DOCUMENTS and reports have a life of their own. As they become travelling facts, they start a trail of conversations different from what the original authors imagined, triggering controversies in new domains. The report of the European Commission1 is one such example. It is a text, pretext and a context for a debate on taking knowledge seriously. The general reader may well ask why this document, and not our own Knowledge Commission reports. They are after all local, topical and critical.
But our Knowledge Commission documents are more like tools, not texts. Our Knowledge Commission sees knowledge functionally not playfully. For it, knowledge becomes a set of functions, objects, buildings, institutions; its emphasis directed on a knowledge economy and not the knowledge society. Its questions are narrow and restricted. Science is never questioned; it is taken for granted. In this understanding, science needs investment and commitment, but its nature as knowledge is never in doubt. The European report tries to look critically at science, something our state finds difficult to be iconoclastic about. This is a tactic our society and social movements may understand but our state can never be a state without Science.
India’s Knowledge Commission reads science as hygiene, a vaccine to inoculate a people. Knowledge is never a kite one flies; it is a burden one carries. One senses no laughter and, in fact, things got so grim that a few academic members resigned in disgust over controversies. Evidently humour in knowledge is something our Left will not tolerate. I am reminded of Groucho Marx’s comment to an imaginary scientific conference: ‘I wish to make a great contribution to humanity. I plan to retire.’ Our scientists are gerontocratic with career lines that would make a cat envious. Think of the power of the Menons, Swaminathans, Yashpals, clinging to science policy like barnacles. We need laughter, a sense of play in science to also create a heuristics of fear; not an anti-science demonology but a sense of irony, an idea that science and democracy can be threats to science and democracy.
The document called ‘Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously’ is a precious piece of thinking, not merely because it summons the professionalism of the more critical STS minds but also because of its underlying passion for democracy. It is an understanding based on irony and paradox, that science and democracy cannot be taken for granted because many of our notions of science are poor models of the complexity of knowledge and that certain ideas of democracy can in fact be counter-productive. It opens up domains of science for India to debate in a way we have not done for the last few decades.
Amartya Sen’s Argumentative Indian is an overdrawn figure. He rarely questioned many of the categories and discourses that he inherited or just acquired with the advent of independence. We continue to celebrate science, development, nation, state, progress, without any sense of their genealogy. Fortunately, the presence of our Knowledge Commission and the appearance of ‘Taking Knowledge Seriously’ have created a new space of argument which goes beyond the binaries of local and global. There are some issues we need to clarify here.
First, the real battle of civilizations is not merely between Islam and the West as Samuel Huntington and others have argued, but also around the debate on the Enlightenment being conducted between USA and the European Union. It is a debate about the possibilities and limits of science and the nature of the institutional responses to it. For the US, the National Scientific Foundation (NSF) would argue that the current notions of responsibility, accountability and the institutions for interrogation are adequate for science. This ‘situation normal’ approach is challenged by members of the EU who argue that science has to be rethought. They hold that the old confidence about science going back to Bacon, Comte or even Bernal will no longer suffice. Science has to be reworked both as a cognitive and a political regime. One has to rethink it cognitively because the complexity of science is such that old frames of reductionism, productivity, certainty and predictability no longer work.
The convergence of technologies is not merely a charter of a new universe around biotechnology, IT and the nanosphere, but a sense of the challenges to philosophy and ethics, not as complementary projects enacted as friendly annexes to science, but as challenges to the cognitive and ethical domains of science. It is also political as it raises questions about the existent social contract. The old model of the contract was local and territorial; it operated with a model of the nation where state and science are seen as issues of governance within a specified territory. Its boundary represented the limits of the problem. But such a model ignores nature as an integral part of the contract.
Second, it demands institutions which can critically assess science, a science which understands limits. What one needs are more complex concepts within some mode of precaution and risk. One cannot create sustainability from a mechanical or positivist idea of science. What we then have is a Europe conducting new ‘thought experiments’ around science facing a USA officially content with the innovative power of its science.
This drama of doubt and certainty faces the Indian drama of science, which incidentally is not an officially articulated one. India brings to the table a different baggage of problems and problem-solving. Its civilizational approach to modern western science is different from the idea of the nation state and its creature, science policy. Most of India lives in and off nature, depending on nature for its livelihood. Its diversity depends upon the synchrony of tribal and nomad with craft, peasant and industrial societies. These are simultaneous and synchronic, not sequential. The tribal is not our ancestor; nor is he a museumized entity. The peasant is not a less developed part of our industrial self. The argument is simple: Can India develop synchronically, not sequentially? Diversity, which recognizes subsistence, must be coded into development and science.
There is a desperate need for a conversation between the EU search for a humbler science and the Indian debates on science and democracy. What can they offer each other? One begins with the recognition that the West is a part of us and that there are many Wests with which one needs to engage. Equally, while the Indian state, beyond the Supreme Court, may have little to offer, our civil society – both as community, as NGO and as social movements – possesses literally a festival of ideas. Institutions like CSE led by the late Anil Agarwal and now Sunita Narain, the KSSP, the Navdanya with Vandana Shiva, and many others, are part of a great legacy offering diversity in problem solving. They do not limit the universe of discourse to a bounded politics and to the dullness of the state but mediate imaginatively between subsistence and affluence while discussing sustainability. As middle and upper middle class activists, they realize reflexively the role and danger of the middle class as a social category in terms of war, security and consumption. They are, to use Chandrika Parmar’s felicitous phrase, ‘epistemic middlemen’, mediating between knowledge, lifestyle and livelihood.
Probably the overall framework of the conversation may be visualized in terms of three triangles. As modern states, we are all committed to the ideals of the French Revolution – liberty, equality and fraternity. This political revolution confronts the industrial revolutions with its Taylorist and scientific impetus and its demand for productivity, efficiency and growth. The tension between the two hopes is how to create the third triangle of plurality, sustainability and justice.
