A Conversation between Prasanta Chakravarty and Pothik Ghosh
Institutions and Their Sites
Prasanta: Over the past few years there has been a steady shift in the way the academic world is being reorganised and engineered in India. If the break-up of the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall gave an impetus to the initial set of policy shifts in the early nineties, the UPA II has been far more ruthless and clinical in its push and success for a set of reforms in the educational sector that is in consonance with larger social changes we witness. The public relations have been quite effective on the face of it. The middle class too, in some sense, is now ready and bloodthirsty to usher in rank consumerism and globalised politics in education. The economic downturn over the past few years has paradoxically emboldened the government to experiment with further reforms and surveillance. In this context, different kinds of responses are emerging from within the educators and intellectuals themselves. One form of response intrigues me a lot—the response of the responsible institution builder, the one who is inclusive, large hearted and reaches out to various ‘stakeholders’.
Pothik: You do, indeed, have very good reasons to be intrigued. But my question is how exactly should one map such responses, both in terms of their symbolic economy, and their articulation within the constitutive political-economic structure of the university as an exclusive and exclusivist site of intellectual production? Don’t you think such responses, which are discursively grounded in liberalism, function more as ideological legitimation for the policy-bound neoliberal offensive on our education system, the higher education system in particular, rather than anything else – namely, a liberal politics to democratise the university? Given the changed character of the conjuncture, is it even possible for such liberal responses to be truly effective with regard to democratisation of the university in any small measure? For, what else can the persistence of liberal politics in a neoliberal conjuncture be save an ideology that legitimises the latter and its attendant state-formation and institutional architecture? The principal question for those interested in resisting such all-out neoliberal attack on the liberal institution of the university, and its humanist ethos, in order to deepen the process of its democratisation, is how to envisage a critical struggle that is simultaneously directed both at the authorities and this petty-bourgeois layer of liberal intermediaries in their myriad variety from among the academic community. Can such a politics be imagined without making problematisation and critique of the bourgeois-liberal conception of academics as an exclusive and exclusivist modality of intellectual production, and university as its constitutive material-institutional site, its integral part?
That brings me to your assertion about the middle class being, “in some sense now ready and bloodthirsty to usher in rank consumerism and globalised politics in education”. I do not dispute the correctness of such a statement, and, yet, I tend to think that the way you have framed the problem bespeaks a nostalgic and moral registration of the same. Here I would wish to repeat my earlier concerns in a slightly different register. Is it possible, for instance, to develop an effective and comprehensive critique of the neoliberal commodification of education in terms of education as a right? After all, is not the liberal discourse of rights, on which most current critiques of commodification of education have willy-nilly tended to base themselves, structurally and epochally continuous with the neoliberal discourse and practice of commodification (which ought to be read as marketisation)? I mean what unites the two moments — embedded liberalism of early capitalism and neoliberalism of late capitalism — is epochality of the capitalist structure or logic of commodity fetishism, which includes as much the commodity fetish as the fetish character of the socio-economic relations that are its constitutively objective condition of possibility. To the extent that differential inclusion is the conceptual and structural presupposition for the discourse and practice of the politics of rights, such politics is nothing but the concrete expression and reproduction of the fetish character of social relations. That, in other words, is the capitalist specificity of power relations — the socially mediated nature of power.
Don’t you think the institutionalised system of education in general, and the institutionalised system of higher education in particular, has, right from its inception, been integral to the segmentation of labour-power and labour market, and thus the stratification of the entire formation of production and socialisation? Therefore, can a struggle against the neoliberal reorganisation of our education system, the university particularly, be truly effective unless it becomes constellationally integral to a larger radical movement that seeks to decimate the epochal capitalist logic of segmentation of labour-power by confronting that logic in its conjuncturally specific and concrete mediation?
Between Democratisation and Negation: Love in the Time of the Public Sphere
Prasanta: You have brought up two very specific points of interest. The first is the very definition of a university—which you feel by its very nature is a liberal humanist institution and hence the role of the professors who reach out in order to get into a game of balancing various stakeholders, or ask for time from the parliament and so forth in order to actually fortify liberal democratic structures of governance are actually fulfilling their role at best as social democrats. I can see your critique has a lasting point, for you are seeking a (a) a reconsideration of the institution of university itself and (b) that such institutions and its members, students and functionaries cannot function in void but rather have to relate to material changes that are happening outside of such cocooned world. These are important arguments.
To the first—whether a radical critique of the university itself is required is a point that has been thought by a few in different ways. There is one that is currently doing the rounds. It is a further refined way of ushering in speculative capital and knowledge economy by divesting universities all together and creating virtual worlds and MOOCs by dint of which the university, as we know, that is old liberal humanist idea of the university, will vanish and more utilitarian, job-oriented and shared virtual courses will be developed. This is actually divesting the university of its residual public functions.
On the other hand, we know that there have been experiments with other kinds of universities and educational fora. Tagore’s Visvabharati experiment comes immediately to mind, in which the university is neither cut off from the local structures of everydayness and community values nor is it glibly parochial. It is a nationalist-international experiment actually. Isabel Hofmeyr has recently directed us to the practices and printing culture of Phoenix Farm in the way Gandhi had worked it out and has made us particularly aware of the very idea of ‘slow reading’ of texts, whereby a whole different mode of existence and education could be conceived outside of the vagaries of the market and disciplinary practices of a Weberian work ethic.
But I am also thinking about Jose Marti’s excellent essay in this context, titled ‘A False Concept of Public Education’, written for La Nacion in 1886. Marti is arguing for love and openness in education in the true utopian spirit, but without sacrificing diligence and rigour—which is spontaneous, not crafted. A few lines are worth quoting: “Why improve public instruction in its outer form and in the material resources—a labour of constant and impassioned tenderness—if the teachers who transmit it…have not been able to save themselves from the malign influence of this national life so lacking in expansion and love? Why accumulate rules, distribute texts, grade courses, erect buildings, pile up statistics…which hardens and embitters, or discontented or impatient young people who are like flocks of birds outside of school….”
It is quite apparent that Marti is asking for a much more fundamental change in our institutions. (a) The power to say no—a politics of total and wholesale negation not just of schools and universities as we have known but of a mentality, a culture of competition, and (b) to be able to sensually and joyously relate learning to the very materiality of life itself—for men are not men, but are like flocks of birds. He is asking us to reject the grand project of sterile and repugnant knowledge accumulation for mere human flourishing and growth. The intermediaries, the scholars asking for time in order to implement their own idea of scholarship, are neither negating nor joyously embracing the sensual materiality of our existence. We must rethink the university radically and reject the reptilian scholars and dons who seek to reach out and argue for inclusion and time. Now is the time to create possibilities of radical antagonism by utter and total rejection of the powers-that be.
The other point of the idea of commodification and the possibility of its being co-opted within a rights discourse is well taken. I was not trying to undermine the issue of production. The point is not to see education as basic right for every individual and so forth, as liberal democratic set up might conceive it. What I meant was that the segmentation that you are talking about is getting more visibilized now with divisions within the classes becoming sharper and the arriviste class has no qualms now in radically dividing and destroying our better public institutions and opting for rapid and ruthless private means in order to further their own privileged interests. The point I am trying to raise here is about a highly subtle form of betrayal by our best minds, by opting and encouraging a politics of responsibility and a climate of the possible, in times when we need to go all out, cry blue murder and seek radical negation. Without fanfare. We must create alternative structures and platforms of education, nay sharing perhaps, which will reject division of labour that you are referring to.
