Sunday, October 03, 2010

Some Post-seminar Thoughts

The magnificent IIAS at Shimla. 
In a recently concluded seminar in the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla, I caught on to two remarks that continue to resonate in my mind. The first remark was made almost unconsciously when AGR started reading her paper. As she read out her seminal thoughts, from the lectern, she could see that people were not really with her. In that moment, which could well be termed epiphanic, she said she could see people yawning at the postcolonial jargon that her paper doled out so generously. I said to myself, we are supposed to be a "postcolonial" society and the postcolonial theory has been with us for about three decades. Some of the best-known postcolonial critics and writers are Indians. Why do we still yawn at, and yet yearn for, the theorizing postcolonial. It seemed that a language that is fashioned in the academic-culture factories of Europe and America will not help us in a meaningful way to discuss our own problems. Is it possible that our critics, teachers, researchers are lost in academic navel-gazing without having much to say to people outside the universities and academic institutions? They make fine start, their awe-inspiring verbal acrobatics do give the impression of something profound being said and performed. But then why does a well-respected, and well-published scholar, end up saying what AGR said above?

The second comment was in some ways related to the one above. In the evening as we were winding up the seminar, participants and observers began sharing their thoughts. Professor GS said one thing very categorically  — along with theoretical work our researches should be based on empirical data. And, for me what was more important, was his later assertion that this balance, or amalgamation, of theory and factual data is what will lead to "social transformation". All fields of knowledge  natural sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities  must be geared towards this. Not many people want to use this term social transformation. For that one has to make value judgements, seek fundamental changes and propose radical alternatives, and our current academic stances are ill equipped for this. And thus if our academic discussions only result in audience yawning should we not become suspect of our "scholarly" enterprises?

A South Asian Taxi Driver in New York
I might add one more thing. There is this general tendency in human beings to blame the other for all their maladies, which, unfortunately, spills over into our academic enterprises too. Yes, there is inequality in this world and consequently oppression and dominance but should this make us communally paranoid? Does that absolve one from any kind of introspection? For example, there was a presentation on the behalf of a group that is spreading awareness about dangers of illegal emigration. Hundreds and thousands of Punjabi youth endanger their lives when they tie up with these emigration racketeers. Now the presentation was about how this group reaches out to the young and explain to them the dangers of such enterprises through lectures, songs, skits, etc. In the ensuing discussion one participant mentioned that the host countries leave certain loopholes in their immigration laws and thus encourage such practices because they want cheap labour from the so-called Third World. The idea was clear, it is "they" who are to be blamed. There would have been a consensus on this but for the interjection by RH. He immediately intervened and said that it is our own people there who are responsible for pitiable condition of many of the immigrant labourers. It is not the host country that exploits them. They have their adequate laws in place. They pay adequately. It's their fellow-countrymen who swindle the immigrants' hard-earned salary. Now this was an argument no one could challenge.



Sunil Aggarwal said...

Dear Ashish
I recently asked myself- why would i choose Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak chakravarty instead of Bhalchandra Nemade and Vaagish Shukla while presenting my academic presentation? The answer was quite personal though systemic in construction. It raised a plethora of questions over what I have earned in last twenty years. I think we are trapped in a fundamental choice between the structralism and ecological nativism. Only a few are able to make a conscious transformation of their own selves. The fact of the matter is that we are afraid of the collapse of living structures within which we are all living. It is the time to question the ontology of academics whereas we are reduced to hard-core deontological beings.

Shaheen said...

Interesting! beautifully scripted:)

Anonymous said...

I really liked reading it. I liked the line 'theoretical work our researches should be based on empirical data' and there is hardly a discipline that is a right mix of these, be it journalism or business administration. We do have to use hypothesis to a limit and after that practical things take on.

satyapal said...

I add to shaheen.
Is quite good.

SD said...

Thanks for sharing this. It aroused my interest in Postcolonial writing, of which I have not engaged much in.

Significantly, we yawn because we express postcolonial thought in “a language that is fashioned in the academic-culture factories of Europe and America”