Report on

VIII Theory/Praxis Course

University of Pune

June 14 – July 10 2010

A PASSAGE TO INDIANNESS

 

I was delighted when the opportunity arose for me to participate in the VIII Theory/Praxis Course organized by the Forum on Contemporary Theory at Pune University from June 14 to July 10, 2010.One strong motive for attending – in fact my secondary motive – was to learn as much as I could about the subject-matter of the two components of the course, or rather the two distinct and self-standing courses that formed part of the Summer School: (1) ‘Matters of Life and Death’, and (2) a set of contributions to Subaltern Studies with special reference to the Indian historical experience.

But what was my primary motive? This was something which I cannot easily put into words. I am half inclined to say it was to visit India, but this carries the suggestion that I wanted to come as a visitor to a foreign country, a tourist, just as in previous years I went as a tourist to the United States, France, Turkey and so on, to visit the sights, enjoy the landscape, watch local people going about their daily activities and take photographs. This, however, was not why I wanted to come to India and participate in the Summer School. It would be more accurate to say – if it didn’t sound such desperately ponderous English – that I wanted to get a glimpse of the inside of life in India , through being and interacting with Indian people. I wanted to listen to the opinions of Indians, their concerns, their jokes, their gossip; to observe their manners and mannerisms, their confusingly varied Dr.ess styles; to get a sense of how they viewed India not as an abstraction – not as ‘Mother India’ – but as a shared national culture expressed in the various ways in which they related and spoke to each other, they conducted commercial transactions, they chose and commented on their food, they talked about their studies and their teachers, they negotiated the traffic in their crowded streets, and so on. Throughout my adult life in Britain I had had Indian friends and later colleagues and students, and I had taken a keen interest in modern Indian history and contemporary cinema. India enjoys a high standing in Britain , there are more than 1 million Indians in the country, probably as many Britons have visited India , and every Briton of some education knows something about Mahatma Gandhi and recognizes his image.

So in 2010 I saw in the VIII Theory/Praxis Course in Pune an opportunity to become for a brief while a little bit like an Indian myself by studying, talking, eating and variously interacting with Indian students and teachers in India . Attending the Summer School, for all its intrinsic interest, was a means to a further end, that of entering into a network of relations with Indians centred around the discussion of philosophical and historical issues and trying to imagine myself as Zenonwanath Stavraborthy!

As mentioned, the first course of the Theory/Praxis School was entitled ‘Matters of Life and Death’ and this was prepared and conducted by Dr. Costica Bradatan, a Romanian philosopher who had held a succession of academic posts in European and American universities. The title did not immediately indicate to me the subject-matter of the course – by coincidence, I once participated in a course under this title, which dealt with issues in biomedical ethics! Dr. Bradatan’s course outline contained a number of suggestive explanations, of which the main one was the following:

The course is dedicated to exploring the [human] body as the locus of a number of fundamental experiences: the experiences of a living (embodied) being, “thrown into the world”, of living in limit-situations (torture, starvation, physical degradation), the experience of finitude and imperfection, of overcoming one’s natural fear of death, finally the experience of self-transcending and re-signification through dying a violent voluntary death. We will be discussing several types of such voluntary death: martyrdom, self-immolation as a form of political protest, suicide-bombing and the kamikaze pilots.

In fact the course investigated a cluster of ideas whose centre is occupied by the concept of a human being, a being which is situated and immersed in the world and is related through a set of moods, interests and concerns to other beings, human and non-human, in ways which create for him the inner need to take up an attitude to life which requires a readiness for death, and indeed which may call, under certain circumstances, for voluntary death. The phrase “thrown into the world” was used by Martin Heidegger in his early work Being and Time to characterize the condition of a being capable of becoming self-conscious and of understanding itself, and which in doing so finds itself to be already there in the world, and depending on what attitude it adopts it experiences its existence in an authentic or unauthentic mode. Our projects which define us as self-conscious beings point to the future, and our future extends indefinitely up to our deaths. Death is, for each of us, the final horizon which our projects cannot occupy. Heidegger’s insight (if it is an insight, and not a few philosophers regard the man to be a charlatan) carries significant implications for the persons who take an accepting attitude towards their own death, and who in certain cases act to bring it about.