Pothik: Let me to begin in a desultory fashion. You have contended how the “arriviste class” — another way of articulating your earlier formulation of the new middle class, I suppose – has, as an integral part of the neoliberal state-formation, had “no qualms…in radically dividing and destroying our better public institutions and opting for rapid and ruthless private means in order to further their own privileged interests”. While I fully concur with the need to confront this class on the terrain of those institutions that are bearing the brunt of its offensive, the strategy of such class struggle can neither be radical nor effective if it continues to think and envisage itself in terms of the systemically given and epochal binary of the ‘good’ public versus the ‘evil’ private. Instead, one would do well to begin by problematising this (eroding) liberal idea and reality of the public in the same movement that one engages the neoliberal assault on it in a no-holds-barred class warfare. Is not the liberal idea of the public, and its institutional actuality, bourgeois to begin with? Does that, therefore, not imply that we seek the roots of the current neoliberal offensive on such an idea and its institutional materiality precisely in the structural-genetics (or architectonic) of the latter.
I am compelled to ask again, is not the neoliberal conjuncture, and all that it entails in terms of the policy offensive of its state-formation on the education sector, the outcome of the recomposition of the liberal conjuncture of early capitalism due to the unfolding and extended reproduction of the epochal logic of capital constitutive of the latter? I would, in fact, ask the same question when you similarly argue that the policy attempt to transform the university into an institutionality for developing and disseminating “utilitarian job-oriented and shared virtual courses” “actually (amounts to) divesting the university of its residual public functions”. However, the public-versus-private line of argument, in the context of fighting the privatising assault of neoliberal capital on the public good of education, can be productive only if we think of and affirm the idea of the public in terms of the “proletarian public sphere”. A conception that is radically antagonistic to and separate from the Habermassian liberal-bourgeois public sphere constitutive of “communicative rationality”. The former conception is anticipated by Walter Benjamin in some of his entries in ‘One-Way Street’, and finds full-fledged conceptual formulation in a collaborative work by Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge.
You also contend that one of the ways in which the idea of radical critique of the university, which I insisted upon earlier, has been thought of “is a further refined way of ushering in speculative capital and knowledge economy by divesting universities altogether and create virtual worlds and MOOCs by which the university as we know—that is old liberal humanist idea of the university will vanish and more utilitarian job-oriented and shared virtual courses will be developed”. Now, I would entirely agree with such an argument if what it’s implying is that such an interpretation of the idea of radical critique of the university must be stoutly resisted as a mischievous and equivocal misinterpretation of that radical idea by the powers-that-be in order to surreptitiously garner the consent of the progressive and radical sections of the university community for its pernicious neoliberal agenda. But if the intended implication of such an argument is that one must steer clear of broaching the idea of radical critique of the university because it is pre-programmed for abuse — that, I know from personal experience, is the reason why many ‘state socialist’ progressive academics of Delhi University tend to come up with such an argument – then I would disagree vehemently with it. There should be no confusion in our minds that such neoliberal measures, even though they may at times come couched in the idiom of radical critique of the university as a liberal-humanist institution, is the obverse of such critique. Such measures are tantamount to an increasing actual subsumption of the university by capital, and not its radical, anti-capitalist critique by any stretch of imagination.
Notwithstanding some difference in our respective strategic perspectives, you too, in the final analysis, are arguing for the need to envisage resistance against the neoliberal assault on the academia and the concomitant struggle to democratise the university as “radical negation”. One that will “create alternative structures and platforms of education, nay sharing perhaps, which will reject such division of labour that you are referring to”. On that score, our strategic perspectives clearly appear to be in sync. Yet, given that your understanding of the situation is through an insider’s direct experience, what I would be more interested in is how you adumbrate the concretely specific (tactical-programmatic) terms in which the academic community (students, teachers and other non-teaching employees) can, in your reckoning, collectively start envisaging and articulating such a strategy of radical negation in its praxical actuality.
In that context, I would wish to critically reflect on Tagore’s Vishwabharati experiment? as your example of one of the many alternative educational forms to that of the bourgeois liberal-humanist university. You are absolutely right in drawing sympathetic attention to Vishwabharati as Tagore’s realisation of his vision of “the university (being) neither cut off from the local structures of everydayness and community values nor (being) glibly parochial” but being “a nationalist-internationalist experiment”. Your juxtaposition of Gandhi’s Phoenix Farm experiment in South Africa with Tagore’s Vishwabharati model is, in that context, quite appropriately relevant. The methodological convergence between Tagore’s pedagogical vision – embodied not merely by Vishwabharati but also by his Sri Niketan experiment – and Gandhi’s “Nayi Taleem”, the differences in their larger philosophical and political presuppositions notwithstanding, are there for everyone to see. Tagore’s pedagogical vision that undergirded his Vishwabharati experiment, not unlike Gandhi’s “Nayi Taleem”, was based on envisaging the organicity of ideas (the mental or the intellectual) to the materiality of everyday life. As a result, his Vishwabharati experiment can be seen as an attempt to articulate and establish a more intersubjective and thus dynamic process of knowledge production that would effect the collapse of the educator/educated hierarchy and, in the process, pose as its performative dimension the form of dissolution of the bourgeois liberal academy as an exclusive and exclusivist site of intellectual production. That Tagore’s Vishwabharati has become the UGC’s Vishwabharati, however, reveals that a structural gap has intervened between Tagore’s educational philosophy and its effect.
The question is, where exactly can this gap between philosophy and its effect be located? As far as I am concerned, the problem lies precisely in the way Tagore conceives of the materiality of everyday life. Tagore, while seeking to ensure that Vishwabharati , as an alternative form of intellectual production, was not “cut off from the local structures” of such everydayness, grasped everyday life not as an ontology of critique and politics but in terms of an anthropological invariant that is objectively given in and as diverse life-forms in their localised specificities. Not surprisingly, and in spite of the best of intentions, this inevitably led once again to the restoration of the logic of subject/object duality, rendering the Tagorean form of the intersubjective pedagogical process an ideological practice that legitimises the appropriative, accumulationist and alienating modality of the academic production of knowledge and ideas.
For me, the Marti essay you cite, will always pose a far more radical approach to the problem of education, and not merely because it declaratively calls for the subversion and decimation of academia as a privileged site of intellectual production but because by stressing on the centrality of “love” and the attendant spirit of sharing and openness to a democratic sociality of education (and intellectual production) it clearly indicates that the question of democratisation of education and knowledge production cannot be adequately and effectively addressed outside the context of transformative politics. For love is possible — as Pasolini seems to be repeatedly telling us through his poetry, novels and films (especially, The Hawks and the Sparrows) – only in and as abolition of power. Badiou too has explicated this Pasolinian concern in his own inimitable way. The radical philosopher, following Lacan, conceptualises love as an ‘intersubjectivity’ of encounter (“relationality of the non-relational”), and not an intersubjectivity of relationality, and thus power. Clearly, the negation of the latter is the inescapable condition of possibility of the former. For this reason Badiou terms love “the basic unit of communism”. Love is, therefore, affirmative negation, which in turn is nothing but the revolutionary politics of class struggle. Such politics of radical antagonism is not a conflict of classes along the axis of perpetual friend/enemy divide, a la Carl Schmitt. It is, instead, a war, as Marx would say, for the abolition of classes and not equality among them. In other words, this would be a war that inheres in love as its necessary condition of possibility. Not for nothing did Victor Serge describe revolutionary politics as “war without hate”.
