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VI Theory-Praxis

A Report


One could hardly dispute with the claim about the contentious yet critical relationship between theory and praxis in our understanding of knowledge. As such one of the concerns of knowledge is to understand, critique and if possible transcend this contentious relationship.  To avoid our predisposed reading of any newer dimensions of theory, we ought not to be treat theory as mere fetish; rather we ought to indulge in a wide range of ideas, avoiding uncritical rejection or acceptance which serves to erase the incongruity between congeniality and profundity. It is to uncover the profound and critical relationship between theory and praxis that the Forum on Contemporary Theory organizes a month long course on issues of contemporary theoretical and practical relevance.


The Sixth Theory/Praxis Course organized by the Forum was organized in collaboration with the Department of English, Goa University and held between 16 June and 12 July 2008 at Goa. The faculty who conducted the course were eminent scholars in their disciplines and fields of inquiry, namely Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Visiting Professor in English at New York University  and Aditya Nigam, Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. While Sunder Rajan conducted a course on “Colonialism, Culture and Gender”, Nigam worked out his course on “Reflections on Violence”.



The course was inaugurated with a public address by Dr. Dileep Deobagkar, Professor in Microbiology and Vice Chancellor of Goa University, on “Molecular Basis of Human Behavior.” Dr. Deobagkar argued on the interactions and interrelations between human genetic world and the external environment. He demonstrated how human behavior and genetic life are influenced by the environment in which such life is positioned.  

In her course during the first week, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan established gender as an underpinning force of the many other cultural aspects and practices in any human society. While doing so she made some crucial reflections on the interrelatedness of colonialism, nationalism and gender that necessitate the power and pursuit of knowledge in pre-colonial cultures. She identified three important aspects when working out this relationship, namely a strong imagination of the golden past, the continuity of colonialism and the methodological emphasis on understanding colonialism. Colonialism, she argued, is not a monolithic perspective, but rather needs to be taken in the non-universalistic sense as a space of contestations in which multiple truth claims get involved, for instance, it would be incorrect and inappropriate to treat modernity only in terms of or as colonial modernity.

Rajeswari Sunder Rajan’s course used the texts/works of such eminent scholarship as Susan Pederson, Ashis Nandy, Lata Mani, Ramabai Ranade, Malathi De Alvis, Mrinalini Sinha, Partha Chatterjee and Frantz Fanon, among others. When reading these texts, the core question she identified was: how could we understand and rethink gender (the space of recasting women), nation (the space of colonial contestation) and culture (the space of “reclaiming the past”)? Attempts to respond to this question served to argue that while women were linked with modernity, progress and progressiveness as contrary to backwardness remained ambiguous for them. However, drawing from Tanika Sarkar, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan held that questions of rationality, enlightenment, reason and progress are a necessary evil just as human rights conception is controversial yet necessary.


A now familiar issue in the discourse of feminism is that of authenticity and representativeness of voice. Put differently: who speaks and who is spoken for – especially when there is no access to the voice of victims. While taking on this issue Rajeswari Sunder Rajan brought in the critical perception of how sexualities get constructed through history, which is contained mainly in illogical canons. Discussing the lives of native women in Asia and Africa, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan raised the question of why the identity of a nation is attached as a marker on the body of woman, which is also constituted by and employed in medical discourses, sexual representations and generative discourse.

The claim that we must deeply contest, according to Rajeswari Sunder Rajan is that of treating gender as a rational concept. Taking from Leela Gandhi’s notion of “Affective Community” she problematized the relationship between women and imperialism where modernity is understood to belong both and only to the colonizing and the colonized male, leaving out the case of imperial woman and her relationship with the native men and the white master. Sex then and not just commerce lies at the basis of colonial rule. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan raised further questions in connection such as: how do we define women in terms of class, race, sex and gender? Are women involved in the establishment of empire? How do we explain the condition of women in the colonial context with respect to actual slavery? Is the condition of British women different from that of native women? The ambition of an empire affected both the colonizing women and the colonized women when issues like poverty of women eluded the understanding of colonialism and the response of the nation.  

It is in this context that the question of and interrelationship between colonialism and reform become crucial for understanding gender and nationalism. In this context Rajeswari Sunder Rajan saw the state to merely recognize conjugality and motherhood, among the many relationships of the feminine. She also raised the issue of women and the veil which is not only fundamental to Islam but present in other communities. The veil, she held ought to be understood as a transaction among men, in which woman are represented as sexual, communal and cultural beings.

