A Report on IXth Theory/Praxis Forum, 2011

“Global Studies and Philosophies of Being in and Looking at the World”

From 20 June to 16 July, 2011, Osmania University ’s Centre for International Programmes hosted the Forum’s IXth international Theory/Praxis Course in Hyderabad . The Forum enabled an exchange of ideas among three senior Indian professors and twenty-two junior scholars from India , Nepal , and the United States . Professor Prafulla Kar organized the event and Professor C. Vijayasree facilitated the month-long program at the Advanced Centre for American Studies of the Osmania University Centre. During the program each senior scholar introduced a major topic in contemporary social theory: being in the world/“deep ecology” (Professor R. Radhakrishnan), “global studies/transnational cultural analysis” (Dr. Dilip Gaonkar), and the “work of vision in the Age of Empire” (Professor Sumathi Ramaswamy). Each lead professor also delivered a public lecture related to the primary theme of their session. Junior participants presented individual research related to the themes of the Course and analyzed and deliberated on critical topics in the social sciences and humanities in India and at a global scale. During their stay, junior scholars also accessed the print and visual media libraries at the Centre, attended public lectures by renowned visitors unassociated with Osmania University , and ventured to relevant historical sites in the vicinity of Hyderabad . In the fertile intellectual setting of the Forum, forays into global studies and philosophies of being in and looking at the world stimulated new ways of considering human perspectives and experiences in theory and in practice.

Session I

A session of Dr. Radhakrishnan

Professor Radhakrishnan–Chancellor’s Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Irvine —led the inaugural session of the Theory/Praxis Forum. He highlighted eco-philosophy and eco-criticism through the philosophical lens of “being in the world.” Junior scholars read selections from Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and other social theorists. We considered experience and materiality and, like our forbears, found an intellectual crisis among existence, perception, and knowledge. Transcendent knowledge, or meaning, occupies the interstices of this triad. Along these lines, certain concerns arose: Can we simultaneously experience and comprehend what it means to be human? And, further, can the ontological (defined by temporality) be reduced to the ontic (defined by historicity)? In these instances, we queried, time is a reduction in the name of what? To pose these questions, we determined, one must be inside them (i.e. possess a double temporality). Beyond time, for us, Adrienne Rich’s touchstone poem “Diving into the Wreck” powerfully articulated the question of origin, its elusiveness, our constant hankering for it, and the need to embody and materialize it.

Heidegger also wrestles with time and materiality and often un-names humans to universalize perspective and experience. This is one way in which Heidegger’s philosophy connects to the critique of anthropocentrism, a central concept of Timothy Morton’s scholarship. In The Ecological Thought (2010), Morton suggests that we need a “post-human break” to relocate ourselves as a collectivity in terms of ecological knowledge: i.e. how do humans arrive at and enact eco-gnosis. Morton suggests, among other tactics, that we transcend purposiveness; a stance that, to a degree, aligns with Immanuel Kant’s notion of the “beautiful act” (an action without an inclination). To Morton, deep ecology requires that humans be more than ventriloquists for the environment and its ‘needs’; deep ecology entails practice in action rather than words. He urges humans to transcend contemporary ecological challenges via a “radical co-existence,” one with the wherewithal to produce a future for everything (total ecology) beyond the degradations of our current epoch, the “Anthropocene.” Narratives of environment, for him, defy binaries and, therefore, are good to think with; they contain the possibility of transforming the way we live our lives.

Forum participants read The Ecological Thought through lenses of ontology and the autonomy of objects. The “thingness of things” and the ontological bases for deep ecology find a home in the thought of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. There is a symbolism in the “thing” which links each sensible quality. Human senses question things and things reply, empowering us through perception. The significance of the thing is intrinsic. But, the shortcomings of a linear reckoning of time that does not account for subjectivity and vulnerability bring notions of knowing and empiricism under deserved critique. Morton’s deep ecology proposes an alternative ontology, destabilizing existing ways of thinking about humans, objects, and time. His manner of articulation, which combines deconstructive and other theoretical styles and which constantly references literary idioms, includes concepts like the “strange stranger.” His use of chaos as a methodology and his musings on ethics tackle how power hierarchies intersect with the modalities and ideology of ecological thought. Works by David Harvey, Ariel Shalleh, and Michael Zimmerman stimulated additional exchanges around the politics of ecological thought and the dynamics of class, gender, and religion within the framework of a non-anthropocentric philosophy. The centrality of otherness–of “nature” and subalterns within ecological thought–also crystallized during our discussions.

At the completion of the Forum’s first week, Professor Radhakrishnan delivered a public lecture that drew together the gamut of issues covered on eco-philosophy and eco-criticism. Dwelling largely on questions of ontology and specifically working with the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, Radhakrishnan’s lecture addressed key questions of otherness, the complexities of “givenness” in objects, the politics of naming, temporality, and the importance of vulnerability in scholarship. His lecture was true to the challenges he posed in envisioning ontology, history, and time. This rewarding session enriched the course and set a precedent for the following sessions.

