Monday, January 21, 2008

Some reflections on knowledge hierarchies and the autonomous university

I am part of a discussion list called "Edu-factory" which hosts discussions on the transformations currently ongoing in the university (corporatization etc) and on possibilities and avenues for creating non-hierarchical, autonomous universities. Last week I had to make a scheduled post on this list for discussion. Here is my post (the full text is also at the Edu-factory website). My earlier contribution to the list (for the previous round of discussion) is here.

My fundamental concern in my own work lies in knowledge production outside the University and in unsettling the real and perceived hegemony of the university as a privileged site of knowledge production. I see social theory produced within the western Academy and its satellites all over the world as unable to break the hold of European liberal-radical thought and hence look to see if other types of emancipatory/liberatory discourse can come from non-university sites. So in a sense, the first hierarchy I concern myself with is that between different types of knowledges as defined by their institutional sites of production. Since knowledge produced in different locations in society also acquires labels such as "serious knowledge" versus "trivial knowledge", formal versus informal/tacit, etc, I am interested in investigating these labels. My first edu-factory post on Eurocentrism and the multiplicity of knowledge production sites was reflective of these concerns. So while I am not insensitive to the debates on the changes in higher education systems in the neo-liberal period, my interest in them is located within this "larger" framework.

Since this round of the Edu-factory discussions is supposed to focus on "hierarchy within the higher education market, and the university as a place of hierarchisation in the labor market" my first thought was that I would not have much to contribute towards this, particular given that many people on this list have done excellent work on this issue. I have been reading Marc Bousquet's "How the University Works" with great (and morbid) interest. Being a graduate employee myself, and also somewhat active in the grad employee union on campus, I recognize the importance of such struggles. The capitulation of faculty-student body to the "will of the administration" is depressing. One anecdote will suffice. Last Spring, my institution, the University of Massachusetts decided (that is, some top manager decided in the collective name of the University) to award an honorary doctorate to Andrew Card, a close associate of George W. Bush and one of the pre-eminent architects of the War on Iraq. It is hard to call this a "controversial decision" because barring a few hard republican party supporters, the faculty and the graduate and undergraduate student bodies were quite united in their opposition. Despite repeated demonstrations and protest, including booing and placards inside the hall as Card was awarded the degree (see video of this) the administration went ahead with its plan. To me this blatant disregard of student and faculty opinion was emblematic of the process of change described by Bousquet. This was in Spring 2007. School resumed in the Fall with hardly a whisper about this whole fiasco. Only after decades of restructuring (of both organization and discourse) could the management have such confidence, confidence in the pliability or ineffectuality of the faculty and the student body.

But all this is not news and is only preface to my main point. I persevered in submitting a post because of the second aspect of the question raised by Edu-factory editors: How to construct an autonomous university? The first part of the discussion on hierarchies is supposed to inform the second part on autonomous universities. Here I believe that some lessons from the Indian experience could be the more relevant rather than my own experience in the Western Academy. In the context of India, this discussion on hierarchies and autonomous university assumes a different guise. We are now speaking not only about hierarchies created by higher education institutions in the formal labor market (the world of written contracts, tax-paying firms and employees), but also in society at large, where a vast number of individuals will never go to university or participate in the formal labor market. Yet their lives will be shaped by the university. A farmer has never gone to agricultural college where an agricultural scientist works. Both have knowledge but the knowledge of both is valued differently by society and by the market. These two will never compete directly for the same job (can the farmer be a visiting professor at our hypothetical university?). The scientist produces knowledge in the form of scholarly publications. The farmer produces knowledge in the activity of growing his crop. The veracity of the scientist's knowledge is tested by peer-review and replication in the laboratory or field. The veracity of the farmer's knowledge is tested by nature's "review" and replication in life. In response to a mistake, the scientist retracts his research paper/finding, in response to a mistake a farmer may lost a significant proportion of his income and go into lifelong debt. Further the farmer's knowledge activity feeds me, yet I value his knowledge less. Why?