Such issues compelled the participants to critically rethink their already established perspectives on colonialism. Such rethinking was evident in the very insightful and thought provoking presentations worked out by them. In her public lecture on “Society must be Led: Dilemmas of the Vanguard in some Post-Independence Novels in India.” Here Rajeswari Sunder Rajan looked into two Foucauldian claims, namely that ‘society must be defended’ and that ‘society must be led’. Identifying India with the latter she discussed nation and society as two distinct traditions, where the scope of a nation is larger than society. Accordingly, nationality could be understood as a transformation that happened in the minds of the oppressed. While working her argument Rajeswari Sunder Rajan drew from three prominent novelists: U. R. Ananthamurthy, Arundhati Roy and Indrani Sinha. According to her, the notion of a vanguard is not only pertinent to class but also to social movements.  She also argued that the political cannot be envisaged without representation, taking cue from Gramsci’s idea that there must be conscious leadership. Through her course, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan opened the questioning of the interrelationships and interstices of gender, colonialism and culture.


Dr. Aditya Nigam, Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, offered the course on “Reflections on Violence” during the second and the third weeks. Beginning with a historical background, Dr. Nigam elaborated on the many misunderstandings on violence both in theory and praxis in the western philosophical tradition. While doing so he made reference to Hobbes, Rousseau and Weber as well as worked with the rise of fascism and Nazism. According to him, the new experiences of knowledge in the modern age have led to the establishment and legitimation of many forms of violence that question the very project of enlightenment. During his course, he referred to such critics of the European Enlightenment as Adorno, Horkheimer, Arendt, Sorel, Agamben, Schmitt, Benjamin, Heidegger, Foucault and Marx. He showed how violence cannot be analytically separated from force and power, just as the concept of power varies from Kant to Arendt to Foucault.

Dr. Nigam’s course dealt with the works of Arendt, Sorel, Derrida, Benjamin Foucault and Fanon and their vivid pictures of violence and power. According to him the idea of violence goes back to Marx's understanding of the state since for Marx, the state is no longer the symbol of universal ethical existence, but merely the instrument of the ruling class. The reference here is to the new modes of capital formation in the context of viewing violence as mere instrumental. These form the basis for comprehending the intricacies of classical forms of colonial capitalism and post colonial forms of capitalism. Referring to the Indian aspect and quoting eminent thinkers such as Sudipta Kaviraj, Dr. Nigam claimed that the difference between the West and India is that for the latter, both colonialism and capitalism came simultaneously.

Dr. Nigam presented a detailed account of Foucault's conception of ideology that extends beyond the state apparatus (of Althusser), to the extent of rituals, practices, and apprentices. The central aspects of Foucault are norm and normality that signifies external bodies and other behavioral aspects besides renewing (by way of reversion) the idea of psyche and soul. Through contesting certain forms of knowledge through power/knowledge, Dr. Nigam followed the line of Heidegger's critic of modern epistemologies by bringing into focus the ontology of being. Only then can we, according to him, comprehend the great miseries and violence of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Interpreting the ideas of Benjamin, Saussure and Derrida, Dr. Nigam suggested that the pressing question for them is whether deconstruction is compatible with justice or not. He raised four important issues in this regard, namely, problems of translation, the ethical-political dimensions of justice, the question of language and idiom, and difference and differance. Arguing on Derrida’s interpretation of Walter Benjamin use of myths, Dr. Nigam elaborated on the issue of the act of representation drawing the participants’ attention to Benjamin’s conception of legal and illegal violence, and highlighting the idea of the “right to strike.” He also made an interesting observation that all revolutionary discourses of the left and the right have some resemblances of Fascism and National Socialism.


Working from within the Indian context, Dr. Nigam saw violence in its various forms to be of relevance especially in the case of secularism. Here he discussed Ashis Nandy’s concern about why secularism is not successful in India and South Asia at large. A few important questions emerged in this regard: Is there something called secular rationality? Can we theorize secularism? How does one read secularism? From whom does one take the inspiration for tolerance, religion or secularism? In India, mostly local violence is confused with national violence that is sometimes incompatible in all senses. This creates the problem of memorizing violence as part of one’s past. Dr. Nigam conversed on Veena Das’s essay on “Trauma and Violence” that has a crucial argument of memory where the person is not willing to remember the past by way of dissenting into the ordinary everyday life experiences. For understanding history and historiography, Dr. Nigam discussed Ashis Nandy’s article on “History’s Double Trouble.”


