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Twelfth International Conference
The Political Economy of Social Division:
Race, Gender, Class, and Caste as Fetishized / Fetishizing Borders
The Twelfth International Conference of the Forum on Contemporary Theory was held at hotel Residency Tower in Trivandrum, Kerala from the 14th to 17th December in collaboration with Samyukta: A Journal of Women’s Studies and the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of Kerala. The General Theme of the Conference was The Political Economy of Social Division: Race, Gender, Class, and Caste as Fetishized / Fetishizing Borders. The Convener of the Conference, Dr. Abdul R. JanMohamed, Chancellor’s Professor, Department of English, University of California at Berkley, in his densely argued concept note publicized through Forum’s website and Newsletter had elaborated on how race, gender, class, and caste are viewed as socially constructed modes of social and political division and are also referents to identity. Abstracts illustrated the variety of ways in which scholars and academics from different parts of the world engaged with the theme. Papers to be presented at the Conference were selected after a thorough scrutiny by the convener.
The conference was successful in reconceptualizing social divisions using different analytical frameworks such as Marxian, psychoanalytic and even post-structuralist theories on society, political economy and culture. Through the insightful keynote address delivered by Hortense J. Spillers, plenary sessions in which eminent scholars from many parts of the world shared their views and voiced their concerns, participants’ presentations on a variety of topics and formal and informal discussions that facilitated a meaningful exchange of ideas, the varied nuances, implications, permeability and impenetrability of divisions and boundaries were analyzed and debated to arrive at new ways of looking at social structures, divisions, social institutions and the like. Even the cultural program during the Conference did full justice to the Conference theme.
The Conference began with a day dedicated to sight seeing, which in a way was an act of eliminating boundaries by exploring a new region, its beauties and mysteries in the company of strangers who became friends in the process. Participants went to nearby places in small groups and thus got a chance to mingle with people of similar taste and interest; some went to see beaches, some spent time in museums and galleries and some chose temples and palaces. The weather in Trivandrum was pleasant, with a hint of rain.
The Conference Sessions commenced formally on the 15th of December with an inaugural ceremony chaired by A. Jayakrishnan, Vice Chancellor, University of Kerala.
In her welcome address, Dr. G.S. Jayasree, Hon. Director, Centre for Women’s Studies, University of Kerala and Editor, Samyukta briefly spoke about the relevance of the Conference theme. While welcoming the participants to the Conference in Kerala she traced several happenings in the history of Kerala as instances of welcoming newness and change. She observed that the ‘ability’ to assimilate and maintain borders that are permeable, as is evident from the variegated history of trade, settlement and migration with reference to Kerala, is a unique feature of the region. Dr. Prafulla C. Kar welcomed the participants to the Conference. He illustrated how the Forum’s story is one of humble beginnings, great expectations and achievements by mapping its activities in the last couple of decades and future plans. In his inaugural address, Dr. Jayakrishnan warned about the dangers of attaching uniqueness or superiority to any region, religion, caste, race and other divisive mechanisms. He observed that borders do permit only selective permeability and elaborated on the means by which impenetrable iron walls are being erected day by day in society. He expressed his concern that the ‘you’ and ‘me’ dichotomy which is at the basis of divisions is becoming more absolute; divisions are proliferating within divisions and as a consequence more and more iron walls rise. Geetha Gopal, C. Bhaskaran, A.R. Rajan, Members, Syndicate, University of Kerala offered felicitations. In his thematic introduction, Dr. Abdul JanMohamed discussed the possibilities of reconceptualizing social divisions. This reconceptualization can become productive when one thinks of these modes of divisions as ‘borders,’ that permit some extent of selective permeability. He observed that borders can be many; natural or socially constructed. They can be seen as finely tuned filter mechanisms. Dr. JanMohamed emphasized that the Conference aims to look at these borders and different modes and extent of permeability permissible with reference to each. He explained that in addition to functioning at times as static structures of division that permit particular forms of oppression, race, gender, class, and caste could be mapped as constantly active fetishizing matrixes; these matrixes facilitate the unconscious transubstantiation of equivalences and values.
Dr. JanMohamed illustrated using several analogies how identificatory mechanisms seem to be characterized first by denial and repression and then by substitution. Ravina Aggarwal, Program Officer, The Ford Foundation, New Delhi explained the nature of the Foundation’s activities and funding options and appreciated the academic endeavors of the Forum on Contemporary Theory. Hema Nair, Reader, N.S.S College for Women, Trivandrum and Associate Editor of Samyukta proposed the vote of thanks.
Hortense J. Spillers, Department of English, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, USA, delivered the keynote address of the Conference. In her presentation entitled “African American Women and the Republics”, Spillers tried to probe the relationship between ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres of interest, the erotic and the political, the free and the enslaved on the dangerous borderline between ‘the citizen’ and the ‘other’. She presented how a ‘conversation’ takes place in a zone of the impossible, which signals, for precisely that reason, the historical possibility that revolution dared to imagine in the very teeth of enslavement: making use of a paradoxical moment as a paradigmatic example to think with. Referring to the liaison of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, she pondered on the ways in which history and fiction represented their complex relationship. What was occurring on the intimate and erotic ground and replicated in the political arena of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” and the “Declaration of Independence,” wherein the heroic stature of Thomas Jefferson was fixed, but these registers of the human remain strangely discordant and misrecognized from one to the other, and in such violent discordance, the modern world is birthed in fear and crisis. Even today, the latter is still vivid in the mind’s eye, as the border between ‘free’ and ‘unfree’ continues to shift across the bodies of the world’s people.
Indulekha and Parangodi Parinayam
As usual, the very first Plenary Session was based on regional texts. This session chaired by Dr. Jayasree tried to critically examine how Indulekha and Parangodi Parinayam depict the socio-cultural scenario of Kerala during a period of rapid transitions. After giving an analytical summary of these novels, Dr. Jayasree discussed issues like colonial modernity, and the complex power/knowledge mechanisms and social institutions of the period. Dr. P.P. Raveendran discussed the translatability of a work into a different cultural consciousness. He examined colonial modernity in the context of these works and observed Parangodi Parinayam, being a derivative text and a caricature of Indulekha, did not receive much critical acclaim. J. Devika’s presentation gave an overview of the key thematic concerns of these novels such as matrilineal Nair community and social values, attitudes to women’s education and emancipation, and responses and reactions to the impacts of colonialism. She referred to the nuances of depicting women in these works and analyzed the ways in which Indulekha and Parangodikkutty are portrayed using totally different hues. Lakshmi started her paper with a reference to Victorian Manuals for Women and illustrated how Indulekha, despite her education and elite upbringing was made to conform to certain patriarchal values. She observed that the emancipation of women in matrilineal Nair taravadu (traditional home) is exaggerated by many historians and illustrated with examples from Indulekha that freedom of women was limited and karanavar (head of the Nair family) had decisive powers. She observed that Parangodi Parinayam did not receive critical acclaim partly because the protagonist, Parangodikkutty was a non-conformist woman, unlike Indulekha. The discussion which followed threw light on Kerala history, condition of women and representation of femininity in literary works in Malayalam and the social changes in the colonial era.
There were also two Plenary Sessions on the States of Theory. As part of the Plenary Session titled, States of Theory I, papers that illustrate the diversity of Theory studies in the world were presented. Sooyoung Chon and Junghye Sung with their paper on “Korean Reception of Postcolonial Theories” brought forth the above issue by presenting a brief history of the advent of Postcolonial theory in Korea, the resistances it had to face from the nationalist critics and feminist who were skeptical about its possibility of enhancing their respective positions. The paper examined the works of postcolonial critics and theorists that were translated into Korean, various surveys, articles published in scholarly journals, research papers, discussions of individual postcolonial critics or theorist or of particular aspects of the theory. Their study arrived at the observation that works of general appeal tend to be translated more than the works on academic appeal.
Globalization, believed to be the mode of social phenomena, economic or political, eclipses the power of the nation state and weakened the national identifications of the subjects, calling for new senses of subjectivities and identity politics with economic migrations across borders of nations, causing hybrid cultures in global cities. Myoung Ah Shin discussed at length on the topic “What Lacan and Agamben Can Do for Subjectivity in the Age of Globalization.” Through this paper she tried to look into the formation of subjectivity with the help of Lacanian and Agambenian paradigms. The focus of her paper was on how globalization demands multi-faceted perspectives with phylogenetic and ontogenetic context, not like what some theorists of globalization envision the effects of globalization: transindividuality and transnationality. According to her both Lacanian and Agamben’s perspectives sharpen the tools to look at subjectivity in the age of globalization with its notion of Moebius strip, the Rea, which will connect both the ontogenetic and phylogenetic tissues of a global citizen, his neighbor being extimate to himself. These perspectives will bring subjectivity into relief as some element which can never be said in entirety in one perspective only.
G. S. Jayasree discussed about the “The State of Feminist Studies in India.” Referring to the essays in the collection, Recasting Woman: Essays in Indian Colonial History edited by Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, and the famous book by Leela Gandhi titled, Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Siècle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship, she elaborated on the politics and poetics of ‘writing’ and ‘editing’. Tracing the ways in which feminist studies engage with issues of gender and caste, Dr. Jayasree observed that intellectual engagement is activism with a difference. Her presentation comprised an analysis of the concerns and ideological positions of women in publishing and feminist publishing houses. Briefly mapping the journey of Samyukta: a Journal of Women’s Studies, she also deliberated on the obligations and role of an editor.
In the plenary session titled, States of Theory II, Alex T. G. Lee, presented a paper “The Rise of Deleuzian Politics in Korea.” He meticulously mapped the Korean context of Deleuzian studies since the beginning of the 1990s. He focused on the role of Deleuzian studies of leftist politics which is related to the question as to how it can accomplish the critical distance from the institutionalization of ‘French Philosophy’ in Korea. A theorist like Derrida has not been fully considered as a political project. Foucault, Lyotard, Julia Kristev, Roland Barthes etc. appeared to have little presence in the Korean cultural contexts. Unlike other French theorists, Deleuze became a popular figure in the 1990s in almost every area of cultural and aesthetic criticism including political practice. Deleuze’s theory has frequently been used for explaining the dynamic social movements in Korea, not only for analyzing literary and cultural texts in an academic sense.
Jikwan Yoon in his presentation “Discourses on World Literature and the Question of Nation,” probed into the dynamics between globality and locality/nationality by foregrounding the question of nation and its significance in discussing world literature. He observed that this was the focal question Goethe wished to raise but left largely undeveloped. Yoon argued that in this phase of ‘pure’ or fully developed capitalism, sustaining and enhancing residual resources embodied within respective national cultures, especially within creative achievements of national literatures produced in peripheries, is indispensable in resisting the flow of reified and commodified global culture and building an anti-system movement against globalized capitalism.
Prafulla C. Kar, in his presentation titled “The State of Theory Studies in India” observed that Theory as an exclusive field of study has not been able to take its root in India as it has grown in the West, but has remained as a small component within a broad range of other areas of inquiry. Theory as a category of knowledge does not claim to have any immediate pragmatic function in helping textual comprehension, but seems to be a world in itself that contains its own critique. Its validity as a discipline comes from its self-examination. According to Dr. Kar, Theory has to be understood in contradistinction to an analytical tool that aids textual explication only without trying to be ontologically theoretical.
Invited distinguished guests also spoke during other plenary sessions. Douglas Kneale discussed the genre theory in relation to social constructions and divisions, using Canada as an example, in the paper entitled “Genre Theory, Catachresis, and the Fetish: The Case of Canada.” J. Kneale drew attention to the traditional distinction between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ kinds of literature which has analogy in ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ genres in society: just as in literary discourse the “law of genre”- or as more honored in the breach than the observance, so in social genres structures and discourses are found to cross the line. According to him the genre of the fetish belongs to a rhetorical tropology that unsettles a simple adversarial relation between minority and majority discourses, or dominant and subordinate positions: even a majority is still just a part.
Lewis R. Gordon, in his paper “Decolonizing Gender: A Phenomenological Critique,” analyzed in detail the decolonial critique of gender as an ‘invented’ category that offers alternative consideration in light of a phenomenological decolonial and postcolonial reading of liberating practices premised upon identity. He also emphasized the coextensive dynamics emerging from the relationality of symbols mediated by social reality as a constructive way to proceed in situations where gender, sexuality, race and class are pitted against each other instead of in a continuum of different social foci.
In another plenary session, Abdul R. JanMohamed examined the political economy of race, gender, class and caste in his paper entitled “Race, Gender, Class, and Caste as Reification of Identificatory Processes”. He also explained the reification of mobile structure of identificatory process between ‘individual’ and ‘collective’ subjects which produces calcified ‘group identities’ that produce deeply contradictory effects. According to him the political economy of ‘subjection’ entailed in all relations between individual and collective subjects, the variations in modes of subjection demanded by the different forms of ‘group identities’ using the psychoanalytic viewpoint in the process that cathect or ‘bind’ individual and collective subjects.
Three parallel sessions were organized at a time for the participants’ presentations on diverse topics falling under the rubric of the conference theme. About 61 papers were presented.
Parallel session in progress
A section of the Participants
These parallel sessions were held on the subthemes as “Caste and Colonial Modernity”, “Caste as Textuality”, “Women’s Movement: In Space and Time”, “Feminine Stereotypes”, “Reconceptualizing the Dalit Question”, “Variable Identities”, “Transgressive Sexuality”, “New Global Utopia”, “Politics of the Female Fetish”, “Caste and Humanism”, “Colored Cosmopolitanism in Border Crossings”, “Racism as a Heuristic Practice”, “Contracting Boundaries”, “Mutation of Power in Structures of Identity”, “Singular Identities and their Social Impact”, “Fetishizing the Cultural Capital and Racializing Politics”, “Sexuality”, and “Biopower and Epidemic Logic.” In fact the conference provided an interdisciplinary background for the dialogue among the scholars of various fields. (See Annexure I)
Performances of the art forms of Kerala such as Koodiyattom and the play Daivathar that explored the possibilities
of the folk theatre in Kerala to critique the socio-cultural implications of power politics based on hierarchies of caste and gender during the Conference also contributed in presenting novel approaches to comprehending social division and its numerous avatars. The participants of the conference also got an opportunity to witness the vibrant culture of Kerala through Koodiyattom performed by Margi, a ritual theatre group. They enacted an episode of the Ramayana in which Lakhsman severs the nose of Supernakha, Ravana’s sister. This temple art famous for its elaborate costume and highly stylized performance has thrived for centuries and so it gave a spectacular insight of the cultural legacy of Kerala. Another play was Daivathar performed by the students of the Department of Performing Arts, University of Kerala. The play was based on the folk theme regarding the quality and greatness of Man who can spiritually attain perfection and solve human problems.
Open Session and Valedictory
During the Open Session and Valedictory chaired by Prafulla C. Kar, feedback and suggestions from the participants were invited so that the next Conference could be more effective and fruitful to the scholars. One significant suggestion was to remove parallel sessions, for participants are unable to listen to many papers of their interest. It was proposed to digitize the papers of the Keynote Speaker and presentations made during the Plenary Sessions and upload them on the Forum’s website for future reference.
The conference proved to be a great success and highly productive. Participants from different fields such as philosophers, literary scholars, social scientists, performing artists, etc. from all the corners of the country and the world used the Conference as a platform for a multi-layered and polyphonic dialogue on various themes of their choices. The participants also could get a glimpse of the colorful and complex culture of Kerala through the performance of Koodiyattom and the staging of a folk play.
It is a disconcerting phenomenon of our times that old divisions have not vanished, or they survive in new guises. At the same time new divisions are forming day by day. As we live in a world where boundaries keep us out of or lock us inside many categories, this international conference on The Political Economy of Social Division: Race, Gender, Class, and Caste as Fetishized/Fetishizing Borders was very relevant.
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