Postmodernism and India
Some Preliminary Adversaries
by Makarand Paranjape
- Situating Ourselves
While writing on an “ism” which so celebrates difference as to enshrine it as one of its primary values, I may perhaps be permitted to state, at the very outset, my own sense of difference with it. Because I shall, indeed, spend the rest of my paper qualifying it, let me now state this difference as baldly as I can. I am not interested in postmodernism per se.1
That’s not all there is to it, alas. Although, sometimes I wish I could simply emulate the manner of Deleuze and Guattari’s “innocently anoedipal,” schizo revolutionary, who after escaping “all Oedipal, familial, and personological references,” earns the right to say: “Oedipal? Never heard of it.”2 Wouldn’t it be wonderful to say, similarly, “Postmodernism? Never heard of it”? However, such innocence is impossible for the fallen neocolonized; as that old modernist Eliot said, “After such knowledge what forgiveness?”
So let me quickly indicate what I am interested in which makes my intervention in this debate possible. I am interested in India, in the production of culture taking place here, and more specifically in our contemporary intellectual discourse. However, my position does not spring from some ultimate idea of progress or grand nationalistic design, but rather from a commitment to my immediate survival and empowerment as a postcolonial subject.
My concern with postmodernism, therefore, arises out of my interest in what is happening to Indian academics. In my discipline, English studies, and in the humanities in general postmodernism is, perhaps, the most significant present challenge that we face.3 So, I consider it incumbent upon me to grapple with postmodernism, not unlike previous generations of Indian scholars who have had to come to terms with modernism, existentialism, Marxism, and other such isms which have came to us, periodically, in unfailing and irresistible waves from the West.
In the present context, the question that immediately comes to mind is: Do we need postmodernism? But this question instantly fissures into a number of related questions such as: 1) Do we really have a choice about whether or not to accept it? 2) What is postmodernism (if such an essentializing query is permitted. 3) How can we use it in India? Having raised them in this blatant manner, I may as well put these questions to use for erecting the framework of this paper.
- Do we need Postmodernism?
I don’t wish to sound vexatious, but it bothers me that such a question is never raised. At least I have never seen it asked in this direct fashion by any Indian scholar or critic. Though there is, increasingly, debate on values of postmodernism in India, this debate too only retraces and echoes similar debates in Europe.
Perhaps, our inability to ask such a question is a most eloquent and revealing statement of our condition. After such a barrage of rhetoric denouncing the notion of a homogenized, totalizing universal discourse, after so much emphasis on situated criticism in culture studies, after such celebration and capitalization of minority subject positions, why do we in India not situate ourselves as user-consumers or subjects of postmodernism? Why is our own Otherness to postmodernism obliterated so glibly? Why are our names, identities, nationalities, and locations masked so efficiently when we ourselves become practitioners of this new discourse?4
There is, no doubt, the faulty training we have received as colonized people which is partly responsible for our blinkers. We have been trained to exclude ourselves from what we study, to render invisible our own identities, to look with total attention at the object of our study–to such an extent that we, in the end, are absorbed and appropriated by it. This is as true of our earlier literary critics as it is of the present generation. Cover the name and you won’t know who the writer is. Such mimicry could result from a severe disjunction in the psyche of the colonized: one part which identifies with the colonizer is exposed, while the other part which is dirty, inferior, colonized, is suppressed.
III. Do we have a choice?
I think our silence in asking whether or not we need postmodernism in the first place suggests that we have already made up our minds that we don’t have a choice about it. Now that this is the dominant meta-narrative in the West, we have to follow it ups and downs dutifully. In fact, I can go further: it is not that we think we don’t have a choice, but that, deep down in our psyche, we believe that we don’t deserve a choice. Our low self-esteem is both a proof and a cause of our inability to break out of the trap of being used to our enslaved state.
I would, at this juncture, like to introduce a point which I have heard Professor Ram Bapat of the Department of Politics, Poona University make: no significant intellectual or philosophical contribution is possible if we do not radically question received dogmas from both our own traditions and the West simultaneously. The questioning is radical only if it is at once bi-directional. Otherwise, our fragile enterprise succumbs either to a unmindful imitation and recapitulation of the West or An equally unthinking, fanatic chauvinism and fundamentalism. The truly significant of our thinkers in recent times, Rammohun Roy, Pandita Ramabai, Swami Vivekananda, Jyotiba Phule, Ranade, Tilak, Gandhi, Aurobindo, Ambedkar, M. N. Roy and so on, offered a critique of existing dogmas, both Western and Eastern, before arriving their own positions.
