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Feb 17, 2018

The trouble with the Enlightenment

The trouble with the Enlightenment
By: Ollie Cussen

Like all good liberal intellectuals of the last century, Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog spent a great deal of time agonising over the legacy of the Enlightenment. Cuckolded and divorced, Herzog seeks to make sense of himself, his country, and his century by writing unsent letters to philosophers and politicians, alive and dead. He laments the “liberal-bourgeois illusion of perfection, the poison of hope,” and demands that President Eisenhower “make it all clear to me in a few words.” Instead, he learns the brutal truth from his friend Sandor Himmelstein. “Somewhere in every intellectual is a dumb prick,” Sandor tells Herzog. “You guys can’t answer your own questions… What good are these effing eggheads! It takes an ignorant bastard like me to fight liberal causes.”

In the last decade or so, defenders of the Enlightenment have shunned Herzog’s anxieties about liberal modernity in favour of Sandor’s belligerence. In the wake of 9/11 and the perceived threats of Islamic fundamentalism, a brotherhood of articulate, no-bullshit philosophes, led by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, dragged debates about the Enlightenment’s legacy out of the academy and into the public sphere. They traced all that was worth defending in the modern western world to the 18th century, when rationality, science, secularism and democracy took hold of the European mind.

Though they possessed an impressive capacity for tub-thumping alarmism, these modern freethinkers were by no means the first to mobilise the Enlightenment for their cause. The 18th-century philosophes such as Voltaire, Diderot and d’Alembert effectively volunteered their services to the debates of subsequent generations by presenting themselves as the vanguard of modernity. In 1784, Immanuel Kant famously described the Enlightenment as “humanity’s escape from self-imposed tutelage”; it was an intellectual revolution which allowed the human mind to fulfil its natural desire to think for itself, and from which social and political freedom would follow. In short, the Enlightenment presented itself as the dawn of modern self-consciousness, and as the beginning of reason’s slow but inexorable triumph over myth and obscurantism.

Of course, the philosophes’ self-fashioning as liberators of mankind invited detractors. Just over 20 years after Kant’s triumphalist declaration, Hegel would blame the Enlightenment for the guillotine and the bloody excesses of the French Revolution, thus laying the groundwork for the criticism that the Enlightenment had sacrificed love, spirituality and tradition at the altar of reason and absolute freedom. Kant and Hegel effectively dug the trenches for the 20th-century philosophical battle over the Enlightenment. From Germany on the eve of the Nazi seizure of power, Ernst Cassirer launched a pre-emptive defence of Weimar liberalism by reviving Kant’s philosophy of reason. In Californian exile in 1944, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno retaliated against Cassirer’s naivety: the Enlightenment, they said, had found expression not in the dying embers of the Weimar regime but in the murderous furnaces of Nazi Germany, and in the technocratic totalitarianism that was then tearing Europe apart. (The view that the Enlightenment led to Hitler is today popular with the religious right. “You know the Age of Enlightenment and Reason gave way to moral relativism,” said Penny Nance, the CEO of Concerned Women for America, on Fox News earlier this week. “And moral relativism is what led us all the way down the dark path to the Holocaust.”)

Horkheimer and Adorno’s nuclear Hegelianism, translated into English in 1972, energised the postmodern critique of liberal universalism. Continental philosophers such as Derrida and Foucault attempted to reveal the absolutist and imperialist nature of the principles of justice and truth, while in the English-speaking world John Gray and Alasdair Macintyre blamed the Enlightenment for the misguided utopian political projects of the 20th century and for the atomised and materialist world of the capitalist west. Predictably, the loyal children of the Enlightenment fought back. Where Kwame Anthony Appiah described himself as a “neo-Enlightenment thinker,” others, such as Francis Wheen, opted for stronger language to combat “mumbo-jumbo” irrationalism, perhaps inspired by Ernest Gellner’s self-identification in his 1992 book Postmodernism, Reason and Religion as an “Enlightenment Rationalist Fundamentalist.”

The strident rationalism of Hitchens, Wheen et al is, in this way, simply the vulgarisation of a long intellectual tradition, whereby thinkers view the Enlightenment in terms of whatever happens to be “modernity” at a given time, whether it is the atheist and communist modernity of the early 20th century or the secular, democratic modernity of today. As the Stanford historian Dan Edelstein recently pointed out, “accounts of the Enlightenment accordingly become something else entirely: thinly veiled ideological manifestos or pale reflections of current trends.”

Which makes it all the more strange that none of the major voices in this recent debate about the legacy of the Enlightenment belongs to a historian. It’s not as if the archives have been absent of historians investigating the intellectual world of 18th-century Europe. Since at least Peter Gay’s monumental The Enlightenment (1966), scholars have been attempting to reconstruct what the philosophes thought about their own politics and societies. What’s more, they have told us who read the philosophes’ work and what they made of it. They have told us that the Enlightenment was not only based in Paris and Scotland but in Italy, Poland and the European periphery. They have debated the reformist and revolutionary influence of the Enlightenment, and argued whether we can even speak of a single Enlightenment, given its various local manifestations. Our knowledge of the political, intellectual and cultural world in which the 18th-century revolution of the mind took place is vastly deeper and more textured than it was 50 years ago.

