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VII Theory/Praxis Course

A Report by a Participant



Throughout my three years of college at The George Washington University I had known that in my final summer before law school I would, for the first time, step out of the American bubble and travel overseas. Although I began with a vision of backpacking across Europe (as other undergraduates had done), I developed an interest in India during my last semester. When my Aesthetics professor, Michael Marder, told me about his invitation to teach a seminar for the Forum on Contemporary Theory and Praxis, I couldn’t believe my luck. As a burgeoning philosopher, this forum seemed like the perfect capstone course to my undergraduate career. Here was an opportunity to delve more deeply into some of the theories I had encountered, as well as expand my understanding of advances in intellectual thought up to the present in a completely new milieu.


Vivek Dhareshwar during the session


The four-week-long Forum was divided into six interdisciplinary seminars that incorporated analytic and continental philosophy, legal theory, psychoanalysis, anthropology, sociology, and feminist studies. Because the participants had such varied intellectual interests – ranging from English literature to political theory – the diversity of texts was ideal. Furthermore, nearly all of the texts were written within the past thirty years, so the articles were keen on the currents of philosophical and theoretical thought, and addressed contemporary troubles in theory & praxis. The reading load was quite heavy and the dense material was often a challenge to digest; many of the texts required multiple re-readings before granting comprehension. Some preparation before arriving at the venue was indispensable. Although at first I was drowning in theoretical frameworks and overwhelmed with information, by the end of each seminar the relevance and insights of each text came to light.


Renisa Mawani with the participants


To be sure, each professor had a distinct way of weaving together and explicating the readings. Philosopher Akeel Bilgrami of Columbia University proceeded systematically through his own material, which addressed issues of value, Modernity, Enlightenment, the body, Democracy, and Disenchantment. Taking philosophical inspiration from Gandhi’s thought, Professor Bilgrami distilled his own original and somewhat controversial arguments for lectures. Bilgrami took exceptional care in building up a case for the possibility of a secular enchantment, in which value is democratized and nature is understood more broadly than as brute, inert natural resources for the taking. Consequently, the participants’ resistance to his ontology of values enabled him to point out the dangers of Scientism. Throughout the course, Professor Bilgrami emphasized the virtues of the genealogical method, which he used to reveal the worldly alliances that pushed the reigning metaphysical view into Modernity. In a most interesting public talk, Professor Bilgrami put forth a nuanced model of subjective identity, which supported his insightful conclusions about the force of religion and the workings of liberal ideology. Furthermore, his lecture underscored the importance of theorizing a rich individual moral-psychological economy for ethics and politics. Professor Bilgrami’s clarity, patience, and sharp philosophical mind was an inspiration to me personally, and I know that he surely was a treat for students of other intellectual persuasions.


Sociologist Renisa Mawani guided the discussion of law’s role in society and relation to empire using questions that probed, for example, into how law makes claims to its own authority and organizes social & political philosophy. In contrast to the staunch pessimism about law and legal processes expressed by the participants, Professor Mawani offered an optimistic and progressive angle on law, viewing it as a site of struggle and a tool that has been (and can continue to be) mobilized against oppression. Maneuvering through historically oriented philosophical texts, Mawani outlined the mythic origins of law and emphasized the significance of the colonial encounter in formations of international law. Using Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida, Mawani raised issues of violence and problematized the relationship between law and justice, which elicited lively responses from all participants. Although law is traditionally conceived as part of an isolated sphere, far outside of academia, Professor Mawani has helped us to see how law and legality suffuse a multiplicity of spaces. In addition to providing an arsenal of legal-theoretical lenses, she has urged us to comprehend the power of the law over our present and has pushed us to re-think how law’s power can be harnessed to bring about more positive futures.


Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was hailed as a “living legend” in our first introduction, at the 23rd Collin Anthony Shepard Memorial Lecture at St. Berchmann’s college. Professor Spivak gave a mesmerizing speech that stressed the need for humanities education across the globe, especially as a supplement to the grassroots efforts of NGO’s. It was inspiring to hear about her work educating teachers in West Bengal; her exemplary activism reinforces her call for responsible, ethical action. Interestingly, Professor Spivak distanced herself from her work in Righting Wrongs later that day, deeming it “a model of how not to learn from the subaltern.” In her first of three sessions, she launched into a lecture on nationalism in which she critiqued interpretations of the nation-as-narrative and the nation-as-imaginary-reality. Preferring Stathis Gourgouris’ reading of the nation-as-dream, Professor Spivak explained Freudian theory with expert clarity, as part of her complicated argument about how originary affects are transformed into Nationalist sentiments that instrumentalize women via reproductive heteronormativity. In a demonstration of pedagogic patience, Professor Spivak made sure that every participant conveyed his and her understanding of the material, at the cost of leaving her complex lecture incomplete and unclarified. Though we may not have understood the intricacies of her reasoning due to time constraints, Professor Spivak did manage to explain the subaltern to us with recourse to Gramsci. Undoubtedly, more time with her would have been ideal. Yet even within a few sessions, it became clear that she is a brilliant force to be reckoned with.


Esha Niyogi De during a session


Professor Esha Niyogi De of UCLA tackled enormously complex issues of globalization through the lens of sex, gender & sexuality, with specific emphasis on women’s work and visual culture. Professor De explained historical processes as well as space and time in new liberal global capitalism using sociological, anthropological, and political theories that oriented us toward local and global transformations. Discussions of cross-border alliances, global biopolitics, and feminist frameworks for mobilizing the multitude toward greater equality and social justice roused the participants. With the help of Professor De’s insights, this rather accessible topic spurred excellent presentations from the participants. Some explored nuances within the sexual division of labor while others focused on the politics of visual media; many presenters theorized ways of resisting oppressive representations and practices. Although this was not our first encounter with globalization, Professor De’s approach was fruitful in bringing contradictions and double-binds to the forefront while revealing the much overlooked consequences of globalization for women. I feel that I personally have gained much more of an awareness as to how the various logics of global, liberal capital are inscribed on bodies and reinforced through images. Further, Professor De’s presentations of different forms of feminist praxes have inspired me to think about ways to forge alliances to work toward egalitarian social progress within my own community.


The final week was certainly the most grueling as we took on two quite different seminars at once. Professor Michael Marder explored suffering, trauma, and torture systematically from philosophical, psychoanalytic, phenomenological, ethical, and aesthetic perspectives. Beginning with an explication of how the human subject is created through suffering according to Nietzsche, Professor Marder then looked to Freud for the limit of formative suffering: the traumatic situation that is lived through, yet not experienced because of repression. He then pushed the limit further by focusing on a phenomenology of torture and historical accounts by holocaust survivors that disclosed severe trauma as world-destroying and destructive of subjectivity. The uselessness of suffering became clearer after discussing Levinas, whose description of the ethical experience borders on the traumatic. Turning our attention to the suffering of others led us into a discussion of the impossibilities and difficulties of attempting to represent and express experiences of suffering and trauma ethically. Throughout the course Professor Marder highlighted the paradoxes and aporias of these limit experiences and advanced interesting ideas about the structure of subjectivity, while offering countless insights about the historical and philosophical context of each reading. Professor Marder’s course has shed considerable light on the experiences, consequences, and implications of suffering, which primes us to have a more ethical response to all who are subjected to its weight. At the same time, this course has invited us to contemplate our responsibility as survivors of a traumatizing world history of suffering – no trivial inquiry, indeed.


Professor Patricia Viera of Georgetown University also chose a heady and timely topic: the future of democracy. Setting the tone of critique with Plato, Professor Viera treated democracy as a principle or concept that deserved close scrutiny and re-evaluation in the light of socialist intellectual thought. She offered plentiful background for each theorist as well as historical examples that clarified the texts and related them to political movements in history, particularly from her native country of Portugal. In Ernesto Laclau & Chantal Mouffe’s paradigmatic “Hegemony and Radical Democracy,” democracy first appeared as a discourse that de-naturalizes relations of oppression and constructs hegemonic notions which help to shift power relations and change social conditions by re-shaping the socio-imaginary. Laclau and Mouffe’s fluid political terrain in which identities & structures are unfixed and historically contingent was problematized by the text of Jacques Ranciere, who points out that political appearances are controlled and regulated by the technocratic, scientific, legalistic police order. In Ranciere’s view, democracy is a political disturbance of police arrangements, a critical moment in which the people erupt in dissent against the preserved appearance of consensus and homogeny to make visible the invisible. Drawing from her literary background, Professor Viera rounded out Ranciere’s descriptions of aesthetico-politico regimes by drawing out the implications for art and aesthetic practices to resignify identities, and social arrangements. After presenting Giorgio Agamben’s assertions about the impossibility of democracy within a state of exception where the people are not sovereign, Professor Viera shifted the discussion to the anti-statist approaches of Badiou and Derrida, who both theorize democracy as an event, albeit in opposing ways. Although the question of democracy ended on a Derridean note of “freewheeling indeterminacy,” Professor Viera’s course inspired serious contemplation on mass movements, political potentialities, and the characteristics of the state. Perhaps most importantly, her lectures have given us new ways of examining the political terrain, while encouraging us to sustain political critiques for the future of democracy.


