Wednesday, December 22, 2010
I had barely turned a corner
When I stumbled upon a bunch of scholars
Rucksacks on their shoulders
Leaving their snow-bound hostel life behind
Their burrowed faces glowing with excitement
A spirited alacrity in their deliberate stride
The prospect of going home
Had made turtles of them all
And my mind had raced back to you
Or what you’d said
When I asked you, if you, too, would be going home?
With a lump rising in your throat
You had looked away,
Refusing to let me see the mist in your eyes,
Fighting back your tears, you’d said:
‘I don’t go home that often,
Going home is not always an option
If you have a home,
And if you don’t, it’s probably much less,
You have to have a home to go back to,
Memory of a concrete structure alone is not enough,
Brick, mortar, wood and plaster make wonderful houses
Spreading a roof-like canopy overhead
Houses give us protection, no warmth
Well, if that is about all we need to know,
Hostels, too, have ways of rooming us in,
So what if a mother’s love doesn’t flow
With room heaters on, warmth oozes slow.’
Something had stabbed deep inside me
When you had said:
‘Dark caves in which we all lived once
Do not always make a home
With sunlight filtering in, occasionally
Or playing a feverish game of hide-n-seek
With shadows dancing upon the walls’
Your philosophical musings had wrenched me
Leaving a gaping hole where my heart was,
I had started wondering about Doris Lessing
And her ‘Going Home’ to Africa
Not so much to discover a past that wasn’t there
But to trail a future she had dreaded the most
Sensing that I had begun to enter your space
You had felt violated, as it were,
And then breaking into my thoughts, you’d said:
‘Home is where the spatial boundaries of your hostel room
Simply melt away
Home is where a mother waits with open arms
Home is where kicking up all your stuff into a corner
You just curl up like a snail to read a book, undisturbed
As your father fusses over you, endlessly
Tolerating a hundred thousand tantrums
And your squeaky little whims.’
My heart had lurched into my mouth at the thought
That you won’t be going home, this winter
And remain snow-bound,
Imprisoned, inside your hostel room
Oh, what is this bondage of fear,
That makes us deny someone we love
Both warmth and care
After all, we humans are not like hermit crabs
That we can carry our homes on our backs,
Fold up, shrink or expand
Shifting the awesome burden of our home
From one jelly-leg to another
John Donne I never was
Nor do I ever hope to be,
Or I’d have made a room for you everywhere,
If not a ‘sanctuary’ for your quiet dignity,
At least an Igloo of words
Somewhere in the dark alleys of the Arctic
Where temperatures fall below sub-zeroKnowing well, you won’t be going home, this winter.
Friday, December 3, 2010
Before I start talking about the relationship between Popular Culture and Literary Studies, let me offer a few general observations on what I understand by the term ‘Popular Culture.’ There is no denying the fact that Popular Culture is certainly a contested category and so deserves to be examined very closely. If one were to look into the definition of the term, one would certainly be confounded not only by the sheer range, variety and versatility of its meanings but also their self-contradictory, self-annihilating postures and possibilities. To give you an example, some people may think of Popular Culture as something of a people’s culture (which is a very broad way of defining the term. Besides, ‘people’ is too generalized and amorphous a term to be used here) while others may associate it with a certain class of people, say, the working class, or the rural people or the urban masses or sometimes, even a confused aggregate or conglomerate of urban and rural consumers. Going further, one may talk of Popular Culture as a Post-Industrial (or Post-technology) Culture (whose beginnings coincided with the proliferation of the technology, viz., the printing press, photography, cinema, television and now Internet) whereas some others may continue to see it as re-articulation of essentially agrarian feudal/folk cultural forms (original or pastiche) in the contemporary world.
Popular culture has been defined as everything from “common culture” to “folk culture,” from “people’s culture” to “mass culture.” While it has been all of these things at various points in history, Post-War America undeniably associated popular culture with commercial culture and all its trappings: movies, television, radio, cyberspace, advertising, toys, nearly any commodity available for purchase; several forms of art, photography, games, and even group "experiences" like collective comet-watching or rave dancing on ecstasy. While humanities and social science departments before the 1950s would rarely have imagined including any of the above listed items in their curricula, ‘popular culture’ is now a well-established discipline, enmeshed in a complex set of institutional practices. Though “pop culture” is, today, one of the US’ most lucrative export commodities, making everything from Levi's jeans to Sylvester Stallone movies popular on the international market, it should not be analyzed or studied exclusively from the perspective of the US material, economic and political culture. Americanization, or if I may say so, MacDonaldization of ‘popular culture’ is of a fairly recent origin, going as far back as the early decades of 20th century, so it only tells half the story. Globalization of this phenomenon has resulted in the blurring of fault lines, masking the contradictions of its cultural history, erasing the specificities of its multiple variants in different cultural contexts.