And yet this vast industry of research has scarcely registered in the trench warfare over the Enlightenment’s intellectual legacy. For whatever reason, the nuancing, problematising conclusions of historians have failed to break the centuries-old Kantian-Hegelian lines across which philosophers, theorists and journalists trade ideological artillery. Historians are certainly not oblivious to the contemporary relevance of the Enlightenment, and the achievements of scholars over the past half-century, such as Robert Darnton, Daniel Roche and Franco Venturi, have been extraordinary, necessary, and celebrated in the world of academia; but their assertions have largely failed to resonate above the clamorous tussle over modernity.

Perhaps frustrated by the impotence of historians in fighting for liberal causes, in 2001 Jonathan Israel released his inner Sandor Himmelstein and published the first (800-page) instalment of a three-part history of the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Here was a historian with impressive credentials in the study of Spanish imperialism, the origins of capitalism and the emergence of secularism in the 17th-century Dutch Republic—ideally qualified, it seemed, to tie in the contingent origins of the Enlightenment with its complex philosophical and political legacies.

No such luck. Despite the erudition of Israel’s monumental trilogy, he has rightly been criticised for an out-of-control obsession with Spinoza and for his apparent belief that what seem, to modern eyes, like the strongest philosophical arguments of the age (for liberty, democracy, tolerance) were also the most important historically. Many critics took Israel to be projecting a particularly benevolent view of western secular democracy into the distant and fundamentally different past. Once again, the 18th century had been swallowed whole by modernity, its supposed creation.

What is a historian of ideas to do? A pessimist would say she is faced with two options. She could continue to research the Enlightenment on its own terms, and wait for those who fight over its legacy—who are somehow confident in their definitions of what “it” was—to take notice. Or, as Israel has done, she could pick a side, and mobilise an immense archive for the cause of liberal modernity or for the cause of its enemies. In other words, she could join Moses Herzog, with his letters that never get read and his questions that never get answered, or she could join Sandor Himmelstein and the loud, ignorant bastards. Is there any other way?


Hope of redemption comes with the news that Anthony Pagden has written a book called The Enlightenment, And Why It Still Matters (Oxford University Press, £20). Pagden, now at UCLA, has had a globetrotting career of which most academics can only dream. Educated in Chile, London and Oxford, he has held a host of positions in the history, politics and philosophy departments at many of England, Europe and America’s most elite academic institutions. He has written learned studies of western-European imperialisms, migrations and ideologies. His last book was a survey of 2500 years of global conflict between “east” and “west.” He is, without question, a man of the world, and perfectly qualified to give us a global perspective on why the Enlightenment, in all its historical particularity, “still matters.”

Pagden’s story begins with the world that the Enlightenment saw itself as replacing. The great thinkers of the 17th century—Newton, Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke—destroyed the scholasticism of the universities, which held that the human mind is hardwired with innate, God-given ideas, and replaced it with an account of human nature that relied instead on empirical experience and self-interest. The 18th century therefore inherited a worldview with rational man, not God, at its centre. But with Christianity no longer pulling the intellectual strings, what was to stop humanity from lapsing into self-centredness, cruelty and conflict?

The Enlightenment’s great achievement, Pagden argues, was to repair the bonds of mankind. Its distinctive feature was not that it held history, nature, theology and political authority to the scrutiny of reason, as most of its critics and many of its champions claim, but instead that it recognised our common humanity—our ability to place ourselves in another’s situation and, ultimately, to sympathise with them. Adam Smith and David Hume taught us that man is neither a creation of God nor a selfish pursuer of his own interests; at the most fundamental level, man is the friend of man. This, Pagden argues, was the origin of cosmopolitanism: the central Enlightenment belief in a common humanity and an awareness of belonging to some world larger than your own community.

For Pagden, the significance of this turn in human thought cannot be exaggerated. Cosmopolitanism “was, and remains, possibly the only way to persuade human beings to live together in harmony with one another, or, to put it differently, to stop killing each other.” It is inextricably tied to the Enlightenment’s “universalising vision of the human world” that ultimately led to a conception of civilisation in which questions of justice can be applied and upheld at a global level. Pagden admonishes critics of the Enlightenment project such as Gray and Macintyre for reducing it to a movement based on autonomous reason and objective science. Instead, the Enlightenment was about sympathy, the invention of civilisation, and the pursuit of a cosmopolitan world order.

While he is clearly in the Kantian camp in arguing for why the Enlightenment still matters, Pagden wants to make it clear that all participants in the debate have been fighting over the wrong issues. And these issues still matter because the cosmopolitan project is still incomplete. In shifting the focus of the Enlightenment away from science and reason in favour of sympathy and civilisation, Pagden may well have dodged the odd postmodern bullet. But what if his version of the Enlightenment is in fact even more questionable than the traditional “Age of Reason” Enlightenment with which the Hegelians, the postmodernists and the communitarians had such fun?

One major problem is that Pagden’s cosmopolitanism rests on outright hostility to any religion. He believes that as long as any “ethics of belief” still exists, the Enlightenment project will remain incomplete. For the most part, his presentist defence of secular cosmopolitanism is restrained to coy, rhetorical asides about suicide bombers, Pope Benedict XVI and “uneducated believers.” Yet it manifests itself fully in the book’s conclusion: a bizarre counter-history of a Europe in which the Enlightenment never happened—a Europe that had “dropped behind,” before being conquered by its “centuries-old antagonist to the east, the Ottoman Empire.” It is a Europe in which nobody can think for himself, choosing instead to listen to the Prophet and his laws. Europe has become a civilisation which fails to progress, which is no kind of civilisation at all.

