a post-colonial reading demonstrated how cultural studies played a very important role in shaping our understanding of literature.

 

The last course, “Rethinking Cosmopolitanism,” taught by R. Radhakrishnan, was organized around debates between Gandhi and Tagore. Drawing connections between these debates and the ideas of cosmopolitanism was not difficult, and the discussions in this course covered a vast intellectual terrain, from identity to political cathexis, from simple understanding of nationalism/cosmopolitanism to a broader and more inclusive understanding. Some of the questions that were raised were concerned with the positions which Tagore and Gandhi had taken up within the discourse of nationalism. While discussing the debate over the charkha, it was understood that while Tagore was right in opposing Gandhi’s insistence as a childish preoccupation with a form of idol-worship, Gandhi too was correct in using the charkha as a political cathexis, a simple tool to demystify the politics of the situation in which the country was placed. While Tagore insisted on a positive cultural exchange and hence a more cosmopolitan approach, Gandhi’s rejection of internationalism was a product of his disenchantment with western modernity which has cosmopolitanism as its base. The course also included readings of Derrida’s essay “On Cosmopolitanism” and other texts.

 

The four glorious weeks of intellectual fun and excitement came to an end with a valedictory function where the senior-most participant Susheel K Sharma and junior-most participant Aruni Mahapatra spoke with emotion about their responses to the entire program.

 

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