In order to capture the plurality, multiplicity and differentiated variety of ‘popular culture,’ it is necessary to look into the specificities of its nature, function and even history in different cultural contexts. Much before we start looking into its history, let us first cast a glance at some of the definitions of ‘popular culture.’ One of the most incisive definitions of ‘popular culture’ has, indeed, been offered by Peter Burke, who says that it is “everyone’s culture that could be consumed by both wide audiences and restricted ones.” While reflecting on this description, let us also bear in mind that cultural strata have a history, something not always very easy to pin down. Besides, popular culture is a complex phenomenon, hard to define and difficult to analyze. What might seem ‘popular’ may really be ‘elite’ and what appears to be ‘elite’ may really be ‘popular’ and the relationships between the two undergo qualitative as well as quantitative changes over time. Interrogating Peter Burke’s ‘populist’ definition of popular culture, Sue Wiseman gives it a definite ‘elitist’ twist and orientation. Her contention is that popular culture is all that is the “left over,” ‘the residual form’ after we have decided what high culture essentially is all about. She looks upon popular culture as a reassembled collage of classical, biblical and contemporary texts that otherwise percolate throughout society, a matter of connecting and fusing different registers, narratives and styles of writing and thinking.
Now if we do wish to understand the dynamics of this antithetical relationship between the popular and the elite culture, or how and why ‘popular’ became the ‘Other’ of the elite culture, we shall have to return to history, which I don’t want to do right now, purely for the tactical reasons. Any such attempt at this juncture may only result in an unnecessary digression, which I’d eminently like to avoid, though I shall ultimately return to this issue, a little later in this essay. At this point, all I would like to emphasize is that though the distinction between the ‘high’ and the ‘low’ cultures may have remained central to all theoretical discussions on ‘modernism,’ with the slow emergence and proliferation of ‘postmodernism,’ it certainly stands challenged, even invalidated. Postmodern approach to culture no longer recognizes the distinction between the ‘high’ and the ‘low,’ the ‘elite’ and the ‘popular,’ the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane.’ Even though the fault lines may have thus collapsed, this binary opposition, as John Storey points out in his book Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, has always been somewhat spurious, and therefore suspect in real historical sense. He says, regardless of whether we talk of the Shakespearean plays or the novels of Dickens, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind or its film version, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather or Mario Puzo’s novel from which it drew inspiration, there is a very thin line of demarcation that marks the ‘classical’ off from the ‘popular.’
To put it differently, ‘popular culture’ is a contestable category, not only because of the blurred fault lines but also due to the contradictions inherent in its nature and character. While some people look upon it in apolitical terms as an “authentic” culture of the people, others emphasize its radical and political potential by treating it as “a site of struggle and resistance between the subordinate and dominant groups within a society.” While media critics like Marshall McLuhan and several others celebrate its arrival, academics like Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag denounce it for its “dumbing down.” Unlike those who applaud the media for its instant message and/or communication, there are others who bemoan the fact that “the newspapers that once ran foreign news now feature celebrity gossip or pictures of scantily dressed young ladies,” that “television reality shows and asinine soaps,” only reveal people’s pre-occupation with ‘trivia’ or their immersion in celebrity culture. The problem with popular culture is that just when you think you have understood it; it starts facing in exactly the opposite direction, thus revealing its Janus-faced character. One of the major semantic, or should I say, theoretical worries about it is that it can’t easily be pinned down or demarcated. Often, it is difficult to decide as to what should be included in and/or excluded from the purview of this eminently ‘slippery’ term.
If I’m pointing out the difficulties in either defining or perceiving popular culture as a conceptual category, it is simply to underline the fact that this term creates semantic problems of its own; some of which I propose to outline in my essay, as I go along. Having said that, let me also emphasize that the problem of semantic instability is not something peculiar to ‘popular culture;’ as much the same may be stated about several other ‘modern’ and/or ‘post-modern’ terms, including the umbrella terms viz., ‘modern’ and post-modern.’ If definitions are problematic, do we have other modes of accessing, mediating or interrogating popular culture? This is where I draw strength from Michele Foucault, who has not only articulated alternative modes of historical discourse but has also given us the apparatus for excavating ‘archeology’ of knowledge in general, and that of human sciences, in particular. Following his lead, I, too, would like to make an effort, howsoever audacious and unsatisfactory, at excavating the archeology of popular culture, that, to my mind, lies embedded within the discourse of literary studies itself. If we look carefully enough, we would discover that the notion of ‘popular culture’ has been present in the mainstream culture right from the beginning, sometimes in the emergent, sometimes residual and sometimes, in the dominant form.