The question is: How does the EU or India move to stage three? What will be the nature of the process and the conversation? Looking back, one thing we have to offer is our tremendous sense of diversity. This ideal of diversity has been served brilliantly by what I call the NGOs of the mind. The NGO, in India, has often played the role of the dissenting academy. One often forgets that even science studies as opposed to science policy was an outgrowth of social movements critical of science and the dissenting academics who learnt from them. It is the NGOs of the mind which realize that the diversity of problems allows for a diversity of solutions and a realization that solutions are not only formal equations but ways of life and of livelihood.
Consider, for example, SEWA and Ela Bhatt’s attempt to show that peace can be built around notions of livelihood. She does not make a binary between local and global, but uses women’s work to challenge the current rationality of modern economics. When it comes to scientism, modern economics, for instance, may be more Stalinist than science. She also argues that when problem-solving becomes merely a statist exercise, a society loses its ability to invent, improvise and innovate. The slogan of one problem, one method, one expert, one solution within a state is precisely what communities need to secede from. We need an ethnicity of solutions. In fact, a solution, or more clearly truth, needs many ecologies. One has to not only speak it out, but live it out, in fact even live for it. The satyagrahic idea of the body represents that sense of truthfulness; ready to die for it, yet even more ready to realize that it may be incomplete.
Yet the presence of the NGOs of the mind does not allow for any premature celebration of democracy. The fact that the Indian middle class has dawdled over development does not mean it cannot simultaneously be fundamentalist about it in a market-driven sense. One must make two arguments here because they are implicit in the report and the conversations that followed. In many ways, many of the words around science are imaginaries. They are statements of possibilities and fears built around a word. Policy often operates around imaginaries. The idea of nuclear energy operates either around the apocalypse or the perpetual motion machine. In a more modest sense, biotechnology operates more in terms of imaginaries than the actual logic of the technology. One of the tasks a democracy needs to undertake is to question extant imaginaries or invent new ones. Poverty needs new imaginaries and so does democracy. Remaining fixated to the idea of elections adds little to the imagination of democracy today. Our science policy too displays a truncated imagination. It treats words as tools, functions without examining the fate and possibilities of the concepts it uses like information, hierarchy, memory and rationality.
Finally, there is a heuristics of fear built into this document. It leads us to examine what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben called a ‘state of exception.’2 A state of exception is a point of imbalance between public law and political fact. It refers to events like civil wars or insurrections which create moments of ambiguity between the legal and political. Such events demand a suspension of civil rights which continues long after the emergency is over. An official democracy lives as an official bedfellow with laws that allow citizens to be eliminated because they cannot be integrated into the political system. Agamben investigates how democracies, in attempting to defend themselves, incubate the possibilities of totalitarianism. He notes the everydayness of such tactics commenting that a permanent state of emergency has become one of the essential practices of contemporary states, including so called democratic ones.
Agamben argues that we accept the irony that democracy, to perpetuate itself, suspends rights and then turns a temporary state to a perpetual one. Agamben is acute on emergencies like the Nazi regime or September 11. One wants to use his work to cite a series of other possibilities suggesting that the logic of science or science policy can often facilitate or legitimate this state of exception.
Consider the Emergency. Imposed between 1975 and 1977, the Emergency was a classic state of exception. The Indian state saw itself as being threatened and argued that its programmes of development were being hindered. What is interesting is the role of science and scientists in it. The regime’s commitment to science as scientism was embodied in a technocratic mode of thinking which was quite willing to replace the poor while tackling poverty. Think of it: Why should Indira Gandhi need the support of an eminent scientist, S. Chandrasekar, to justify the Emergency? The Emergency as a state of exception is still with us. The greater danger is that India now confronts new emergencies, all demanding new states of exception. The first centers on terror and the discourse of security it spawns. Securitization is a techno-managerial discourse which imagines danger in ‘scientific terms’, invites technologies to sanitize it and then creates a populist bubble where media and audience can also play experts.
One can, with some sense of the future, extend this to a disaster situation where the crisis continues long after the disaster has been officially revoked. Stretch one’s imagination and one can see India one day declaring a state of exception around biotechnology, contending that resistance by small holdings to a scientific innovation demands a state of emergency. The enclosure movement that follows may be the perpetuation of the state of exception. Such a scenario sensitizes us to the violence possible within the framework of law. Between constitutionality, technocracy and a populist acclamation of it, democracies can create tyranny in the name of democracy. All it needs is a bit of science as expert consultants or more modestly, midwives.
The EU report in this sense is a search for science as a lived truth. It is an exploration of the ironies of science. It is also an invitation to invent new imaginaries around science through conversations between India and Europe. It is a dream of a reciprocal sociology that could help reinvent the relations between knowledge and democracy. One is grateful for its tacit openings. What made this venture a widening of hospitality was the Steps Centre at Sussex. One can define the exercise as a commons of hypothesis around science which seeks to add to the imagination of democracies. For concretizing this circus of ideas one thanks them and one salutes, in particular, Esha Shah as the quiet and not-so-quiet impresario of this set of travelling facts.
1. Taking European Knowledge Society Seriously, Report of the Expert Group on Science and Governance to the Science, Economy and Society Directorate, Directorate-General for Research, European Commission by: Ulrika Felt, Brian Wynne, Michel Callon, Maria E. Gonçalves, Sheila Jasanoff, Maria Jepsen, Pierre-Benoît Joly, Zdenek Konopasek, Stefan May, Claudia Neubauer, Arie Rip, Karen Siune, Andy Stirling, Mariachiara Tallacchini, 2007.
2, Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005.