The centrality of love and the spirit of openness and sharing (communisation) to the sociality of an egalitarian process of education and a democratising modality of intellectual production in Marti’s tradition of politics as education has evidently been carried forward by the transformative political project of Latin American liberation theology, and the current tendencies of South American radical politics that in all its diversity has come out of that legacy of liberation theology. Paolo Freire’s acutely politicised and highly radicalised educational philosophical legacy of “pedagogy of the oppressed” and “pedagogy of hope”, which now stands generalised as a form of critical political inquiry beyond Latin America, is a typically representative example of the political project of liberation theology.
Love as the basis of the sociality of education and knowledge production opens up the new intersubjectivity of encounter – as opposed to relationality – both at the level of educator/educated, and thus also at the level of the subject and object of knowledge production. It’s in this context that Freirean “pedagogy of the oppressed”, with its moorings in liberation theology and its ethico-political conception of wisdom of love (as opposed to love of wisdom), which it evidently shares with Marti, rearticulates Marx’s critique of anthropologistic “contemplative materialism” of Feurbach – “the educator must be educated” — from within the cultural specificity of its own experiential universe. This universe is one where religion is experienced and affirmed in its internal division as alienated and “non-alienated” (Enrique Dussel’s conception of Christian religion and theology as an idiom of critical praxis and non-alienated social being).
This dialogic and radical intersubjective modality of the Freirean “pedagogy of the oppressed” and “pedagogy of hope” has strong affinities with the modality of teaching/learning that Ranciere, through his post-Althusserian historico-philosophical investigations into the lives and cultures of the working class-in-formation in 19th century France, particularly in his, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, unearths and affirms. The form of knowledge that such dialogic, radical and praxological modality of education and intellectual production yields is what Nietzsche called “gay science” – a short-circuit between the finite particularity of experience and the infinite generality of knowledge to produce the singular-universality of praxological science. This is neither the time nor the place for a philosophical excursus. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to clarify, by making a minor digression, that even as I affirm gay science as the form of knowledge that is produced in and by the dialogic and praxological intersubjective modality of pedagogy, I am not a Nietzschean.
To return once again to the question of a more egalitarian and democratised modality of education and/or intellectual production. What, in a more precise and operative sense, is the methodology for actualising the Freirean pedagogical principle of radically dialogic intersubjectivity? Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed”, which defines liberation “not as a gift, not self-achievement, but a mutual process”, is based on the mutualist concept of “conscientizaco” (conscientisation) that is an indispensable part of Latin American liberation theology and its cultural and linguistic universe of the “dialogics” of fraternal love. Freire writes by way of explanation: “The important thing from the point of view of libertarian education, is for the people to come to feel like masters of their thinking by discussing the thinking and views of the world explicitly or implicitly manifest in their own suggestions and those of their comrades. Because this view of education starts with the conviction that it cannot present its own program but must search for this program dialogically with the people, it serves to introduce the pedagogy of the oppressed, in the elaboration of which the oppressed must participate.”
Of Unhinged Loose Can(n)ons and Revolutionary Pedagogy
Prasanta: In the light of your quite clear and patent articulations, let me clarify two things. First, let me elaborate further on what I mean by a politics of negation as far as education is concerned. And second, let me also tentatively consider whether there are ways to evade and bypass the available options in India right now, and think of some other ways of sharing. I must say that my position is rather minimal, rudimentary and halting in aspiration. This is not because it is a question of being righteous. What I am sanguine about is a necessity to think afresh, and stay clear of certain gestures and modes in and through which the game of higher education is played in India within the academia. I repeat—unlike you (since I draw salary from an institution directly under the government ) — I do not consider myself outside of this structure at all. Hence, these promptings and reflections.
As I see it, there are two sides to the idea of negation. One is coming straight from trying to make sense of the idea of liberal public which you rightly critique. One notices in academia—a pattern, a perpetuating tapestry, which is also a surer staircase to certain notions of success. This pattern, this tacit consensus, cutting across political positions asks us to act responsibly in all circumstances. We have a most wonderful articulation of this mode of behaviour in Max Weber’s watershed essay, ‘Politics as a Vocation’, where he makes a distinction between an ethic of conviction or ultimate end and an ethic of responsibility. The crusader, for Weber, religious and revolutionary alike (characteristically the liberal makes no distinction between the two) engage in a politics of ends. This is a dangerous form of romantic indulgence to Weber. He sees the revolutionary or the man of conviction as a windbag, a poser and a populist. The mature man, on the other hand, is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct. This ethic of responsibility is a ‘spiritual calling’ for the large-hearted liberal. Only this man, the responsible man, can be bequeathed with the reins of the world—of the political arena, of schools and colleges, of factories and assembly lines, of various kinds of administration. This is how liberals relate governance to well being.
Now, such motivated zeal for building institutions around an order of responsibility gets further complicated in academicians who see themselves as opposing the liberals and take a different position in scholarship and styling—for example, various modes of communitarianism—invoking philosophies of Levinas, Charles Taylor or Gandhi or such ethical modalities of practice, is one curious phenomenon. Sometimes such positions are taken by left-liberals who, having little independent left motivation, always and eventually move into the same Weberian mode of responsibility at the earliest opportunity. I recall a short story by Shambhu Mitra titled ‘Aranya’, where the protagonist, Anil Roy, comes out with a stunning, blasphemous statement at one point: “Tomader moner bhetore kono thakurghor nei. Leftism er buli aar nirlojjo opportunism er barnoshankar shontan tomra.” (You don’t have a sanctum-sanctorum within your soul? You are a monstrous hybrid progeny of left posturing and rank opportunism). I have seen this quite closely inthe workings of a couple of research institutes in India—how the ruthless magic of critical left intelligentsia works!
What happens in such cases is that the stands taken inevitably become inward looking and instead of actually relating to material practices, even actual communist or communitarian practice, become academicised, austere, bonsai-ised. Thereafter the story is predictable—friends are mobilized, coteries are formed, politeness prevails and swords are unsheathed stealthily. This is how the game is played—by a strange institutional logic and you dare disturb the applecart at the peril of being sidelined systematically from the scene altogether. I see all forms of ideologies happily coexisting in this mode of maturity—the ex-Trot can dine with the nativist, the radical humanist with the soft-Hindutva guy. No problem at all. Either flag bearing, jesting or magic! This is not to say that one is looking for something authentic and righteous outside the game. But the stakes of the game need to be slotted somewhere much higher.
