The Department of English, Goa University hosted the Forum for Contemporary Theory’s eleventh month-long Theory/Praxis course. Prafulla Kar of the Forum was the organiser of the course, with Dr. K. Sripad Bhat (Head, Department of English) and Dr. Kiran J. Budkuley of Goa University acting as local coordinators. From June 17 to July 13, 2013, nearly 50 scholars and academics from India and Nepal, dedicated to various fields of research and teaching in the humanities and social sciences, gathered in Goa University’s extensive, monsoon-washed campus atop Taleigao Plateau to work with experts and each other on a comprehensive reading list of texts, and to participate in lectures, discussions, debates and presentations to develop their ideas.

 

At the Inauguration

The varied profiles of the experts invited to act as faculty for the course, as well as the extent and sweep of the reading list and schedule of topics, demonstrated the Forum’s alertness to the contemporary challenges (almost imperatives for survival) and trends of development in the humanities and social sciences – being interdisciplinarity and theoretical innovation. The course engaged with the stresses as well as the exhilaration of these challenges, which are rapidly reshaping not only the individual academic career but entire disciplines, by assembling a faculty ranging from political science to anthropology, and addressing through them topics arcing across disciplines, from the ethics of plant-human interaction to the philosophical genealogy of the United Nations project for world peace. The focus of the participants was trained on ‘theory’ as a subject of study in itself, crossing and complicating the institutional boundaries of disciplines and departments that (at least to some extent) unavoidably constrain teaching and research in universities. For the participants, and by their accounts for most of the faculty as well, this month-long workshop of ideas was a unique and unparalleled broadening of horizons, as philosophers, culture theorists, visual arts experts, translators, historians and literary scholars, from different cultures, debated and learned from each other. The edge of innovation and interdisciplinarity may be marked by modules such as Dr. Michael Marder’s ‘Critical Plant Studies: Philosophy, Science, Culture’, which developed philosophical and ethical theory drawing on the empirical sciences of biology and botany.  

Michael Marder in a session.

The course was structured in week-long, intensive modules, each designed by a member of the faculty and centred on a detailed reading list which guided lectures/ discussions in the daily sessions. Rather than attempt introductions to their fields as strictly defined – such as Dr. Arjun Appadurai teaching a beginner’s guide to anthropology – the organisers and faculty aimed the modules at theses, concepts or theories to be explored from various points of view and using various methods. This central choice of method of teaching cannot be lauded enough for the sheer excitement it brought to the classroom and the sense of satisfying closure it gave the participants in attaining multifaceted comprehension of an idea.  

Arjun Appadurai and Gabika Bockaj in a session

Week 1

The course was inaugurated with welcome addresses and introductions to the course, the aims of Praxis/Theory as an annual event, and the history and work of the Forum for Contemporary Theory. The participants were oriented for the course by Dr. K. Sripad Bhat and Dr. Kiran J. Budkuley as Local Coordinators, by Dr. Satish R. Shetye, Vice Chancellor, Goa University, and of course by Dr. Prafulla Kar. A lecture by the Chief Guest, Thomas Pantham (former Professor of Political Science, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda) on “Gandhi and Liberal Political Modernity” was an engaging warm-up for the month’s work. His central thesis, of Gandhi deserving reinstatement as an impressively original political theorist, was novel and informative while the subject was familiar enough to most participants to enable discussion on the forms of liberalism and Gandhi’s responses to them.  

Prof. Gaonkar in a session

The first week-long module was on “Modernity, Democracy, and the Politics of Disorder” with Dr. Dilip Gaonkar (Associate Professor in Rhetoric and Public Culture; Director, Center for Global Culture and Communication, Northwestern University; Director, Center for Transcultural Studies; and Executive Editor, Public Culture). Participants from fields other than Dr. Gaonkar’s may have already known (or will certainly have discovered since the course) his highly influential work on “alternative modernities,” dissent and public culture. His course was an introduction to ‘crowd theory’ which tracked representations of the demos – the non-elite, undifferentiated, ‘ordinary man’ gathered in crowds and masses – through the whole sweep of the Western European tradition of thought, from Plato to contemporary philosophers like Hannah Arendt. In his lectures, Dr. Gaonkar periodized and contextualised this thread of (usually elite) writing about the crowd, stimulating participants to analyse for themselves in discussion and presentations what he identifies as “anti-crowd theory... a deep and abiding anxiety about the collective political agency of the people”. Dr. Gaonkar’s sessions covered enormous swathes of history, and ranged across works which may be categorised as philosophy (Plato, Lippmann, Arendt), political theory as well as political polemics (Taine, James Madison, Gandhi), and history (Marxists like E.P. Thompson and Hobsbawm considered as rehabilitators of the crowd) among others. Yet his constant engagement with the contemporary, with the audience’s immediate concerns and awareness, illuminated all theoretical discussion, as the class developed new viewpoints and analytical tools for the familiar images of Occupy, slums in the Global South, riots in India, etc.  