This is a peculiar attempt to prove that the Enlightenment is all that stands between the west and Islamist despotism. But it is the natural culmination of a narrative that presents the Enlightenment project as the discovery of some timeless truth that had previously been obscured by religion. This raises a further objection to Pagden’s cosmopolitanism: it unquestioningly endorses the Enlightenment belief that “civilisation” is the inevitable destiny of all human beings and all human societies. The philosophes worked this out in Europe in the 18th century, thinks Pagden, and we in the west are still waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.

But a cosmopolitanism that rests upon ideals that were developed centuries ago in a few corners of Europe is just about the most restrictive, parochial cosmopolitanism imaginable. In its advocacy of a global “civilising process” it is archly imperial, recalling the condescending liberal aspirations that Thomas Macaulay and John Stuart Mill once held for the British Empire’s Indian subjects. And in its comprehensive rejection of religion as having any role to play in human understanding and organisation, it is a hopeless model for modern global governance. No society has ever existed without being accompanied by some form of religion or spirituality; this holds true today, even in the “disenchanted” west. If the dawning of a new cosmopolitan era is waiting on the disappearance of religion from human affairs, it will be waiting a long time.

This point about global governance is key, as Pagden is a keen supporter of supranational institutions such as the UN, tracing their origins back to Kant’s essay Toward a Perpetual Peace (1795). Kant was never quite clear on what this institution would be—a “league of peoples,” “an international state,” a “universal nation of states”—but Pagden emphasises that Kant could imagine a peaceful, global federation of political representatives. The global institutions that we have now, he argues, should be seen as a laudable attempt to make Kant’s imagined federation a reality.

Pagden’s faith in these institutions might strike some as quixotic, as the European Union struggles to find an effective democratic solution to its financial troubles, as UN sanctions struggle to deter bellicose nuclear powers, and as the US continues to see itself as exempt from the International Criminal Court. As Mark Mazower’s recent book persuasively argued, one of the principal lessons of the 20th century is that the claims of cosmopolitan ideals and institutions to trump the sanctity of borders “may turn out to produce more wars, more massacres and more instability.” And even if some form of cosmopolitanism or global legalism is needed to solve the problems of the 21st century, why should the answers lie exclusively with the cosmopolitanism of 18th century Europe? Arguing from the authority of the philosophes is unlikely to convince those non-European cultures which have their own heritage of cosmopolitan thought, nor those where the legacy of European imperialism is still a political factor.

Voltaire implored his contemporaries to eschew their deference to the past; perhaps it is time historians and theorists of the Enlightenment do the same. Pagden thinks the cosmopolitan Enlightenment that he has identified is so important that he has unquestioningly adopted its secular worldview, which sees global history marching in one direction, towards a future that was imagined in Europe over 200 years ago. In making his Enlightenment about sympathetic cosmopolitanism, he believes he has successfully broken free from the interminable debate about the legacy of the Age of Reason, in which the charges laid against the philosophes include technocratic scientism and the atomisation of society. But one doesn’t have to be a postmodernist, nor a postcolonial activist, to take exception to Pagden’s European triumphalism.


But all is not lost. Pagden makes no secret of writing his history of the Enlightenment with current debates in mind. Such presentism can skew our view of the past, and make us read into it the stories we want to tell ourselves. But it can also encourage us to discover aspects of the past that have previously been overlooked. And if Pagden’s account of enlightened cosmopolitanism is a surprisingly conventional narrative prompted by current controversies of “globalisation,” then there are promising signs that more original attempts will follow.

David Armitage, the Harvard historian, has recently argued that a renaissance in the history of international thought is underway. Intellectual historians are studying the movement, connections and interactions of ideas, how they travel and how they are communicated. Historians of the Enlightenment, for example, have begun to pay attention to Adam Smith’s claim that the two most important events in the history of mankind were the discovery of America and that of the passage to the East Indies around the Cape of Good Hope. The philosophes lived in a world connected across oceans by networks of navigation, commerce and correspondence, providing a contingent basis for their universal conceptions of cosmopolitanism and cultural progress. Humanity was drawn closer together in the 18th century not only in the minds of a few great thinkers but in a fundamentally material way as well.

While globalisation has encouraged historians to explore the spatial scope of Enlightenment ideas, another 21st century concern of planetary significance—the threat of climate change and global warming—has sent scholars in another fruitful direction. As the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has noted, the Enlightenment coincided with the period in which human beings switched from wood and other renewable fuels to the large-scale use of fossil fuels; the origins of ideological and material modernity, in other words, coincided with humankind becoming capable of causing lasting change to the planet. As Chakrabarty puts it, “the mansion of modern freedom stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil-fuel use.” The not entirely unrealistic possibility that mankind might not in the future exist on this planet, that there might be a world without us, therefore calls into question the notions of freedom and of civilisation progressing endlessly into the future which began in the 18th century, along with mankind’s first significant intervention into its planetary environment.

These are grand historical projects, reflecting the scale of the contemporary concerns out of which they have emerged. It is unclear how the Enlightenment will look against the backdrop of primitive globalisation, or the planet’s transition to the anthropocene, but chances are that perspectives of such magnitude might shake the convictions of Kantians and Hegelians alike. These approaches will not be able to provide us with an Enlightenment that “still matters” in the sense that it has all of the answers to our political and philosophical anxieties. But unlike in Herzog, a question that goes unanswered is not always the sign of a nervous breakdown or of ideological impotence. A healthy society needs intellectuals to ask uncomfortable questions. After all, one of the many reasons the Enlightenment still matters is that it taught us to question how we got here, and what that might mean for where we’re going. And with questions like that, who can hope for easy answers?