Therefore it seems to me that there is an urgent need for providing a critique of postmodernism from an Indian perspective. It is necessary look at postmodernism not as it sees itself in the West, but as we see it in the Third World. An uncritical acceptance of its value would not be less disastrous than its rejection out of hand.
Now to undo this exhortation. It is obvious that many of us have gone through our own versions of this coming to terms with postmodernism. In fact such a critique and evaluation is not separate from but continuous with our use of postmodernist concepts. Our attitudes to it are, thus, implicit to our praxis. But that still does not absolve us from the responsibility of providing a record of our responses to it, a record which will not just define our own interests and positions but, perhaps, alter the nature of postmodernism itself.
My last statement has been made in all seriousness. If postmodernism like other cerebrations from the West continues to refuse to acknowledge the presence and reality of the rest of the world, should its power continue unabated? By whose standards is the relevance of a set of ideas judged? By the standards of a minority of intellectuals in rich countries, countries which constitute about 15% of the world’s population but siphon off nearly 80% of the world’s income? Similarly, can we in India renounce the claims to a better life of over 70% of our population in favor of ideas which would seem to deny progress, development, and the planned use of reason?5
In other words, the question of the relevance of postmodernism to the world as such and to its poorer peoples in particular cannot be gainsaid. In this regard, we cannot afford to forget the easy dismissal of some of Europe’s leading thinkers to what is happening elsewhere; wasn’t it Foucault who said that he knew nothing about the Third World and that he wasn’t interested in how relevant his ideas were outside Europe?
- What is Postmodernism?
Whatever it is, and this is a moot question, it is Eurocentric. Now, everyone knows this. There’s a lot of talk about highlighting difference, of valorizing the local over the universal, the minority over the (non-existent) majority and so on. But whatever the content of postmodernism, its form has remained elite, exclusive, and closed to outsiders. This is not a conspiracy as some disgruntled, plain-speaking, tough-guy type of Americans have made out.6 Rather, this arcane, esoteric, and cabbalistic discursively is an outcome of the compulsions to novelty and product-refinement within the West. In an advanced capitalist, post-industrial society, intellectual discourse is as much a commodity as an automobile or electronic gadget is. Every season, some new verbal fashion is inaugurated and the entire language-system itself is overhauled every ten years or so. Like in the life-styles marketplace, however, the fifties or sixties can suddenly be back in fashion. Who knows, then, what will come after postmodernism? There is already a talk of returning to a shared or understood multiperspectivity without the effacing of cultural and ethnic ego boundaries.7 In other words, after the nth degree of over-refinement, the consensus of Habermas doesn’t end up sounding very different from the difference of Derrida.
What I have been trying to suggest is that whatever its content, postmodernism to us is basically a question of power. Who wields it and over whom is the crux. It is perfectly clear that the West is wielding this power over the rest of us, just as it did in the past. Postmodernism, thus, embodies the hegemony of the West as much as any preceding intellectual doctrine.
This abuse of power is refracted, distorted, and reproduced in India under the peculiar logic of post-colonialism. Here those who are closest to the West, those with Western degrees, with books and articles published in the West, and whose work has been recognized in the West are in control. The domination of the West over us is mirrored in the domination of the metropolis over the province within India; universities and specialized centers in the big cities, for instance, monopolize the benefits and opportunities of intellectual patronage.
Postmodernism has become the latest of tools in the hands of such elites. True, unlike in the past, those who stand most to gain are the young and upcoming academics who can use the anti-authoritarian bias of postmodernism to dislodge the secure positions of their seniors. The smarter ones among the latter, of course, are playing a very clever game of supporting such movements in return for legitimating. Postmodernism has thus been reduced to the status of the handmaiden of these power-seekers, an esoteric doctrine of which they are the high priests. As in all priestocracies, there are jealously guarded hierarchies within the ranks of the converted, with those at the top having to continuously retain their dominance through a combination of quick promotions, more foreign publications, and extensive networking within the already incestuous and inbred academic community.
