Theories from the South I: An Interview with Prathama Banerjee

by Sohini Chattopadhyay

Prathama Banerjee is one of the preeminent scholars in India to think of theory and history from the Global South. Her current work focuses on histories of the ‘political’ in colonial and post-colonial India. This is the first part of a conversation emerges 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. These reflections emerge out of questions posed to both Prathama Banerjee and Aditya Nigam (to read the interview with Aditya Nigam, see here)

Sohini Chattopadhyay interviews her on what it means, both intellectually and in terms of academic labor, to conceive of theories from the South. The ideas discussed range from the use of the archaic, to universal history and theories of capital.

Sohini Chattopadhyay (SC): I want to begin with exploring your ideas about the need for an alternative and re-imagining of theory from and of the South, and I’d like to know more on your reflections about your article on Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) along with Rakesh Pandey. 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, 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 tradition of thought to participants of the course?

Prathama Banerjee (PB): The EPW essay emerged from out of our experience of teaching a course on social and political theory to graduate students at CSDS.  We did not want to teach the standard (read western European) philosophical canon – for we had ourselves grown up being taught Kant and Hegel, Marx and Foucault, and knew how limiting it was to try to ‘apply’ these thinker’s to lives from south Asia, or for that matter Africa or southeast Asia or Latin America. But we also did not want to ‘provincialize’ Europe (that has been done and dusted), nor  valorize an ‘Indian’ or native philosophical canon (and so fall into the trap of a self-gratifying nationalism) nor indeed celebrate some form of seamless ‘globalism’ (as if the world of ideas, like the market of neo-classical economics, was without dangers and hierarchies).  So as an experiment we decided to try to ‘think across traditions’ – i.e. study diverse philosophical texts from Perso-Arabic, Sanskrit, German, French, Chinese linguistic worlds – while staying mindful of the many incommensurabilities that necessarily came our away.  We also tried to tease out ‘embodied’ thought from popular/vernacular discourses and practices, both everyday and self-consciously political.

This was a wonderful and learning experience, because it opened windows to philosophical worlds that we had forgotten existed. But it was also hugely challenging, because of our historical alienation from these non-European, often ‘non-modern’ traditions (though many elements we call ‘modern’, such as reason, logic, materialism, individuality, insurgency, even godlessness are amply available out there, though not packaged in the language of ‘progress’).  We faced valid criticisms.  We were seen as ‘shopping’ for theory in an opportunistic manner. To this we said that this was only a preliminary familiarizing experiement, for ourselves and for students, to be followed up by more in-depth study.  We were also seen as lacking the language training needed to access these multifarious traditions.  To this we said that if we can read Marx (and become Marxists) without knowing German, we can also read an Al Gazali or an Abhinavagupta in translation!  (In any case, we believe, following the philosopher of science Sundar Sarukkai, that it is only by travelling across language worlds that words become capacious and heterogeneous enough to achieve conceptuality.) 


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?

PB: The Global South, like the erstwhile ‘Third World’, is a geo-political concept.  Useful in certain kinds of discussions about epistemological hierarchies.  It also helps us get out of the ‘area studies’ cartography of the mind. And it has a rhetorical charge and currency in the US academy, which cannot be denied.  In our part of the world though, the term is less often used and understood. But there is something else which we must be conscious of when we use this term.  There is really nothing called the global south and indeed, never has been.  Historically, there has been criss-crossing ‘thought regions’ and/or ‘thought channels’, forgive the inelegant turn of phrase, that proponents of ‘connected histories’ such as Sanjay Subrahmaniam, Richard Eaton, Andre Wink etc write about.  India and Persia saw a lot of intellectual exchange in precolonial times, as did India, south-east Asia and China, as did the Mediterranean and the Arab worlds.  And there have been fascinating instances of ‘thinking across traditions’ for centuries.  David Hume read Dara Shukoh’s mutual adaptation of the Upanishads and the Quran, as Jonardan Ganeri shows.  And everybody, from Italy to Persia, read the Panchatantra for political insights via animal stories.  It was only in colonial times that these ‘thought regions’ and ‘thought channels’ got obstructed and replaced by an unhelpful West/non-West organizing principle.  The term global south – based on the north/south binary – engenders a forgetting of these histories of shifting cartographies of thought.  ‘Thinking across traditions’ allow us to carve out thought regions anew.