Feb 14, 2018

A Critical Conspiracy Called Post-Colonialism

Makarand R Paranjape

TODAY, MOST OBSERVERS would say that post-colonialism is more dead than alive. Yet, by the very logic of academic canonisation and continuity, it continues to be ‘Wanted’. It enjoyed its heyday for over two decades after the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), facilitating many an academic career in the Western academy. But after 9/11, it suffered a gradual decline. One reason is that it failed to call out Islamist terror, violence, and intolerance, even as it continued to question and criticise Western power and hegemony. In the backwaters of empire, we suffered its rise and fall with relatively passive if dutiful glee, neither enjoying its spoils nor suffering from its withdrawal symptoms.

But what is post-colonialism? This is subject of much debate, even occasioning a few famous essays with titles echoing this very question. Let us try a different approach. Let us take a metaphor out of the world of criminal investigation to find out. Let us sketch a sort of composite portrait of post-colonialism. That the portrait has necessarily to be composite is because few people seem to have seen the subject so clearly as to be able to identify it accurately or reliably. To begin tracing our portrait, we need to notice the following features.

1. First of all, the inherent contradiction between the idea of post-colonialism and its practice. In other words, post-colonial studies become academically viable only through a series of exclusions that belie its professed inclusiveness.

2. Remember that post-colonialism has a somewhat tainted genealogy, implicated as it is in the whole project of colonialism. Thus, the ‘post’ may actually be a euphemism for ‘neo’, the attempt, first by the UK and then by the US, to extend at least their language if not territorial imperialism. But imperialisms are economic, cultural and hegemonic, whether territorial, economic, or ‘merely’ linguistic and cultural.

3. Because English Studies programmes all over the world have an almost proprietary interest in post-colonial studies, the latter can never free themselves from the stranglehold of the imperial ‘world language’.

4. This exposes yet another contradiction in the attempt of monolingual, largely monocultural disciplines, trying to deal with multilingual and multicultural cultures and societies.

5. Post-colonialism as a concept is mostly incapable of dealing with the totality of the Indian civilisational experience. Indian literature alone, if taken in its entirety, would overrun and overwhelm the limited spaces that post- colonialism offers to it. What, then, to speak of the full range of Indian history, society, and culture, which would be impossible to accommodate, considering how even the past 200 years show a significant colonial influence already too vast to be mapped adequately?

Post-colonialism, when it actually comes to who gets a seat on the wagon, seems to refer to a much smaller group of literary passengers

6. A new way of theorising post-colonial difference might be civilisational, more enduring than racial, ethnic, gender or class divisions. Post-colonial alterities, therefore, need to take these into account.

7. Post-colonialism is, somehow, trapped in modernity; it has no way of dealing with pre-modern, such as Islamic, forms of imperialism, aggression, and colonialism. No post-colonialist of note has even discussed the Ottoman colonisation of Egypt, though it happened after the Napoleonic invasion. Said himself has been silent on this, though he was born in Cairo.

8. Much of what passes for academics in the Third World is at odds or disjointed from the larger social, cultural or economic enterprise of these societies. This is one reason for the persistence of counter-systemic violence or dissent in various parts of the world. Large populations in our world find themselves disconnected and discontented, even if they are not starving or oppressed. That is why, in countries like India, people’s culture, whether folk or popular, is quite at variance from academic culture. If post- colonial studies hold any meaning or relevance in societies such as ours, then they will have to orient themselves much more sincerely and programmatically to the ongoing project of decolonisation. This, or rather swaraj, more than post-colonialism is what we require.

BEFORE WE CONSIDER how post-colonial difference is theorised, it would be desirable to examine how post-colonial similarity is posited. Ostensibly, this similarity is predicated upon the common experience of colonialism which vast sections of the world share. As Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffith and Helen Tiffin declare in the very first sentence of their admirable 1989 book, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literature: ‘More than three-quarters of the people living in the world today have had their lives shaped by the experience of colonialism.’

Notwithstanding such exclusions and inclusions, the bandwagon of post-colonialism is still rather overloaded and unwieldy, badly in need of jettisoning unwanted cargo. Despite the bold claim of carrying three-quarters of the globe on its back, which arguably is still a trifle modest and self-limiting, post-colonialism, when it actually comes to who gets a seat on the wagon, seems to refer to a much smaller group of literary passengers. Because its lingua franca is English, countries colonised by other imperial powers such as France, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Italy and Belgium, are mostly on the periphery. Also marginal, for even more flimsy reasons, are Black, Chicano, Native American and other small literatures. The bulk of what we are left with are ‘the literatures of African countries, Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Caribbean countries, India, Malaysia, Malta, New Zealand, Pakistan, Singapore, South Pacific Island countries, and Sri Lanka’ (Ashcroft et al). This mixed roll-call of continents, regions and nations suggests the motley and uncommon lot we post-colonials share. But when it comes to making sense of this vast and diverse area, English once again comes to our rescue. With its aid, we can banish all literatures which are not available originally in English or in English translation. The rather limited and truncated idea of post-colonialism is what remains, nothing as inclusive as the first grand gesture with which The Empire Writes Back opened.