So much for the abuse of postmodernism. I have been trying to argue that postmodernism doesn’t necessarily have any automatic and inbuilt safeguards against the very oppressions that it purports to overthrow. Surely, we would be naive to suppose that a doctrine (in this case a non-doctrine) is more powerful than its practitioners. If so, the religions of the world would have worked and we would have been saved long back. This does not mean that all has been in vain, that the human race is accursed, but that the need for criticism and vigilance is never over.
There is, of course, a peculiar paradox in the claims of postmodernism itself which exacerbates this problem of power that I have been addressing. All attempts at positing a postmodernism are by its own internal logic are riddled with failure because the very process of definition implies closure and Othering, which postmodernism would avowedly repudiate. If complete closure is never possible, then all attempts to distinguish postmodernism from modernism are doomed; they rely on offering a limited and unfair representation of modernism so as to enable a rupture or disjunction with it. By the logic of postmodernism, we are always/already postmodern; in every age and episteme there is a space for the Other, however much its presence is denied. If we have always been postmodern why create such a fuss about it?
The fuss, as I have been saying, has to do with the logic of consumerism which demands a continuous substitution and redefinition of the old in terms of the new. An original title of this paper was “What’s new about Postmodernism?” The question was meant to be rhetorical in the most profound way: the denial of master narratives, teleology, metaphysics, is merely a reinscription of older utopias and desires for the perfectibility of the human condition. Not unlike Marx’s and Freud’s secular rewriting of the tripartite Judeo-Christian myth of prelapsarian bliss, fall, and redemption. There is an implicit meta-narrative in this myth which I believe the West will never be able to evade.
Here I would like to introduce an idea which I owe to Professor K. J. Shah, who retired from teaching Philosophy at Karnatak University, Dharwad. He believes that there is a fundamental contradiction in the theorizing that goes on in the West. And this has to do with the lack of consonance between theory and practice. The consonance is something which the Indians always insisted upon; Gandhi put it pithily when he said that my life is my message. In the West, however, they have always lived with a comfortable disjunction between precept and practice. I was not surprised, therefore, by the discovery that Paul De Man was once a Nazi sympathizer. There have been similar disclosures about Heidegger. What is equally predictable is how such a controversy merely adds to the commercial value and productivity of theory. Professor Shah claims, half-jokingly I suppose, that once the West had both theory and practice; then there was only theory and no practice; and now there is neither theory nor practice. The personal and the professional are so compartmentalized as to allow for any kind of neurosis and violence in the former sphere as long as “acceptable” norms of behavior are adhered to in the latter. I cannot think of a better and more topical example of this than the senate hearings to confirm Judge Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill’s allegations remained unproven but they did highlight just how terrible a man might be elected to the Supreme Court of the United States.8
Let me return to the question that gives this section its title: what is postmodernism? In a sense this question cannot be answered within the parameters of postmodernism. It requires an Othering of postmodernism (not to mention that of modernism) which does severe damage to it. Moreover, even if an attempt were made to define it as I have done in note 3 of this paper, it would still be unsatisfying.
Postmodernism is not a seamless fabric or a monolith without fissures. There are internal divisions in it; reportedly, Lacanian psychoanalysis is officially against deconstruction; Kristeva attacks postmodernism; Foucaultians and Derridians cannot get along; new historicists and deconstructionists are naturally opposed; moreover emancipatory and world-improving ideologies like feminism, Third World and minority criticism, and the new Left are committed to some modified version of history and utopia; finally there are important philosophers in Europe like Habermas who would not wish to give up the Enlightenment project, but modify it. As one writer recently summed it up: “The question of postmodernism is surely a question, for is there, after all, something called postmodernism?”9 Such statements have a familiar ring to them; weren’t they also made not too long back with regarded to modernism? Isn’t postmodernism, like modernism before it, too complex, too contradictory, and too unorganized to be essentialized? Perhaps, then, it would be better to see it as describing an epoch than a specific body of thought.
In any case, however we may choose to highlight its main ideas, postmodernism was born out of a crisis in Western thought. No doubt this crisis may have in part been quickened by the decline of Europe which might, in turn, have been influenced by events in the Third World. Yet, no one will dispute that internal, more than external causes are responsible for its rise. In India, however, postmodernism is relevant owing to external causes, because it has acquired power in the West. How can we who haven’t even had a proper Enlightenment or accepted modernity even at the intellectual level, repudiate it? The whole issue is borrowed and extraneous as far as we are concerned. We have been forced, willy nilly, to take cognizance of postmodernism as the subalterns and underlings of the West. We have, again, welcomed with alacrity our master’s discarded and soiled underwear.