A session in progress

Presentations by the participants in Dr. Gaonkar’s sessions developed into long and involving debates, and addressed inter alia the Naxalite movement as popular resistance, Rawls’ theory of justice, Habermas’ public sphere and religion in contemporary politics, utopianism, and modernity and Dalit literature. Dr. Gaonkar also gave a public lecture on “Legitimacy, Governmentality, and the Politics of Disorder” which picked up from his lectures the theme of the crowd/the popular being characterised and feared as ‘disorder’ and developed upon it in relation to analyses of order such as Habermas’ public sphere and Foucault’s governmentality.

Week 2

The second week of the course was structurally a departure from the first, as each daily session was divided between Dr. Marder (teaching “Critical Plant Studies: Philosophy, Science, Culture”) and Dr. Patricia Vieira (teaching “Perpetual Peace: The Genealogy of an Idea and Its Impact on Contemporary Thought”).  

Patricia Vieira in a session

Dr. Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz; Editorial Associate, Telos (New York); General Editor, “Political Theory and Contemporary Philosophy” Series at Bloomsbury (formerly Continuum Press); General Editor, “Critical Plant Studies” at Rodopi Press; and Co-Editor, “Palgrave Studies in Postmetaphysical Thought”. His course was invaluable, especially for junior scholars in the humanities and social sciences, as it achieved the dual aims of providing a beginner’s introduction to Western philosophy from Plato to Derrida, and of demonstrating how this tradition may be read and developed upon in a novel way – through plants, not only as explicit ‘subjects’ of philosophy, but as image and metaphor, from the plane tree in Plato to Kant’s tulips, and further as claimants of rights to ethical treatment, as Dr. Marder argues.

Philosophy is fascinating and daunting to a student in the humanities or social sciences, perhaps especially in India and perhaps especially after the explosion of interdisciplinarity. It can make legitimate claims to being the ‘essential’ thought of a period or on a subject, it can seem to underlie and colour all other theory until one may despair of completely understanding anything without it, and it also appears too difficult for even the most ambitious autodidact. Dr. Marder’s sessions achieved a lucid explanation of the ‘basics’ of philosophy while also encouraging participants to work with their newly-acquired philosophical concepts, to analyse them instead of attempting only to comprehend them. Discussions and debates in the classes addressed not only the set readings and topics but also the methodological and theoretical problems one must work out in attempting interdisciplinary work like Dr. Marder’s. The half-a-week time allotted for the course covered an astounding amount of ground, and most importantly provided many of the participants with a much-needed base if they should ever feel the need to study a Western philosopher’s work in detail.

Dr. Marder also gave a public lecture at the Centre for Portuguese Language and Culture in Panjim on June 28, 2013 which was attended by a large number of Theory/Praxis participants. A fascinating discussion followed the lecture on “The Crisis in Southern Europe – Problems and Prospects”.

Dr. Patrícia I. Vieira teaches in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, a member of the Comparative Literature Program and of the Film and Media Studies Program at Georgetown University , and has authored several works on utopianism, Spanish and Iberian literature and cinema.

Dr. Vieira’s module traced the utopian ideal in Western thought, from the classical or epic ‘Golden Age’ which located the perfect state in the past, across the watershed of Christian theology whose ‘City of God’ was promised and to-come, to its projections onto the New World by explorers; through literary utopias from Thomas More to Aldous Huxley; and through political projects from Kant’s unrealised proposal for ‘perpetual peace’ to the United Nations charter. The Kantian ‘perpetual peace’ served as the centre around which the history of the idea could be organised. Dr. Vieira’s reading materials, which she introduced in lectures and threw open to debate, were novel to many of the participants (a close and critical reading of Genesis and the apocalyptic portion of the New Testament, for instance) and even familiar texts were recontextualised by her theoretical frame and challenged the reader (narratives of creation, the flood and of peace in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; or comparing Virgil and Theocritus’ pastoral idylls to Bacon’s New Atlantis). The course required one to develop a framework of understanding which could overstep boundaries between the literary, the polemical, the philosophical and even the personal text (such as letters written by Spanish explorers about the Americas ) and thus was wonderful training in the interdisciplinary method.

