Theories from the South II: Interview with Aditya Nigam

by Sohini Chattopadhyay

Part II

Political theorist Aditya Nigam’s works have provided us with essential tools to theorize the contemporary experiences of capitalism, and to interrogate the received philosophical history of capital. This is the second part of a conversation to emerge out of the workshop "Equality and Difference: Theory from the South", on 29th September 2017, organized and Moderated by Anupama Rao, and co-sponsored by the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. The questions were jointly addressed to Prathama Banerjee and Aditya Nigam over emails. (for reflections on these questions by Prathama Banerjee, see post here).

Sohini Chattopadhyay interviews on what it means, both intellectually and in terms of academic labor, to conceive of theories from the South. The reflections range from the need for an alternative body of theories, on the roles and limits of history in political thought, and the issues of political ontology.

Sohini Chattopadhyay: I want to begin with exploring your ideas about the need for an alternative and reimagining of theory from and of the South, and I’d like to know more on both of your reflections about your article in Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) along with Prathama Banerjee and Rakesh Pandey. It mentioned that the article was ‘based on the experience of teaching a course on social and political theory as part of "Researching the Contemporary," an annual teaching programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.’ (EPW 41:72, 2016) how much of it has been feasible now that some time has passed, and what were the difficulties of teaching the nuances of multiple traditions of thought to participants of the course?

Aditya Nigam: The need for an alternative body of knowledge, theories, philosophies – not an alternative theory in the singular – arises, in my view, from an immense dissatisfaction with the way dominant, hegemonic Theory (undoubtedly Western in provenance) pronounces its judgement on the rest of the world. Though equally diverse internally, the different components of this Theory share certain common assumptions about modernity, capitalism, secularism and progress and its intrinsic relationship with the West. Without going into specific philosophies or philosophers, we can say that what our social science knowledge, erected on the edifice of these philosophies, has taught us about ourselves is that three fourths of the world is always doing things wrong! As I keep saying to our students, according to this knowledge, our modernity is supposed to be incomplete, our secularism deficient, our development retarded or arrested, and our democracy distorted and so on. If you want to go further, we lack civility’, we have no philosophy, we have no history, we have no autobiographies...the list of what we lack can be endless. So the point really is to turn the question around and ask, why is it that ‘we’ must be studied and understood through these categories? Perhaps we are not doing what you think we are doing or should be doing. Sudipta Kaviraj once remarked in another context, that such a theorization led to a kind of ‘ontological depletion’ of the non-West. ‘Non-West’ here is my term and I am using it quite unabashedly – not as a residual category to refer to something that is ‘not West’ but more like an Advaitin would say about Brahman – ‘not this, not this’ (neti neti, in Sanskrit). This is the Advaitin’s way of saying that Brahman is indescribable in positive terms but you can say what it is not. You could call it the global South, or the ‘Third World’ or the ‘postcolonial world’ – but all these terms refer to ‘us’ in a very specific way, a very specific context. So, if we were to talk about the world that has suffered from the consequences of the ‘epistemic violence’ (borrowing Gayatri Spivak’s term) meted out by the modern West, we will find that it is not simply the ‘Three Continents’ (Asia, Africa and Latin America) that the ‘Non-West’ refers to here: it must also include all the indigenous populations that were virtually exterminated in genocides carried out by the civilizers in the USA or Australia, or the Blacks who were transported en masse from Africa and the Caribbean – who despite being geographically part of the ‘First World’/ the West or the global North form part of our Non-West, epistemically speaking. If postcolonial political elites today are still chasing the chimera of ‘smart cities’, bullet trains and ‘cashless economies’, it is no less because the only language, the only knowledge, the only theories available to them are those purveyed by the dominant language of the social sciences and of social and political theory, which tell them that there is only one way to the Future. As a result, they are always running to ‘catch up’ but effectively, to stay in the same place – and the cost of this is borne by the poorer populations who are being dispossessed every day, to clear the way for this dream.