The Commonwealth was a distinctly British invention. Its purpose was to retain a scaled down hegemony over its former colonies and possessions

The term itself is like a bespoke portmanteau made to order for the Western academy. It caters to the West’s need to study its Others, to accommodate them in some academic framework or the other, so that they are accessible without making too many demands on the West’s time and attention. As such, it is an academic suitcase (recalling a similar metaphor used by Stephen Slemon, who in Ariel 26.1 likens post-colonialism to a ‘suitcase blown open on the baggage belt’), which when opened splits into two neat compartments, one occupied by settler colonies, the other by invaded colonies. Stuffed in between, hybridised creole cultures, such as the Caribbean, half spill out at the ill-fitting joint. The metropolitan mind, with its manic urge to encapsulate, condense and contain other cultures has the satisfaction of believing that it carries ‘three-quarters’ of the world in such a portable holdall.

POST-COLONIALISM, WAS not our creation; though we pretend to interrogate it, there was never really a possibility of rejecting it. Our interrogation, as I have already suggested, was a camouflage for our subordination. If we seek better terms of exchange it is only to improve our share of the spoils of this discursive field. This largely sums up the whole agenda of our academics, a token protest to the metropolitan academy to take us into account rather than ignoring us completely. ‘Listen to us, recognise us, don’t take us for granted, don’t speak on our behalf,’ is all we seem to be saying to them. What this really translates into is a plea to be taken in, or, if that is not possible, a demand not to be ignored. Some will succeed in better positioning themselves in the international academic marketplace of jobs, publishing opportunities, invitations to seminars and conferences; the rest must content themselves with permission to dwell in the suburbs of their pleasure as occasional citations in footnotes or references.

For us, subservience and subjection are underwritten into the very discourse of post-colonialism like genetic codes transmitted through the DNA to each cell; the academic world system, of which post- colonialism is a product, is designed to reproduce inequality even as it proclaims equality as its goal. From such a perspective, the change from Commonwealth to post-colonial does not signify a fundamental difference in power relations between us and them, so much as a shift in power relations within the dominant metropolitan structures. The Commonwealth was a distinctly British invention. Its purpose was to retain a scaled- down hegemony over its former colonies and possessions. Commonwealth literature was only a by-product of such an operation. But when this by-product became lucrative, began to have a worldwide market, there was a further tussle over its control. In this tussle, post-colonial was introduced as the superseding enterprise, like a new multinational corporation taking over an old company.

Post-colonial studies is about who takes control not so much of the English empire as of the empire of the English language

That this is spectre cannot easily be exorcised is amply clear in the very title of The Empire Writes Back, a phrase out of Salman Rushdie. The empire, we had presumed, no longer existed; how and why should it write back? Can, should, it not write for itself if it is truly ‘post’-colonial? The decentring that the discourse of post-colonialism implies is thus belied by the title of its most eloquent exposition. Post-colonialism is, after all, not as anti-colonial as it is appears at first.

Across continents, post-colonialism is the site on which is waged the battle of and for english(es). Post-colonial studies, then, is about who takes control not so much of the English empire as of the empire of the English language. Clearly, this is a very high stakes game; language imperialism is very much a part of the global system of imperialism itself. The Empire Writes Back does not disallow the possibility of non-English literatures entering the discursive terrain of post-coloniality; to openly advocate such exclusion would be politically incorrect: ‘Although [post-colonialism] does not specify that the discourse is to be limited to works in english, it does indicate the rationale of the grouping in a common past and hints at the vision of a more liberated and positive future.’

Yet, there is a peculiar opacity in this sentence. The opening conjunction, ‘although’, suggests that the second part of the sentence will give reasons why, as a matter of practice even if not in theory, only works in English get included in the rubric ‘post-colonial’. However, no such reasons are forthcoming. Instead the second half of the sentence begins with a questionable assumption of ‘a common past’ and slides off into a vague postponement or promise of future redemption. The implication is, not now but some day, non-English literatures will be a part of post-colonial studies. Surely, English, spelt deliberately by the authors in lower case, not to speak of the vastly varied cultural constituents of empire, is an area of difference, not of identity as far as the enterprise of post-colonialism is concerned.

This promise, however, is not likely to be honoured—in a sense, it is impossible to honour. The very logic of international English studies makes it insupportable for works in other languages to be included, except in English translation. There is thus a mismatch between the culture studied and the medium of instruction. It is precisely this clash which renders Indian English literature vulnerable to the charge of inadequacy and partiality on the one hand and makes it imperative to suggest alternate models of bilingual creativity to account for its special features on the other. This is also the reason why Indian English literature ends up occupying most of the space given to Indian literature: in effect, because English is a dominant language, whether the original works are in English or not matters little.

Resistance to oppressive structures of power is required if India is to survive as a civilisation. Post-colonialism often blunts the edge of our urgency

In a later section which specifically examines select Indian theories, the authors of The Empire Writes Back address this issue directly: ‘It is frequently asserted that the work produced by contemporary writers in languages as diverse as Marath[i], Bengali, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, etc., far outweighs in quantity and quality the work produced in english. This may well be the case, though until much more extensive translations into english from these languages have been produced it is difficult for non-speakers of these languages to judge.’

But isn’t that precisely the point: if such a claim will be considered ‘true’ only when English critics ‘judge’ its validity, then the plurality and richness of Indian literatures will continue to be reduced to Indian English literature and Indian literature in English translation. Such a reduction is unacceptable not only to those who do not write in English but also to some of Indians who do. However unintended, such stray remarks signal the continuing cultural neo-imperialism of the English language. Wouldn’t it have much more accurate for the authors to admit that post-colonialism as they had defined it cannot adequately address the reality of India’s multilingual creativity? Why are such admissions of inadequacy rarely to be found in texts emerging from metropolitan or semi- metropolitan centres?