In a manner of speaking, popular culture has been present in the discourse of literary studies right from the beginning, though the realization that it could also be recognized as a separate, discrete and independent discourse, with its own theoretical apparatus, has only emerged in the 20th century. Much before Herbert Marcuse, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Frederic Jameson and others had begun to theorize about ‘popular culture,’ it had existed within the mainstream culture of Western literary discourse itself. Poetry, especially when it was initially started, say by Homer (if we could treat him as an originator of poetry in the Western tradition), was essentially a popular form as it was orally sung and recited among the people whose aspirations, dreams, beliefs and ideas it sought to capture. In other words, poetry was a people’s discourse, not a dominant one, at least, when it initially originated. A few centuries later, owing to a number of historical factors, which I don’t wish to go into at this stage, drama replaced poetry as a popular discourse. The fact that at any given point of time, a single performance of a Greek play by Aeschylus or Sophocles was witnessed by no less than twenty thousand people, even more, does speak of its popularity among the masses.
With the onward march of history, and the slow emergence of different literary forms dependent upon a variegated living, material and cultural practices, the ‘popular culture’ slowly moved to the subterranean regions of the Western literary discourse. This is when a clear-cut notion of ‘what was dominant’ or ‘what must be dominant’ had begun to emerge within the social and political practices of the Western history. With the rise of Christian ideology and feudalism as its main ally, the notion of ‘popular’ almost became a ‘pariah,’ synonymous with everything that was ‘vulgar,’ ‘uncouth,’ ‘uncultured,’ even ‘primitive.’ With the objectification, even demonization of the ‘popular,’ undoubtedly, ‘popular culture’ moved to the subterranean zones of the Western living traditions. No wonder, when ‘comedia dell arte’ surfaced in the medieval Italy as a popular form of dramatic improvisation, it could only find its articulation as a ‘nukkad natak;’ its performance space coinciding not so much with the hallowed precincts of the church, but circumscribed instead by the unofficial, market or public square. To my mind, this kind of marginalization of the ‘popular discourse’ had two distinct implications; while de-legitimizing the ‘popular,’ it paved the way for the legitimization of the ‘dominant,’ which, through history, has very closely been tied to the ideology of the royalty, nobility, aristocracy, in particular, and the ruling establishment, in general.
Therefore, when the historians of ‘popular culture’ term it as a 20th century American phenomenon, emphasizing that it has no precedent or archival history of any kind in cultures other than Western, this assumption becomes questionable. My point is that popular culture came into existence much before the idea of America was constructed, and that it has had presence not only in the Western discourse but discourses of other cultures, too. To set up a direct equation between the ‘popular culture’ and the Jazz or Hippie generations of America or the working class in the West, is not only a total denial of history but a misreading of the literary and social practices of virtually all living cultures, other than Western. Of course, if we associate ‘popular culture’ with ‘mass media,’ then certainly it is a post-technological phenomenon. However, if we are willing to extend the notion of mass-media to incorporate the notion of visual culture, then perhaps we shall have to think of ancient cave paintings, wall murals, sculptors at Ajanta and Ellora, too, as expressions of visual/popular culture. However, if ‘orality’ is to be treated as one of the features of ‘popular culture,’ then it could be said to have a history as old as that of the oral literatures. To carry this idea to its logical conclusion, we may then think of Ramlila (based upon the canonical text The Ramayana) and paintings, dramatic compositions and children’s stories (based upon The Mahabharata) as instances of popular culture, too.
Let me now return to yet another book of John Storey on Popular Culture. Undoubtedly, he has done some seminal work in this area and so deserves serious attention from us. In his extremely well-conceived, well-argued book, Inventing Popular Culture: From Folklore to Globalization (Blackwell, 2007), John Storey suggests how the ‘folk culture’ had actually begun to emerge as a subject of special inquiry and investigation among the 18th century European intellectuals. (It is ironic, isn’t it that ‘folk culture’ was not the invention of the people, but the intellectuals, a fact Roger Cartier, a French historian also corroborates). John Storey further emphasizes that there were mainly two reasons for this growing trend, one, the collapse of a sense of community owing to industrialization and urbanization, two, a surge of nationalism sweeping through most parts of Europe, culminating into a genuine need for a very specific cultural identity. To some extent, we find evidence of both in the Preface of Wordsworth, especially when he lays stress upon using “the real language of men” or restoring to poetry the simplicity and spontaneity of unlettered peasants and leech-gatherers. However, these efforts at the revival or retrieval of the ‘folk culture’ received a severe setback with the spread of education and literacy, and consequent democratization of the British society in the 19th century. No wonder, Matthew Arnold saw in it a real possibility of social anarchy, which, in turn, compelled him to advocate the cause of high-brow, bourgeoisie culture, thus dismissing all notions of ‘popular’ or ‘folk’ culture as perverted forms of philistinism. Though 20th century marked the advent of modernism, yet as far as the ‘popular culture’ was concerned, it continued to be treated as a ‘pariah’ term, little understood, but easily dismissed, even demonized.