So yes, the challenge is very big and when we started teaching in 2010, there wasn’t really much teaching material to go by, at least not much that we were aware of. We started accessing and putting together materials, articles and studies done by scholars working on India, China, the Arab and Persian world, Africa (works on African philosophy) and curate them in a way that made some theoretical sense. These works had so far been lost in specific area studies journals or journals like Philosophy East and West – but there were also some which had emerged in the post September 11 context in the United States, where scholars had started revisiting the philosophical legacy of the great medieval Arab philosophers like Al-Farabi or Ibn-Sina or Ibn-Rushd or Ibn Khaldun, most of them wrongly described as Platonists or Aristotelians. When you read Plato or Aristotle 15 centuries later, you are not exactly reading them as pupils. You excavate them, study them and debate them for something you are dealing with in your own time and context. Anyway, that is another matter. Teaching these thinkers alongside an Iqbal or a Tagore or a Gandhi was quite liberating, even though we scarcely understood the nuances of each tradition when we started teaching them. I cannot say we understand these nuances even today, though we are much better placed now to understand where these thinkers come from and where there thought goes. Al Farabi to Moses Maimonides to Spinoza or Ibn Sina to Duns Scotus to Deleuze – there are lines of thought that flow (long before the light of the Enlightenment illuminated the world) and much of these still await more research and greater elucidation. What was truly liberating for me personally, is the fact that what we understand as ‘Western thought’ did not emerge, sui generis, in the West. Like Arab philosophy, Indian mathematics or medical sciences, Chinese breakthroughs in science and technology – everything went into the formation of ‘Western thought’ – a history carefully excised and consigned to darkness in the dazzling, but blinding, light of the Enlightenment. In fact, it was perhaps a post-Enlightenment phenomenon. For us, the business of decolonizing Theory is not therefore, about rejecting the West but of changing our relationship to it: from being apprentices (I borrow this term from Vivek Dhareshwar) in the workshop of Western Theory, we must now start treating it as one among many different intellectual traditions with which we now engage as equals.

SC: The idea of theories from the Global South has become popular in the US to wrestle out theory from the firm grasp of the West. Is it a helpful category of thought or does it reproduce the same intellectual hierarchies?

AN: As I said above, the idea of the ‘Global South’ is a place-holder but we must understand it in more than geographical terms and not define it in some positive sense. I personally do use the term sometimes because I understand the project of decolonizing theory in a global sense now. It is a different moment today, a different theoretical conjuncture, so to speak, where decolonization is not about going nativist or indigenist and more parochial, but rather expanding the base of social and political theory and philosophy. An insistence on the Global South as a reference point imposes this condition on us: it calls upon us to steer clear of the desire to replace one kind of parochialism (that of Europe) with another (say India). Decolonization cannot be accomplished by substituting Sanskrit terms or categories for English or German or French ones. The Sanskrit tradition is as valuable a resource in the decolonization project as is the Arabic, African, Persian, Chinese and Japanese – and to be sure, this is not an exhaustive list. Unfortunately, ‘decolonization’ sometimes becomes a vacuous slogan because we end up simply endlessly laying down the agenda without actually getting down to the actual business of reconstruction. For this reason, we called our course ‘Reassembling Social Theory’ – where, by ‘reassembling’, we meant reconstructing and working towards an alternative canon that would be more global.  Of course, it goes without saying that for us, given that we have grown up in a particular environment where we have imbibed a certain way of seeing and doing things (which we repress when we enter the formal world of academics), we are able to understand the nuances of this tradition much better than we might understand say, the idea of ‘ubuntu’ or ‘sumak kawsay’ (‘buen vivir’, its Spanish rendering) in all its ramifications. Nonetheless, these are categories that have now been deployed very creatively in contemporary discourse and present before us an altogether different normative vision about the present and the future – in direct opposition to the self-maximizing possessive individual (homo economicus) that we were given to understand, represented the ‘spirit of the modern age’. This imperative is, therefore, of key importance for me personally.

Now, every new category might produce new hierarchies and bring new problems but perhaps the take-away of post-structuralism for me is that we must continuously subject our categories of thought and our own subject-position to continuous interrogation and criticism, to not allow them to congeal into new orthodoxies. So, for instance, whenever we talk of ‘decolonizing’ knowledge, the question is posed by some scholars, especially of Ambedkarite persuasion, whether this is not simply being blind to the Brahminical caste location of Sanskrit philosophy. Whether we agree with this understanding of Sanskrit philosophy or not, we still need to engage with it as philosophy and thought tradition that has shaped ways of thinking and being beyond the purely philosophical domain. It is a tradition that acquires a popular form in the epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata and it is easy to see how much of the high philosophy registers its presence in them as well. An engagement with these traditions (not just the Sanskrit tradition) makes us aware of the different modes of thinking that these traditions embody. It becomes a complex matter when it comes to dealing with the caste question and of engaging with Ambedkar himself. It is a very tempting and widespread rhetorical move to reduce all Dalit thought to Ambedkar, who in turn is presented as a worshipper of liberalism and Western theory. I think, Ambedkar himself is very complicated, especially if one takes his later turn to Buddhism seriously, for one needs to understand that recourse to Western categories and intellectual apparatus, while very important up to a point, was useless where it came to addressing the Dalit masses and addressing the task of articulating the moral-ethical foundations of a new political community in-the-making. The caste ‘system’ and its most monstrous practices would not have lasted one day, had the Dalit masses not shared in and partaken of the ideology/discourse of caste practices – in other words, partaken of the Brahminical worldview.