The debate in India has been a different one and has had primarily one focus: who are we? Where should we go? Should we embrace Western modernity and development or go our own way? Or should we come up with some sort of via media. One of the most interesting texts of this debate is, of course, Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj. Gandhi’s critique of modernity not only predates that of the postmodernists, but is perhaps more fundamental and far reaching. In India, we have yet to resolve this question which Gandhi pushed to its logical limit: do we want to be a people interested primarily in peaceful, non-violent, non-coercive co-existence with our fellow human beings and with nature or do we wish to dominate others through technological prowess, development, and material prosperity as the West has done? Gandhi offered us a choice; whether this was a false choice or whether the terms in which Gandhi framed the options are still relevant–I cannot address these points here. The question for me is how relevant are the issues that postmodernism raises to this unresolved debate in India.
- How can we use postmodernism?
In this section I intend to interface three central theses of postmodernism, the death of Man, the death of History, and the death of Metaphysics, with Indian thought to see which of these has most to offer us. The three theses that I refer to have been outlined as the key positions of postmodernism by Jane Flax in her recent book, Thinking Fragments. Psychoanalysis, Feminism and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West (Berkeley: UCP, 1990).10
On the Death of Man:
“Postmodernists wish to destroy all essentialist conceptions of human nature…. In fact Man is a social, historical or linguistic artifact, not a noumenal or transcendental Being…Man is forever caught in the web of fictive meaning, in chains of signification, in which the subject is merely another position in language.” (Flax: 32)
There are problems galore with such an assertion. If all essentialist conceptions of human nature are to be destroyed, why does Flax go on to preface the postmodern conception of Man with the essentializing phrase, “In fact”? Can’t this be interpreted to mean that other conceptions of Man are wrong and the postmodern conception is right? And isn’t such Othering against the spirit of postmodernism? Similarly, if we were to regard the last sentence as being the denial of the human body, wouldn’t such a conception of the subject lend itself to the wishing away of all “real” problems like hunger, starvation, disease, poverty, oppression, exploitation, and so on? If the “subject is merely another position in language,” then hunger is just another word.
Yet, strangely, this conception of human nature can find lots of backing in various traditions of Indian thought. In India we have never believed in the autonomous human being, capable of free agency and will, but rather in an idea of self which is the outcome of a web of causality called Karma. This is very similar to other ideas of determination, whether they are social, historical, or ethnic. So I would say that Indian psychology has always recognized the provisionality of the self. Whether the self be a combination of gunas or qualities as in Samkhya, or as an ascending hierarchy of levels of consciousness constituted by manas, buddhi, ahamkar, and chitta of Vedanta, or of the same stuff as the universe as in Advaita, or pure flux as in Buddhism, or pure matter as in Jainism or Charavaka, the self is always a position, ever an autonomous entity. Even in the medieval bhakti literature, the self is still provisional and dependent on the personalized Godhead for its sustenance. In modern times, Sri Aurobindo has seen the self as made up of three levels, physical, vital, and mental, all of which prepare it for its transcendence into the supermental planes. For J. Krishnamurti, the self is merely an outcome of the individual’s particular conditioning. This inexpert survey, it seems to me, indicates very clearly that we in India have never been enamored by any essentialist notion of human nature. In its most lofty flights as in Sri Ramana Maharshi, the Indian conception of self becomes so expansive as to exclude nothing from its purview: there is only the Self, no Other. Thus, either we deny the fixity of the self so as to deconstruct it or widen its scope so as to include the entire universe. Both methods to avoid duality and Othering are available in Indian thought. Hence, I am not sure what postmodernism has to offer us here.11
In fact, the “modern” conception of the self is quite new and not quite powerful in India. It dates back to Rammohun Roy, who tried to conceive of the self in terms of intentionality, rationality, self-reflexivity, autonomy, agency, and so on. This was necessary to wake up the torpid and defeated Indian intelligentsia. Rammohun Roy’s project has still taken deep roots in India. In fact, Sudhir Kakar has gone so far as to claim that the Indian personality is characterized by an underdeveloped ego. Where, then, is there a question of undoing what hasn’t properly been done yet?
