For a new epistemology of the South

SHIV VISVANATHAN

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GOA fascinates and will continue to fascinate. As a site and symbol, Goa marks the modern and colonial movement around 1492.

The year 1492 is a magical trope, critical to the history of the West and the western ideas of expansion and conquest. 1492 is read in history textbooks as the year Columbus went in search of his false India that we now call America. It is not just the year of Columbus but the year that the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain, forcing them into cycles of exile which was to end in the epistemic tragedy of Zionism and the blind alley called Israel. Yet 1492 was a Janus-faced year depending on which history books one reads. Between the exploration and displacement stands a third event which altered possibilities as to how one constructs history and life. 1492 was the year when a fascinating heterogeneous civilization was destroyed with the defeat of Moorish Spain.

Officially 1492 was the year when the western epistemology of knowledge and conquest was inaugurated. 1492 was followed by the Crusades and the Inquisition where the West homogenized the other within itself. 1492 helped create the official western epistemologies of science, conquest and expansion. The history of Goa, often seen within that official perspective, is a marker of imperial expansion. But can history be read in a different way? For this one has to return to the storyteller.

John Docker, the Australian critic, in his 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora hints that where philosophers of science and historians of technology failed as epistemologists, novelists saved the day.1 Take any traditional history of western science or Imperial conquest and contrast it with the brilliant novels of Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh or Amin Malouf and one obtains a different story of 1492.2 These novelists are not only great storytellers but custodians of an alternative epistemology. These authors show that globalization is nothing new and that the West did not patent globalization. Europe was in fact a latecomer to these world systems. It merely joined existing global economies. In medieval times, there was a lready a world system based on trade and travel which created a world economy dominated by no one country.3 The pre-existent world economies centring on travel as an epistemic frame created cosmopolitan cities of a different order. One such city was Granada, centre of Moorish Spain.

 

Granada as a city was polyphonic as any modern novel. It was a city where for eight centuries Jews, Muslims, Christians coexisted in a raucous pluralism, creating a cosmopolitan community. Granada almost becomes a historical fable here. It was a city of libraries and books where doctors read Hippocrates, Avicenna, Abenzoar, Galen and Maimonides. Granada, as a city, evoked Greek, Arab and Jewish scholarship. Its cosmopolitanism was at right angles to the later Inquisition and the Crusades. Granada reflected the confluence of the three religions of the book which celebrated each other. Such a perspective spread to Cairo, Goa and the Malabar. It was a world which traded ideas as it traded spices like cinnamon and pepper. It created cities where fast, feast and festival combined in intriguing ways. It was an alternative imagination which created not universalism but cosmopolitanism, not the erasure of the other but a conversational contiguity.4

Ghosh and Malouf capture this alternative epistemology of trade and a trade in ideas which current histories lack. In fact, Rushdie and Ghosh are not only great story tellers, they are outstanding epistemologists. It is this alternative epistemology based in places like Cochin, Goa, and Cairo that I want to evoke. As history and as historical fables, they provide the sites for an alternative experiment. The question I want to ask is simple. Keeping such narratives in mind, can Goa provide for a new epistemology of the South beyond homogeneity and conquest? Can we create a social science imagination that translates this vision of lived plurality into a lived social science?

 

I want to begin with an act of clarification. The word South is seen as a historical and geographic term. The South is constructed cartographically as the opposite of the North. The North is evoked as the centre, the South is deemed a periphery. More dualistically, the North is hegemony and the South hopefully, resistance. One has to escape such frozen geographies. Such frozen cartographies belong to the history of liberation.

Liberation was an act whereby one overthrew an oppressor to recreate his oppression. Liberation was a nationalist search for independence which misunderstood autonomy. It displaced the imperialist only to be caught in imperialism of categories through the Trojan horse of official science, development and nation state security.

An epistemology of the South is not a project of liberation. It is a search for emancipation and emancipation adds to the overthrow of the oppressor, an understanding of the conditions of oppression that disempower both oppressor and oppressed. Nehru and Nasser, Nkrumah and Nyerere were liberators, while Gandhi and Fanon sought to create frameworks of emancipation.

Emancipation creates a geography of the imagination which allows for ‘the defeated West’ and acknowledges the West in us. It demands a new topology of cognitive spaces and cartographies. The question is how do we create an emancipative social science? One must admit that the current social science is disappointing. Will our vision of Goa as a ganglion of cognitions and myths be reduced to another banal social science institute, another fragment in the chain of boredom we call Social Science?

One is reminded of Gayatri Spivak’s classic article ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’5 Spivak was concerned with the conditions under which subalternity becomes an utterance. I want to add a rider to it. When the subaltern speaks, can the social scientist listen? I am afraid not. The social scientist is himself a ventriloquist’s dummy mouthing western categories.

