Intersection of Interests

Amardeep Singh’s blog is full of interesting matter. He’s thinking about a lot of the same issues that B&W thinks about. This post from a few days ago for instance is about his shifting views on – his on-going struggle with – postmodernism and theory and theory-jargon.

I was trained at one of the centers of postmodernist thought — Duke — and for my entire professional career I’ve defined myself as a postmodernist, poststructuralist, and postcolonialist. Only lately I’ve found that these modes of thought have been distinctly unhelpful in dealing with the major topic I’ve been grappling with, namely secularism. Many humanities academics are privately skeptical of these theories, only they don’t say so because theory-jargon sounds so intimidating. Even as people in other disciplines or outside the academy mock our obsession with deconstruction and psychoanalysis, within the humanities there has been no strong mode of resistance to ‘theory’ other than overt conservatism. The fastest track to career advancement goes through Derrida and Foucault, not through teaching or overall mastery of the subject of literature. Doubters are immediately suspected or accused of being reactionaries, or even worse, dumb.

Wonderful, isn’t it? If you’re not an ardent ‘theory’ fan, then you’re a reactionary or dumb (or a dumb reactionary). Umm…what does that remind me of? Oh yes! Our dear president – if you’re not with us you’re against us. Otherwise known as Manichaeanism – reactionary and dumb, in fact. The ‘Only Two Possibilities’ view of life – the ‘binary opposition’ view of life that theorists themselves often make mock of. Not to mention the idiotic muddle of literary theory and political stance, and the perhaps even more idiotic muddle that thinks postmodernism is automatically progressive. Thanks to the work of people like Alan Sokal and Meera Nanda, it ought to be blindingly obvious by now that postmodernism can be extremely reactionary.

Some academics do feel comfortable dismissing high theory, but retain the basic belief-system that high theory created, chiefly the understanding that there are multiple modes of reason and a general sense that cultural relativism is right, even if other names are used in its stead. Essentialism, cultural nationalism and standpoint epistemology are all variants of this relativism. One might be in favor of women’s rights, for instance, only wary about insisting that some rights should be universal: like the right to protection from violence, the right to divorce, the right to work, and the right to education. Similar issues come up with the way different societies treat various kinds of minorities (ethnic, linguistic, religious). I find I no longer accept that basic human rights are relative. Instead, I believe that some ethical values are universals, at least at the level of the ideal.

Just so. It’s just that wariness about insisting that, say, the right to protection from violence should be universal that can make postmodernism such a great prop of oppression and injustice – of sadism and murder, in fact. It is, to adapt a famous remark of Bernard Williams’, a wariness too many.

Here is another post, this one from April 10, which mentions Meera Nanda and Romila Thapar.

Romila Thapar is one of India’s most important historians. She has become the focus of a campaign by the Hindu right in India (and here in the U.S., unfortunately)…I myself signed onto a pro-Thapar petition that circulated following the VHP attack…Thapar uses hard, empirical evidence — traces of the written language from the Indus river cities, as well as archeological fragments — to show that those cities were definitely not “Aryan.”…John Pincince, of the University of Hawaii, mentioned Meera Nanda to me as we were chatting after the Gandhi conference that took place at Yale on April 5. Nanda has a new book, Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India where she draws a provocative link between the Hindu right’s attempt to assert that “Hindu science” has some validity.

There are links to articles on Amardeep’s site.

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