Understanding of nationalism in India, especially from the point of view of Partha Chatterjee (moment of departure, maneuver, and arrival) was discussed. Dr. Nigam referred to the whole process of nationalism under Gandhi and it’s becoming a mass movement as mystical nationalism. He also suggested how Gandhi and Ambedkar need not be treated as mutually antagonistic in nature. He emphasized that Ambedkar is to be read not merely as a dalit voice, but also as thought grounded in reason, free will, equality, autonomy, and lived experience.  


The concept of historical progress of humankind cannot be based on the understanding of progress of homogenous empty time. Dr. Nigam also referred to Benedict Anderson’s idea of the ‘imaginative power’ of nationalism, and the idea of national culture in Ernest Gellner. The question raised was how does the western intellectual account for the co-existence of so many civilizations in its notion of time and history. The notable aspect here is Hannah Arendt’s criticism of nationalism while referring to the presence of stateless people. The point to be criticized is that most of the communities are forced to be part of nationalist project in the wake of cultural homogenization.


In this public lecture on “Globalization, Citizenship and Postnational States,” Dr. Nigam put forth the idea that there are many facets to globalization vis-à-vis the nation-state. Globalization is an indication of increase in multinational organizations and the decline of traditional nation-state and traditional forms of sovereignty. This change also indicates that historical movements move beyond the imaginary of the nation-states – territorial nation to global nation to postnational states, which in Habermas’s terms is a transnational civil society imperative of human condition, economic modernization, individualist social order and modern condition. Dr. Nigam discussed in detail the work of John A. Hobson, “The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization” elaborating on alternative histories that indicate the presence of world outside the logic of capital. Though globalization has become indispensable, the compelling question would be why there is underdevelopment in three fourths of the world. Globalization is also an indication of pathology of individual property that compels us to reflect upon ‘who owns what.’ On the other hand, citizenship becomes an important issue in such postnational states.   


The last week was organized around independent lectures by A. V. Afonso, Sripad Bhat,  P. C. Kar, Lajwanti Chatani and Bed Giri. In his first lecture on “What is Enlightenment?” Dr. Kar, Director of the Centre for Contemporary Theory gave an in-depth analysis of what Kant meant by enlightenment. Explaining the underpinnings of Kant’s idea of enlightenment in the ‘Age of Reason’, Dr. Kar referred to the aspect of agency wherein freedom is not unconditional but conditional in the sense that individuals are free but has to obey. Such a conception of freedom is to a certain extent paradoxical as one has to clasp the possible and impossible limits of freedom. Dr. Kar also referred to the ideas of Derrida on tolerance and hospitality and Raymond Williams’s the presence of residual world. He also used the arguments of Gandhi, Weber and Shakespeare. He claimed that though modernity is implicated by the idea of closure, it is still an incomplete project, which, for Habermas, remains to be the marker of our identity.


In his second public lecture on “New Historicism and Cultural Poetics” Dr. Kar discussed the substantial linkages between the text and the context, history of the text and textuality of history, and locatability of the meaning of the text. The latter is to be treated as a repository of ideas. Dr. Kar made a comparative analysis of Jacques Derrida and Stephen Greenblatt on deconstruction and new historicism. He discussed appearances, disappearances and reappearances of text, and the archival space of the text and the circumference of the context. Dr. Kar finally argued that it is difficult to think in the line that modernity has ended and postmodernity has begun. Arguing so, he made a reference to Habermas’s idea of ‘modernity as an incomplete project’ despite it being implicated by the sense of closure.  


In her public lecture on “Unmasking the Political,” Dr. Lajwanti Chatani, Reader in Political Science at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, offered an elaborate discussion on the collapse of the concept of the political into politics. Dr. Chatani made an in-depth reflection of Hobbes, Carl Schmitt, Agnes Heller, Rawls, Habermas and Chantal Mouffe and their re-imaginations of the project of the political. The triumph of liberalism, the assumption of ‘end of history’, cosmopolitan future and globalization do not in any sense result in the ‘end of the political.’ Referring to the understanding of the political in the context of modernity, she critically looked at the progress of liberalism, its negation of the political and challenge that comes from the public-private divide.  What is needed, she argued is a radical conception of democracy where the political determines the public space as constitutive of contestations.  


