XVI Theory/Praxis Course

XVI Theory/Praxis Course

In collaboration with the Department of Political Science, Maharaja Sayaji Rao University of Baroda, Vadodara

9th July to 4th August, 2018 at the Centre for Contemporary Theory, Vadodara

The Forum on Contemporary Theory has been conducting an intensive Theory/Praxis Course annually since 2003 for the benefit of scholars across disciplines interested in new developments in Theory and their application. The course includes intensive textual readings in specific areas, supported by seminars and talks on broader but related issues. This Course will be held in Vadodara, Gujarat in collaboration with Department of Political Science, Faculty of Arts, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda during 9th July – 4th August 2018. The Forum which has completed 28 years of its existence, is a member of the Consortium of the Humanities Centres and Institutes (CHCI), so far the only member from South Asia. The Course is organized around the following topics to be discussed in-depth by the core faculty, supported by public lectures and mini-seminars by the invited scholars.



Course Outline

(a)   Can Subaltern Studies Speak? A Critical Reading of Three Decades of Discourse on and of Subalternists and Subalternity (Faculty: Arjuna Parakrama)

While even detractors would admit that the subalternist intervention in colonial historiography and cultural studies was both important and influential, ardent supporters must concede that there’s been a decline in both interest and interesting new work in the field. This course seeks to map key elements of the trajectory of subaltern studies as well as critical responses to it over the past three decades, in an attempt to better understand its potential future roles within a “differentially globalized” space. Of particular interest in this regard will be the examination of subaltern studies’ relationship to Marxism, postcolonial theories and humanism in the current conjuncture. To foreground the theory-practice unease, major subaltern texts will be read in relation to three contemporary films, short stories and “authentic” narratives each. Course requirements include a class presentation and short response papers. As a capstone exercise, participants will be invited to write a 10-page paper, “from a subaltern perspective”, which analyzes a recent sociopolitical intervention that they feel strongly about, also using alternative sources and methodologies to mainstream research, thereby engaging with the theory of practice, where both elements should bring each other to crisis.

While detractors would admit that the subalternist intervention in colonial historiography and cultural studies was both important and influential, even ardent acolytes will concede that there’s been a decline in both interest and interesting new work in the field. This course seeks to examine the ways in which subaltern studies has perceived itself and has been understood by others during the past three decades, in order to better predict its future trajectory. Thus, subaltern theory will be subjected to a discourse study, the assumption being that its reception and reproduction, both complex discursive processes, are (mis)appropriations of power/knowledge in globalised space.

Since the public inauguration of Subaltern Studies in the early 1980s, and particularly with Ranajit Guha’s “manifesto” in Subaltern Studies I: Writings on South Asian History and Society (1982) this loosely-knit group of Indian historians and cultural theorists enjoyed a two-decade-long wave of popularity in Indian and Anglo-US academe. Many imitations and applications were spawned during this period, even the inner circle of the Subaltern Studies Collective grew to around 15 amidst much soul-searching [See Hardiman 1986], and included adherents in the most prestigious US and Australian universities.Caricature accounts had US graduate students looking for subalterns in every nook and cranny, and the crudest misunderstandings degenerated into celebrations of primitivism and the romanticizing of marginality.

To risk a generalization that this course will unpack, at a more serious level the British and US responses to Subaltern Studies have been markedly divergent because each sees different aspects as its core content. While the first response dealt almost exclusively with colonial historiography, this was quickly followed by a literary critical appropriation of Subaltern Studies which gradually became the one of the trendiest methodologies in US English Departments. Throughout this period the definition of the term “subaltern” came under constant scrutiny and regular revision, a discursive arena that will be meticulously mapped in our readings.

Subaltern Studies’ origins as a critical engagement with Marxism is well-known. Hence, serious opposition to Subaltern Studies has most consistently come from the traditional left which argues that revolutionary struggle is being diverted to over-nuanced abstractions and obscurantist theory. A related major strand of criticism exemplified by members of the Cambridge School held that the Subalternists have nothing new to offer which either (British) Marxists and/or Indian historians had not discussed earlier.  A rising antagonism from within India, including by a few former members of the Collective such as Sumit Sarkar, has critiqued what it perceives as the post-structuralist turn of later subaltern work. However, the early excitement, both pro and con has diminished, and during the last five or so years the output and interest in Subalternity has reached a low ebb, prompting some critics to express the view that it was merely a fad whose heyday was irrevocably past. We will track these changes in terms of their over-arching conceptual ramifications in the context of the global financial crisis and the rise of ethno-nationalist conflict and reconstitution of new social movements.

