I found the essay written by Professor Emmanuel Dongala both perceptive and incisive with remarkable conceptual clarity and in a language that is logical and direct, he raises certain questions about the production and dissemination of knowledge and its relevance to life, making a nuanced distinction between knowledge that has universal significance and knowledge that needs to be differentiated by cultural specificity to make it useful for a particular society.
When I first read this thought-provoking piece a few months ago I wanted to write a long reflection on the various issues discussed from the perspective of an Indian academic whose field of work has been Literature and Cultural Studies. But I have not been able to do that due to personal problems. So I will just jot down in brief a few thoughts at random that come to my mind.
I am not a scientist, and I straight away accept what Dongala says about science that scientific truth, until disproved by further experiment, is valid for the whole universe; that science no longer has a humanitarian mission and it is not fair to charge it with a failure to cure all the ills that plague the world today. I also agree that much of the academic writing in the field of social sciences is now aspiring to have the appearance of scientific writing, and will add that in turn there is a tendency among the scholars in the humanities to emulate the language and rhetoric of social sciences.
These areas of knowledge indeed have their overlaps, and it is necessary to remember that nothing operates in isolation, but Professor Dongala has rightly pointed out the field of inquiry and the object of research is different in each discipline and different methods need to be devised in analysing their dissimilar data if they are to have relevance.
Both in Africa and India the colonial education system that introduced 'modern' thought was based on the assumption that the West was the source of all knowledge and provided the norm in each discipline. In the field of science naturally this assumption dominated formal education and research, but even in literature which had a rich heritage in India, from the nineteenth century onwards, the models began to be derived (sometimes deliberately, sometimes unconsciously) from Europe. A good example is how the genre 'novel' emerged in India in the second half of the nineteenth century, about a generation after English became the compulsory medium of higher education. Long narratives existed in different forms in most Indian languages, but the new form called 'novel' valorised the so called realistic mode which was supposed to be the defining feature of the European novel. The narratives that did not fit the European paradigm were marginalised by literary historians. Fortunately all writers do not follow the dictates of the academy, and every form of creativity could not be entirely colonised.
In Literary Studies there is now an entire area designated 'Theory', which, as in scientific theories, is believed to be valid across cultures. Students in India for three decades have been studying Structuralism, Post-structuralism, Psychoanalysis, Deconstruction, Phenomenology, Semiotics and much else as keys for opening out texts to different kinds of readings. Literary Theory has more prestige in the academic hierarchy today than any other area in literature. Whether these theories help us to interpret works from non-western cultures is a question hardly ever asked. The only reaction to the use of these imported conceptual tools so far has taken the form of an uncritical fundamentalism in India going back centuries to revive aesthetic theories of classical Sanskrit regardless of their effectiveness in dealing with contemporary cultural complexities.
This is one of the dangers in looking for alternative models. In the last part of his essay Professor Dongala has made a plea for "new paradigms... that will allow us to have an independent view of our societies.". This is very important, but one has to make sure that these paradigms, in order to clear out the "incongruous rubbish inherited from colonization" do not become regressive. 'Hindutva' in the context of India, or 'Islamism' in the context of the Indian sub-continent and the Arab world (also Malayasia and Indonesia) are not the kind of ideas we are looking for. These are anti-scientific (i.e., they are not subject to questioning or re-interpretation) and in no way contribute towards the material well-being, health and education of the common citizens.
Most of the issues raised by Professor Dongala in relation to Africa seem to be relevant for India as well, although it cannot be said that in India we lack original thinkers in the field of social sciences.. In the last half-century some outstanding scholars in sociology, economics and political science have done a great deal of work based on the ground realities of the country, and in history alone, the origin of the 'Subaltern Studies' school can be traced back to Indian scholars, even though all of them may not be residents of India. Incidentally, 'Provincializing Europe', a phrase used by Professor Dongala also happens to be the title of one of the books by a Subaltern historian (Dipesh Chakravarty), although that book argues that the project of provincializing Europe has not been quite achieved.
'Modernization' without 'modernity', is not only an African phenomenon. I see that all around us in India and possibly it is the same in several other Asian countries. The external symptoms of a modern globalised culture (computers, mobile phones, satelite TV, pop music, standardized clothes, fast food, multinational bottled drinks) are visible enough but the mind-set that is basic to modern democracies belief in human equality (regardless of gender, caste, class), faith in the Rule of Law, implicit acceptance of dignity of labour are much less common. In fact in India there has even been a sliding back in recent years. In the first flush of idealism after independence there was a desire to build a tolerant, plural and egalitarian nation, and there was hope among the people. This seems to have been replaced gradually by public cynicism. The rich and the powerful seem above the law because hardly anyone among them is ever convicted, the political leaders seem to be working actively to keep alive the social divisions, to create what has been called 'vote banks'. On the positive side we see the emergence of numerous NGO's working voluntarily towards empowering women and the underprivileged, helping rural communities to create their own support structures, and ensuring a certain standard in the primary education available in urban slums.
I end with two questions : How do the work of social scientists however original and relevant translate into social action? There is a vibrant intellectual life among certain sections of the society in India but that does not have much impact on the life of the common people. If new ideas in the academy could change the mind-set of the ordinary citizens or improve the quality of their lives, the scenario in India should have been much better by now.
The second pertains to Professor Dongala's 'great existential question'. 'Universal' no doubt has come to be synonymous with 'Western'. Chinua Achebe once made this point tellingly. (I do not have the exact quotation with me right now but it is in an essay in the volume Morning Yet On Creation Day ) He was once asked why he did not write universal novels rather than concentrating on Nigerian themes. Would anyone ever have asked Dickens why he always focussed on London rather than take the West already within us, that the enterprise of setting up entirely indigenous paradigms may be fraught with dangers of revivalism or a sentimental privileging of anything 'local' over the 'global'. I do understand Professor Dongal's anxiety about 'losing one's soul' in the scramble for globalization. But do we really have a choice in a world where all major decisions are market-oriented ?
|Meenakshi MUKHERJEE has taught in a number of Indian universities, the longest spell being in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She now teaches at Hyderabad University, while previously having been a Visiting Professor in several universities outside India, including University of California at Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Texas at Austin, University of Canberra, Macquarie University at Sydney. Professor MUKHERJEE has worked largely on the novel (in English and other Indian languages) and her books include The Twice-born Fiction (1971, rpt.2001), Realism and Reality : Novel and Society in India ( 1985, paperback 1992), Re-reading Jane Austen ( 1994) and The Perishable Empire ( 2000, paperback 2002). She has edited half a dozen volumes of essays, short stories and poems and was the founder-editor of VAGARTHA, a journal that published Indian literature in English translation. Her other interest is popular Indian films. Meenakshi MUKHERJEE writes in English as well as Bengali.|