Perhaps, what we need instead is a greater dose of the Enlightenment view of the human subject as capable of choice, rational behavior, and world-modifying action. This certainly has been the stress of some of our later social reformers including Vivekananda, Gandhi, and Ambedkar, all of whom tried to empower individual colonized subjects by altering their sense of self. The whole process of consciousness raising, of giving them the power to change their world, of providing them with education and health care, and so on, is impossible if we were to subscribe to the death of man thesis. What the so-called common man needs, instead, is more not less of a sense of selfhood and autonomy.
On the Death of History:
“The idea that History exists for or is his Being is more than just another precondition and justification for the fiction of Man. This idea also supports and underlies the concept of Progress, which is itself such an important part of Man’s story…. Such an idea of Man and History privileges and presupposes the value of unity, homogeneity, totality, closure, and identity.” (Flax: 33)
Again, I wonder, if this is a lesson which we really need to learn in India. The death of History might be necessary in a civilization which has caused the destruction of human life on an unprecedented scale. The two World Wars alone claimed over 65 million lives, of which 16 millions were the victims of the holocaust. It is understandable why such a civilization would be suspicious of History.
If Europe suffers from an excess of History, it is a commonplace that India is the most ahistorical civilization in the world. That is why native historiography became, as with Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya, an almost obsessive compulsion. It was thought that our being colonized was because of our inability to write a coherent history of ourselves.
Nowadays, though, with History being so badly discredited, we can celebrate our lack of it. We can even boast that we have our own alternative conception of mythological Time as opposed to Historical Time. We can celebrate the circularity of our creation myths and the polyphony of our Puranas and itihhasas.
Our cultural codes, it would appear, stress the present over the future. Even our “grand narratives” have always had a reciprocal, interdependent, and symbiotic relationship with local narratives. Subalternism, then, is enshrined in the multitudinous “little traditions,” which have always flourished in India. Perhaps nowhere else in the world will we find the co-existence of so many varieties of lifestyles, dress codes, patterns of behavior, cuisines, ethnic groups, linguistic minorities, and so on, as in India. India, in fact, by definition is a plural and composite space. Moreover, as colonized people, we have been at the receiving end of the grand narrative that was imperialism. Our freedom struggle was grounded in the disavowal of this narrative of progress and its substitution by another self-generated narrative of the emancipation of Mother India. True, this narrative now threatens to root out all other competing discourses with its homogenizing power. Equally dangerous is the resurgence of fundamentalism with its own totalizing narratives. But, and this is the point, even if we do away with master narratives, implicit in our very rejection of them is counter master-narrative. I don’t see any escape from narrativity, but only precaution against its excesses.
The Death of Metaphysics:
“Western metaphysics has been under the spell of the ‘metaphysics of presence’ at least since Plato…. For postmodernists this quest for the Real conceals most Western philosopher’s desire, which is to master the world once and for all by enclosing it within an illusory but absolute system they believe represents or corresponds to a unitary Being beyond history, particularity and change…Just as the Real is the ground of Truth, so too philosophy as the privileged representative of the Real and interrogator of truth claims must play a ‘foundational’ role in all ‘positive knowledge.'” (Flax: 34)
Here again we run into inevitable difficulties with what Seyla Benhabib calls the “Heidegger-Derrida tall tale about the ‘metaphysics of presence.'” Instead, she argues that Richard Rorty’s account of the project of philosophy in modern times is more convincing. In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: PUP, 1973), Rorty calls this project “epistemology,” “a meta-discourse of legitimation, articulating the criteria of validity presupposed by all other discourses” (quoted inBenhabib: 143). Benhabib goes on to point out that “Social criticism without philosophy is not possible, and without social criticism the project of a feminist theory, which is at once committed to knowledge and to the emancipatory interests of women is inconceivable” (143). The same argument holds for our compulsions towards theories of decolonization in the Third World. Besides, we have more than our share of local emancipatory movements, feminist, harijan, dalit, tribal, and so on, all of which need theoretical and ideological legitimation.
I endorse Benhabib’s characterization of Derrida’s notion of the metaphysics of presence as a “tall tale.” That there were within the West several minority views and voices which were not logocentric, that the suppression of these groups, including, freethinkers, mystics, witches, local religious cults, pacifists, and so on, was a prerequisite to Europe’s colonization of other peoples militates against Derrida’s version of the history of Western philosophy. Thus, an internal Othering is first required to project a masculine, phallocentric notion of the European self, which could then be deployed to act upon other, weaker and colonized selves.