Session II

Participants with Gaonkar

Dr. Dilip Gaonkar–Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Public Culture, and Director of the Center for Global Culture and Communication at Northwestern University– guided the second Forum session. He emphasized the “transnational minor” in global studies and analysis. Among other theorists and social critics and scientists, participants read books and articles by Ian Baucom, Sugata Bose, Gilles Deleuze, Leela Gandhi, Engseng Ho, and Aihwa Ong. Visual sources, including films such as Hiroshima Mon Amour and Mississippi Masala, initiated treatments that destabilized perceived conceptions about citizenship, transnationalism, and diaspora, as broadly writ.

Professors C. Vijayasree and T. Vijaykumar, co-hosts and Forum contributors, helped to frame the session by recounting the changing role of American Studies in global studies. In their view, the post-Cold War era affords the Advanced Centre for American Studies an opportunity to rediscover America by casting off America’s exceptionalism and the lack of rootedness (or Indianization) of American Studies in India. They envision the potential for “American Studies made Indian,” in other words a “third space” for radical questioning. The post-foundational disenchantment with the promise of modernity and its forms of knowledge opens up a place for a postcolonial approach to American Studies in India and raises questions about the alterity of Indians as well as components of American society (e.g. African-Americans), elevating the role of the “minor.” Although postcolonialism centers on/around marginal communities and discourses, it also presupposes the nation. However, the transnational critiques the nation. Under the latter rubric, there looms the promise of reevaluating nation-states, citizenship, and human rights.

A session in progress

Deliberations among Forum participants emphasized the “minor”: figures, texts, and events that raise the political dynamics of strangeness; of the silenced, glossed, abject, or unspeakable. There is, for instance, an impoverished galley of characters that hinders seeing transnational history. This paucity of actors facilitates a “prehistory of the nation-state” where singular (major) figures take mythic form. Until recently, the academe has tended to force minors into intelligible stories and preexisting forms. But, the minor opens an aperture and disturbs accepted framings in an uneven manner. With transnationalism–characterized by an unsettled imagining of moving on, says Aihwa Ong–minor figures enable interconnectivity and social change in space and time, an indication that history may be more variegated than expected and certainly more diverse than it has been made out. The interplay of figures, events, and texts (major and minor), rather than the narrative itself, lends significance and comprehensibility to a moment. A turn toward the minor, thus nurtures transcultural spaces, inter-porous identities, and intercultural glossia.

Residual questions about the “transnationalism minor” consistently stimulated and often redirected Forum conversations. For instance, we asked what roles aesthetics, bodily senses, and experiences play in becoming “strangers” (á la previous constructions, such as Walter Benjamin’s flaneur)? Forum participants further queried what type of narrative scholars might create to capture “minor” tellings, at what scales, and in what languages? Can we foreclose the inner life of a minor figure, the subtlety of a minor event, or the meaningfulness of a minor text in a non-transnational language? And, what audience in a deterritorialized world–a world ridden with anxiety–should hear these stories and be expected to meaningfully consider their implications?

New scholarship suggests that transnational minors helped to define the emerging, industrial world. Leela Gandhi proposes that “affective communities”–groups of friends who fostered solidarity and open relationality–were essential to anti-imperial and anti-colonial movements. In other words, minor forms of resistance at the heart of empire developed through a “politics of friendship,” to use Jacques Derrida’s phraseology. “Relationality,” a concept developed by Gandhi in her 2009 book, expresses that only in aesthetic acts from within do ideas become anti-colonial. She illustrates the birth, florescence, and influence of minor trends–vegetarianism and discourses on homosexuality–in Colonial Era Great Britain and how they transformed empire. Elsewhere in the literature, Brent Edwards makes a convincing case for Pan-African transnationalism in 1920s Paris and America. Ian Baucom, writing on economic history in the Atlantic, also locates a “minor event”: the story of Zong, a misidentified slave ship. He traces the implications of the ship’s story for understanding both the philosophy of history and changing registers and forms of commerce in the Atlantic. Finally, Sugata Bose and Engseng Ho, respectively, discuss transnational mobility in the Indian Ocean, crafting accounts that, in the first instance, invokes the travels of Rabindranath Tagore (the early twentieth century Bengali poet and Nobel Laureate) and, in the latter case, examines the interface of movement, materiality, and religion in the diasporas of Hadrami Yemenis to Indonesia beginning during the sixteenth century.

Dr. Gaonkar concluded the second session of the Forum with a public lecture that defined the minor using examples, including, in the first case, the narrative of a peculiar Japanese marine vessel and its influences on twentieth century geopolitics, and, secondly, the role of the Indian revolutionary Narendra Nath Bhattacharya (M.N. Roy) on the founding of the Mexican Communist Party, the first such party outside Russia. In terms both bold and subtle, Gaonkar’s presentation situated the maturing concept of the minor–figure, text, and event–in the intellectual landscape of transnationalism and its historiography. This dynamic session laid the groundwork for a more thorough consideration of empire and historical contests over aesthetics and ways of seeing.