In a manner of speaking, Eliot and F.R. Leavis, through their insistence upon the continuation of ‘The Great Tradition’ did nothing to pull ‘popular culture’ out of a limbo into which it had sunk in the 19th century. So shrill was their rhetoric in support of the dominant, hegemonic culture, and so persuasive their logic for its legitimization that if they had their way, they would have probably buried this whole idea of ‘popular culture,’ with an indecent haste. But that was not to be. In the early 1920s, ‘popular culture’ unexpectedly reared its head in the U.S., with an entire generation tapping to the vibrant, sinewy ‘blues’ of the melodious Jazz. It is important to note here that though it essentially started as a counter-culture, the music of the blacks, Jazz didn’t take long to move from ‘the bars and brothels’ of New Orleans to the more respectable auditoria for ‘vaudevilles,’ ultimately finding social and cultural approbation at Carnegie Hall, New York. If I have digressed from the main point to recount this short history of Jazz music in the U.S. it is essentially to make an important observation about popular culture; i.e., often what is designated as ‘popular culture’ starts as a ‘counter-culture’ or a ‘culture of protest,’ soon becomes subversively popular, and then either threatens to join the mainstream culture, or is inevitably subsumed by it.
What I’m suggesting is that ‘popular culture’ is only ‘popular’ at a particular point of time in history, and that it emerges in response to a set of specific social or historical conditions present in a particular culture. In other words, popular culture may not ever start off as an ‘episteme,’ but it certainly does have the potential to become one. So long as it doesn’t become an episteme, it continues to exist in a particular culture as an aberration, or as the ‘Other’ of the High Culture. And so long as it continues to be the ‘Other,’ it remains a victim of the politics of cultural exclusion. So far, we have only attempted to see the distinction between the folk and the popular cultures, that too, vis-à-vis, mainstream or dominant notions of culture. To put a slightly fine point on this distinction, let me say, that the notion of ‘folk culture’ is born out of man’s primeval desire to create, capture or retrieve a sense of community that he has lost through the processes of progress and urbanization, while ‘popular culture’ starts off as a ‘niche culture,’ catalyzed by a combination of social and historical factors operating within a given context.
In the early 1930s, when the Europe was beginning to succumb to the multiple seductions of the mass media, the exponents of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theorists such as Adorno, Marcuse and Horkheimer stepped in quickly to introduce yet another term into our lexicon i.e. ‘mass culture.’ Undoubtedly, in their diverse theoretical writings, they have provided a trenchant and systematic critique of the mass culture. For them, ‘mass culture’ was largely the product of mass production of objects, images, arts and artifacts, a process that suffered the twin limitations of ‘fetishization’ and ‘commodification.’ As mass culture, according to them, was largely machine-made, it resulted in equally mechanical, thoughtless and choice-less processes of mass consumption. So much so that it became a way of denuding a living being of his soul, a mode of de-personalizing an individual, reducing him to ‘one dimensional organizational man.’ This is where, they averred, the de-humanizing impulse of the mass culture ultimately became self-evident. Marcuse is known to have identified a life-denying ‘Thanatos’ with mass culture, thus equating it with ‘mass suicide’ of a race, a society or a nation. On the contrary, he believed, the ‘popular culture’ is not only life-giving and soul-nourishing, but also a vital and irrepressible expression of the people’s Eros.
While this distinction between mass and popular culture, as advanced by the Frankfurt school, was extremely invaluable, it did little to either rehabilitate or promote the concept of popular culture. As a matter of fact, the term ‘popular culture’ gained a degree of respectability only through the efforts of such cultural theorists as Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, that too, around late 1950s or early 60s. In one of his early works, Culture and Society (1951), we find Raymond Williams anticipate the notion of ‘popular culture’ in his concept of ‘expanding culture.’ He says, “We live in an expanding culture, yet we spend much of our lives repeating the facts, rather than seeking to understand its nature and function.” (iv). It is another matter that his magisterial pronouncements with regard to ‘popular culture’ emerged only in one of his later essays, viz., “Culture is Ordinary” in which he postulates that culture must be wrested from “the privileged space of artistic production and specialist knowledge” and move directly “into the lived experience of everyday.” It is a well-known fact that Raymond Williams, along with Hoggart and Stuart Hall, was largely responsible for institutionalizing ‘popular culture’ too, which they did by setting up the Centre of Cultural Studies at Birmingham, way back in 1964. This is how ‘popular culture’ invaded the academy, creating gaps and fissures within the hallowed notion of the classical and/or canonical literature.
In a way, with the emergence of Cultural Studies as an independent, autonomous discipline, two things happened almost simultaneously; one, the proletarianization of culture, and two, institutionalization of popular culture. Ironically, it is with this institutionalization of popular culture that ‘culture’ has finally stepped off its high-end rostrum; shed its exclusivity, its elitism, and made a bid to enter the all-pervasive, all-inclusive domain of “everydayness,” which as Stuart Hall puts succinctly is “all those things that people do or have done – the cultural norms, customs and folkways of the people.” (234). In his “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular,” Stuart Hall suggests that ‘popular’ is not “uni-accentual” as it is often believed to be, but multi-accentual” in nature. He further suggests that it has to be posited as “a site of containment and resistance.” a position that reiterates the politicization, even radicalization of the ‘popular.’ For him, “popular is a battleground” where “cultural power and domination have real effects,” despite being not all-powerful or all-inclusive. Stuart Hall has certainly managed to enlarge our understanding of the ‘popular’ by linking it up to the notions of ‘representation,’ ‘cultural positioning,’ ‘cultural identity’ and ‘cultural politics,’ especially in a multicultural society. Thus, he has not only revolutionized the ‘popular,’ but also opened up personal/social/cultural spaces for its articulation, which it apparently had no access to, earlier.