This course seeks to map the trajectory of subaltern studies as well as critical responses to it over the past three decades, in the attempt to theorize future roles for this intellectual movement. Of particular interest in this regard will be the detailed examination of subaltern studies relationship to Marxism and postcolonial theories in the current conjuncture. The unabashedly elite status of subaltern scholars and the disciplinary privileging of India (even within South Asia) will also be scrutinized to identify how this gets played out in their analysis and presentation.

As a capstone exercise, participants will be invited to present a preliminary analysis, from a subaltern perspective, of a (contemporary or past) intervention of struggle or resistance that they feel strongly about, which should include the use of alternative sources and methodologies to mainstream research. See, for instance, the essays by Sarkar, O’Hanlon, Washbrook, Chandravarkar, Bayley and Brass conveniently reproduced in Mapping Subaltern Studies. The EPW debates on subaltern studies, which will be studied in the course, provides a more engaged public account of the political and epistemological issues involved.

(b)       Rhetoric as a Western Intellectual Tradition and its Relation to Philosophy, Politics and Poetics  (Faculty: Dilip Gaonkar)

 This mini-course will approach “rhetoric as a Western intellectual tradition” from a “presentist” perspective. And that present is modernity itself.  Hence, the question: how might one approach and understand rhetoric (variously characterized as—an intellectual tradition, a vocation, a discipline, a practice, an imaginary and so on) from the standpoint of modernity.

There are three interlinked moments in the western rhetorical tradition preceding the onset of modernity proper: the Greek enlightenment, the Roman Republic, and medieval rhetoric in the Christian era which culminates in the rhetorical project inaugurated by Renaissance humanism. While the Renaissance opens out to the modernity, it also gathers and digests the prior moments reflexively. Renaissance humanists strive to balance and integrate their pagan learning within a public culture increasingly dominated by Christianity. Thus, the Renaissance humanist rhetoric is fraught with tensions and contradiction that are absent in the two prior moments, the Greek and the Roman.

Our engagement with rhetoric is more analogous to that of the Renaissance than to the two moments that precede it.  If the appropriation of the ancients by the Renaissance was complicated by the presence of Christianity which had steadily penetrated into every aspect of European life and culture through the seemingly slow-moving medieval period, our situation is equally, if not more, complicated by the eruption of modernity itself. We are the moderns who are forbidden to cross over to the Renaissance without continuously negotiating our own long, but rapidly moving modernity. We cannot appropriate the rhetorical tradition of the Renaissance and before without coming terms with our own modernity.  The challenge that modernity poses to rhetoric is both intellectual and sociological.  One could argue, with some qualifications, that the challenge Christianity posed to rhetoric as it was being recuperated by the Renaissance humanists was largely conceptual rather than sociological.  The Christian doctrine could, as Plato had done before, ideologically marginalize rhetoric to irrelevance, but it would not, and perhaps could not, damage rhetoric sociologically.  On the other hand, modernity could and did attempt to evacuate rhetoric sociologically.  While Plato had feared rhetoric as a nomadic enterprise in the realm of the spirit (words and ideas) and sought to discipline it conceptually, the modernity project sought to emasculate rhetoric sociologically (i.e. by way of systemically embedded instrumental rationality).

Here we might turn to the modern thinkers like Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Vico to seek models for appropriating the rhetorical tradition (or classical rhetoric) for and from our present conjuncture. There are two strategies for doing this: First, one can take a quick historical journey from the Sophists to the present-alighting and dwelling at various stations and posts.  This conventional strategy is adopted by scholars such as Thomas M. Conley (Rhetoric in the European Tradition, 1990), George Kennedy (Classical Rhetoric and its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times, 1980), Laurent Pernot (Rhetoric in Antiquity, 2000, 2005) and Brian Vickers (In Defense of Rhetoric, 1988) and many others.