The whole mode is deeply and completely risk averse, anti-romantic, shuns conviction and has little to do with intellectual practice. It is here that one needs to invoke The Ignorant Schoolmaster as you have rightly done (though you have distanced yourself from that tradition at the same time). One must unequivocally root for a certain naiveté and surefooted stance in matters of higher education. While I see your critique of Tagore and Gandhi perfectly well, I feel there are moments of dissension and negation that must operate at two levels at the same time. On one hand, at the level of ‘praxical actuality’ as you have suggested. Here it is important to take the fight to ‘friends’ who are acting and egging on responsibility and counter that with sweeping modes of irresponsibility all the time. There is a very interesting word in Bangla and I am sure there are cognates in most languages: paglachoda. This refers to a certain mode of unpredictability in a social actor, someone who is unhinged in his acts and therefore most deeply irresponsible. For practising utter and complete negation, one needs such naïve and rigorous paglachodas in dozens. Paglachodas do not have the burden of radicalism. They have no burden to agitate and save the world. Most of all they have no burden to act conscientiously. They can come from multiple dispensations: classists, romantics, Dalit activists, Marxists, having other new social motivations and so forth. The common minimum baseline is their refusal to give in to predictability and accountability. Only such people can talk back to authority with little at stake and think and spread the Marti variety of love and non-sentimentality.
There are ways of being irresponsible that would disturb and negate the logic of institution building. One must practice those in the academia all the time so that the protocols of moderation and disciplining are queered repeatedly. One can, for example remain silent and keep the opponents at tenterhooks—while taking crucial oppositional positions when time and occasion requires taking some institutional decisions. But one also has to be careful while talking about negation. Italo Calvino, taking stock of the post-1960s generation , in his lovely piece ‘Right and Wrong Uses of Literature’, asked the pertinent question that after the days of great theoretical breakthroughs and dismantling of humans from the human sciences and so on in the last century, one felt that the ground had been cleared for some new works of art and new structuring. But what came out of it—Nothing!: “ The new political radicalism of the students of 1968 was marked in Italy by a rejection of literature. It was not the literature of negation that was proposed , but the negation of literature.” Of course, Calvino is talking here about the rejection of the wishy-washy notion of a committed writer and it is leading to nothing that is sharper or complex or critical. Calvino’s own replies to this predicament do not always impress me but the point about negation is well taken. Another way to ask the question is to ponder how is it possible to uphold rigorous intellectual pessimism (which is the most important quality to be honed of one has to triumph over this all round barbaric dance of happiness) and yet practice commitment and conviction?
The obverse, the more positive side to negation is to seek out more paglachodas around you, around your locality, around regions, nationally and globally—for such politics is about forging that many-headed hydra about which Linebaugh and Rediker had informed us long ago. From my little experience in the academia I cannot but agree with Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s recent pronouncement: “ The great betrayal of our literature has been primarily by those who teach in the country’s English departments, the academic community whose job it was to green the hill sides by planting them with biographies, scholarly editions, selections carrying new introductions, histories, canon-shaping (or canon-breaking) anthologies, readable translations, revaluations, exhaustive bibliographies devoted to individual authors, and critical essays….” Surely, Mehrotra is trying to impart and induce guilt somewhere, which is not a good idea, but he is right in the sense that the academia has lost touch with the wider cultural and political questions altogether. It has lost touch altogether with the anonymous, defeated people around us. Encouraging and practising forms of responsibility is the most surreptitious way of propagating neoliberalism at this point.
Pothik: You have raised some rather interesting, and important, issues here. However, the only way I can hope to do some measure of justice to them is by taking a slightly long detour. One that must begin by clarifying in some detail why I, a complete outsider to the world of professional academics both in terms of credentials and stakes, should be interested in this engagement at all. The first, and most obvious, reason would be that as a Marxist inclined towards the actuality of militant revolutionary politics, I find the terrain of institutionalised academics, as it concretely is at this historical juncture, open and fertile for subjective intervention. But there is another more important reason. One that has to do less with how radical negation can be envisaged in the concrete specificity of the university, and more about how the revolutionary working-class movement itself (and those committed to it) can and must think the twin-problems of political education and revolutionary organisation.
Here I wish to make what might, at first glance, appear to be a dangerously scandalous statement: only the party of the proletarian revolution can be the new university. Before some of our ‘radical’ethicist friends in the academia (and even some outside it), with their deep sense of attachment to what they think is their academic/intellectual autonomy, go for my jugular, let me quickly and without much ado clarify what I am proposing here. I am most certainly not calling for the takeover of the university by this or that really-existing organisation or ‘party’ of the left. I am, in fact, doing precisely the opposite. I am, in calling for the (sublated) dissolution of the university into an active form of the revolutionary movement (the party), also unambiguously stressing on the ineluctable need to reconceptualise the existing modality of political education within the larger working-class movement, and its material form — the sundry sectist and sectarian organisations or ‘parties’.
Clearly, if the new university must be the party of the proletarian revolution, the party of the proletarian revolution cannot be the old university. To think, or talk, in terms of really-existing leftist organisations displacing or taking over the university would be to think in terms of competition of different hegemonies. That would, I must clarify, still be the case even if one were to talk of such takeover of the university by a hitherto non-existent, ideal organisation that will nevertheless not be essentially different from the ones that are already around. The question, therefore, is not about finding or building that best organisation which can take over the university. The question is not of takeover of the command system of the university at all. The question really is of envisaging a modality and form of intellectual production, which in the process of struggling against the materiality of hierarchical and hierarchising command systems of bourgeois institutions (state apparatuses) such as the university – or really-existing working-class political organisations for that matter — tends to seize control of them in order to decimate them even as they constitute themselves into a form that precludes the hierarchising and hierarchical system of command. It’s in this sense that a Marxist would, or at any rate should, envisage control of factories and universities by workers (including academic workers such as teachers and students). Otherwise it would amount to, regardless of what eventually prevails – the university under the leadership of the current authorities, or the university as subservient to a leftist organisation or ‘party’ – reproduction of the structural logic of hegemony. It would not, in any sense, be the counter-hegemonic critique of the structural-causality of domination and competition that the envisioning of the proletarian-revolutionary party as the new university is meant to be an articulation of.
The really-existing sectist and sectarian organisations and/or ‘parties’ of the working-class movement are, as far as their modality of political education is concerned – which is basically the modality of production and dissemination of political knowledge/intellect –no different from the hierarchical and hierarchising modality of intellectual production that the university, as a bourgeois liberal idea, is an embodiment of. In such circumstances, to unreflexively envisage an opposition of really-existing working-class political organisations or ‘parties’ against the university would amount to no more than a politics that seeks to effect displacement of ideology, which is precisely how ideology works and reproduces itself. Such a struggle, by virtue of being unreflexively posed against a dominant institution, would be a reproduction of the structural-functionality of ideology-in-internal-displacement and thus a perpetuation of hegemony as a principle. That, needless to say, would render such struggle a competition between two identities, even as it makes of the working-class organisations and/or ‘parties, in their unreflexive opposition to the university, as much of an ideological state apparatus as the university they seek to oppose.
The sundry really-existing organisations of the left and their unreflexive political orientations reveal that the modality of political education dominant within the working-class movement — one that they materially incarnate in being the unreflexive, and sectist and sectarian groups they empirically are – is the same bourgeois modality of exclusive/exclusivist intellectual production. There is one minor but crucial difference, though. And that is, unlike the university, the really-existing leftist organisations occupy, in objective historical terms, subordinate positions and are thus, in precisely those objective terms, ranged against really-existing institutional forms of domination. It is this that for me renders them more likely starting-points than the university for the transformation of the hierarchical and hierarchising bourgeois modality of intellectual production and education into a radically democratic and egalitarian modality of social being that is constitutive of the simultaneity of abolition and obviation of the hierarchical duality between the mental/intellectual and the material/manual. Such objective difference should not, however, be taken to mean that the intended transformation would be automatic.