When I went to London to study Philosophy in the mid-1960s – a time when ‘ordinary language analysis’  had reached its peak in English-speaking philosophical communities – hardly any philosophers in Britain taught or wrote commentaries on Heidegger’s ideas. The few remarks which I could find about Heidegger in surveys of the philosophical scene tended to poke fun or express contempt on the German’s obscure and barely intelligible text which passed in the European continent for profundity (or so it was claimed). My generation went through undergraduate and postgraduate philosophical training thinking that Heidegger and other phenomenologists were not worth spending time on. So I was very interested to watch the reactions of my fellow students–almost all of them Indians – to Heidegger’s ideas. Rather to my surprise I was struck by the serious efforts the students made to comprehend selected passages from Being and Time and the degree of sympathetic understanding they showed towards Heidegger’s ideas. Every lecture by Dr. Bradatan was followed by a presentation by students, and by group discussion in which students wrestled with ideas of great complexity and obscurity (and, I sometimes thought, doubtful intelligibility). Even when students felt dissatisfied with the content of these ideas, or their own grasp of them, they did not shun or reject them, as most British-educated students might have done, but instead they expressed their reactions in terms which were ‘internal’ to the Heideggerian scheme. Maybe (as some scholars have argued) there are elements in the traditional intellectual culture of India – possibly an appreciation of the transcendent significance of certain conceptions and actions that give our experience of the world the meaning it has – which my fellow students had assimilated through their immersion in Indian philosophy, literature, art and religion, and which prepared them for, and offered a basis of sympathy towards Heidegger’s reflections.

My fellow students showed a similarly positive attitude in their study and reflection on the ideas of thinkers like Plato in Apology and Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilyich who sought to understand what matters in life in connection with certain attitudes towards death, as well the works of Primo Levi, Jean Améry and others who recorded their sufferings under Nazi occupation. (Parenthetically I could add that in my own presentation on Plato’s Apology I tried to bring Socrates closer to what I had imagined to be present-day Indian sensibilities by asking students to imagine that they were the jury in the trial of a contemporary Indian political thinker who exercised his freedom of speech and inquiry to travel around the various states of the Indian Republic  to raise worrying issues of inter-state and inter-faith relations among local people, and create grave doubts in their minds about the established ideas and principles on which India’s unity, territorial integrity, representative government and liberal constitution are based. My question to my student audience was how they would judge this imaginary Indian gadfly. I think my thought-experiment fell flat on its face as I failed to provoke my fellow students into a discussion of the possible limits of free speech, probably because my question was too hypothetical. The children of the ‘midnight children’, the second post-independence generation of India , now take for granted the Indianness of the nation. Gandhi thought that India was best understood as a civilisation, but by now Indian nationhood is unassailable.)

The success of the ‘Matters of Life and Death’ course must be attributed in part to the teaching style and personality of Dr. Bradatan. He had formulated his ideas with great care and precision, and traced out their implications and interconnections in a detailed and methodical manner. His lecture notes had the refinement and elegance of a ‘finished’ book, yet he delivered his lectures and conducted the discussion in a relaxed and friendly way which students (including myself) found very attractive. One of the most striking innovations in the course was the use of film to provide concrete case studies throwing up philosophical issues which were subsequently discussed by the group. Among the films that were screened were Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal,  Lars von Trier’s Dogville, Alejandro Amenabar’s  Agora, and Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.

The second part of the Summer School was devoted to Subaltern Studies, that is an approach to the study of the history of colonial and post-colonial people which  focuses on the lives, problems, activities, struggles and sufferings of the peasantry and the urban working class, what were once referred to as the ‘lower orders’ of society. I had been looking forward to this part of the Summer School, as it concentrated on the social reality of British India and beyond. The original announcement from the Forum on Contemporary Theory advertised a course by Professor Arjuna Parakrama.  For various reasons he could not come to India to give the course, but a number of other scholars of the first rank were recruited in his place and the course, or rather a series of short courses on Subaltern Studies, was successfully delivered.