Let me say, by way of conclusion, that cultural theorists, now-a-days, are no arm-chair intellectuals who pontificate on ‘culture’ from their theoretical high-ground, but men-about-town, who observe all that is happening in their backyard, even trail multiple practices or discordant articulations of the ‘popular,’ before they start theorizing. Whether it is Frederic Jameson, responding to the “postmodern culture as a byproduct of late capitalism” or Roland Barthes discussing fashions or food, cooking or clothes, wrestling or other sports; everyone has had ears close to the ground. Not only do they listen to the voices from the ground, but also help us decode the complex eclecticism of Jazz rhythms, hip-hop and rock-n-roll; of news headlines, ad commercials and soap operas; of half-clad women gyrating to the dissonance of remixes, of misquoted scraps of classics intermingling merrily with the Gothic, and so much more that surrounds us. Let’s admit that we are poised at a critical juncture in history, when the ‘popular’ can simply not be wished away.
We are poised at a critical juncture in our history. The 20th century was a century of World Wars, an extended Cold War, Holocaust, Partitions, ideological collisions, death of imperialism, birth of neo-imperialism, collapse of erstwhile Soviet Union, triumph of market-driven capitalism and American globalization. In a way, we have experienced so much in our recent history that it may take us several generations to absorb and assimilate the impact of what we have collectively been through. One of the most obvious inferences we can draw from this situation is that the world around has changed at a frenetic, maddening pace so much so that it has left most of us reeling under the shock, quite disoriented, even off-centered. In his book, The Future Shock, Alvin Toffler says that one of the defining words of our contemporary reality is ‘Change’ and that this change is likely to take place at such a staggering pace that it would leave most of us in the middle of a maelstrom, swirling like leaves in a whirlpool.
One of the ways in which this frenetic change has impacted our lives is that it has given us a permanent sense of co-habitation with multiple crises. Be it the Great Depression or Economic Recession, failure of the ruling elite or the rights of the marginalized, oppressed minorities, fact of political corruption or the fiction of bureaucratic indifference, we, no longer, talk now in terms of finding a remedy or a solution, rather insist on how we can negotiate,’ ‘circumvent’ or ‘manage’ these crises. One of the ways in which the 20th century has changed our perception of our situation, milieu and circumstances is the way we invariably talk in terms of the ‘management approach’ over the ‘diagnostic approach.’ Until the end of the 19th century, it was the ‘diagnostic approach,’ supported by the medical science, which held sway over the human imagination. But somehow, the swirling changes in the 20th century compelled human beings to re-examine their approach to problem-solving. From attempting to find abiding, permanent solutions, which were nowhere to be found, as the problems far exceeded the limits of human understanding, to ‘managing’ or ‘containing’ or ‘cohabiting’ with the problems, there has been a great leap forward.
Now before I start outlining the exact nature of the ‘crises’ (I’m deliberately and self-consciously using the plural form here) confronting the ‘Humanities,’ let me raise a few semantic questions, which may even appear rhetorical to some. Let me first go into the history of the term ‘Humanities’ and see what kind of implications it has for the subject under discussion. The term ‘Humanities’ derives itself from the root word ‘human’ and is ideologically linked to the philosophy of ‘humanism’ that, we all know, gained currency in the West during Renaissance. As we all are familiar with what happened during Renaissance, I see no reason why I should elaborate on the social, political or cultural practices that supported, endorsed or legitimized Humanism. However, if I have to historicize this ‘idea’ or ‘concept,’ then it may safely be traced back to the 4th century BCE, a period in history that saw the emergence and consolidation of the Greek language, literature and civilization.
Though not many people are likely to accept this, but what happened before and after and also on account of the thought propagated by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle is closely tied to the philosophy of ‘Humanism.’ Despite their apparent differences, all the three great philosophers, in their own distinctive ways, promoted ‘humanistic’ tradition. ‘Humanities’ as a branch of knowledge and discipline is, however, a later invention, whose contours had begun to emerge around 16th and 17th century and coincided largely with the project of Enlightenment. Let me clarify, once again, that when I speak of Enlightenment, I’m not referring to the kind of Enlightenment Buddha experienced, which is purely spiritual in nature, but to the triumph of scientific reasoning, progress as also concerted efforts to build a material culture around these principles.