The question now is what will the intervention, which would effect such transformation, consist of. I think Ranciere’s post-Althusserian departure — which began with Althusser’s Lesson and which in terms of theoretical, if not also thematic, problematic unites his Proletarian Nights, The Philosopher and His Poor and last, but not least, The Ignorant Schoolmaster — provides some interesting insights on that score. I must, however, immediately also state that for me those insights are not so much in the affirmative, programmatic direction that Ranciere’s critical departure from Althusserian Leninism takes. A direction that I think is libertarianist and one, therefore, that I am loath to adopt. Instead, they lie in what his critique reveals, with indisputable precision, to be the trouble with (Early) Althusser’s philosophical Leninism.
In your earlier response you say I invoke Ranciere’s ‘The Ignorant Schoolmaster’ only to distance myself from that tradition. Let me try to be more pointedly specific why that is so. I earlier wrote, “Nevertheless, I feel compelled to clarify, by making a minor digression, that even as I affirm gay science as the form of knowledge that is produced in and by the dialogic and praxological intersubjective modality of pedagogy (a la Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster), “I am not a Nietzschean.” Allow me to clarify further. In my reckoning, while gay scientificity is most certainly a critique of the metaphysical modality of infinite totalisation, whose mode of production/reception of knowledge is hierarchical and hierarchising, in Nietzsche it articulates and poses a conception of finite freedom as critique of infinite totalisation. I, on the other hand, tend to think in terms of a Marxian gay science – which can most likely be derived from Marx’s Theses on Feurbach – that would pose the singular-universal in its transfiniteness, and not as the singularity of finite freedom, as an affirmative critique of the metaphysical modality of infinite totalisation, and its constitutively hierarchical mode of knowledge production.
Now, at last, I come to where I had been trying to get to for a while. And it is the analogy — right after my heart — that you seem to be drawing between literature and education by citing Italo Calvino’s celebrated essay, ‘The Right and Wrong Uses of Literature’. Let me at the very outset say I share your reading of that essay, both in your appreciation and criticism of it. However, I must in my own language, and from the vantage-point of my political position, spell out how I encounter the twinned problematics of negation of literature and literature of negation. That will not only render evident the precise reason why I agree with you but also underscore, I think, crucial divergences between us on what we respectively infer from our otherwise convergent positions on that question. I do not in anyway subscribe to the idea of negation of literature as its abandonment or rejection. I think that to be a romantic conception of negation of literature, which deceives us by its radical appearance about the intentionality of its unconscious that is patently reactionary. Instead, I would pose an anti-romantic conception of negation of literature — which comes to me through Benjamin’s Schlegelian-romantic idea of a work of literature being self-sufficient in being both the work it is and its own criticism, and Brecht’s “gestic”, and thus de-aestheticising, conception of art. Here the negation of literature is meant not to be its rejection or abandonment, but its extenuation – going through literature to come out at its antipodes. This conception of negation of literature as its extenuation clearly indicates that negation of literature is a tendency rather than an ontic situation. In that context, the validity of literature of negation would lie precisely in it being a discourse of kenotic literary self-transcendence, rather than an aestheticised form or genre. Hermann Broch’s ‘The Death of Virgil’ — which is an example of a work of literature being both a declarative and performative manifesto for the overcoming of literature — immediately comes to mind. There are a few more modernist literary works — which through their respective structural compositions light up this path of kenotic literary self-transcendence — that I would like to mention here: Calvino’s ‘If On a Winter’s Night A Traveller’, Julio Cortazar’s ‘Hopscotch’ and Raymond Roussel’s ‘Locus Solus’. Augusto Boal’s “theatre of the oppressed” — a synthesis of Brecht’s “theatre of instruction” and Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed” — is, for me, personally one of the most important examples of art being the principle of its own overcoming and transfiguration into transformative politics.
Therefore, this approach of negation of literature clearly shows that it’s neither about literature being privileged over life as its determining moral norm nor life being privileged over literature as its determining aesthetic imperative. It is not about literature being a reflection of reality, or reality being a reflection of literature. Rather, the point is to envisage and grasp literature in terms of the real of the reflection it is. The problem, from my Marxist vantage-point, is, how can literature be reconstituted as life, not be its determination, even as life, in the same movement, reconstitutes itself as its own critique into literature, or other discursive forms. In other words, the negation of literature as its extenuation means to radically negate the privilege of literature over life. Something that would, in the same movement, have to be the negation of privileging of life over literature. That would mean to break with the hierarchising and competitive binary/duality of life and literature to be reconstituted as a synthetic singularity that is neither life nor literature but something that is greater than the sum of its parts. That something would be politics in its praxical materiality. But is this politics the system that reconciles life and literature in their mutually subjectivating, competitive and hierarchising duality? That would be its Hegelian explication. From a Marxian point of view, however, politics would be a synthetic singularity that constitutes itself in, through and as a break with both the identities of literature and life, and thus with their systemic unity as a hierarchicising and competitive duality of identities. This singularity would be a new ontological order constitutive of the simultaneity of negation of literature by life and life’s own negation of itself. This would be what Althusser conceptualised as “process without subject” in Marx. Badiou’s “singular-multiple” and “multiple without one” are even more rigorous conceptualisations of the same. This process has a constellational formation in which ‘literature’ and ‘life’ are preserved as moments constitutive of the constellational formation of this process of disarticulation or dispersion, even as they are simultaneously cancelled as identities (subjects) and the mutually subjectivating structures they found.
Clearly, revolutionary praxis, or communism, as the actuality of this process without subject in its constellational and constellating formation is not the wiping out of the particularities of literature and life, and their difference. Rather, it is the particularities of literature and life, and their difference, wrenching themselves free from the capitalist system — which commoditises them by putting them in a relationship of competitive duality with regard to one another — by reconstituting themselves as the singularity of the process without subject. This compels me to contend that Marxism as a theory and concept of this constellated and constellational formation of revolutionary praxis is — contrary to both its proponents among the really-existing organisations and ‘parties’ of the left, and its poststructuralist detractors — not a theory of a politics to homogenise difference to sameness. Yet, Marxism is not, I would argue, a philosophy of difference. Instead, I would, following Badiou, term it a “philosophy for the event” or a philosophy for non-identity.
Therefore, literature of negation must pose its own reconstitution as negation of literature and be reconstituted thus, even as negation of literature simultaneously poses its own critique by being simultaneously reconstituted as literature. Such a process would be constitutive of the constellating singularity or anti-dialectic of politics (praxis). Politics (or praxis) would, therefore, be about the actuality of deployment of difference in the uninterruptedly simultaneous deployment of the difference of literature of negation and negation of literature with regard to one another. Similarly, techniques of democratisation of education (intellectual production/dissemination) would fulfil themselves as their tendential democratising aim only when they are simultaneously both themselves and the constitutive moment of the unfolding of the larger constellational movement of socio-political transformation they, in emerging as methodology or techniques of educational democratisation, incipiently posit.