The incompatibility between monolingual, metropolitan theories and their multilingual post-colonial contexts is just the tip of the iceberg. To try to contain all of Indian culture in the discourse of post-colonialism would be not only to ignore the proverbial elephant in the room, but to take one’s denial to the point of trying to stuff it into a burlap bag. Even if the elephant were to fit in—and that would only happen if it were a very small elephant and a very large bag—it might suffocate to death. Much more likely, the elephant would burst through the bag.

The cultural richness and variety of India, not to speak of its population and size, are so vast that any notion of post-colonialism is insufficient to come to terms with them. India’s population alone would easily exceed that of the rest of post-colonial world put together. If all the literary production in India’s various recognised, not to mention unrecognised, languages were to be allowed entry into post-colonial discourse, it would resemble an overcrowded barracoon, quite unable to support so many residents. Indian literatures would invade, overrun and overwhelm the rest of post- colonial writing. Prominent post-colonial players like Canada or Australia might be dwarfed by the literature of just one Indian language. If, moreover, we were to take into account the historical depth and continuity of these literatures, it would be obvious that India is probably the richest national-cultural territory in the world, comparable to the entire continent of Europe. Can such a vastly rich and diverse cultural area be tagged on or fitted into some all-purpose carry bag? Without quite sounding the call to Indian exceptionalism, I only wish to underscore our need for independent and in-depth study of our culture and civilisation. Post-colonialism does not offer that to us. Instead, it turns a cultural majority into a minority. Some of us may revel in this diminution, but I hope the majority, if they have really come of age, will object to, and reject, it. Fair enough: but isn’t it time to break free now?

I have argued that post-colonialism as a problematic poses an invitation, if not challenge, to the thoroughly colonised intellectual class which directs India’s academic enterprises. Will this class buy into post-colonialism or opt for swaraj? This class, I am afraid, is almost congenitally incapable of questioning the fundamental rubric of post-colonialism as a received category. Like all elites, this class will, we must assume, continue to supplicate for better terms of exchange, contenting itself with various spaces of subservience and subordination in the world system of ideas. In the meanwhile, India’s civilisational enterprise will chug along, diffusing the brunt of neo-colonialism through apparent capitulation, while asserting its independence and resilience through its select mouthpieces. That these chosen spokespersons will be few is obvious; that they will not be negligible or insignificant is not so clear. Because when push comes to shove, India will line up behind them, magnanimously forgiving the not so petty or pretty betrayals of professional intellectuals as contingent and inconsequential in the long run, however powerful and alarming they might seem momentarily.

The more effective way of dealing with the contemporary cultural world system is not through the idea of post- colonialism, but through swaraj. The process of decolonisation, which did reach a certain peak during India’s struggle for freedom, needs to be renewed and redeployed. Resistance to oppressive structures of power is still required if India is to survive as a civilisation. Post-colonialism, I am afraid, often blunts the edge of our urgency. It drags us back into a discursive field in which we will remain secondary players. We may attempt to redefine, modify, expand or adapt its Orientalist designs, but we will not be free until we demonstrate the capacity of thinking of and for ourselves without recourse to the dominant epistemes of metropolitan academics.

But swaraj, as should be clear by now, is not only academic, but material and spiritual. It is not merely technological and economic, but is also cultural and ideological. On the first two fronts, perhaps we have fared better than on the latter two. The Indian economy has grown at least 5 per cent annually for 25 years. The success of Indian techies, not only overseas, but in India too has also changed our way of thinking irrevocably. This is real decolonisation, not just sloganeering.

(This is an edited version of the chapter ‘Alterities’ in Makarand R Paranjape's book Debating the ‘Post’ Condition in India: Critical Vernaculars, Unauthorised Modernities, Post-colonial Contentions | Routledge, 2018)

Feb 12, 2018

Zadie Smith on Optimism and Despair

BY Maria Popova
For original, click the link above

“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up,” John Steinbeck wrote to his best friend at the peak of WWII. “It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”

Caught in the maelstrom of the moment, we forget this cyclical nature of history — history being merely the rosary of moments the future strings of its pasts. We forget that the present always looks different from the inside than it does from the outside — something James Baldwin knew when, in considering why Shakespeare endures, he observed: “It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.” We forget that our particular moment, with all its tribulations and triumphs, is not neatly islanded in the river of time but swept afloat by massive cultural currents that have raged long before it and will rage long after.

I have long believed that critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naïveté. Where are we to turn for lucid hope, then, in cultural moments that inflame despair, which so easily metastasizes into cynicism? That is what the inimitable Zadie Smith explores in a piece titled “On Optimism and Despair,” originally delivered as an award acceptance speech and later adapted for her altogether fantastic essay collection Feel Free (public library).

Two days after the 2016 American presidential election, Smith — a black Englishwoman living in the freshly sundered United States — was invited to give a speech upon receiving a literary award in Germany. Traveling from a country on the brink of one catastrophic political regime to a country that has survived another, Smith took the opportunity to unmoor the despair of the present from the shallow waters of the cultural moment and cast it into the oceanic context of humanity’s pasts, aswirl with examples and counterexamples of progress, with ideals attained and shattered, with abiding assurance that we shape tomorrow by how we navigate our parallel potentialities for moral ruin and moral redemption today.