Now before I run into any semantic problems, let me clarify that I have a definite sense of what ‘humanism’ is or could possibly be. In one word, ‘humanism’ is a man-centric philosophy, and here I’m using ‘man’ not in its ‘gendered’ sense, but in its ‘generic’ sense. It has nothing to do with the primacy of man over woman, or woman as inferior to man or a whole lot of other ideological slants that our post-modernist/post-structuralist friends often give to it. Somehow, ‘humanism’ has been made into such a ‘pariah’ term these days that often we end up celebrating anti-humanism, without realizing its deeper implications. It is one thing to question the assumptions of ‘humanism’ or the project of Enlightenment that derived itself from it, but it is quite another to denounce it, lock, stock and barrel. In a way, the bad days of ‘humanism’ started with the arrival of Theory, which has apparently knocked ‘humanism’ out of the reckoning. Even since our friend Derrida challenged the notion of ‘metaphysics of presence’ and the rationale behind the logo-centric ‘subject,’ in the 1960s, not only has ‘Humanism’ become a bad word for most of us, but those of us who do believe in ‘humanism’ are constantly on the defensive, running for cover, almost to save our lives or our teeth.
I do not want to sound pedantic here, but let me say that ever since the moment of Theory arrived, we have stopped thinking of ‘man’ as a unified being and have increasingly begun to think of ways in which we can possibly split, divide, and fragment his identity. The markers of man’s identity are no longer his ability to either ‘be’ or ‘become’ but have been ‘contaminated’ or marked by race, gender, nation, class, caste, ideology and what have you. I’m not saying that Theory has not served much purpose. It certainly has, and that purpose is to make all those classes that have been marginalized, oppressed and colonized through history to reclaim their identity, and provide them with a framework within which they could, if possible, even create their own narratives of liberation. But has it really happened? Are the blacks in America or South Africa in a much better position today than they were in, say, 1960s? Have the colonized nations been able to work towards their ‘narrative of emancipation’ by overturning the colonial practices/colonial institutions or by re-creating the indigenous ones, instead? Have women across the world become freer and reclaimed their dignity after all the efforts made by the First World and/or the Third World Feminists? As a result of Theory, our hermeneutic and textual practices may have changed, but our economic, political and cultural practices have largely remained unchanged. If Theory has only given rise to another kind of neo-colonialism or neo-imperialism, or has only given us new logic for the sustenance of globalization (another unequal economic/political order), then I’d certainly prefer to side with the age-old, time-tested notions of humanism, even at the risk of being labeled a dinosaur.
Having said this let me now proceed to another dimension of the problem. It’s alright for me to assert that I favor the ‘return of humanism’ in some form, whatever it may be, but things are not as simple as they appear to be. Having been viewed with suspicion and distrust over the years, humanism is certainly in a state of deep crisis, today. Now, as far as I’m concerned, there are three possible ways in which we may configure this crisis. At this point, I would like to raise this question: when I do talk about the ‘crises’ (the plural version), what is it that I’m really talking about? Am I talking about the crises ‘in’ humanities, crises ‘of’ humanities or crises ‘for’ humanities? Though it might appear that it is just another linguistic game I’m playing with you, which has to do with the arbitrary change in the ‘middle term’ or ‘preposition’ of the proposition, it is not quite so. With each semantic shift, you would concede, a concurrent lexical shift would occur and our understanding of the problem would alter and shift, qualitatively and substantively, acquiring very different contours, even problematic. For instance, if it is conceived as crises ‘in’ humanities, it would possibly mean that there are crises everywhere, and so also in humanities, where the latter is merely a shadow or a reflection, big or small, of the former.
However, if I insist upon perceiving it as ‘crises of humanities,’ somewhere the assumption is these crises are peculiar to humanities, a particular branch of knowledge or discourse and, therefore, deserves to be viewed in isolation from the crises of the culture to which we belong. But in case, I choose to formulate it as crises ‘for’ humanities, one of the direct implications would be that these crises have been created, even manufactured for humanities by the forces inimical to it. I do not know if you, as readers and listeners, share my understanding of these propositions, but if you do, then it certainly gives me the legitimacy to proceed further, and if you don’t, some more clarification may be needed on the subject. My point is very simple: there are only two ways of looking at any crisis; either we see it in ‘relative’ terms or in ‘absolute’ terms. Further, we may perceive it either as a byproduct of both internal and external factors or merely the result of the factors extrinsic to it. My understanding is that crises in humanities is the resultant of both external and internal factors, is not peculiar to humanities but is an expression of much larger crises. On the one hand, it confronts other allied disciplines such as natural sciences, pure sciences and social sciences, while on the other, our own culture, as well. In other words, I’m hinting towards my preference for the relativistic, holistic approach, not the absolutist, segmented one.