Therefore, to return to an earlier formulation, production of politics as practical critique of politics of production (capitalism) is the only context within which methods and forms of democratic pedagogy and egalitarian knowledge production can emerge, and fulfil what they in their emergence were meant to accomplish. In other words, production of politics as critique/radical antagonism of politics of production is both the modality and form(s) of non-alienated, creative activity and thus democratised production and reception of knowledge (ideas organic to the materiality of such activity). In that context of production of politics, the traditional relationship of hierarchy and competition between the so-called pure and technical sciences on one hand, and the human and social sciences on the other – based as they are on the structurally divisive conception of disciplinarity – also tends to collapse. That is because the production of social and/or economic needs (the domain of pure and technical sciences) is, in such a situation, integral to and not separate from the production of politics (as praxis of continuous struggle to perpetually reorganise the social-industrial process, and whose moment of social theory is composed of discursivities of that which traditionally exist as the separate disciplinarities of the human and social sciences).
Also, I don’t think that a Marxist must necessarily reject the ethics of the self. On my part I certainly don’t! My problem, however, is with theorising such ethics as the exhaustion of politics. For me, ethics is no more, but also no less, than a necessary constitutive moment, at the level of abstraction of the individual self, of what I think politics to be – the never-ending, uninterrupted process of dispersion or disarticulation. And it’s for this reason that I find myself approaching what you call your minimal position with great caution. That is, of course, not to say I reject such a position out of hand.
Allow me to excerpt some portions from an article (‘The Siren Songs of Neo-traditionalism’), which I wrote in 2003, to better elucidate my position on minimalism with particular reference to our institutionalised education system. The article, which is a polemical engagement with some Indian theorists of radical communitarianism and their affirmation of Tagore and Gandhi, criticizes, among other things, JNU sociologist Avijit Pathak’s alternative Tagorean-Gandhian take on education.
“…Avijit Pathak…is of the opinion that a radical arithmetic teacher in the classroom of an elite bourgeois school can make a lot of difference by his ‘different’ methodology of teaching and radicalise a few of his students. He may be right but that process of radicalisation will be chancy to say the least and will be superficial and normative at best. For a paradigm shift in the field of education, it is important to realise the context and the mode of production within which such bourgeois schools operate and the limitations of their classrooms as far as complete radicalisation is concerned. For, the counter-hegemonical knowledge, which a few teachers might want to disseminate in a bourgeois classroom that is the agency for distributing the commodity of education, can only be consumed and can hardly give rise to a context within which students also become producers and the teacher-taught distinction is abolished.
“So, voluntarism is a generous impulse only insofar as it enables the voluntarist to see its limitations, compelling him to find a way of transcending it. Revolutionary practice, according to Lenin, is impossible without a revolutionary theory. The question that one needs to ask today is: what will revolutionary theory serve if there is no revolutionary practice? Thus pedagogy, for a Marxist, can only be a conceptual part of his political praxis and cannot be tackled in isolation. Any attempt to do so is either bound to fail gloriously or be coopted. Examples of such failures abound. And the blame lies not merely at the doorstep of such civil rights and pedagogical groups as Eklavya, but also the sundry communist parties, which have failed to create a revolutionary praxis that could have constellationally integrated such attempts. The result is that Eklavya’s Hoshangabad Science Teaching programme — with its radical pedagogical techniques of imparting science education to villagers without the benefit of established laboratories — had to be run under the patronage of the Madhya Pradesh government, which could capriciously decide to dispense with it.”
Clearly, my argument is not that a radical teacher should not attempt to do such things in his individual professional capacity within his professional domain. Without doubt he should. That would be his politics, as a (minimalist) ethics of responsibility for the other, at the level of abstraction of the individual self. The problem sets in when he assumes that such minimalistic intervention can exhaust politics, instead of envisaging it as the beginning of its unfolding. I think it is good to be a romantic without upholding romanticism. Similarly, I would say, it’s good to be minimalistic without being a minimalist or an upholder of minimalism as a philosophical ground. But what would that entail for an individual teacher or academician? As far as I can see, it ought to mean that while he/she does all he/she can as an individual in his/her domain of professional academics to radicalise the situation, he/she cannot afford to see that as exhausting the praxis of radical negation. Not even in terms of what he/she can do as an individual. He/she cannot, for instance, afford to say, ‘This is all I will or can do as an individual teacher by way of contributing to the project of radical negation and then it’s really up to the others in other domains – say, the domain of practical movemental politics – to take that project forward or work at its unfolding.’ He/she must, to my mind, strive towards integrating what he/she does as an individual pedagogue and researcher, to enable the project of radical negation within the institutionalised set-up of our education system, with its beyond of practical movemental politics of socio-economic transformation.
But when I say that I don’t mean that he/she should necessarily feel compelled to hit the streets. Albeit, it would be nice if that were to happen too. As far as I am concerned, it would be politically more productive and meaningful if a teacher or academician figures and explicates why he/she should, from his concrete situation as a worker engaged in intellectual production in the academic domain, hit the streets, rather than hit the streets impelled by a vague and voluntaristic sense of political commitment or responsibility.
In fact, the most important task for an academician inclined towards the project of radical negation of institutional hierarchy in intellectual production would be to do what he/she can do as an individual radical pedagogue and researcher in the institutionalised setting of the academia and simultaneously seek to integrate with the really existing movements of the left, both within the university and outside it. An integration that would, first and foremost, be premised on developing a critique of those really-existing movements, and their leadership and orientation. Here I should clarify that this critique cannot, in the manner of the radical public intellectual a la Sartre, rest content with being merely philosophical, even as that intellectual envisions his/her own participation in movements by basing such voluntaristic participation on his/her integration with movements through this philosophical type of critique. Rather, it must be a theoretical critique, which is both a philosophical critique of the programmatic orientation of movements in question in terms of its underlying approach and, in the same movement, be an attempt to enact that philosophical critique as a concrete alternative programme and programmatic methodology to the ones that those movements are already embodiments of. Such a move at critical integration would tend to short-circuit the generality of philosophical critique and its radical public intellectual with the specificity of the programmatic methodology and its pragmatics of the organic intellectual of the movements to produce the science of praxis and its Jacobin revolutionary intellectual. As far as I am concerned, the question the intellectual– the educator or the vanguard if you will – needs to primarily ask is not how he/she can best direct and lead the working-class movement, but how the movement can become its own intellectual – Marx’s “class-for-itself” – to render the educator/vanguard redundant.
What I have sought to describe above as the modality of integration of academicians with the larger working-class movement constitutes, I believe, a move in that direction of the working-class movement becoming its own intellectual. This is a project that we, at Radical Notes, have christened “academics beyond academia”.
Forms of Antagonism
Prasanta: I hear your position once again with much clarity. And that will help us in understanding our meeting grounds and divergences and I believe such realisation will make this exchange even more dialogic. There are a few things that you take for granted as a committed Marxist of a certain kind—and for such a principled position I have the highest respect. But politics and art, their coming together at various nodes, as I see it, may not always tally with such a principled position. Or there could be other powerful positions that take on varieties of liberalism headlong.
