modernity and postcolonial violence 2
Analytic attitude, dissent and the boundaries of the self
Looking for me
When Freud’s ideas first came to India in the first decade of the last century, it was remarkable how little protest they aroused. There was no frenzied opposition to them as there was in Victorian Europe. (I am using the term ‘Victorian’ here in the wider sense in which Carl Jung used it, to capture the flavour of the middle-class culture in all of Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.) What offended Victorian sensibilities in Freud’s work did not evidently offend the middle classes in India. Elsewhere, I have mentioned Rangin Halder, a pioneering Indian psychoanalyst who did a classical Freudian interpretation of the Oedipal imagery in Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry in the 1920s, when Tagore was already being regarded as a national poet and had become a revered figure in Indian public life. Such interpretations at the time primarily meant a heavy-handed exploration of psycho sexuality. Almost no one was offended, not even Tagore. And Halder, who first presented the paper to a small group of psychoanalysts, subsequently translated it into English and presented it at the annual meeting of the Indian Science Congress. It was a hit there, too.
What seems to be defiant in one cultural context may not seem so in another. A colleague once told me how her great-aunt — a seemingly house-bound, puritanical widow who had limited education and always wore white to conform to the traditional image of an austere widow in east India — helped her brother Sarasilal Sarkar, a first-generation psychoanalyst, to translate some of Freud’s works into Bengali. She was not at all shocked by the newly imported European theory of human nature, tinged with ideas of infantile sexuality and incestual fantasies. I remember in this context a number of Indian folk tales about the Oedipal situation collected by the poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan. Many of them end rather tamely with the hero learning to live with the knowledge that he has unknowingly married or slept with his mother. There is moral anguish in them, but not usually of the fierce, self-destructive kind found in the Greek myth. In one story that carries a touch of moral agony, the mother is the one who commits suicide.
Contemporary Indian middle-class culture, however, has more in common with the global culture of common sense than with the folk tales Ramanujan had collected. We have to come to these alternative formulations in a different way, by examining the status of the post-Galilean world itself. Let me, therefore, look more closely at some elements in the critical apparatus of Enlightenment reason that the global triumph of rationality, sanity and progress (encased in an expanding global culture of common sense and conventionality) should have given us the confidence to re-examine. Victory should have brought with it a new sense of self-confidence and responsibility, but evidently it has not.
The stalwarts who contributed to the Enlightenment vision tended to nurture one particular kind of critical attitude. That attitude used as its pivot, often creatively, the idea of demystification or unmasking. From Giambattista Vico to Sir Francis Bacon to Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, it was the creation and unfolding of a new tradition of social criticism that sought to rid the world of the sacred and the magical. That was the tradition on which the great critical theorists like Freud and Marx were to build. This tradition of demystification usually assumes that manifest reality, after a point, is not trustworthy. If one tears the mask off that reality, one is closer to the truth, or to more justifiable certitudes. After the demystification, the certitudes that sustain the manifest reality and supply its standardised interpretations are shown to be unsustainable. Indeed, through this exegesis, one constructs a new reality closer to truth, and that second-order reality provides one with a fresh bedrock of certitudes. It was the hope of the protagonists of this tradition that a new society, a new social vision, and even a new human personality could be built based on this new hermeneutics.
The model, of course, was borrowed from modern science. There, too, the assumption is that once someone like Galileo dismantles common sense and everyday reality by proposing the idea of a heliocentric universe in place of the geocentric one, he demystifies or demagicalises the universe and comes closer to truth. Likewise, the emergence of modern medicine can also be viewed as the emergence of a new narrative that sheds the earlier mystification of illness and explains all diseases solely in the language of the body, as formalised in the science of biology. The assumption is that once one reaches the hard realities encrypted in the language of the body, one acquires greater mastery over ill health. Similarly with the Marxist concept of production relations and Freud’s concept of psychosexuality.