 

Social science in India is a growth industry but it is an industry caught in the banality of competence. We are a nation of mimic men cloning western theories and adapting them. When our imaginations could be protean, our social sciences have been procrustean.

The years of nationalism did create alternative and plural possibilities. The debates on science in India were great civilizational debates where we sought to escape the museumization of cultures by pluralizing western science. The work of Patrick Geddes, Tagore, Octavian Hume, Gandhi, Coomaraswamy sought to create the possibilities of a different trajectory. But when nationalism shrunk to the nation state, our social science also began wearing uniforms that we called policy, the development project or modernization. An epistemology of the South was difficult when our cognitive capitals were located in the official West. But today the West is tired and lacks the hospitality for ideas that our epistemologies need. Can 2012, the 50th year of the liberation of Goa, become the basis of an emancipatory project for new epistemologies?

I have challenged the old cartography of the South. We also need to rescue the idea of epistemology from the amber of philosophy of science. Here epistemology is seen as a rite of passage, a condition for the validity and legitimacy of truth embroiled in textbook grammars and definitions. Epistemology must become like 1492, a travelling fact, a trade route to alternative worlds where truth is certified as a quarrelsome, conversational plurality. Epistemology must evoke not a standard litmus test of verification but a chain of being where life, life-worlds, livelihoods, life systems, lifestyles and life cycles connect to create a lived validity where survival and diversity becomes forms of legitimation. How does Goa become a site for such an epistemologies? Let us begin with social science.

 

We must see Goa as a thought experiment. It is a topological space that increases the interaction between the imagination and the imaginary. The imagination is an expected extrapolation of possibilities. An imaginary is a horizon of the yet to come, the still to be imagined.6 It goes beyond current categories and seeks the invention, the transformation of current categories, for instance the imagination of the nation state builds around categories of sovereignty, territoriality, security, border, partition. An imaginary creates emancipative categories which allow the nation state to go beyond the logic of homogeneity and of genocide. An imaginative emancipatory for the nation state might disconnect nation and state and look for pluralisms, for multiple identities, create a national ‘I’ as a hospitality of selves.

Similarly Goa in the fiftieth year of liberation might want to behave as a state that offers the possibility of cognitive secession from the earlier paradigms. Can Goa follow the Panikkar principle? The irrepressible theologian once suggested that India should not erase colonial sites but recreate them as nurseries of the West. A India which seeds itself with France, Denmark, Portugal, England, Holland might create a different window to the West as a set of kaleidoscopic possibilities. The West becomes a more playful term seen through Goa as a lens and mirror, a kaleidoscopic West of Spinoza, Montaigne and Blake, even the recessive West of Wallace, Swedenborg, Goethe and Illich.

 

Once the West becomes not an imperial burden but a playful possibility, can we invent an emancipative social space that re-examines our margins and our silences? A critique of the nation state, science and development gives us the initial hypothesis.

Imagine Goa as a sensorium. Once we strategize Goa as a sensorium, we create a plurality which western ideas lacked. The West based its logic of conquest on the linear perspective. The linear perspective invented in 1425 by Fillippo Bruneleschi was later codified by Leon Battista Alberti in his De Pictura in 1435-36.

The linear perspective as an invention in art set the basis for scientific conquest. Earlier the painter did not conceive of space as homogenous. Space was tactile. The linear perspective spatialized time, created the dichotomy between the observer and observed and valorized the eye. In doing so, it eclipsed the body. The observing eye became the spectator and the object, the spectacle. It was only when the self separated from the world that the Copernican and Descartian vision could be born. The linear perspective created the homogenizing vision of modernity.7 

 

One does not deny the creative power of the linear perspective. It gave us the telescope and the panopticon. It allowed for Haussmanism in planning. Urban systems in creating the visual destroyed the tactile and exiled smell. The question one wants to playfully ask is what if the relation of ‘I’ to the other was embedded not in linear vision but in the multiplicity of the sensorium? Could the ‘I’ then have proceeded beyond the objectivity of the eye to create a different model of engagement? Could our cities have been different if they were tactile? One wonders whether the civitas of spectator, spectacle and specimen could have found a different kind of embedding.

A Goa which celebrates smell and sound can be the basis of a different thought experiment where sociality begins as a coming together of the senses. Sociality as a sensibility then is sensorial. The relation between ‘I’ and the other was constructed in a homogenous medium, where the best of philosophers from Descartes to Buber saw or pretended the emptiness of the sensorium. Can Goa as a commons of epistemologies become a base for a different view of the world, an initiation where we literally come to our senses?

The ‘I’ and ‘thou’ of Levinas or Buber were still visual acts, where even prayer loses its tactility in the act of communication. One is making two sets of arguments here. The very homogeneity of ‘I’ and the other seems to the anchored on a territoriality. The ‘I’ is a singular eye, not hospitality of selves. The western self and its theory of identity cannot proclaim like Amin Malouf’s character Leo, the African, that, ‘I am now called Leo the African, but I am not from Africa, nor from Europe, nor from Arabia, I am also called Granadan, The Fassi, the Zayaati, but I come from no country, from no city, no tribe. From my mouth you will hear Arabic, Turkish, Castilian, Berber, Hebrew, Latin and vulgar Latin, because all tongues and all prayers belong to me. But I belong to none of them.’8 

 

The question I want to ask is whether the polyphony of selves that Leo, the African, possesses has something to do with a vision beyond the linear perspective. I want to suggest that the idea of diversity begins with the sensorium.

The recovery of the sensorium in an epistemic and lived sense needs to overcome three other erasures that modern development theory accomplished. The first was the tacit imposition of linear time to accompany the linearity of space. Linear time also sequenced societies which were other-wise more playfully juxtaposed. In modern development theory, the tribal is linearized into disappearance, obsolescence and erasure as a backward being. A society located in multiple time makes the tribal a contemporary rather than an ancestor. The will to develop slows down in a world of synchrony and juxtaposition.

However, it is not just a plurality of time that the new epistemology requires. One needs a plurality of communication mediums, especially the oral, the textual and the digital. The medium cannot be the message for the new McLuhanism requires a plurality of mediums. We are still an oral society and the orality of the social demands a deeper understanding of the cognitive intertwining of the three mediums.

The literary critic Ganesh Devy has observed that removing or restricting orality in India is tantamount to erasure. He observes that the Government of India has defined official languages as those with a script. This hyphenated definition eliminates most tribal languages condemning them to the silence of aphasia. To paraphrase the Spivakian question, the subaltern as tribal cannot speak when orality is abandoned and life is left to the hegemony of a written text.

The axiomatics of the new epistemology has emphasized society as a sensorium, the life-giving nature of multiple time and the plural mediums of communication. What one now requires is an exorcism of categories and a computation of their genocidal quotients.

 

A social science dictionary of terms like nation, nation state, rights, development, electoral politics, majority-minority, in fact a full thesaurus of such terms, has to be re-examined. One needs an intellectual audit, a cross-examination to see whether they can be translated, indigenized. One has to ask about the violence implicit in such words as identity, border, security, nation state and argue for the continuity or discontinuity of such terms. Does social science need a ‘don’t use me dictionary’ of such words?

Beyond the exorcism of keywords, one needs an epistemology of silences. Democracy has adequate theories of representation but few epistemologies for deciphering and articulating silence. Silence needs a new semiotics of discourses which is a sum of all discourse, ‘literary, visual, musical, social, psychological, philosophical, bodily silence.’9 The silence of the woman’s body, the aphasia of the tribal, the silence of waiting implicit in a Dalit atrocity needs a different language of pain and suffering which goes beyond standard terms like exploitation and oppression to a more nuanced idea of being. Social science concepts appear naive or canned before the new globalization of evil embodied in obsolescence and trafficking to the new modes of triage.

 

A sociology of silence shows it has a structure, a structure which stifles, erases, eliminates. An epistemology of the South must look at how classifications work. Do classificatory processes like formal-informal, majority-minority, developed-backward carry seeds of violence which necessitates a new history of taxonomy as violence? The disciplinary nature of taxonomy has been understood but its ability to create insidious worlds needs greater study. An epistemics of the classificatory act might be more essential than Foucault’s reading of the pervasiveness of panopticons. Finally, one needs an epistemology of nature, energy and the body. Consider the body and the history of India as a changing relation between body and body politic.

The rise of the Indian state, the idea of planning and statecraft can be read around the history of the body. Statecraft in India begins around two great genocidal events – the Bengal famine which claimed three million lives and was state-managed by the British and the partition which claimed 2.3 million lives and displaced 26 million people. The devastation of the body and the attitudes to the epistemology of the body need more attention.

Gandhi’s work can be read as a contribution to the epistemology of the body. His experiments with truth are experiments with bodily truth. His work on fasting, prayer, silence, the idea of the ashram as a site for bodily practices, his vegetarianism have been fragmentarily strung together. But Gandhi’s work was also an epistemology of walking where walking was an act of nature providing a measure against history. A day’s walk would be a swadeshi concept of peace. Dissent was measured by walking away, as villagers often did when tired of a tyrant. The satyagrahi is a walker and in walking and marching creates a measure of protest. Walking provides a bodily sense of rhythm. Present in Gandhi, even Thoreau, is an epistemic link between walking and civil disobedience that we need to explore. Walking and the Gandhian theory of walking may provide a new epistemology for our cities.