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

PB: In the work that I have just finished – a study of ‘histories of the political’ in 1870s-1940s India – I look at how what we recognize as ‘modern politics’ took shape in our part of the world, especially in terms of the emergence of notions of – to put it schematically – ‘political self’, ‘political action’, ‘political idea’ and ‘political community’.  I read major and minor writings of this time, in the Indian languages and in diverse genres literary and discursive, at the cusp of which I argue ‘political thought’ emerges. Two things became obvious to me while doing this work.  One, in the colonial period, even as everybody cross-referenced European texts, something which cannot just be reduced to a mechanical image of European ‘influence’, they also thought with a diversity of concepts and categories drawn from precolonial and non-modern traditions – vernacular, Persian, Sanskrit and such like.  The result was a very different imagination of the political and indeed of the limits of the political.  Two, it also became clear to me that any attempt at decolonizing thought required not just counter-histories and/or empirical counter-factuals from ‘other’ traditions, but also counter-philosophies.  The theoretical task is inescapable, as an intrinsic part of any history or ethnography.  And most importantly, as part of that theoretical endeavour, we need to rethink the very relationship between history and philosophy, i.e. between historical events and conceptual events. 


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?

PB: The discipline of history, even as it has come a long way, is still a prisoner of transition narratives.  It may no longer be the transition narrative that held us in its thrall when we were young – namely, feudalism to capitalism to socialism.  But it still is one or more of the following – absolutism to liberalism to neo-liberalism or print to celluloid to digital or empire to nation to the global or god to man to posthuman!  In any case what is modernity if not a theory of the necessity of a temporal supercession of the non-modern, and what is our current fascination with the prefix ‘post-’ (postmodern, posthuman, postcolonial, postnational and such like) if not a desperate attempt at escaping transition narratives!

            The problem with transition narratives is that they disallow the recognition of co-presence and con-temporaneity – of different pasts in the present as Eelco Runia says, of different traditions and genealogies, of different possible futures and emergences, indeed of different temporalities working ‘at the same time’.  Hence while doing ‘other histories’ is absolutely necessary to both provincialising and disassembling Europe, we must also emancipate ourselves from history as such, i.e. achieve a certain transcontextulity, without however giving up on fidelity to ‘other’ histories. We can learn from other disciplines, such as ethnography, philology, literary criticism etc in this project.  But we must also redefine what theory is in the first place in order to become free theoretical subjects.  To do so, once again, we must reconfigure the relationship between history and philosophy.  We write at length in our EPW piece about the particular history-philosophy configuration that drives what we know as European philosophy today, and I shall not speak more of that here, except to only say that different thought traditions in the world have differently configured the relationship between the historical and the philosophical, the particular and the universal, the sociological and the cosmological; and that we must start by admitting to the fact that there is no one way or one level of ‘abstraction’ that is sui generis theory!


SC: The workshop led to a sharp focus on the archaic, the spiritual, and has left us wanting to know more about the “atmospheric” – to begin with, how do you use the “archaic question”?

PB: Let us take the term archaic in one of its early Aristotlean connotations – arche as the actuating principle or constitutive element of an entity, undemonstrable and intangible in itself but making up the condition of possibility of that entity.  In that sense, the archaic is not simply the past or the ‘pre-’ in a historical or causal sense.  In fact, it does not partake in historical time.  It has presence but is not present, but nor is it simply past.  The question then is how to sense the archaic, put it in language.