There is another tacit assumption here. Namely, that there can be competing theories of knowledge, but not two truths. Ultimately, one of the theories is expected to supersede the rest. Take the case of the Galilean discovery itself, which has served as a foundational myth of modern knowledge systems for nearly two centuries. Only two years ago the Catholic Church recanted and apologised for prosecuting Galileo, a little too late in the day, some might say. Yet, a whole range of works which rely on the actual arguments and exchanges between the two sides make us suspect that the Church was not clear about the position it should take on Galileo’s cosmology. Galileo was influential and had powerful friends in the Church. During his trial, he stayed in an abbey with a Church dignitary. The Catholic Church, never insensitive to political realities, was willing to compromise. In any case, it was probably less hostile to Galileo’s heliocentric universe than to his belief that the Church should repudiate geocentricism and make heliocentricism a part of official Christian dogma. In other words, the Church was willing to keep things vague and open and live with both the heliocentric and geocentric theories as contestants for the status of truth. But the idea that there could be two coexisting, contesting versions of truth was not acceptable to Galileo. In his world, one of the two theories had to win at the end.
Today, in the age of supercomputers, it is possible to argue that in a relativistic universe, conceiving the sun as the epicentre is not that striking an improvement over conceiving the earth as the epicentre, if one chooses to confine oneself solely to the issue of truth. A reasonably good computer can calculate the co-ordinates of the geocentric universe clumsily and inelegantly, but nonethe less truthfully. I emphasise the word truthfully, because Galileo’s battle with the Church is described in school texts as a battle for truth. I admit that the computations in the case of a geocentric universe will be more complicated; they will certainly not be aesthetic or efficient. But they will not be false. For heliocentricism and geocentricism are only two possible ways of viewing a relativistic universe. There could be other ways. Any modern physicist will agree with you on this as long as you do not bring in Galileo. He or she will be uncomfort able the moment you propose that Galileo was as right or as wrong as the dignitaries of the Church were. Galileo’s dissent is a major myth of modernity, on which we have been brought up. To disown it is to disown a part of our selves.
The moral of the story is clear. What looks like radical dissent at one time may look like a lesser innovation at another, or become a lovely little story of dissent that has lost some of its edge. However, this also has a dangerous corollary: many ideas that were once instruments of liberation or parts of an emancipatory theory, which for decades came in handy for those battling social injustice or inequality, have ceased to be emancipatory. Perhaps for the simple reason that human beings, given enough time, are perfectly capable of converting even the most radical theories of emancipation into sanctions for new forms of violence and oppression. It is probably better to be suspicious of all theories of emancipation after a point. Indeed, I believe that the coming generations may seriously demand that any significant psychological or political theory, to be so recognised, must have either an element of self-destructiveness or a subsystem of self-criticism built in. It may not be good for the theorists, but it will certainly be good for the rest of the world. There is no harm in viewing all theories of liberation as transient instruments that retain the potentiality of becoming oppressive in the end.
Everyone knows of the demise of Leninism; few have noticed the demise of classical liberalism. Nothing reveals this twin defeat more poignantly than the changing language of the winners of the world. The new slogans of the victorious have gradually become those that the likes of Marx and Freud thought emancipatory. I have in mind the various theories of progress, science, rationality, social evolutionism and development. The Nazis killed in the name of eugenics, the Soviet communists in the name of scientific history. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia virtually acted out the dissertations that some of its leaders wrote for prestigious French universities. Values that at one time were associated with or indicated the defiance of authority are the values of the authorities today. Values that at one time looked authoritative and dominant have become the values of the marginalised and the powerless. We are moving into a world where the nature of authority is different. People at the heart of the Establishment today talk of the end of history, poverty and human rights. Obviously because the end history has reached is not the one for which generations of dissenting intellectuals have worked. Poverty has become a billion-dollar multinational enterprise and the idea of human rights is being exported by countries that have the shoddiest human rights record in the southern world. Nothing lasts forever; even dissent does not remain dissent after a point.
Ashis Nandy, political psychologist and social theorist, is Senior Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi