XV National Workshop

Critical theory and History

The Fifteenth National workshop on “Critical Theory and History” was held from March 2-5, 2011 at the Centre for Contemporary Theory, Baroda . During the inaugural session Professor Prafulla C. Kar, Director of the centre gave a brief introduction of the Centre.  Dr. Lajwanti Chatani, Convener of the Forum introduced the workshop faculty, Neeladri Bhattacharya, Professor of history, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University , New Delhi and Professor Javeed Alam, Chairman, ICSSR, New Delhi . After a brief introduction of the workshop theme by the faculty, Professor Javeed Alam inaugurated the workshop.

Workshop session in progress

Professor Bhattacharya conducted the four day workshop with detailed lectures on the theme of the day followed by intensive discussions. Participants also presented papers based on the text selected for the workshop. The topics were from a diverse range of thinkers on the Philosophy of History such as Hayden White, Michel Foucault, Jacques Ranciere and Michel de Certeau. The workshop’s orientation was towards ideas that argued for a consideration of History as being a product of narrative employment. Privileging such a discourse meant that History as we know it becomes less a manifold for the past and more a series of textually mediated interventions that provide certain templates to help us evaluate and assess that past. Over the days these ideas were examined and illustrated by Professor Bhattacharya eventually arriving at a reconfigured frame of analysis from where a critique and dialogue with the process of History creation could be initiated.        

Introducing the term “Critical Turn” in the discourse of History Professor Bhattacharya, through brief, but substantive analyses of some prominent thinkers and theorists, drew the participants’ attention towards the gradual shift from ‘authoritative claims to the authoritative texts/past’ to the claims to truth of a different kind which entails an understanding that such a claim does not have the certitude of the earlier kind of claim. Professor Bhattacharya, with the help of Hayden White’s Tropics of Discourse  talked about the narrativisation of history and discussed in some detail as to how narratives of history are formulated. He discussed the role of critical turn in ensuring the presence of more number of narratives of the past events and how the existence of these variegated versions meant more negotiations with the events past / realities leading to richer ‘claims to truth’. He also dealt with a whole range of issues that Foucault deals with, especially the issues concerning power, its connotations and implications in a ‘modern nation-state’.  He also did a close reading of the first few paragraphs of Foucault’s essay “The Body of the Condemned” which describe a public punishment meted out to Damiens on 2nd March, 1757 in Paris . According to him Foucault wants to raise the issue of the logic and internal rationale of such punishments. At the same time, the strategy of narrative used by Foucault in detailing the public prosecution, is trying to destabilize our belief in ‘rationality’.

Talking about Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, Professor Bhattacharya stated that de Certeau gives a radically different critique of Foucault. Even though Certeau looks at the institutional discourse like Foucault, unlike Foucault, he believes that  people are not passively influenced by institutional discourses, rather through an active and dynamic negotiation, people can empower themselves by creating ruptures in the structure, in a variety of ways.

Professor Bhattacharya also gave an insightful and lively public lecture on “Postcolonial Studies and its antinomies” which was attended by many other scholars from in and around Baroda besides the workshop participants. He began by problematizing the term “postcolonial” making it abundantly clear that a weak definition of ‘postcolonial studies’ will be to see it as something temporal that refers to the ‘after the independence phase’ of a formerly colonized state. ‘Postcolonial’ needs to be seen as a notion in which we begin to become aware of how in radical ways, colonialism has reshaped our ways of living and how real lives have been touched by colonialism rather how it has shaped people’s lives in a variety of material ways and how people begin to implicate themselves in the process in which colonial power influenced them. Having established the context and frames of reference in which ‘postcolonial studies’ needs to be taken, he went on to discuss various relevant issues such as the critique of a nation state being a central part of postcolonial discourse, Bhabha’s idea of hybridization, Dipesh Chakraborty’s coining of the term ‘Provinicializing Europe’, etc. and also some of the contradictions or antinomies embedded in ‘postcolonial studies’. Professor Bhattacharya concluded his lecture with a caution that an uncritical return to traditions will not help and we need to open our critical gaze to both the Western modern and the indigenous tradition.

He also focused on Jacques Ranciere’s ideas expounded in The Nights of Labour. He said that Ranciere provides some of the most powerful critique of Althusser and his ideas of philosophy. In Althusserian view of Marxism, society is a structure where each part or element influences each other and without their interaction and relationship with the structure, it is not possible to understand them individually. But Ranciere critiques Althusser by postulating that it needs to be seen not just in terms of a structure, but also people and Ranciere does not completely erase people. Ranciere says that the leftist ideology has no idea of what the workers feel. The left is not happy with a worker who does not subscribe to that idea. The left tells the workers what they ought to do and not what they actually feel and do.

Ranciere’s arguments stem from this primary idea and in his work The Nights of Labour, he studies the rich archives of France between 1800 – 1830’s and gives a detailed account of the life style of the early working class. In this work, he focuses on what the workers did when they are away from their work. He rethinks the entire notion of work as emancipatory and find in their night activities such as a refusal to sleep and instead write pamphlets or meet each other, their desire to subvert the capitalist idea that night is meant for the worker to get sleep, conserve energy so that he can get ready for the next day’s work. Even the very act of dreaming or walking at night can be seen as powerful subversive acts. Ranciere’s other important work The Ignorant Schoolmaster was also taken up for discussion in Professor Bhattacharya’s lecture as well as the various presentations by the workshop participants. The workshop concluded with some of the participants giving presentations on their own research work and how the insights that they drew from the workshop could be purposefully used in them. All in all, the workshop was a wonderful experience for every participant and each one will have not only gained new insights into the discourse of history, but also some wonderful memories of their own.