Apart from bringing the tradition of utopianism she was tracing to the present (the United Nations), Dr. Vieira also challenged the participants to actively enrich and complicate her (necessarily) Western focus, and to research analogues, comparable concepts or phases in history, and works from their own various traditions. This produced a memorable series of presentations, in which participants got to rehearse their skills with the comparative method, in setting up original hypotheses, and introduced them to cross-cultural work.

Dr. Vieira also gave a public lecture on ‘Theologians and Missionaries in America’, developing the analysis of utopian thinking from her lecture sessions through an interesting set of materials voicing the European encounter with the American ‘other’.

Week 3

Dr. Subramanian Shankar (Professor of English, University of Hawaii ; author of Flesh and Fish Blood: Postcolonialism, Translation and the Vernacular) led the module on “Translation, Comparatism and the Vernacular in the Context of Postcolonial Studies”. In some ways this module was another ‘swerve’ in the flow of the course, which every week challenged participants to realign their intellectual processes with the difference in format and style. Dr. Shankar’s course restored many participants to more familiar ground with postcolonial theory, but also introduced the specialised disciplines of comparatism and translation. Similarly, his sessions were structured much less as lectures and much more as open, participant-led sessions of discussion and debate than in the preceding weeks. His incorporation of Indian (specifically ‘Bollywood’) popular culture into the sessions, and initiation of discussions with a piquant contemporary instance were also a change. The sessions sometimes referred to and served as an excellent introduction to Dr. Shankar’s own recent publication, Flesh and Fish Blood.

Dr. Shankar’s course invited the participants to the field of postcolonial studies, oriented around the concept of the vernacular, the practice and theories of translation, and comparatism as a method of theoretical work (extending beyond comparative literature merely). As necessary background to his discussions of language, the participants also learned some aspects of linguistics (such as Roman Jakobson). The sessions were enlivened by heated discussions of the politics of translation and cross-cultural comparison, to which Dr. Shankar and even several of the participants could contribute personal insights.

Many presentations in Dr. Shankar’s module adopted his methodology of engaging with theory, including complex and contested ideas of identity and dominance, through contemporary ‘mass’ or ‘popular’ culture. The topics included Said’s ‘orientalism’ read through three recent Indian films on patriotism, reading Shakespeare politically (comparing Kermode and Ania Loomba), the vernacular in the field of visual art and aesthetics, questions of translatability and a “refusal to translate” examined through a classic untranslated Kannada novel, translations of Mizo folk song forms, and the politics of subtitling Bengali and Hindi films in English.

Professor Shankar’s public lecture on “Love in Three Languages: An Essay in Translation” used as its launching point Dr. Trawyck’s ethnographic work on love in a Tamil family, and used translation and postcolonial theories to examine the relations between language and culture (and possibly ‘behind’ culture into experience or emotion). The second part of his lecture closely ‘read’ sequences from the film ‘Guide’ to illustrate his formulation of conventions of visual representation of culturally specific “loves” – in this case, the song-dance sequence of ‘Bollywood’ cinema as paradiagesis.

Week 4

Most unfortunately, Dr. Arjun Appadurai, the prominent and influential anthropologist, and Gabika Bockai, who were to chair the final module on ‘Anima, Animation and Action’ were forced to leave due to illness. Under Dr. Prafulla Kar’s guidance and encouragement, however, the participants were able to keep themselves fruitfully occupied for the final week with presentations on their topics of interest or research proposals, and open and mutual discussion of the three completed sessions.

The valedictory session of Theory/Praxis XI, on July 12, demonstrated the camaraderie that had developed among the participants over a month of working together, in close quarters and under the stimulants of novel subjects of discussion, excellent faculty and the exploratory thrill of engaging with other disciplines and cultures than one’s own. After addresses of thanks to the local coordinators and the organisers, Dr. Prafulla Kar expressed his aims in running these workshops and other initiatives of the Forum and the benefits he hoped scholars and researchers derived from them. Several participants shared their final impressions of the workshop and of the knowledge and skills they had gained or hoped to develop from it. There was also a closing open session of feedback and suggestions from the participants, in which various – even opposing viewpoints – were heard and discussed by the organisers with commendable attention.  

Participants in a group photograph with Prof. Shankar

Sumati Dwivedi, M. Phil. Scholar, Department of English, University of Delhi