Referring to postcolonialism and empire in his classroom lecture, “Diaspora and Homeland: Cultural Encounters” and public lecture, “Writing Back to the Empire: The Genealogy of a Metaphor”, Dr. Bed Prasad Giri, Assistant Professor in English at Dartmouth College, introduced and discussed the issues of diasporas that emerge out of the questions of travel. He also talked about the common concerns underlying postcolonialism, diaspora, subaltern and hybridity. Diaspora, according to Dr. Giri becomes more prominent after the works of Salman Rushdie, Edward Said, Robert Young and Aijaz Ahmed. While problematizing diasporas, Dr. Giri focused on  the work, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice of Post-Colonial Literature by Bill Ashcroft, Gereth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, and their making a metaphorical reference to writing back as ‘writing back with a vengeance’. Dr. Giri suggested that writing back to the empire is more of a grammar of opposition to the western canonical writing, espousing the emerging spheres of postcolonial art and bringing to light the influence of politics of public affairs by recasting these works. Reflecting on the possibilities of a stable theoretical framework for diasporic and postcolonial writing, Dr. Giri drew some interesting parallels between postcolonialism, postmodernism and poststructualism. According to him, cultural politics, politics of location along with treating ‘political’ as a special category of experience suffice the understanding of diaspora and postcolonialism. By way of a conclusion, he made a creditable remark that the radical literary criticism should treat postcolonial literature as ‘writing back and forth’ to the empire.        


Dr. Lajwanti Chatani initiated a classroom discussion on “Tolerance and the Politics of Recognition” where she worked with the contestation between tolerance and violence where culture is the site of all conflict in the context of a modern nation-state and multiculturalism. She discussed the ideas of Wendy Brown contrasting it with Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, and drew certain arguments from Rousseau, Herder and Charles Taylor. The idea of tolerance being a liberal notion raises few important questions: Why tolerance? Why do cultures divide the world? How do we respond to identity? Can the practice of tolerance recognize cultural differences? One has to understand, according to Dr. Chatani, the politics of recognition in the politics of tolerance.


Professor Surendra Rao from the department of History, Mangalore University gave a public lecture on “Predicament of History in Postmodern Condition.”  He discussed the ontological, epistemological, psychological and methodological status of reading history in terms of essentials and non-essentials. Dr. Rao also analyzed such different paradigms as enlightenment and postmodernism from the point of the eminent historiographer Keith Jenkins. He emphasized the aspect of postmodernism’s rejection of objectivity and embedded truth.


In his public lecture, “Reasoning in Philosophy,” Professor A. V. Afonso from the Department of Philosophy, Goa University, gave a detailed introduction to philosophy, explaining how its methodology is different from other disciplines, whereby it inquires into the nature of knowledge. Characteristic of such an approach, philosophy is mostly to be treated as a second-order discipline. Professor Afonso also talked about the different aspects of philosophy like logic, epistemology, phenomenology, analytical philosophy and moral philosophy. Through his class lecture on “Ethics and Philosophy,” he elaborated how reasoning in ethics takes place from a philosophical point of view.


The contribution of the participants to the course was exceedingly substantive, especially in terms of their comments and presentations. The classrooms became vibrant spaces of interaction on issues of theoretical and practical relevance. The participants made rich and well-worked presentations on the texts chosen for the course, in which they raised several issues for consideration and question. The commitment and effort of the participants was clearly evident when they chose to remain indoors during many evenings, rather than visit the city of Goa, to reflect and engage collectively on the texts.


The most significant aspect of the VI Theory/Praxis is that the Forum was successful in attracting post-graduate students, research scholars and faculty from all the corners of the country making it truly a mixed group. Besides, the participants were from wide ranging disciplines like literature, culture studies, political science and philosophy. The course was successful in the sense that there were intense classroom discussions and critical interventions on all the topics initiated by Rajeswari Sunder Rajan and Aditya Nigam. The highlight of the course was the screening of films relevant to the topics chosen for the course. The films screened were “A Passage to India” (1984), by David Lean; “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema - commentary by Slavoj Zizek” (2006), by Sophie Fiennes; “The Pianist” (2002), by Roman Polanski; “Hotel Rwanda” (2004), by Terry George; “No Country for Old Men” (2007), by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen,  and “The Battle of Algiers” (1966), by Gillo Pontecorvo The course, the Forum hopes, did move on to raise newer questions in the minds of the participants on issues related to violence and colonialism. The Forum looks forward to its next Theory/Praxis Course.


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