Nearly half a century after the German humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm asserted that “optimism is an alienated form of faith, pessimism an alienated form of despair” and a turn of the cycle after Rebecca Solnit contemplated our grounds for hope in dark times, Smith addresses a question frequently posed before her — why her earlier novels are aglow with optimism, while her later writing “tinged with despair” — a question implying that the arc of her body of work inclines toward an admission of the failure of its central animating forces: diversity, multiculturalism, the polyphony of perspectives. With an eye to “what the ancient Greeks did to each other, and the Romans, and the seventeenth-century British, and the nineteenth-century Americans,” Smith offers a corrective that stretches the ahistorical arc of that assumption:

My best friend during my youth — now my husband — is himself from Northern Ireland, an area where people who look absolutely identical to each other, eat the same food, pray to the same God, read the same holy book, wear the same clothes and celebrate the same holidays have yet spent four hundred years at war over a relatively minor doctrinal difference they later allowed to morph into an all-encompassing argument over land, government and national identity. Racial homogeneity is no guarantor of peace, any more than racial heterogeneity is fated to fail.

Illustration from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey
Echoing the great Czech dissident-turned-president Václav Havel’s reflection on the meaning of human rights in a globalized yet divided world, she adds:

I find these days that a wistful form of time travel has become a persistent political theme, both on the right and on the left. On 10 November The New York Times reported that nearly seven in ten Republicans prefer America as it was in the fifties, a nostalgia of course entirely unavailable to a person like me, for in that period I could not vote, marry my husband, have my children, work in the university I work in, or live in my neighborhood. Time travel is a discretionary art: a pleasure trip for some and a horror story for others. Meanwhile some on the left have time-travel fancies of their own, imagining that the same rigid ideological principles once applied to the matters of workers’ rights, welfare and trade can be applied unchanged to a globalized world of fluid capital.

Smith reframes the question of her shift in literary sensibility not as a decline toward defeatism but as an evolution toward greater complexity and more dimensional awareness of existence:

The art of mid-life is surely always cloudier than the art of youth, as life itself gets cloudier. But it would be disingenuous to pretend it is only that. I am a citizen as well as an individual soul and one of the things citizenship teaches us, over the long stretch, is that there is no perfectibility in human affairs. This fact, still obscure to the twenty-one-year-old, is a little clearer to the woman of forty-one.

In consonance with Austrian-American sociologist Peter Berger’s classic humanistic antidote to cynicism, Smith locates our reasons for optimism by widening the pinhole of the present:

Only the willfully blind can ignore that the history of human existence is simultaneously the history of pain: of brutality, murder, mass extinction, every form of venality and cyclical horror. No land is free of it; no people are without their bloodstain; no tribe entirely innocent. But there is still this redeeming matter of incremental progress. It might look small to those with apocalyptic perspectives, but to she who not so long ago could not vote, or drink from the same water fountain as her fellow citizens, or marry the person she chose, or live in a certain neighborhood, such incremental change feels enormous.

Smith supplements these grounds for hope with a sobering counterpoint to the historical nostalgia so alluring to the hegemony and so ruinous to the rest of us:

Meanwhile the dream of time travel — for new presidents, literary journalists and writers alike — is just that: a dream. And one that only makes sense if the rights and privileges you are accorded currently were accorded to you back then, too. If some white men are more sentimental about history than anyone else right now, it’s no big surprise: their rights and privileges stretch a long way back. For a black woman the expanse of livable history is so much shorter. What would I have been and what would I have done — or more to the point, what would have been done to me — in 1360, in 1760, in 1860, in 1960? I do not say this to claim some pedestal of perfect victimhood or historical innocence. I know very well how my West African ancestors sold and enslaved their tribal cousins and neighbors. I don’t believe in any political or personal identity of pure innocence and absolute rectitude.

But neither do I believe in time travel. I believe in human limitation, not out of any sense of fatalism but out of a learned caution, gleaned from both recent and distant history.

Applying the tenth of her ten rules of writing — “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.” — to life itself, Smith adds:

We will never be perfect: that is our limitation. But we can have, and have had, moments in which we can take genuine pride.

Speaking from the German stage, Smith recounts visiting the country during her first European book tour in her early twenties, traveling with her father, who had been there in 1945 as a young soldier in the reconstruction:

We made a funny pair on that tour, I’m sure: a young black girl and her elderly white father, clutching our guidebooks and seeking those spots in Berlin that my father had visited almost fifty years earlier. It is from him that I have inherited both my optimism and my despair, for he had been among the liberators at Belsen and therefore seen the worst this world has to offer, but had, from there, gone forward, with a sufficiently open heart and mind, striding into one failed marriage and then another, marrying both times across various lines of class, color and temperament, and yet still found in life reasons to be cheerful, reasons even for joy.


He was a member of the white working class, a man often afflicted by despair who still managed to retain a core optimism. Perhaps in a different time under different cultural influences living in a different society he would have become one of the rabid old angry white men of whom the present left is so afeared. As it was, born in 1925 and dying in 2006, he saw his children benefit from the civilized postwar protections of free education and free health care, and felt he had many reasons to be grateful.

This is the world I knew. Things have changed, but history is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefited… Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s insistence on the moral responsibility of the writer and Ursula K. Le Guin’s conviction that “an artist can best speak as a member of a moral community,” Smith concludes by considering the writer’s role as a bastion of collective memory and an instrument of what is most symphonic in human nature:

People who believe in fundamental and irreversible changes in human nature are themselves ahistorical and naive. If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world — and most recently in America — the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.