So new orthodoxies can emerge anywhere and we need to be alert to such possibilities within our own intellectual practice. Our own position has to be made open to interrogation, each time a criticism from some new and unexpected quarters confronts us.

SC:  Your articles-in-progress are timely works of history that takes into practice what you proposed as a recalibrating of history and theory. Could you tell us more about your experiences as you write these histories?

AN: Personally, I am not a historian and I do not work with historical materials directly. Nonetheless, I do think it is necessary to engage seriously with the work of historians from different parts of the world, if one has to dismantle the West’s claim to sole access of what Partha Chatterjee calls the ‘epic time-space’ of normative political philosophy for instance. What this means is that no other history is allowed to vitiate the philosophical calm of this kind of universalist normative theorizing. Engaging with history is crucially important therefore, if we seriously want to do a different kind of theory. There is, for instance, already a huge body of historical work and debates in the Indian context, on what has been called the ‘segmentary state’ in precolonial India or what Stanley Tambaiah calls the ‘galactic polity’ in South and Southeast Asia. These are framed in very specific terms as debates among Indian historians or Asianists but they tell us a good deal about the nature of political power or economic formations in that period and gesture towards a form of political power that is fundamentally at odds with notions of ‘sovereignty’. My own work is mostly on contemporary issues but an awareness of what one might call historical difference is necessary if one is not to take the narratives served by Western Theory as universal givens. So in my work, I engage with a lot of historical scholarship, just as I do with a lot of contemporary empirical research. However, we also need to remember that the empirical makes its appearance in a theoretical or philosophical text in very different ways from the way it appears in a historian’s writing. This is not the place to dwell on this issue in any detail. As Althusser put it, the knowledge of history is no more historical than the knowledge of sugar is sweet!

SC:  How does the discipline of history in its present form disallow us from articulating autonomous theory? Can you elaborate more on the ruptures that made pre-colonial ideas become incomprehensible to the present world? Before we can excavate these traditions, how do we understand the politics of their effacement?

AN: I can’t really talk about the discipline of history except to say that one realization that I have had – not very original to be sure – is that mere amassing of ‘facts’ or historical evidence does nothing to challenge the edifice of Theory, which remains resolutely Western till you start explicitly raising theoretical questions which challenge its fundamentals. We could look at the Marxist debate in much of the non-West from the 1960s onwards – dependency, unequal exchange and accumulation in peripheral capitalism – as an instance. For decades, we debated why capitalism was not developing in the non-West as it ‘should have’ – but instead of asking if something was wrong with the theory (the universal history of capital, for instance), we debated what was wrong with these societies! Even dependency theory, which made some theoretical moves, failed to challenge the overall teleological understanding of capitalism and its historical mission. It thus ended up fortifying further the idea of a world capitalist system where even the non-capitalist or pre-capitalist sectors were reduced to effects of capitalism.

But the second and third parts of your question are really more interesting. Precolonial thought traditions in themselves could not have provided us the wherewithal to deal with the radically new developments that our societies were facing. They had resources – for instance ideas on questions of religious co-existence – that could have been refashioned and deployed to help us theorize our own predicament much more independently and autonomously. Serious intellectual labour was required to be able to establish a conversation and the emergent new world of modernity, which was unfortunately lacking. Perhaps, it is also not correct to say that they simply faded away – for in the works of Tagore, Iqbal or Gandhi, we do find such efforts being undertaken. Tagore’s ‘Religion of Man’ or Iqbal’s ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’ are steeped in Upanishadic wisdom and Islamic thought traditions but are also not mere repetitions of some age-old ideas because they are refashioning their thought apparatus as well, making them workable for their times. Thus in his songs Tagore celebrates the advent of the new and calls for consign the garbage of the past (which does not mean all of the past was garbage) to flames, while Iqbal produces his concept of ‘khudi’ or self that is radically modern while remaining Islamic. But such efforts were relatively marginal. By and large, nationalist thinkers either took the nativist route or simply accepted the hegemony of Western thought and set out to show how great their own intellectual tradition was: claiming that they already had whatever the West claimed to have discovered. Effacement of those ideas was thus inevitable for talking about past greatness was hardly a substitute for rigorous thinking in the face of present challenges.

SC: The workshop led to a sharp focus on the “archaic”, the “spiritual” and left us wanting to know more about the “atmospheric” – to begin with, could you ponder upon the “archaic question” – and on the past in the presence as perhaps an important category of analysis and a way of developing a new optic of historical thought?

AN: Once again, personally speaking, I do not use the category of the “archaic” – perhaps because it is not really relevant for my work. For me life forms that exist in the present but are labelled as “archaic”, or “remnants” and “survivals”, point to a more serious problem with our conception of historical time and I therefore avoid the use of any of these terms. But where it comes to ideas, I do not think even ancient ideas like say “dependent origination” or “sunyata” (emptiness) or the notion of “anatta” (non-self) in Nagarjuna’s philosophy for instance, are at all archaic – in the sense that they have the capacity to push our thought, even in the present, beyond certain limits. There are different levels at which these exist and continue to operate in our present – and not only in high theory. Take for example, the term “maya” – a term coming from Advaita Vedanta tradition – which continues to operate in popular language to refer to the supposedly unreal and ephemeral nature of this worldly reality. Whether it is a philosophically defensible proposition or not is irrelevant, for it does structure conduct in practical terms, making this-worldly oppressions and suffering more bearable in the present. What we have been insisting in our teaching is the methodological imperative of what we call “contemporizing”, that is making contemporary – engaging ancient thought (and its presence in the present) in a contemporary dialogue. “The contemporary” for us then, is not just what is present in material form but also what exists as part of the intellectual or imaginary universe of people, even though it may not be visible to the naked eye.

SC: Does your interrogation of the archaic come into conversation with the universal history of capital? What are the possible interventions that the archaic provide?

AN: To my mind, the universal history of capital is always confronted by what I have sometimes referred to as the “outside” of capital (always within quotes, for I no longer believe in capitalism as a mode of production or some such enclosed totality). I used to initially think of it in terms of Laclau’s idea of the ‘constitutive outside’, which already put the idea of an enclosed totality into crisis. The structure (of capitalism) could no longer be thought of as determined by its own internal laws but by this vast outside of what was “archaic” in relation to capital. But I now prefer to think of capital as only one more player in the field that is already populated by innumerable other players. It is a dynamic field where players keep changing their position, engage each other in different ways ranging from cooperation to open conflict. Many of these players are what could be called “archaic” – adivasis for instance or the indigenous people globally – but I would still hesitate to use that term in the context of my work, given that they are very much part of our contemporary. Here, I take recourse to Nagarjuna’s idea of “emptiness” as a way of thinking capital not in substantial terms but as essentially “empty”. This “emptiness” in Buddhist philosophy is tied to the idea of “dependent arising” (pratitya samutpada). Because everything is dependently arisen, it has no substance of its own. Capital is not capital itself but becomes so in relation to labour, in relation to the ecology (not nature as mere provider of natural resources), of indigenous populations it strives to dispossess, the forests it seeks to destroy, the rivers it dries up, the ground water it depletes and contaminates and so on. So that when these other things start changing, the ‘nature’ of capital too cannot remain the same.

You also ask about what possible interventions that the ‘archaic’ can provide. I would say, a great deal. I mentioned ‘ubuntu’ and ‘buen vivir’ – these are ethical ideas about co-living that are drawn from the cosmologies or “cosmovisions” of indigenous peoples, which were long seen as passé and irrelevant in the modern age of possessive individualism and the accumulative ethic but which have made a dramatic re-entry in our contemporary thinking. They have emerged as powerful critiques of bourgeois possessive individualism and are re-framing our ways of seeing, in the times of climate change.

SC: What role does ‘spiritual’ perform to posit a new form of intellectual history? Drawing from your own point in the workshop that it isn’t political theology, how then would you distinguish this from political theology? Why does saying that Ambedkar and Gandhi were doing political theology not work?

AN: I think this question emerges directly out of Prathama’s work and presentation. I don’t really deal with questions of spirituality or the ‘spiritual’, or even with materials that deal with the spiritual question.

However, some related questions are certainly relevant in my work in the context of the problem of ‘secularism’ and the larger problem of social transformation. I want to suspend terms like ‘political theology’ for the moment, in my exploration of say how Ambedkar (after his turn to Buddhism) or  Gandhi, in very different ways, approach the spirituality or religion issue, just as I want to suspend the category of ‘secularism’. The problem with quickly ‘applying’ these terms is that they immediately start overwhelming our material, our context, our debates and so on. As Shabnum Tejani’s work on ‘Indian secularism’ underlines, the term secularism has practically no currency among Indian political thinkers and activists right up to the 1940s. They were dealing with religious conflict and a discourse of nationalist that was shot through with the religious idiom but they rarely used the category of secularism. This term acquires currency only when the moment of constitution and law-making arrives. Till then the question of was dealt with as one that defined our very idea of India and the more thoughtful among the thinkers came up with the idea of ‘unity in diversity’ as a way of thinking the metaphysics of the nation. If you think of it, this idea drew at one end on the Advaitic idea of the ultimate unity of Brahman above all the ‘superficial’ differences, and at the other end on the Sufi idea of wahdat-al-wajood (the unity of being). Now, the methodological imperative that I want to underline here is that we must resist the easy temptation of putting all this in the available language of political theology for then it takes the investigation in a different direction; we must push our explorations on the question further in the direction suggested by the conceptual material at hand. By calling it political theology, we put an end to all possibility of further theoretical exploration and once again subsume it in the terms familiar to Western Theory – just as the rendering of ‘dharma-nirpekshata’ as a distorted for of secularism does.

SC:  Within these foci, how does one plan to accommodate question of intellectual and manual labor – within our disciplinary practices, as also an optic for making sense of the world. What are the ways in which one can address the hierarchy of intellectual and manual labor as an analytical tool.

AN: The question of the hierarchy of intellectual and manual labour is quite significant – even though there maybe nothing specific to the Global South in it. But beyond saying this, I do not know how to respond to this question. Manual labour is, in fact, one way in which questions of the unpaid, indeed uncommodified labour of women and Dalits, can be understood together – as the condition of possibility of intellectual labour, as indeed of the reproduction of other social hierarchies. Raising this question in the context of theory from the global South seems a bit problematic to me though.  Are we basically de-legitimizing the intellectual labour of the once-colonized by pitting ‘manual labour’ against it? I am not saying that such is necessarily the case but one needs to be aware that intellection is an elite activity and there would have been no Ambedkar had he not left the domain of manual labour and gone on to study abroad. This is not to devalue manual labour but this much has to be recognized: the time of the manual labourer (commodified or uncommodified) is does not belong to her/him – and that has implications for the very possibility of intellectual activity.

SC:  What are the disciplinary and professional ramifications of thinking of different possibilities of theoretical frameworks? How does it change according to intersectionalities of gender or caste? What are the ramifications of doing theory that questions set structures of intellectual power?

AN: I want to go back to my response to the first question posed by you and underline once more that this is fundamentally a question of what one might call the political ontology of the Non-West. The question of different theoretical frameworks, or of decolonization of Theory in my understanding, is fundamentally about what we are; it concerns our very being. What this means in terms of disciplinary and institutional terms is only a secondary fallout of that larger problem. Questions of gender and caste too cannot be free of this larger issue of political ontology. Feminists in India or Africa have already, for some time, been raising questions regarding the different contexts and histories of gender oppression in these respective societies and their difference from the universalist stance Western feminism. What is more, figures like Gandhi, as Ashis Nandy has forcefully argued, disrupt the masculinist nationalist discourse through the deployment of a deliberately androgynous style, where the feminine and the insistence on non-violence tie up into a whole new configuration. The feminine principle of prakriti, seen as the active principle in high philosophy, has actual practical instantiations in the numerous cults of the wild mother goddess/es. None of this means that that there is no patriarchy in Indian society but the profusion of these wild feminine figures in popular religion certainly point to a very different historical constitution of the gender question and which may have something to do with the profusion of women leaders in politics and social movements even in our own times. It is certainly a matter of greater research. Caste too is not easily understood without decolonizing our thought apparatus. The fact that it continued to be written over by or as class, is because it has not been theorized in relation to the actual theory-practice configuration in India but has been read, like everything else, through the lens of a theory born elsewhere. ‘Applying’ Marxist theory to Indian agrarian relations, for decades Marxists debated the mode of production in Indian agriculture, without so much as a mention of caste and its centrality in it. It is interesting in this context, that the range of new concepts that Dalitbahujan politics has yielded over the last few decades are themselves drawn from what you could broadly call tradition. A category like Bahujan itself – which does not just refer to certain caste groups but to a particular way of constructing a ‘majority’, a ‘people’ draws from Buddha’s discourse – his injunction – bahujan hitay, bahujan sukhay (work for the interests of the majority and for their happiness – but is then reworked into a modern democratic concept of majority by Kanshi Ram, a notion that includes minorities and cuts across the religious divide. Much more work remains to be done but this much can be said - decolonization is not just an elite concern at least in this sense.

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