I have already said I am deeply cautious of a politics of responsibility—one that may come from various quarters. See, the ideas which are so significant to you—as a belief, as a given, which is also scientifically argued. Programmatically. They are deeply important for someone who is seeking some form of social justice in literature. What you have called life means a kind of social given (say as opposed to the idea of life in critics who write on biopolitics, seek pre-Socratic ways of life, or even practice civic politics). Say, democracy or praxis or radical—these are words that that are so deeply fraught and such careful debates have gone into these words that there is a certain valances and weight that they occupy in our lives. Justifiably. On the other side—we tend to pit concepts like—say, foundational or reactionary. This is a valid form of practising antagonistic politics. And a powerful one. But this does not exhaust the domain of the political. For instance, one may speak from the vantage point of the ancien regime or be deeply illiberal, say the political ideas given currency by the likes of Leo Strauss, Francois Chateaubriand or Ananda Coomaraswamy and yet how superbly they all are alive to the complexities of life and its relationship to art and literature. A student of politics and art cannot and does not necessarily work on social justice, howsoever noble such a position might be. The idea of justice is one among a few other competing political claims. Here, I am simply taking forms of reactionary politics much more seriously rather than aligning with such positions. This is a dangerous path but a path, I believe, that must be traversed nevertheless.
I think materiality concerns form—a political study of forms—that must go beyond the ‘photographic details’ of social realism. Politics like literature is always something beyond existing forms of politics. Ranabir Samaddar has asked us quite sagely, I think , that in order to conceive of such politics—in academia or elsewhere, the political critic becomes a detective, an investigator, alive to the variegated. In this context, say, political rhetoric as a methodological tool for the student of literature and politics is very important to me. Here the political is literary—literally! And this domain is absolutely material. Rhetoric is not always realized through the ‘art of speaking well’ as Quintilian used to say, but by the processes of speaking ‘silently’ or ambiguously or allegorically. This is how one often makes sense of muffled, garbled pragmatism and read the subtleties of movements and issues. This is how you be with reptiles all the time, pose like them and yet work tirelessly to undercut their methods and influence. You learn to parley and yet practice antagonism . Garrulity, silence and their movement in texts and utterances gather prime significance here. It is imperative to understand for instance, how he arch royalist, Thomas Hobbes masterfully uses such amazing literary prose to pursue his readers through centuries (Quentin Skinner has highlighted this aspect). This appreciation of the materiality of language leads us to the bottom of absolutism and reactionary politics sometimes. Students of political science are not trained to work on rhetoric, whereas students of literature still consider Hobbes to be a ‘background’ read to creative literature. Consideration of rhetoric makes one aware of form—literary and political, precisely by skirting bland formalism. Taking strong positions is a must, but premature totalisation is not.
But while we differ on these accounts, I agree with you on the necessity to connect and attach academia with life in general and with the material world in particular. I am also totally in agreement with you (though I realize the importance of gaming, parleys and negotiations in life) on the point that politics and art must be brought together to trace and work out antagonism . An uncompromising antagonism that can only come from practising intellectual pessimism. Happy, pragmatic agonism is a malady that besets academia as well as the disciplines of humanities and the social sciences as a block.
But a politics of antagonism can be practised, and practised with an uncompromising vigour, only by being alive to positions that are constantly shifting, evolving—at multiple fronts. For understanding other modes of antagonism, we must come out of this pressure to prove how radical we are in comparison with our compatriots. This urge to be a radical and seek radicalism in order o appreciate the political is actually another form of competition—to always be at the forefront of our struggles and be representative of such battles. For instance, we know how antagonism has been pitted on a friend vs enemy fulcrum, or have been set between the ancients and moderns, or erected between the humans and the non-humans and so on. I am myself—in this exchange, (even as you have highlighted the question of production and class antagonism) have tried to emphasize a politics of minimalism (you have gauged correctly) and gay abandon—collective, free, strongly anti-liberal— against a certain framing of responsibility and maturity. I do not see this as voluntarism. Nor as individual acts of resistance and so forth—but facilitating collective, non-communitarian acts. This paglachoda impulse that I have referred to earlier will resist three things at the same time:
a) the mode of geometrical elegance that the logic of left-liberalism brings with it.
b) a mode of assurance and succor that stadial historicism usually provides us (as if learning from the past will necessarily give us a blueprint for the future).
c) a larger mode of contractarian thought, which is the basis of moderate mainstream European enlightenment pedagogy.
The paglachoda impulse steers clear of such certainties. It is an impulse that is painstaking, non-garrulous and rigorous. This is what my training in literature has given me and this is where politics can become most angry and volcanic. This impulse needs to be spread among everyone who dares to dream on and dares to be on the side of the losers of history. With no iota of sentiment.
I have thoroughly and particularly enjoyed the candid nature of this conversation Pothik. Let us continue on the path of ideas that develop from life and life alone.
Pothik: Need I say the feeling is mutual. Besides, Prasanta, all thanks is due to you for having initiated the whole thing in the first place.
Now, for two minor points of clarification. One, life, for me, is not a social given. I follow the Adorno of Negative Dialectics in criticising (and eschewing) the premature end of philosophy for sociology as a positivist empiric of life in its social givenness: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. The summary judgment that it had merely interpreted the world, that resignation in the face of reality had crippled it in itself, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried.” Sure, Adorno emphatically turns or orientates the concept towards what he calls “nonconceptualities”. But nonconceptuality is not life in the givenness of its positivist empiric. Instead, it is the “adventure of the concept” (Badiou). Yet, to pose the adventure of the concept against life as a social given is not to hierarchically privilege concept over life as a norm. Badiou, in the ‘Preface’ to his The Adventure of French Philosophy, writes: “We were not seeking a clear separation between life and concept, nor the subordination of existence to the idea or the norm. Instead, we wanted the concept itself to be a journey whose destination we did not necessarily know.” The way a Marxist would conceive of the counter-systemic lifeworld is, therefore, not empirically given forms of life but this adventure of the concept.
If you recall, I have critiqued Tagore’s approach to education and pedagogy precisely because it is premised on a conception of life as a social given. In fact, when I pose the constellating (uninterruptedly processual) singularity of the simultaneity of life negating literature and literature negating life as a break with the life/literature duality and its systemic/horizonal constitutivity (dialectic), it is precisely the interrogation of this anthropological conception of the givenness of life that is at stake.
As a matter of fact, the way I tend to conceive of life is not very distant from Foucault’s (and particularly, Agamben’s) “biopolitics”. To that extent, I completely understand practices you refer to as radical alternatives – especially, the pre-Socratic ways of life. That, I have known, through Foucault’s turn, particularly, in his late phase, towards the modalities of life in Classical Antiquity. I have no intention of rejecting them out of hand. My only problem is with the Foucauldian suggestion that such pre-Socratic life modalities can in themselves be modern forms of alternative and radical politics on account of their emphasis on withdrawal. The question is, can such life-forms of withdrawal, and their constitutive modality of ascesis, based as they are on an “ethics of discomfort”, beat, as Foucault seems to suggest, the tug and pull of what he calls the “pastoral” productivity of modern power? My contention would be that, in the final analysis, such politics of continuous (sequentially continuous) withdrawal from the (systemic) operations of power — underpinned as it is by an ethics of discomfort – does not escape the thrall of such power, and comes to be inscribed within and articulated by its systemic horizon. That is because such practices are constitutive of an inadequately radical anti-dialectic.