In the remainder of the thoroughly resplendent Feel Free — which includes the fantastic “Find Your Beach” — Smith applies her formidable mind in language to subjects as varied as music, the connection between dancing and writing, climate change, Brexit, the nature of joy, and the confusions of personhood in the age of social media. Complement this particular part with Simone de Beauvoir on moving beyond the simplistic divide of optimism and pessimism, Toni Morrison on the artist’s task through turbulent moments, and Albert Camus on how to strengthen our spirits in difficult times.

Feb 8, 2018

Frantz Fanon

Frantz Fanon 
By:  Jairus Banaji (copy from Facebook)

Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), Martinique-born psychiatrist, writer and political militant who became part of Algeria’s struggle for independence in 1954. To Fanon the struggle for Algeria’s independence from French rule had to be simultaneously ‘national, revolutionary and social’.

Fanon, diagnosed with leukaemia by the start of 1961, didn’t have long to live when he wrote The Wretched of the Earth, and the parts actually written in 1961 (less than half the book) must have been dictated with the same feverishness that Beauvoir found in him later that summer. Les Damnés de la terre was put together between April and the beginning of July, the chapter on violence appearing first as an article in Les Temps modernes in May 1961. The whole text was complete, and had been read by Sartre, by the time Fanon and Sartre met in Rome in the third week of July. Why Sartre? Fanon’s earliest book, Black Skin, White Masks, was full of references to Sartre’ work, not all of them admiring, but in 1961 the reason for wanting to meet Sartre was surely more specific, the deep impression his just-published magnum opus Critique of Dialectical Reason had made on Fanon the previous year. (Beauvoir reports that Fanon told Lanzmann ‘I’d give twenty thousand francs a day to be able to talk to Sartre from morning to night for two weeks’.)

In his fine biography of Fanon, David Macey says that Fanon ‘read the Critique with passion and enthusiasm as soon as it appeared’, in May 1960. He even calls it ‘the main theoretical influence’ on The Wretched of the Earth. When two editors of Les Temps modernes went to see Fanon in Tunis, in the spring or early summer of 1961, they were ‘shocked by the state in which they found him’ (seriously ill). Yet all he would talk about with them (apart from Algeria and Africa) was Sartre and the Critique!

Fanon, of course, has always been read as advocating violence, preaching it with a sort of unstoppable fervour. But this is a radical misreading of what the first chapter is all about. For a start, as Macey argues, unimpeachably one might add, “it is almost absurd to criticize Fanon for his advocacy of violence. He did not need to advocate it. The ALN was fighting a war and armies are not normally called upon to justify their violence. By 1961, the violence was everywhere. It had even seeped into the unconscious. A schoolteacher ‘somewhere in Algeria’ set his pupils, aged between ten and fourteen, the essay topic ‘What would you do if you were invisible?’ They all said that they would steal arms and kill the French soldiers…” (Macey, Frantz Fanon: A Biography)

The last thing Fanon was doing was conjuring an armed struggle where none existed. When he wrote the chapter on violence, what Algeria had seen for the past half-decade was a ‘murderous and decisive struggle between’ the French and the FLN. In 1957 Fanon called France’s war of repression a ‘genocidal campaign’ (Toward the African Revolution, p. 78). That there have been other trajectories of decolonization based on less violent struggles is neither here nor there. There are no formulas here that can be transplanted in some obvious way from one ‘national’ situation to another. The Algerian revolution was in many respects ‘the most popular and profound national revolution in the entire Arab world’, as Hugh Roberts says in his book The Battlefield: Algeria 1988–2002 .

The early parts of Wretched of the Earth have an almost mystical idea of the Algerian nation as a fused group unified in and by armed struggle. Fanon was deeply suspicious of parties, party machines and party bureaucracies, and the violence he foregrounded was one he identified (1) with spontaneity, (2) with the peasant masses, (3) with the Algerian countryside. ‘The mass of the country people have never ceased to think of the problem of their liberation except in terms of violence,…in terms of national struggle, and of armed insurrection’ (p. 101). The violence of the Algerian insurrection had an inexorable quality because it re-exteriorised the violence of the colonial regime. Fanon refers repeatedly to the ‘atmosphere of violence’, violence which is ‘just under the skin’. ‘The Manichaeism of the settler produces a Manichaeism of the native.’ Each side was “absolute evil” to the other. In Sartre’s terms, this is colonialism as a ‘practico-inert hell’ . When Sartre wrote, ‘The only possible way out [in Algeria] was to confront total negation with total negation, violence with equal violence’, he was describing the sort of ‘choice’ a worker makes who in his freedom ‘takes upon himself everything which crushes him – exhausting work, exploitation, oppression…’.

Macey writes, “It is not difficult to understand why Fanon has been largely forgotten in France, where there is now little interest in his work. Almost ten years after Fanon’s death, a critic noted that Fanon had been forgotten because France wanted to forget something else, namely a war in Algeria that lasted for eight years. France wanted to forget ‘one million dead, two million men, women and children in camps, police raids and torture in France and, at the same time, apart from rare fits of indignation, the passivity of the masses and the spinelessness of the entire Left’ (Michel-Ange Burnier). It is of course difficult to remember something that never happened, and France has been slow to recognize that there was indeed an Algerian war…It was only in 1999 that France accepted that the Algerian war did take place and that references in legislative documents to ‘peace-keeping operations’ should be replaced by references to ‘the Algerian war’. The war, or ‘the war without a name’, has never been truly forgotten. There is an abundant literature on the subject, with new histories appearing at regular intervals.” (Macey, Frantz Fanon, p. 15).
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