The first lecturer on subalternity was Dr. Milind Wakandar who in a set of three lectures offered an erudite account of the early development of Subaltern Studies viewed in the context of efforts to understand the Dr.ama of Indian history. The torch was then passed to Dr. Pramod K. Nayar, a specialist in post-colonial literary and cultural studies, who gave a series of lectures on ‘Subaltern Studies: Theory, History and the Futures of Theory’, highlighting various important issues in the historiography of colonial India . Dr. Dilip K. Das took over to offer a series of lectures on ‘Subalternity and the biopolitics of difference’ which focused on the effects of cholera, malaria and other infectious diseases on relations between the rulers and the governed in British India . The students were very interested in this area of study and appeared to have already gained extensive knowledge of the field, partly by studying the dense reading material which the School sent them. They seized the opportunity to make presentations on a number of important scholarly papers concerning health issues among the common people of colonial India and engaged in vigorous discussions. A number of ethical and social issues arising from the contemporary worldwide scourge of HIV/AIDS were illustrated by the screening of two recent remarkable Indian films: Revathi’s Phir Milenge (We'll Meet Again) and Onir’s My Brother Nikhil.

The second part of the Summer School was enriched with erudite lectures by Professor Prafulla C. Kar on ‘New Historicism and Cultural Poetics’, a critical analysis of Gayatri Spivak’s paper ‘Can the subaltern speak?’, and a wide-ranging discussion on aspects of intellectual history which took its point of departure with Gramsci’s paper ‘ The formation of the intellectuals’. Professor Kar is the Director of the Centre for Contemporary Theory in Baroda , and the effective architect as well as the energetic dynamo of the annual Theory/Praxis Course.

Finally I could mention that in this second part of the Summer School, I too made a modest contribution with a short course entitled ‘Critical Issues in Contemporary Democracy’. In putting together this course, I unashamedly used material from a module on Democratic Theory which I had given in my own institution, the University of Leeds . I tried to convey to my Indian audience (as I had earlier tried to explain to my students in Leeds), that the existence and operation of a formal machinery of democratic governance in a Western or an Asian society does not automatically secure the implementation of the moral ideals of a liberal democracy, such as popular participation in public debate and decision-making, equality of fundamental rights and non-discrimination, the uplifting of  the underprivileged masses. Just as, in Jefferson’s words, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”, so the price of democratic justice is eternal scrutiny of the behaviour of the powerful officials who make and execute the policies of the state and the rich and privileged people who carry the preponderant influence on governmental  processes. In my mini-course I was supported by a student who made presentations on two topics which she was knowledgeable and passionate about: first, the regrettable condition of denotified and nomadic tribal people in India; and second, the inferior quality of life for most Indian women by comparison to that of most men. These groups form part of the post-independence subaltern, and illustrate how far Indian society still needs to go to fulfil Gandhi’s Dr.eam of “an India in which the poorest shall feel that it is their country in whose making they have an effective voice, an India in which all communities shall live in perfect harmony”.

This young woman and several other fellow students who touched my heart by offering me their thoughts on India and Indianness, as well as and their friendship and kindness impressed me greatly by their intelligence, their diligence and a quality which I rarely found among the youth of Britain : a sincere moral optimism. These young people realize that they are privileged to be in full-time education under able and demanding professors, and they want to do well for themselves and also for India . They respect the traditions bequeathed to them by their parents’ and teachers’ generation, but their respect for tradition is far from uncritical, and they want to do things better when the time comes for them to take over. Their idea of Indianness carries a dynamic for change towards increased material prosperity and equality of opportunity for all. The possibilities inherent in Indian society for improvements in the standard of living and the quality of life for an increasing number of people are keenly appreciated.

As the valedictory session of the Theory/Praxis Course came to a moving close and students and faculty acknowledged the great value of Professor Kar’s project, Zenonwanath Stavraborthy prepared to take his leave and thought to himself that in the dawn of the 21st century it must be bliss to be alive in India, but to be young is very heaven.

Zenon Stavrinides                                                 Department of Philosophy, University of Leeds , UK