I shall not dwell for long on the internal contradictions and problems of this postmodernist position on the Death of Metaphysics. I would like to stress, instead, how the project of Indian metaphysics has differed from that of the West. Indian metaphysics has been experiential and mystical, rather than speculative and rational. As such, even in its most rigorous versions as in Nagarjuna or Sankara, it was never logocentric. The ground of Ultimate Reality cannot be reached through reason alone, but requires a supra-rational, supra-sensual leap according to the mystics. Moreover, the constitution of this Ultimate Reality has also been disputed in India: while the Vendantists considered it in terms of presence or being, the Buddhistics spoke of it in terms of absence and non-being. Thus we have at the very heart of our metaphysics, the eternal contradiction between being and nothingness, purna and sunya, samsara and Nirvana, the body and spirit, the human and the divine, and so on, with the mystical project being to somehow transcend this duality. The mystic claimed that it was possible to apprehend, realize, grasp, and embody in our very living bodies this contradiction by being both things at once. European metaphysics, on the other hand, has been mired in Cartesian rationality, unable to make a breakthrough into illumination.
I would therefore say that the death of metaphysics thesis too is largely irrelevant to us because we have never had the sort of metaphysics which postmodernists desire to kill. On the other hand, we definitely need epistemology in the Rorty sense of the term. Indian thought has lacked the element of criticism because it has always functioned in isolated conclaves, seemingly unconcerned with social reality. This has, of course, changed since Rammohun Roy. I would submit that we have had our own indigenous version of the Enlightenment in India, partly but not wholly fuelled by the impact of the West. We do not wish to renounce the fruits of this Enlightenment or Renaissance of ours. Without criticism, Indian thought will again find itself irrelevant as most of our philosophy departments have already discovered to their detriment.
- Postmodernism and Social Criticism
In this last section of my chapter, I shall consider the more positive aspects of postmodernism, including how we can benefit from its ideas in India. I shall also try to spell out the kind of thinking which informs this critique of postmodernism.
I see the whole move against metaphysics in Europe itself a kind of social criticism. What better example of the dismantling of master-discourses and oppressive structures can there be than the recent changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe? I think this is the most radical instance of postmodernism available to us though, ironically, it had nothing to do with Derrida or Foucault. If, then, we wish to consider postmodernism in global terms, it would be best to see is as the desire and urge for more freedom, as the dismantling of oppressive structures, hence as gradual and opening up of systems and ideologies.
I think we can put postmodernist ideas to a similar use in India by ushering in glasnost and perestroika into our political and ideological institutions. The greatest restructuring can take place in our notion of authority, whether of the teacher or of the text. Institutional and hegemonic readings have all but closed our access to the great texts of India; they need to be deconstructed both inside and outside the classroom. We need, for instance, new readings of all our major mystics, whose disciples have laid down a unitary and totalized “official” interpretations of their lives. Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Ramana Maharshi, Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo, J. Krishnamurti, and so on all need to be read afresh, so that the vitality and emancipatory power of their ideas can be recovered.
Similarly we need to resist closed and oppressive readings of our “great” texts, both religious and secular. The Constitution of India, for instance, needs to be reread so as to facilitate greater autonomy and federalism. Similarly, religious texts such as Ramayana must be reread to show why Ayodhya ought to indeed be a site not of religious war and confrontation, but of peace and cessation of conflict as its name suggests.
My intention has not been to criticize the West out of hand by seeing it as a simple, flat, and one-sided entity. I have argued elsewhere how the West itself is a constantly constituted and constituting category, multi-dimensional, contradictory, and as much divided as, say, the rest of us are.12 I also don’t feel any insecurity or deprivation either as a Westernized Indian or as a “professional” intellectual. Hence, I see no cause to feel squeamish about not just welcoming, but embracing–to use a phrase as old as the Rg Veda–“noble thoughts from all directions,” including the West. I would even go so far as to say that we need very seriously to identify what we can indeed learn from the West. But, as I have tried to show here, I am not sure that the highly esoteric, arcane, and cerebral versions of postmodernism that we seem to be plunging headlong into will do us much good.