Let us take the example of caste in India.  Caste historiography has been caught up in a double bind for some time.  Those who emphasise the colonial reconstruction of caste, via census, survey, statistics and representational politics, talk of the modernity of caste. Those who read caste as deriving from the Purusha Shukta of the Rg Veda or the Manava Dharmashastra or indeed ‘Aryan invasion’ see caste as that civilizational constant that makes India India.  The former understate the long and persistent history of caste, the latter understate the limits and changeability of caste, sometimes even falling into the trap of a negative nationalism (caste as essence of Indian-ness).  But is another kind of formulation possible which thinks change and constancy, history and contemporaneity together? Can one say, that while varna and jati have fundamentally changed over time (the term caste itself is a recent Portuguese coingage), there is something about caste that is indeed long-lasting, without a sense of which caste itself becomes unthinkable?  Perhaps that is why caste radicals such as Jyotiba Phule and B. R. Ambedkar felt compelled to reach back into the mythical past to drive their admittedly ‘modern’ politics. Is that the zone of the archaic, the mythical? Perhaps the archaic with respect to caste is the ‘universal’ division between intellectual and manual labour that is constitutive of philosophy itself. Or perhaps it is the sacrificial principle that founds civility and civilization. I am not entirely sure.

            But there is an early myth about the origin of kingship, found in the Shantiparva (the chapter on cessation/peace) of the epic Mahabharata, which I find highly expressive. When the age of perfection, the Krita yuga, was ending, humans fell into error and disorder. So the gods approached Brahma to write a magnum opus on statecraft.  But even this great book and all the knowledge contained in it did not suffice.  Self-government did not seem possible any more.  What humans needed was a king.  The god Vishnu then produced ‘mind-born’ sons and grandsons, but they were reluctant to rule!  A fourth successor, who did agree to rule, was also quickly succeeded by the king Vena, a powerful but tyrannical and corrupt king, whom the sages had to kill with blades of kusha grass.  Clearly, kingship was not easy to institute. Then the sages churned Vena’s thigh, out of which emerged an ugly and dark man, Nishada.  The gods and sages did not like him.  He was made to ‘sit’ in submission and banished from civilization.  Nishada became the progenitor of forest peoples, barbarians, outcasts.  Then the gods churned Vena’s right hand.  Thus emerged Prithu, the first human king, after whom the earth came to be called prithvi!!

            Note how the narrative elements come together to produce kingship and outcasts in the same move here.  Also note the insights into the insufficiency of political philosophy, the necessity of a founding violence and above all, the dangers inherent in the office of kingship itself, as always already threatening the given social orderThe ancestor of barbarians and outcasts was after all himself a king, or rather an anti-king!  Is the archaic with respect to caste then the originary face off between the intellectual principle and the political principle – that keeps repeating itself, with a difference, throughout human history?

SC: How does your interrogation of the archaic come into conversation with the universal history of capital?

PB: Marx’s account of capital posits ‘primitive accumulation’ as the historical antecedent of capitalism.  Kalyan Sanyal’s rethinking of contemporary capitalism in the global south, a work we have taught to our class several times, however reconfigures ‘primitive accummulation’ as the persistent arche of capitalism, that keeps repeating with a difference through historical time. It is not the past of capitalism but its arche, always already accompanying it