Second, one can approach rhetoric as an intellectual tradition from the standpoint of contemporary appropriations—such as those of Jacques Derrida on Plato’s Phaedrus, Pau de Man on Nietzsche, Hayden White on the nineteenth century historiography, as well as a set of synoptic interpretations of that tradition by scholars such as Kenneth Burke, Roland Barthes and Tzvetan Todorov.

This seminar will try to combine both strategies.

(c)      Mini-Course: Postcolonialism and the ‘Nation’ Question (Faculty: Rajeswari Sunder Rajan)

 Why did colonized territories (almost) always re-invent themselves as nations when they achieved political independence? And what happened when they did? How have liberation struggles and decolonization been defined by the prospect and process of nation-state formation?

This course will explore the extent to which postcolonialism has been defined by the concept of the ‘nation’ and, conversely, the ways in which the nation question has been shaped by postcolonialism. These theoretical debates are shaped, as we would expect, by the dominant historical events of the second half of the twentieth century, namely the emergence of nearly a hundred new nation-states as a result of decolonization in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean (as earlier in Latin America). Our study will therefore also of necessity be grounded in empirical, historical case studies.

We will engage three topics from the vast array of issues thrown up by the connections between decolonization and nation-state formation:

  • The Violence of nation-formation: Zionism and Palestine
  • Refugees, exiles and immigrants
  • Alternatives’ to the nation


Arjuna Parakrama, poet, scholar, and activist, has had over the last thirty years a distinguished academic career in Sri Lanka, and he has also done important work with the UN and major international foundations, including receiving prestigious fellowships from the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs, and the United States Institute of Peace. He is a recipient of a research grant from the Guggenheim Foundation.  At the University of Colombo he was Head of the English Department and Dean of the Faculty of Arts.  At the University of Peradeniya, where he currently serves as the Professor of English, he is also the Director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights.  He has taught as Visiting Professor at the National University of Malaysia and the University of Pittsburgh, and is a Honorary Research Fellow at La Trobe University.  As an inter-disciplinary scholar working on critical discourse studies, subalternity, human rights and development, and radical sociolinguistics, he is author of many essays, monographs and books, such as Language and Rebellion (London: Katha 1990) and De-Hegemonizing Language Standards: Learning from (Post) Colonial Englishes about “English” (London: Macmillan, 1995). He believes that academic and activist work must mutually inform each other, and that neither is of any value unless it is combined with learning-to-learn from subaltern groups.


Dilip Gaonkar is Professor in Rhetoric and Public Culture and the Director of Center for Global Culture and Communication at Northwestern University. He is also the Director of Center for Transcultural Studies, an independent scholarly research network concerned with global issues. He was closely associated with the journal, Public Culture, serving as the Executive Editor (2000-2009) and as Editor (2009-2011).  Gaonkar has two sets of scholarly interests: rhetoric as an intellectual tradition, both its ancient roots and its contemporary mutations; and, global modernities and their impact on the political.  He has published numerous essays on rhetoric, including “The Idea of Rhetoric in the Rhetoric of Science” that was published along with ten critical responses to the essay in a book, Rhetorical Hermeneutics: Invention and Interpretation in the Age of Science, edited by Alan G. Gross and William Keith (1996).  Gaonkar has edited a series books on global cultural politics: Distribution of the Sensible: Ranciere on Politics and Aesthetics (with Scott Durham, 2019), Globalizing American Studies (with Brian Edwards, 2010), Alternative Modernities (2001), and Disciplinarity and Dissent in Cultural Studies (with Cary Nelson, 1995).  He has also edited several special issues of journals: Laclau’s On Populist Reason (with Robert Hariman, for Cultural Studies, 2012), Commitments in a Post-Foundational World (with Keith Topper, for Hedgehog Review, 2005), and the following special issues for Public Culture: Cultures of Democracy (2007), Technologies of Public Persuasion (with Elizabeth Povinelli, 2003), and New Imaginaries (with Benjamin Lee, 2002).  He is currently working on a book manuscript on Modernity, Democracy and the Politics of Disorder.