Cultural Program


I should mention that Professor Viera’s class in particular spurred some of the participants to stage a play that creatively represented the conditions, consequences, and contradictions inherent to democracy. This artistic composition was a welcome change from the academic presentations, although they were quite interesting as well. Each of the participants was asked to prepare a brief talk that engaged with the assigned material. This gave everyone the opportunity to voice their concerns about the issues surrounding the texts, share their own experiences, raise critical questions, offer their own interpretations, and work out the implications of the arguments. More often than not, the presentations were insightful and generated spirited debates about relevant issues. More specifically, many participants related the texts to local happenings and histories of India, which stimulated the rest of the class to grapple with questions of praxis. While this was an effective way to generate discussion, some of the most fruitful conversations arose outside of the classroom. In addition to public lectures given by the visiting professors, the Forum scheduled supplementary films that directly dealt with some of the issues raised in class. This was a smart way to deepen our understanding of the subjects of theoretical interest and generate productive discussion that continued into the dining hall.


But let it not seem like we endured four weeks of intellectual labor with just one play! No, we were entertained – by authentic Keralan dancing – not once but twice. Internationally renowned Sasidharan Nair performed a few scenes from Krishna’s life and gave us elaborate explanations of the rigorous training necessary in order to become a Kathakali dancer. In addition, we had the pleasure of witnessing a full-fledged performance with a live band and full makeup that was simply hypnotizing. Although Sunday was a day of rest at the monastery in which we stayed, it was also a time to venture out and see the sights of Kottayam, Trivandrum, Cochin, Alleppy, and Munnar. On one Sunday that I will never forget, all of the participants and Professor Renisa Mawani spent the day traversing the backwaters of Kerala on a massive, comfy houseboat. Many good times were had aboard and the salty air was rejuvenating. We were also fed a delicious and hearty South Indian meal, complete with fresh fish and coconut water.


We were given ample free time, much of which I took to take leisurely strolls among the lush gardens and rubber trees to the sound of whooping, singing birds. The Spirituality Center was beautifully maintained, bursting with colorful tropical flowers, coconut trees, and grassy fields. Adam and Eve would definitely be jealous. The quiet, serene setting was ideal for studious immersion, contemplative walks, and peaceful relaxation. Although I initially thought monsoon season would make me miserable, I found the rains refreshing and pleasantly cooling – nothing like the depressing rains of the East coast. Coming from the cushy American suburbs, I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to live simply and little more roughly; I learned to make peace with insects, adapt to cold water showers, and sleep without air conditioning. I can’t say I don’t miss it at times. Escaping from the buzz and distraction of daily life also helped me to focus on absorbing the material and getting to know the people around me.


The sisters who took excellent care of us were exceptionally sweet and accommodating. They were always receptive to our needs, even changing their usual menu when asked. We must have been a huge disruption into their quiet and humble lifestyle; perhaps a different choice of venue would be advisable for the next time. The coordinator, Professor P.J. Thomas of St. Berchmann’s College could not have been a more hospitable and generous host. He tried so very hard to fulfill all of our desires and was always so pleasant and helpful, yet never intrusive. Professor Prafulla Kar and his wife Mokshada were also quite caring, wonderful people with deep reservoirs of wisdom. It was a delight to be in their presence as well.


 How could I not be grateful for this opportunity? I have never met so many talented, interesting people with such vibrant intellects in one place! I will treasure the late-night conversations I had with all of the participants, especially those evening walks. This Forum created a warm, supportive environment devoid of competition or pettiness and crackling with ideas. It was a fertile site for the imagination, and the entire experience was deeply invigorating on intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and interpersonal levels. I look forward to opportunities to work with these scholars in the future. I have learned so much of value from the faculty, from the participants, from the sisters, from the administrators; I thank everyone who touched my life in India – you are all missed!


Dasha Galperin                                                              

The George Washington University, USA


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