 

I began with dates as they provide a calendar of reflection and reflexivity. While one cannot deny the historical power of 1492, the year 2012 may have its own significance. 2012 is the year that marks the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Goa. It is marked by three further events. The first was the efflorescence of democracy we call the Arab Spring. The events of the Arab Spring as an urge for democracy demolished the western stereotypes of Arab culture. The occupation of Wall Street demonstrated that people realized the dangers implicit in banking and the stock exchange, in capitalism. Third, the rise of the Anna Hazare movement in India demonstrated that middle class India was tired of the cynical approach to governance permeating all political parties. Beyond this carnivalesque dreaming of democracy and beyond the shibboleths of market, governance and electoralism, one notices the tiredness of western regimes.

As one watches the G-7 response to the financial crisis, one realizes that the current leaders of the West are at best managers. The Obamas, the Sarkozys, even Angela Merkel behave like custodians of a system rather than path-breaking innovators. Their approach to economic crisis is appalling. They have literally created a structure of internal colonialism in Europe. Countries like Greece, Portugal and Italy are being forced into a Shylockian bargain from which they may not recover.

 

Democracy might have originated in the West but it is today a frozen asset. Democracy has become a procedural exercise in formal participation and official representation. The much touted western democracy is a procedural democracy. It operates by rote and looks paranoid with every migrant and anxious every time people experiment with democracy in the Third World. All the interesting experiments in democracy are emerging in Latin America, India and Africa. The western idea of democracy gets pickled in the formaldehyde of the old liberal imagination rather than being a constant invention of citizenship. The occupation of Wall Street clearly shows that the institution commands little respect among ordinary people.

What is even more stunning is the failure of the moral and political imagination. Ideas like the clash of civilizations, the axes of evil are paranoid delusions which prompted a wise sage like the Dalai Lama to claim that George Bush brings out the Muslim in him. The demonization of Islam has become a substitute for the Cold War. This paranoid style of politics refuses to recognize the will to democracy in Third World countries. What is equally stunning is that the genocidal quotient of each western decision from Bosnia, Nigeria to Iraq and Afghanistan is increasing. A real theory of justice will demand that most western leaders stand trial for genocide.

The moral exhaustion of the West is best seen in its approach to the international domain. International relations have become a site for a misbehavioural science for NATO countries. Their ability to understand justice does not extend to the future, which is why ideas like sustainability are devoid of justice. The much touted concept of sustainability has unfortunately become a Janus term which justifies western investment at the cost of Third World societies. The moral procedures of IMF, World Bank, NATO, G-7 are regulative or punitive creating asymmetries of power rather than focal points for justice. In this everyday Orwellian world, ethics become procedural and politics becomes regulative and a managerial imagination bureaucratizes justice.

 

Words like aid, philanthropy, charity are being emptied of content and cannot even be revived in the language of rights. An economic model that sees health and waste as externalities has little to say to the poor of the Third World. The emptiness of Durban, Copenhagen and Kyoto should reveal that the West has few imaginaries to offer.

2012 thus becomes a potent year, a temptation for new hypothesis especially when juxtaposed to 1492. The idea of Goa mediates these dates. The Indian linking to the Lusophone imagination might create a new set of thought experiments. Can the exhaustion of the West let us invent a new wild ethics like Gandhi did? The creative power of the movements shows that they are committed to peace. Their epidemic spread across the world shows that the time to reinvent the Gandhian experiment as an epistemic drama is now. Goa and the idea of Goa might create the new ashrams of the mind inventing new ethical and cognitive possibilities while G-7 and our bureaucracies lie asleep and vacant.

 

* This essay is partly based on my paper at the seminar on Goa: Fifty Years of Liberation convened by the University of Goa and IIAS, Shimla in December 2011. My co-conspirators, Peter D’ Souza and Boaventura Dos Santos, can be blamed for the directions it has taken. The Institute for the Epistemologies of the South planned for a future date in Goa is the immediate impetus for this paper. Finally, this paper is for Claude Alvarez, hoping he disapproves of it.

Footnotes:

1. John Docker, 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora, London, Continuum, 2001.

2. Salman Rushdie, The Moors Last Sigh, Random House, London, 1996; Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land, Granta/Penguin, London, 1994; Amin Malouf, Leo, The African, Abacus, London, 1995.

3. John Docker, op cit., p. 12.

4. Ibid., pp. 191-201.

5. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Cultures, Macmillan Education, London, 1988, pp. 271-313.

6. See Cornelius Castoriadis, World in Fragments, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1997.

7. See Robert D. Romanyshyn, Technology as Symptom and Dream, Routledge, London, 1989.

8. John Docker, op cit., p. 199.

9. See Patricia Ondek Laurence, The Reading of Silence: Virginia Woolf in the English Tradition, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1991, p. 4.

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