Narratives and counter-narratives from ‘faraway’ lands | Sunday Observer
Politics of the ‘political’:

Narratives and counter-narratives from ‘faraway’ lands

4 April, 2021

Book: Elementary Aspects of the Political; Histories from the Global South, 2020, Duke University Press
Author: Prathama Banerjee

The dominant social theories and bodies of philosophical knowledge which are being considered, treated and engaged with as ‘universal’ theories stem from and are based on numerous social phenomena and experiences that occurred in the west decades or hundreds of years ago. Western European histories have become universal philosophies.

While Banerjee’s book addresses this situation in search for the ‘political’, it is not a book on political history, but rather a reflective gaze upon histories of the political where the author invokes different histories and counter histories from the global South. While the author mostly draw from the histories of the ‘political’ in India, emphasising Bengal, her broader focus is the global South. In a sense, she expresses her solidarity with the academic mobilisation happening in distant academic regions of South Africa and Latin America. She understands the global South as a ‘non-place’, with the limited political power this vast region holds in the academic world.

The book attempts to provide a broad answer to the simple question, ‘what is political’ or, more precisely, what is commonly recognised as the political in modern times. While one can find a plethora of literature engaging with the idea of ‘political’, much of this literature shows little interest in deconstructing the ‘political’, which nevertheless is a cornerstone of the political theory. As many other concepts used in social sciences, the ‘political’ too has become a normalised and taken for granted idea without the critical reflection and engagement it ideally deserves.

We either borrow concepts from Western European political philosophy or are critical about Eurocentrism embedded in these ideas and the subsequent incapability of applying these theories to non-European contexts. She does not spend much time on the criticism of Western theory and philosophy on account of their inapplicability in non-Western situations simply because this has already been addressed well by other scholars.

The question she raises is rather philosophical and structural. She problematises the understanding of history as philosophy and how the relationship between history and philosophy is being articulated and its implication towards analysing politics. Western political philosophy grounds itself on crucial provincial European historical events such as the Industrial and French Revolutions. This reductionist approach creates hierarchies between history and philosophy and between history and history by elevating European history to a salient point and erasing the global South from this broad picture.

However, the author does not suggest that histories from the global South can also enter into the philosophy’s terrain. Instead, she proposes to displace philosophy from the seemingly ‘natural’ ground it occupies in politics. She argues that an idea cannot become political by operating as a norm or ideology, rather it should work as a shared language capable of making different ideologies mutually legible and translatable. While deconstructing the ‘political’, the author suggests it is necessary to reinvent the political compass by placing diverse histories and counter histories from the global South in the face of mainstream political theory and asking the question, ‘what is political?’ The author tries to retell the history of the ‘political’ with narratives and counter-narratives from the global South in an effort to open up new theoretical and conceptual possibilities for all to think about and debate.

What is the ‘modern political’? When she asks this question, her suggestion is that we de-locate ourselves from the geopolitical location we belong to and relocate ourselves in the crossroads that become no one’s country, but only a modest meeting place where we can share our philosophies and histories. While discussing her work recently at a discussion organised by South Asian University, New Delhi, she said, “I have now given up the anxiety about my location.”

Political and non-political

According to the author, ‘modern political’ exists by mobilising the non-political. However, these non-political entities sometimes manifest as ‘political’. As she suggests, ideas, subjects, acts and images which do not materialise as political at one point, can become political at another. There is no essence or nucleus to the political. In that sense, ‘the political is not just a self-standing noun but an orientation, a qualifier, that is sometimes assumed or worn by subjects, forces, acts and images, irrespective of their origin’(2020: 8).

The author’s way of looking at the ‘political’ reminded me of ‘gender performativity, where Judith Butler thinks of ‘gender’ as something ‘performed’ by the actors who think these are the ‘elements’ of a particular gender identity. The actors ‘wear’ the characteristics of a particular gender and ‘perform’. As the author suggests, in modern times, we are caught up in a spiral where political being is defined as not-aesthetic, not-religious, not-social. But on the other hand, these same attributes would manifest as political.

The book has four parts. In the first and second chapters, ‘Renunciation and Anti-social being’ and ‘Philosophy and Theatre and Realpolitik,’ the author discusses how two discreet pre-colonial Indic traditions, renunciation and realpolitik become ‘political’. She analyses these two categories through the ideas of Vivekananda and Chanakya. The first chapter, ‘Renunciation and Anti-social Being’ starts with the claim of the Indian colonial intellectuals that India’s true history lies not in the vagaries of politics but samaj’s continuities. The national self in this context was a profoundly social one that is not shaken by regime change or invasions.

The author argues how ‘antipolitical’ became ‘political’ in colonial India. According to her, the transformation of samaj into society was not done by the absolute state, as in early modern Europe, but by an antistatist imagination, which slipped into the ruptures of antipolitical rhetoric that was provoked by the colonial experience.

The colonisers denied the ‘political’ strategically to legitimise their rule overlooking the conquest that established colonial rule as the rule of law and reason. The colonial rule of ‘law and reason’ provoked social reforms against bride burning, enforced widowhood and caste discrimination. Identifying these two ‘political’ and ‘social reforms’, which were allegedly located in pro-state and anti-state domains, B.R. Ambedkar said that favouring political reforms over social reforms is mere castism veiled as nationalism.

The constitution of contradictory binaries in oneself has given rise to a non-conservative ‘political’. The author refers to Vivekananda’s confused self to understand how ‘renunciation’ was transformed into ‘political’, which was considered by colonial rulers ‘otherworldly’ and laid behind what was considered political.

In the second section of the book titled ‘Action’, Banerjee talks about how the modern sensibility of politics has become a form of action.

This section consists of two chapters, the third chapter, ‘Karma, Freedom, and Everyday Life’ and the fourth chapter, ‘Labour, Hunger, and Struggle.’ The third section titled, ‘Idea’, consists of chapter five, ‘Equality and Spirituality’ and chapter six, ‘Equality and Economic Reason’.

In this section, the author discusses how ‘equality’ becomes the central political idea of our times. What is unique about her work is, she does not take ‘equality’ as the given ‘political idea,’ but rather analyses how it became the central idea of the ‘political’. The last section is named ‘People’. The two chapters that come under this section are, ‘People as Party’ and ‘People as Fiction.’ In this section, she discusses how people became a category or thinkable entity rather than categories of people in the conventional sense.

Rethinking the political

In this book, the author deconstructs and rethinks the idea of the ‘political’ by attempting to understand how different categories come to be ‘political’. When reading the book, one can see there is a shadow of Talal Asad’s idea of religion as an anthropological category where he discusses the politics of ‘religion’ becoming a separate category of analysis. Banerjee’s book opens up a new analytical approach or a tool to revisit social sciences, which is not confined to the Global South or the West. As she mentions at the beginning of the book, it is not about the history of politics, but histories of the ‘political’. She dislocates political theory from hegemonic geopolitical entities, rescues it from the preconceived notion of the ‘political’ and pre-conceptualisation of the ‘political’, and proceeds to argue how it can be located in the realms of many ideas, people, subjects and acts.

It was a great read and broadened the horizons of my thinking. However, it is unfortunate that there is not much theoretical work in Sri Lankan scholarship.