Rajeswari Sunder Rajan was educated in Bombay and Washington DC. She taught for many years in India before moving to the U.K. where she was Professorial Fellow at Wolfson College and Reader in the English faculty at the University of Oxford. Dr. Sunder Rajan has been a Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi; in 2001 she was a Shansi Visiting Professor at Oberlin College, Ohio. Dr. Sunder Rajan’s work spans debates about the relationship between gender, postcolonialism and culture in India, and addresses issues relating to law, religion, and secularism in the postcolonial nation. Additionally, she works on British nineteenth-century literature and Anglophone postcolonial literature. She is a Global Distinguished Professor at New York University.  Sunder Rajan was one of the founding editors of the postcolonial studies journal Interventions, published by Routledge. She is currently setting up a research project on Postcolonial Print Cultures with Dr. Neelam Srivatsava at Newcastle University (UK) that will bring together scholars from both institutions, along with other scholars from India, the UK, and the USA, to collaborate in a series of workshops to map this new and rapidly growing field of research in postcolonial studies.  Recent publications include ‘Zeitgeist and the Literary Text: India, 1947, in Qurratulain Hyder’s My Temples, Too, and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, in Critical Inquiry(Summer 2014). ‘Feminism’s Futures: The Limits and Ambitions of Rokeya’s Dream,’ in Economic and Political Weekly (October 2015), and ‘A Woman’s Worth’ in Granta (2015). A volume of essays, Commodities and Culture in the Colonial World, jointly edited with Professors Supriya Chaudhuri, Josephine McDonagh, and Brian Murray is forthcoming (Routledge, 2017). The volume is the product of a three-year international collaboration on a project titled ‘Commodities and Cultures, 1851-1914’, funded by a Leverhulme Network Grant. Dr. Sunder Rajan is currently completing a book on the post-Midnight’s Children Indian novel in English, while starting another (jointly with Anuradha Needham) on ‘Women in Indian Cinema’.

Organizational Details

Study material will be made available to the participants after their registration; the participants are expected to have gone through the material before the commencement of the Course. Each participant is required to maintain a day-to-day critical account of the sessions in an academic diary, which will be submitted to the director of the program at the end. In addition, each participant is required to make at least one formal presentation. Both faculty and participants are expected to stay together in the same venue for greater interaction and exchange between them.

Participation Criteria

Participation in the Course is mainly open to scholars in the humanities and social sciences, preferably those working toward research degree, but post-graduate students and post-doctoral scholars in these disciplines and scholars from the disciplines outside the humanities and social sciences interested in inter-disciplinary studies can also apply. A 1000 word essay on why you need to take this course should be submitted along with the application. Maximum number of participants to be selected is 20. The participants are required to attend all the sessions and to stay until the end of the program in order to receive the certificate of participation.

Registration Fee

Each participant is required to pay a registration fee of Rs. 20,000/- (Rupees Twenty Thousand Only) to the Forum on Contemporary Theory through a bank draft drawn on a bank in Baroda. The registration fee will take care of his/her board and lodging, course fee and other related expenses. The participants will not be paid by the organizers for their travel.

Deadline for Application

The last date for receiving application for participation is 30th April, 2018. The application may be sent to the Convener of the Course with copies marked to the Director, Centre for Contemporary Theory, Baroda (prafullakar@gmail.com) and Local Coordinator. Selection for participation will be made by 10th May, 2018. Selected candidates are required to send the bank draft favoring Forum on Contemporary Theory before 20th May, 2018. Course material will be mailed only after receiving the registration fee.  You can download the application form here.

Address for Correspondence

Lajwanti Chatani

Head, Department of Political Science  Faculty of Arts, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of BarodA, Vadodara, Gujarat, India – 390 002.

Convener, Forum on Contemporary Theory, C-304, Siddhi Vinayak Comple, Behind Vadodara Railway Station, Faramji Road, Baroda, Gujarat, India – 390 007.   Email ID: lajwanti.chatani@gmail.com

Udayprakash Sharma

Local Coordinator & Academic Associate, C-304, Siddhi Vinayak Comple, Behind Vadodara Railway Station, Faramji Road, Baroda, Gujarat, India – 390 007.   Email ID: udayprakash.sharma@gmail.com