There is another argument which I hear frequently from those who are the most Westernized among us. They claim that we live in one world now, a world without frontiers and boundaries; hence, Western theory is as much ours as it is the West’s. I only wish that both these claims were true. I only wish that our world was really one–that is, a world with less inequality and more decentralization of power. Until that happens, those who speak of one world will be merely endorsing the status quo of the domination of the West over us. As to the latter claim of theory being as much ours as the West’s, I would regretfully have to remind myself that we haven’t earned the right to say so. Has any resident Indian has made a significant contribution to Western philosophy or theory even by the West’s own standards? Until we are “developed” enough to do so, wouldn’t it be better if we confined ourselves to a more limited, but rewarding local sphere of activity?
We become international by valuing and celebrating the national, the regional, the local–as our wise elders never tired of saying during our freedom struggle. Here I am reminded of what Professor Namvar Singh, one of our leading contemporary Hindi scholars, points out. He says that we in the Third World have the literature while they in the West have the theory. Postmodern literature is being produced here, while theory is being spawned there. Here the primary activity still is viable; there the secondary practice of theory has become a substitute for literature. Indeed, in London or Los Angeles a Derrida, a Lyotard, a Habermas, a Jameson, or even a Chakravorty will attract a larger audience than any poet might. Why shouldn’t this phenomenon urge us to produce our own theory rather than importing it wholesale from the West? And if we are indeed serious about this project, then its first priorities and principles might indeed be to show how we are different from the West–as, perhaps, I have tried to do here.
This brings me to the final topic of this essay. When I attack Western ideas for their lack of relevance I am always asked what alternative structure have I to offer. Now this is a bit of a trap. The whole idea of structures implies disciplinary and theoretical foundations which are already Western. That only leaves one with the dangerous alternative of infinite regressivity into nativism or “Indianism” of one sort or the other. That is the kind of non-option to which my critics would like to force me.
The solution for me is not necessarily to deny our rupture and alienation from our past, not to, in brief, deny our history of being colonized. But there is a moment to which we can refer back in our attempts to bridge not only this rupture with ourselves but with our Other, the West. This moment of luminosity is, almost miraculously, as indigenous and self-generated as it is inspired by the West. I am referring, of course, to Rammohun Roy, the “originator” or “father” of “modern India.” The inverted commas are meant to suggest that both words are used under erasure. We needn’t look to Rammohun as an originator, but as a luminous point of departure. When we examine the resurgence of our intellectual tradition with Rammohun, we can immediate look for his predecessors, who link us to our precolonized past. Rammohun, of course, was in constant dialogue with both the West and with the Indian society of his day. He, then, is the prototype of the alternative structure that I referred to above. This is a structure which turns the West against itself while also using it to interrogate India. The greatest exponent of this alternate and emancipatory theorizing in recent times is, for me, Gandhi.
It won’t do for us to reject out of hand all the cultural tools that we have inherited from our tradition, no matter how blunt and rusted some of them might have become. We need to sharpen them against an imported grindstone and then use them to chip, crack, and break down the very edifice of the West which we find oppressive. Because we must never forget that the flood of self-denials and self-criticism which is sweeping through the West at the present will not necessarily dissolve the oppressive Western self. Self-denial, nearly as much as self-affirmation, reinforces the self. We in India have a nearly five thousand year record of the third way, the via media, in which the self is and is not at once; is for appearances and “practical” purposes, but is not for domination and Othering.
Is this utopia really possible? The question cannot be resolved at the merely intellectual level, but must be worked out in one’s own life. The mystic, thus, was supposed to offer a living proof of it. For the rest of us, the hope for such a state, whether it is described in terms of equanimity and tranquility or tension and negative dialectics, cannot die. Otherwise, the human race will be left with the “choice” of being either oppressed or oppressor, exploited or exploiter, dominating or dominated, predator or victim.
Postmodernism, thus, offers India a mixed bag of ideas. The fact of its origin and coming to power in the West automatically renders its incautious embrace suicidal to us. Moreover, the relevance of its key theses is at best doubtful and partial to the Indian context. Yet, in so far as it embodies new techniques of reading and new tools of criticism and emancipation, it can be useful to us in India. In fact, the greatest legacy of postmodernism can be the dismantling of the authority of the West itself. But this will not happen on its own, voluntarily as it were, but will have to be hard fought. Otherwise, ironically, an unthinking acceptance of the West’s claim to abdication will only serve to rethrone the West in its already secure position of authority.
1 An earlier version of this paper was presented at a seminar on “Postmodernism-Narration and Difference,” Department of Germanic & Romance Studies, University of Delhi, 27-28 November, 1991.