Another point I wish to make is that my frame of reference for discussing these ‘crises’ is strictly native and Indian, not Eurocentric, circumscribed as it is by my understanding of our own context and milieu, with culture (in its broadest sense possible) being its overarching expression. At this stage, it might be argued that humanism, as a philosophy and ideology, too, is a Euro-centric concept and that it has a definite context of European Renaissance within which it originated, flourished and finally decayed. It may be further argued, what kind of distinction am I really making between two variants of humanism, Indian and Euro-centric? The popular perception of humanism, undoubtedly, brackets it with European Renaissance, and to that extent, it is perceived as a European or Euro-centric notion, though Europe had experienced humanism much before Renaissance actually dawned. The first flush of humanism in Europe, as I said earlier, coincided with the early phase of Greco-Roman civilization when Socrates, Plato and Aristotle held sway over human knowledge and thought. My point is historicizing humanism backwards is very simple: that humanism has a history that goes as far back as 4th century BCE. If this was the case with the European history, then what was the situation in the Indian context?
In the Indian context, the concept of humanism has, from the ancient times, been closely tied to the notion of dharma and is perhaps as old as is the history of dharma itself. One of the questions worth raising here is: Did the notion of dharma emerge with the Manusmriti or does it predate it and has beginnings elsewhere? Without putting too fine a point on this, let me say that the notion of dharma is to be found in our myths and legends, especially in our epics, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, where it exists either as a normative principle or as exceptionalism. As it happened in Europe centuries later, the notion of humanism took its roots in the Indian context in our philosophical system, our structures of thought and feeling, our cultural matrix. To a large extent, it drew its main stimulus from the theological framework of Hinduism, though in its long journey through history, it became secular in nature as it sought synthesis with theological frameworks other than those of Hinduism, such as Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism. It is a sheer quirk of history (isn’t it?) that so many world religions found a home in India, had an interface and dialogue with other religions, and ultimately helped in consolidating, re-defining and challenging the limits of humanism from time to time.
My point is very simple: our concept of humanism is much more comprehensive, more composite and more synergetic or hybridized than the European notion could ever hope to be. It is not simply a case of scoring brownie points here, but a way of suggesting that our history has been much more inclusive than the European history, and as such, inclusivity, catholicity, comprehensiveness could easily be isolated as specific markers of Indian humanism. While in the West, the whole grid of humanism hinges upon the notion of existential, philosophical dualism, or what often passes off as ‘Self-Other’ differentiation; in the Indian context, it’s the all-inclusive, monotheistic notion of the ‘Cosmic Self’ that assimilates and is assimilated, that absorbs and expands, that recognizes no ‘Other’ except as an expression of the ‘Self.’ Besides, in the West, humanism is broadly seen as a god-centric or a man-centric philosophy, but in India, it is neither god-centric nor man-centric, but dharma-centric philosophy. At this point, some elaboration of the principle of dharma becomes absolutely necessary. Dharma, as it is understood in The Mahabharata, is something that pre-existed man and shall also exist after the generic man has ceased to exist on the face of this earth. In other words, dharma is said to be unchanging, immutable reality that is neither born nor dies, neither increases nor decreases, quantitatively or qualitatively. It is something that supersedes the temporal existence of man or men and so acquires an eternal, universal form and/or character.
In the penultimate chapter of The Mahabharata, when Yudhisththira finally decided to renounce the world and leave on his last journey to heaven, he was accompanied by his wife, brothers and a dog. Slowly, his wife and brothers fell by the wayside, but the dog continued to bring up the rear. When the moment came for him to enter the portals of heaven, Lord Indra offered Yudhisththira a choice between his faithful dog and heaven, saying, “Heaven has no arrangement for people with dogs. Think it over, good Yudhisththira. My suggestion is, you forget the dog. No wrong will be done if you do.” Yudhisththira said, “To abandon anyone who is devoted is immoral. It is as immoral as killing a Brahmin. Great Indra, I’ll not abandon this dog even if it means losing heavenly bliss.” As the story goes, that very moment, the dog transformed himself into the god of Dharma and began to sing Yudhisththira’s praises. Nowhere is the concept of dharma enunciated better than in the last chapter, where the significance of The Mahabharata is finally summed up in these words:
“Vyasa condensed the Mahabharata
for the sake of Dharma…
From dharma comes success and pleasure:
Why is dharma not practiced?
Never reject dharma – not for pleasure, not from fear,
Not out of greed either.
Dharma is eternal. Discard life itself,
but not dharma.
Pleasure and pain are not eternal,
The soul alone is eternal.”
It is this equivalence between dharma and soul that needs to be examined somewhat critically if the true meaning of dharma, enunciated as it is in our ancient texts, is to be grasped in its totality. Dharma is not only a moral precept or imperative that guides our path of life in this world, but a governing principle that determines our position in the ‘other world,’ too. Dharma is not simply a regulatory principle of social engineering, as we often take it to be, but also a way of enlarging our consciousness, and expanding our soul and spirit. In other words, dharma is the only connecting link, a bridge across this world and the world hereafter, the world of materiality and that of spirituality. Dharma, at once, offers deliverance from this world and from the next; a way of imposing order on the worldly life and also a way out of this world into a state of transcendence that Moksha promises. The Mahabharata also reminds us that the performance of dharma is a sacred duty, enjoined upon every living being, especially in the critical times, when adherence to dharma becomes a pretext for self-questioning or a calculated personal risk. Even in face of a Nietzchean nightmare, when one has lost the last vestiges of love and hope or faith in the legitimacy of human bonds, dharma stands firm as the sustaining, if not the guiding, principle of our life and existence.
Now my exposition of dharma, especially in the way in which it has been done in some of the preceding paragraphs, should not mislead my listeners into believing that I‘m trying to give it specifically a Hindu-orientation or suggesting that it be treated as a Hindu-centric notion. Far from it, I’m only suggesting that though it may have originated in Hinduism, it certainly has undergone several changes and modifications through history, especially as it was, from time to time, incorporated into and re-interpreted by the exponents of Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism in India. Though the Buddhists, the Jains and the Muslims may have been somewhat harsh and unforgiving in their emphasis on and orientation of dharma, Christians and Sikhs have recognized in it the only possibility of regulating social as well as the spiritual lives of its adherents. I have no hesitation in saying that the concept of dharma, as it either exists or is practiced today, is neither pure nor uncontaminated, as it doesn’t belong to a particular religious denomination or group, but over the centuries, has truly become a hybridized, indigenous form of humanism that is truly Indian in character, form and spirit. If I have gone to such pains to discuss this idea, it is only to emphasize that when in India we speak of ‘crisis in humanities,’ it is this absence of dharma in our emotional, social, political, religious, intellectual and cultural life that we are essentially trying to bemoan.
At this juncture, the question arises: Are there any solutions to this absence of dharma and the consequent threat to our humanity, our very existence? As I said earlier, we are living through the times when ‘diagnostic approach’ has already been abandoned in favor of the ‘management approach.’ Does it mean, we should now stop talking in the language of abiding solutions, permanent cures or prescriptive remedies? In a way, yes, but to accept it in totality would mean that we are walking into the trap of Euro-centrism. My argument all along has been that when it comes to crisis, nothing works better than our home-grown prescriptions, our own remedies. Often, in the times of crises, borrowed ideas fail to work for indigenous problems. So, if we can allow ourselves to step out of Euro-centrism, for some time, we may be able to work our way around our crises. In the 19th century, the West (read Nietzsche) had already proclaimed that ‘God is dead’ and now it has declared (read Derrida and company) that the quintessential ‘man’ in the sense in which we have always understood him, is now a ‘de-centred subject.’ Death of God and decentring of ‘Man’ have left them in a situation where they are busy re-writing ‘histories’ and re-reading ‘textualities.’ The author of their lives is ‘dead’ and now they want the reader (read Consumer) to step in and start playing an active role in scripting meanings. As far as they are concerned, there is perfect symmetry of thought and action. With the triumph of capitalism and globalization, markets have multiplied and so have the consumers. In that context, it makes sense to search for plurality of meanings, which creates more and more fissures and internal divisions.
But can we afford to abandon our God? Can we afford to ignore our dialogic tradition, our composite culture and our plurality that celebrates difference? More than ever before, it is now that we need to re-visit our Bhakti poets, revive interest in the Sufi tradition and look for other similar paths that reinforce our faith in both God and Man. This is where the ‘management,’ not the ‘solution’ of our crises lies, and this is where the ultimate redemption of our divided culture also lies. Let me now remind you of that composite culture, that dialogic tradition, of which we are the true inheritors, the inheritance that we have somehow lost in our times, because of which we, too, often feel, lost as a generation. Jalaluddin Rumi, a great Sufi saint says, “Try and be a sheet of paper with nothing on it./Be a spot of ground where nothing is growing,/Where something might be planted,/A seed, possibly from the Absolute.” Why go far, we have our own version of Sufism, available in Punjabi language and culture. At this point, I’m thinking of Baba Farid, who says: “O Farida! Why do you wander through the dark forests/Pushed back by the thorns, pricking your tender toes/Why don’t you return to the silent corners of your heart/Where your Sain resides, unbidden, waiting to greet you.” Of course, not to forget Baba Bulleh who says: “I am emancipated, emancipated I am,/I am no prisoner of being born a Syed,/All the fourteen heavens are my territory,/I am slave to none./Only they shout loud while calling others to prayer/Whose hearts are not pure./Those who go to Mecca on pilgrimage/Have little else to occupy them here.”
Let us bring back this humanism, which is already in our blood, and in our culture; not some borrowed, alien notion that has no connection either with our life or our literature. Once that happens, we would have taken care not only of our class rooms but of our society as well. It is the return of this kind of ‘humanism’ that can help us rediscover ourselves as human beings, negotiate the multiple crises we are facing today, or pave the way for our emancipation, at both the individual and the collective levels.