            On another reading, however, it is possible to theorize the question of ‘nature’ – in all its human and post-human aspects, involving need, alienation, ecology, environment, species, planet – as the moment of the archaic with respect to capitalism, something which is untheorizable from within the domain of political economy and which can become only visible as a conceptual ‘outside’ to capitalism.  My colleague, Aditya Nigam, who works on contemporary capitalism, argues that ‘capitalism’ is a totalizing concept.  Even Marxist critiques of capitalism, which share the premise that the whole world is capitalist – has been so for the last three hundred years and will remain so in the conceivable future – disallow the imagination of anything other than capitalism, because non-capitalist forms are imagined as always already subsumed under the totality of the capitalist order.  He asks rhetorically, ‘can there be an outside to capital?’. But I wonder, can we, instead of thinking the ‘outside’ in terms of space or ‘extension’, think temporally, in terms of the archaic? If one reads Marx’s oeuvre, it becomes clear that ‘need’ is the archaic moment in his study of capitalism, upon which are predicated his concepts exchange value, surplus value, surplus labour, labour time etc.  Unsurprisingly, ‘need’ remains untheorised in Marxism, its constitutive outside as it were.  Can we then return to the question of need – in terms of our planetary and species condition – as the archaic of capitalism but with the recognition that our critique will then no longer remain a purely economic critique but will become a civilizational problematique? For creaturely need is impossible to think from within the discipline of economics – as demonstrated by the endless debates around the quantification of poverty level, necessary calorie count, human development index etc – and always appears as both originary and recurrent, constitutive of the operation of capital as well as of the the condition of possibility and limit of capitalism as we know it today.  


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 is the category of political theology for the work of Ambedkar and Gandhi were doing political theology insufficient?

PB: Let me answer this with an example.  In my study of how the idea of equality became the paramount ‘political idea’ in modern India, I discovered that equality was indeed thought as a spiritual question before and after the turn to the economic.  Once again, B. R. Ambedkar is a great example here, who worked with Marx and yet went beyond Marx with Buddha, at a moment of final resolution as it were. But he was not the only one.  Many thinkers, including putatively communist thinkers, in the 20th century thought equality with elements drawn from Islam, Advaita Vedanta, heterodox Vaishnavism, Shakti or primal-force worship and indeed Buddhism. We also know of liberation theology, Christian socialism etc from elsewhere.  Evidently, while the economic helps institute measure and equivalence across incomparables, the spiritual addresses the immeasurable and incommensurable aspects of human relationships, and works to institute equality from amidst inescapable difference.  But even though the economic and the spiritual appear to us today as dichotomous, we cannot forget that they also share an impulse towards the universal.  Both the economic and the spiritual force us to look at humans in their creaturely condition – not human, I emphasize, but creaturely – that has to do with need, hunger, misery, disease, death, suffering, scarcity and finitude.  If we think that the economic is inescapable, so is the spiritual, in politics both modern and non-modern. 

            Now the spiritual is a loaded term.  I use it only because I know of no other and also to avoid the other term, religion, which is even more problematic.  I do not use the term political theology either, except in certain very specific contexts – such as the history of early modern European sovereignty and the history of colonial ‘rule of law’.  For two reasons.  One, the theological is only one possible form of the spiritual, which involves a textual and exegetical orientation and notions of ‘faith’ and ‘obedience’.  Spirituality can operate in other ways too – in diverse diffuse, discursive, narrative and performative ways.  Though Afzar Moin uses the term sovereignty for Mughal kingship in India, which I disagree with, he makes the persuasive argument that the spiritual aspects of medieval Indo-Persian kingship was not theological but mystical and performative.  And two, we must also remember that Carl Schmitt defined political theology as having to do with ‘secularized theological concepts’, thus implying a certain mediation between the theological and the political.  For him that moment of mediation was ‘secularization’.   I don’t think an a priori secularization process can be presumed for all political histories.  So, I do not think, to take just one example, it is appropriate to describe Gandhi’s mobilization of the spirituality as ‘political theology’.


SC: Within these foci, how does one plan to accommodate question of intellectual and manual labor – within our discipline of history 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 within a) history as a discipline and b) as an analytical tool.

PB: This I find to be a tough question, because all of us who are academics are implicated in this thought/labour division.  Here I find Jaques Ranciere’s writings very instructive – both his The Philosopher and his Poor and The Ignorant School Master – because he shows how from very early times, the educated/uneducated division has remained the organizing principle of European philosophical thought.  Then again we have the lesson of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, where manual labour was made universal and compulsory, with both liberating and disastrous consequences.  In India, Gandhi debated with Tagore the place of manual labour in children’s curricula and made spinning at the wheel a primary condition for belonging to the nation.  Ambedkar, in turn, refused the valorization of manual labour that Gandhi stood for and hoped that untouchables would eventually, through education, arrive at a position where they would be able to refuse the kind of degraded labour that was historically their destiny.  The intellectual and manual labour question, it therefore seems to me, is one of the most intractable and undertheorized questions of modern times, particularly for those of us who claim to be intellectuals.  All we can do is make this question more visible and animated in our own intellectual projects.

But I would like to suggest, tentatively, a slight change in the formulation of the question, in light of caste.  If we think with the varna scheme of affairs, the division is not binary but four fold, perhaps even fivefold.  Intellection is distinguished, in principle, from military and political power (though instances of Brahman rule are many across the centuries).  Hence there is a recognition, in this tradition, of a necessary mediation between power and knowledge.  We can try to think about what historical forms this mediation might have taken through the centuries, leading upto what we today know as ‘rule by experts’.  This I think is more useful than presuming an unmediated and formulaic power-knowledge identity, in the way that we sometimes erroneously read Foucault.  Then again in the varna scheme, intellection is distinguished also from productive activities.  But productive activity, including the labour involved in production, is in turn distinguished from ‘servitude’, what we might call non-productive labour (though instances of Shudra rule too are many). Here it is not so much a thought/labour division that is operative as it is a division between productive/non-productive and autonomous/servile labour.  On the other hand, ‘degraded’ or untouchable labour – to do with handling the waste of society – is distinguished not just from intellection but also from both free and unfree labour. Untouchable labour is that which is meant to operate underground, invisibly, like a public secret oiling the wheels of civilisation as it were. Hence it is outside the varna scheme.  Perhaps then we should give up on thinking about labour as a universal abstraction – a very modern theoretical invention – and unpack labour as a category into the elements of productive, free, servile and secret labour and think about their respective relationships to both knowledge and political power?      


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 within an institution?

PB: Obviously, we are not looking for separate university departments on ‘theory from the global south”!  That will defeat the purpose entirely.  The ambition is to transform all disciplines and all departments from within, including formal philosophy departments, by bringing into play diverse theoretical possibilities in our work.  In that sense, it is no different from the ambition that feminists and caste and race radicals always had, even as they fought for dedicated departments for gender or caste or race studies in universities.  But more specifically, we would want a reconfiguration of the ‘national’ and ‘area’ studies structure within which we currently function, because that actually inhibits thinking across traditions.  Being a student of history myself, I also often fantasize about a new way of doing and teaching history that cuts across the given universal ‘periodization’ schema - ancient, medieval, modern, contemporary.  Only thus will we be able to break out of our intellectual habit of chronological linearity, which inevitably plays into the tyrannical teleologics of progress, modernisation, development. 

And finally, in the teaching of theory and philosophy, we must help students break out of the theory/practice binary and tell them that ‘theorisation’ is itself a specific intellectual practice that we must learn and cultivate.  We must not teach them theories, but indeed how to theorize.  We must also teach them – and demonstrate this by our own work – how theory emerges from a creative traversal, indeed inhabitation, of empirical materials.  We must do away with the false belief that theory happens in a pure space of self-absorbed contemplation and is only post-facto ‘applied’ to empirical situations! So the question then becomes not whether a Marx or a Foucault or an Agamben is ‘applicable’ to southern societies but what kind of theoretical and conceptual insights can emerge from southern realities and materialities, if we actually do pay attention to them by taking off our Marxist or Foucauldian or Agambenian spectacles.  And then we can sit back to enjoy reading Marx and Foucault and Agamben for what they are, namely wonderful histories and philosophies of the lives of Europe!

Thumbnail Image: "World map from Treatise of Geography by Al Idrisi, circa 1099-1165, manuscript." In Bridgeman Images: DeAgostini Library, edited by Bridgeman Images. Bridgeman, 2014.