To suggest my irreverence and sense of alienation from this term I am tempted to refer to it as PMS through the rest of the paper: as short for postmodernism syndrome. Similarly PSS or poststructuralist syndrome. I use the word syndrome very deliberately, as a set of symptoms occurring together and characterizing a specific disease or condition which afflicts the West. I have elsewhere tried to offer a preliminary diagnosis of this disease in the last part of “The Invasion of Theory: An Indian Response” New Quest 81 (May-June 1990): 151-161.
2 Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (New York: Viking, 1977): 361-366. Also see Gurbhagt Singh, Literature and Folklore after Poststructuralist (New Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1991) for a useful summary.
3 Here, I am using Postmodernism in its widest sense as a combination of the Derridian deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Foucauldian “archeology”, French feminism, and culture studies. This is a very approximate characterization of the term will serve until I discuss the problem of defining postmodernism later.
4 I cannot help recalling what one of the most visible and successful of the younger Indian practitioners of post structuralism in America once told me. A contemporary at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he was one of the first of us graduate students to get a PhD in Theory; he got a job at Cornell and was the managing editor of highbrow journal for a few years. When I asked him why he had started using initials instead of writing out his first and middle name in full as he used to, he replied: “In America everyone except the Anglo-Saxons has, or once had, a funny last name. It’s the first name which shows how foreign you are. And when you send out articles to journals there’s no need for them to know that you’re an alien.” Of course, this anecdote doesn’t prove anything conclusively; the name of one far more famous theorist of Indian origin who has retained her first and middle names in full is now so celebrated as to almost sound like a mantra. That she has a European last name, however, must have made seem less threatening when she first began to make her presence felt.
5 See Michel Chossudovsky’s “Global Poverty and New World Economic Order,” The Economic and Political Weekly, 26.44 (November 2, 1991): 2527-2537.
6 A recent example of this can be found in Joseph Epstein’s “The Academic Zoo,” The Hudson Review, Spring 1991: 9-13.
7 The work of anthropologists like Clifford Geertz and Johannes Fabian, for instance, moves in this direction. See Gurbhagat Singh: 6-9 for a preliminary discussion of the post-schizodigm.
8 The senate hearings to confirm Judge Clarence Thomas made headlines through most of October and were the top news story even on the so called CNN-International. Anita Hill testified under oath that Hale was guilty of harassing her sexually when she world under him.
9 Judith Butler, “Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of ‘Postmodernism,'” Praxis International 11.2 (July 1991): 150-165.
10 The excerpts from Flax’s book that follow have been quoted in Seyla Benhabib, “Feminism and Postmodernism: An Uneasy Alliance,” Praxis International 11.2 (July 1991): 137-149. (The book, to the best of my knowledge, is not yet available in India; and, needless to say, I am not one of those “fortunate few” of us who goes abroad every year and keeps up with the latest!)
Benhabib’s essay is insightful and perspicacious. She critiques these positions from the point of view of feminism. She concludes by saying, “A certain version of postmodernism is not only incompatible with but would undermine the very possibility of feminism as the theoretical articulation of the emancipatory aspirations of women,” (148). In addition, in a sophisticated, postmodern manner, Benhabib uses the very productive strategy of interpreting the three theses through their strong and weak versions. In all cases, the moderate, weak versions are found more compatible with feminism than the strong, extreme versions.
11 Lest I be accused of formulating some essentialist construction of Indian tradition, let me state as emphatically as I can that I don’t believe in any such “single and pure” India. I use the phrase “Indian” as descriptively as possible. The traditions which I refer to are the ones with which I am somewhat familiar partly because, I admit, their dominance. There are not the only ones available. Not only am I not interested in foisting any Brahminical (or neo-Brahminical) tradition of Indian intellectual history upon self-satisfied, alienated, modern, Westernized Indian intellectuals; I would never wish to impose on any one, least of all them, the hegemony of Sanskrit. Such a disclaimer is necessary because we exist in a climate in which anyone who takes an anti-Western position tends to be branded as a Hindu fundamentalist! I think I had stated as Cleary as possible in the beginning that received dogmas from both the West and from our own past must be questioned. Here, I only happen to be doing more of the former.
12 See my essay, “The Ideology of Form: Notes on the Third World Novel,” Social Scientist 18.8-9 (Aug-Sept 1990): 71-84; translated into Hindi by Madan Soni in Purvagrah100-101 (Sept-Dec 1990): 146-155.