And that, I would contend, is on account of the anti-dialectic of such practices emerging from a (premature) abandonment of the dialectic, and not its extenuation – going through the dialectic to come out at its antipodes. The (phenomenologically reduced) subjectiveness of such ethics of discomfort, or de-teritorialisation, must become its own materiality if life has to escape the thrall of the objectivity of the system of power. Only through this process can life-forms transform themselves into what a Marxist called the lifeworld. And this materialisation of the ethics of discomfort — wherein it no longer exists as an ethical subjectiveness but becomes, instead, the sublated and constitutive cognitive moment of its own actuality – cannot occur as long as power in its systemic objectiveness exists. Clearly, not only the abolition of this systemicness of power is at stake but what, more fundamentally, is an issue here is the abolition of objectivity as such, together with its constitutive horizon of objective/subjective duality. In other words, the subjectiveness of ethics of discomfort will have to transform itself into its own “subjective-materiality” (Badiou), which is nothing but the singular materialised, or, more accurately, materialising as itself. For, as long as objectivity (embodied in the systemicness of power) exists in separate (alienated) duality to the subjective of the ethicality of discomfort, no amount of withdrawal from such power can emancipate the former from the latter.
That is precisely what the complete lesson of Foucault’s conception of modern power as pastorally productive – one that Foucault himself is not arguably faithful to the end – amounts to. In other words, what lies in between such withdrawing ascesis, as the embodiment of the ethics of discomfort, and the systemicness of power in its separate objectivity, is a distance of no distance. But unless the ascetics of withdrawal take a measure of this immeasurable distance of no distance, and enforce it, it will be power in its systemicness that will take its own measure of the same, and enforce it. That would, as far as I am concerned, amount to re-inscription of anti-capitalism within capitalism, and the articulation of the former by the latter. As Badiou tells us, subtraction and negation cannot be without one another. What he calls subtractive ontology is a radically new affirmative or ontological order that has negation as its indispensable and integral dimension. That, I would contend, is the lesson yielded by a close reading of Marx’s critique of Proudhon, and Marx and Engels’ critique of such “utopian socialists” as Robert Owen. Such critiques by Marx and Engels do not constitute a rejection of the (ethical) models of anarchists such as Proudhon and “utopian socialists” such as Owen. Rather, it’s an attempt to critique those models or approaches for their incompleteness in order to light up the path for their actualisation as a Badiouian subjective-materiality, which I must say here is radically distinct from Lukacs’ Hegelian conception of the proletariat as a subject-object –a closed sociology — of anti-capitalism.
Please do not get me wrong. I am, by no means, questioning the validity of Foucault’s conceptualisation of modern power as productive and pastoral in its operation. In fact, I consider it to be the strongest and most valid aspect of the Foucaudian model of modern power. I tend to think that most recent debates between many Marxists (especially, the communistological Marxists) and Foucauldians on whether power relations ought to be privileged over class/social relations, or vice-versa, has, by and large, been unproductive and, at times, plain pointless. To my mind, Marxian conceptualisation of capital as class/social relations is not at all a rejection of power relations. Rather, it’s an attempt to demonstrate that capital is nothing but a specific historicity (a historico-logical form) of power. One in which power is always socially mediated and never present or accessible in its naked, unmediated form. When Foucault speaks of two models of power, by methodologically privileging the panoptic and productive architectonics of power over its exclusionary and repressive architectonics, which he correctly contends is characteristic of the operation of power in the medieval period, he too is pointing at precisely this specific historicity of socially mediated power. One that Marx and Marxists call capitalism. The problem with the Foucauldian approach lies elsewhere. It arises from its abandonment of the Marxian approach of political economy and its critique, which it arguably misreads as being an epistemology. As a consequence, it correctly grasps the modern historicity of power to be productive — which is basically grasping power as being socially mediated – but since it does not seek to understand this nature, or constitutivity, of modern power in terms of valorisation of labour-power and transfer of value, it does not understand the fact that “govermentality” and “biopower” are levels of abstraction, whose constitutive logic is political economy. Political economy (or capital), I should reiterate yet again, is nothing but the modality of operation and reproduction of socially mediated power. Therefore, Foucault’s biopolitics, as a frame of radical practical critique, is incomplete and, in being unreflexive about its incompleteness, is ultimately cooptable. And that is because the conceptions of biopower and governmentality, which it both founds and is based on, do not account for how valorisation of labour-power and the concomitant imposition of work have, in a sense, logical or constitutive primacy over biopower in terms of determining the vector of human bodies. For, what else is labour-power but the abstraction of bodily capacities, which is constitutive of a system of differential inclusion.
The failure, or the refusal, to understand biopower in terms of its dialectic of mutual constitutivity with valorisation of labour-power, which in turn is integral to value-creation and thus the concomitant transfer of value, prevents Foucauldians from understanding how the pre-Socratic ways of life, whose modality is that of ascesis and withdrawal from power, results in continuous production and reproduction of hierarchies between the human and the non-human. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that “ethics of discomfort”, and its politics of ascesis and withdrawal, eventually yields a politics of styling of the self and dandyism. We would do well to remember that it is precisely this contradiction at the heart of dandyist politics that Baudelaire, the foremost proponent of dandyism, grappled with in his work, especially in his Intimate Journals.
This brings me to my second point of clarification. Literature, for me, is not merely a form of social justice. My Badiouian-Marxian inclinations hardly afford me such an easy way out. The way I encounter the twinned-problematics of negation of literature and literature of negation, I think, ought to have made that amply clear. I tend to ascribe relative autonomy to the site of the aesthetic. Let me explain myself once again. Literature, for me, is a specified site of aesthetic experience, in which the sensousness of forms, without doubt, has primacy. But what, for me, is inseparable from forms, and the sensuous and affective experience they effectuate, is the materiality of the forms in question. And this materiality of forms is — as Bakhtin’s works have demonstrated with great rigour — their performative dimension, which animates the forms in question and is rendered accessible precisely through the mediation of affective and sensuous (aesthetic) experience historically bound up with those formal effects.
Literature (art in general) is both a determinate field of occurrence – and, therefore, interruption too — of the (evental) experience. Hence, it also lends itself to being read, and/or envisaged, against its grain, as an allegory for the reconstitution of the experiential eventality at another generic level of abstraction. Only in being the latter does literature become a pursuit for what you call social justice. I, for my part, prefer to term it the non-total and open entirety of the process of politics. But then literature can be the latter only by being the former. That is the reason why the aesthetic experience is a constitutive moment of politics as a process of perpetual dispersion. My only insistence, therefore, is that even as one experiences the Dionysian gaiety and abandon, one grasp the science of this gaiety for such experience of gaiety to keep overcoming the limits that structurally inhere in it due to its inescapable ontological condition of being determinate. What is at stake, therefore, is the dialectical simultaneity of, to use Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh’s words, “gyanatmak samavedana” (knowledgeable affectivity) and “samavedanatmak gyan” (affective knowledge).
Pothik Ghosh: is Author of Insurgent Metaphors (Aakar, 2010) and a member of the Radical Notes collective. His short monograph on Bangladeshi writer Akhtaruzzaman Elias and the politics of his literature is forthcoming from Phoneme Publishers.
Prasanta Chakravarty: teaches English literature at the University of Delhi.