Session III

In the final Forum session, Dr. Sumathi Ramaswamy–Professor of History at Duke University, with expertise in visual studies–initiated a dialogue about the “imperial optic.” Her approach to “vision” was through the concept of “interocularity”/“intervisuality”: a dense visual experience in which images produce conversations among each other. Interpretations of such experiences depend heavily on grasping the historical and political contexts of image production, circulation, and consumption. “Seeing,” as a purposive act, is often violent. Cartography and its material byproducts, including maps and globes, played an influential role between empire and colony, where imperial powers produced images, and thus visual experiences, as a proxy for empire. Articles and chapters by James Hevia and Anne McClintock, among others, captured the way in which empire employed modes (technologies and forms) of image production, such as photography, cinema, and print advertisements, to establish an imperial optic and create ways of seeing in colonies that reverberated at home. These authors’ works mark a shift to the eye (and away from the oral/ear) as the primary site of knowledge, with imperial sight overlaying “native” sight.

                     Participants' presentations      

Participants with Prof. Kar

In this Forum session, Timothy Mitchell’s study of the “exhibition” as a mode of empire informed other insightful concepts of world making. As an example, Pierre Bourdieu’s reflections on anthropology as an “object game” mesh well with Mitchell’s use of the World Exhibition in 1889 as a primary case which Mitchell extends through metaphor to reconsider modern life as an exhibition. Participants at the Forum agreed that, as in Bourdieu’s rendering, social scientists and critics often fail to recognize they are implicated in treatments of life as “picture/object” (i.e., exhibition). Cognizance of the situated nature of the observer, participant, and audience alongside the potential for “second sight” (elaborated on by Jacques Derrida) suggest the possibility of forging an unmediated seeing that enables reflexive social scientists and that may put communities and materials (the object world) in direct contact (e.g., as suggested in the writing of Orhan Pamuk). However, it is not enough for social scientists to have second sight. Indeed, they must be conscious of it and act to further mediate/understand it through articulation. Looking into the eye of the “other,” an exchange of glances, if you will, raises the question of whether a scholar can perceive the world through an alternative sensory lens?

Other texts by Simon Gikandi, Christopher Pinney, and Ella Shohat and Eric Stam, posited visual culture as an alternative to imperial sight. Within the backdrop of non-European art, these readings challenged the chronology of art as given knowledge. The significance of the links between European and non-European art are often underplayed, we learned, creating a lacuna in the way we understand visual culture; the syncretism of styles has been a marker of periods of art both within and outside Europe. The chronology of art history itself commits violence upon the chaos and non-linearity of modernism. Scrambled temporalities and the co-existence of the pre-modern, modern, and post-modern–a palimpsest of multiple temporalities, á la Mikhail Bakhtin–constitutes Europe’s own history of visual culture. Reflexivity and avant garde movements outside Europe have barely been acknowledged or documented in mainstream art history. Movements and ideologies incorporating the carnival, anthropophagy, cannibalism, and the aesthetics of garbage find their origins in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. These practices, employing bricolage and metonymy, influenced generations of European artists, art, and thought in visual culture and continue to influence ways of seeing.

At the completion of the Forum, Professor Ramaswamy recounted visual conversations between images of Indian Goddesses in the creation of the Indian national imaginary. In her public lecture, she examined how the Indian map, which has come to be closely associated with the Indian national movement and patriotism, is itself a creation of British imperialism. Through the image of “Mother India”–an icon with a strong religious subtext in the way that it portrays the nation as a pure, chaste, and good Hindu woman–Dr. Ramaswamy traced such imagery growing less obviously religious but increasingly nationalistic, with many  images depicting the “merging” of Mother India’s body into the image of the nation. Several political movements in India use the imagery of the nation as mother, including the Dalit movement whose recent iteration is “English” the Dalit goddess: this image of the Statue of Liberty dons a man’s hat (homage to Lord Macaulay, the English historian) standing atop a computer, a pen in her hand held aloft. During the question-and-answer session following the lecture, the audience explored the subversive potential of such imagery and the possibilities of an intervisual conversation between the Dalit goddess and Mother India.

An informal moment


The IXth International Theory/Praxis Forum in Hyderabad facilitated a vibrant exchange about ideas and practices in the contemporary world. Three senior Indian scholars led the group through theoretically fertile explorations of global studies and philosophies of being in and looking at the world. As a group, the leaders, organizers, and participants critiqued and inevitably transcended conventional ideas and normative models, which clarified members’ own situatedness and enhanced their research outlooks. By enriching and transforming our collective comprehension of social theory, the Forum at Osmania University Centre enabled praxis as a byproduct of our deliberations.

Jonathan R. Walz Assistant Professor, Rollins College,

Winter Park, Florida, USA

Anjana Raghavan Ph.D. Scholar and Instructor, IIT Madras, Chennai