I am guilty of posing a simple binary and I have belabored the example but I do have a point. I am sensitive to the interactions and porosity of borders in my example (the farmer could be using hybrid seeds developed by the scientist). But this does not alter the fact that there are two compartment in the first place (between which the porous border runs) and that the two interact asymmetrically. The hierarchy between farmers and scientists or artisans and engineers, is not peculiar to India or even the developing world. Neither is the university the only institution implicated in the construction of such hierarchies (the famous institution of "the market" is another). Note that I am not saying that "knowledge produced in life" is always and everywhere considered inferior to knowledge produced in the university or in the laboratory. But it is sufficiently general a phenomenon to warrant interest. Particular when we think about the characteristics of an autonomous university, I think we should think about how it will incorporate different types of knowledge. In India at least, a very large part of knowledge production and transmission, particularly of the kind that is directly relevant to sustaining livelihoods, takes place outside the university. An autonomous university would be required to be conscious of the multiple locations of knowledge production in society, be they with farmers, artisans, women, indigenous peoples. As Gigi Roggero noted, "The division between intellectual and manual not objective, but a device to hierarchize and to control labor power." An autonomous university would be founded on a non-distinction between the two, at least as far as respect for knowledge goes. It will recognize that all work is "knowledge work." At the Vidya Ashram in Varanasi, via the concept of dialog on knowledge in society, we have arrived at a concept of a "lokavidya academy" (loka = people/world, vidya = knowledge) which will be an academy that attempts to recognize and represent all types of knowledge in society.

On a related note let me bring in the issue of language here. The role of language and translation and of global English, has already been brought up several times in this round. To this discussion, I would like to add another dimension of language, namely, the role of language in formalization of knowledge, in making informal knowledge formal. The university, almost by definition produces and distributes formal knowledge. This question is particularly relevant in the Indian context because the language of higher education is English but this language is spoken by a very small minority of Indians. The University is complicit is maintaining this hierarchy of languages. This is a very old and heavily debated issue in the post-colonial context. Ngugi wa'Thiongo has written about it, as did Gandhi and Ram Manohar Lohia in their day. Thus a very important challenge facing the autonomous university is the issue of the language in which education will be imparted, knowledge will be produced. To restore prestige to people's knowledge, prestige will have to be restored to their languages. I am not saying anything terribly new. In the current climate, as India becomes more and more dependent on insertion in the global economy to sustain her "magical" rates of economic growth, English language training centers are booming. But the new economy only has place for so many. The majority is once again excluded and it is their own knowledge in their own languages that sustains them. The medium of instruction for higher education remains an extremely complex and controversial question today. And again I don't pretend to have an answer.

This brings me to the final and perhaps controversial point on localism and the autonomous university। Jon Solomon in an early post raised this issue and it was brought up again in a later post, from where I quote. The worry is "that the various attempts to construct alternative or nomadic university experiences might end up reproducing ossified forms of national and cultural resistance to the neoliberalization of the university."

This statement needs some unpacking. It is clear that many forms of resistance to neoliberal globalization are in fact national/cultural (even the preeminent challenge of Islam, can be interpreted along culturalist lines). Which of them are "ossified" and which are not? By what criterion do we distinguish the two? While Jon may have intended something different, in the liberal/radical European tradition of social thought (in which we may include Marxism) there is a tendency to frown upon cultural/nationalist resistance. It is equated with conservatism, parochialism and backwardness. It is somehow inferior to cosmopolitanism, internationalism, globalism. We want to be culturally global (but not economically global, at least not in the current form of globalization). Of course we are sophisticated enough to distinguish between being culturally global and being culturally the same. We don't want homogenization (mcdonaldization) but neither do we want insularity. But to me there is nothing a priori objectionable about either. We have seen malignant forms of both, benign forms of both. Resolving the tension between a locally culturally grounded worldview (which may form the basis of the resistance) and a benign view of other cultures with a respect for their own struggles, their own existence (in other words a benign enthocentrism), is a major challenge today. Unfortunately there is not much in the European experience to help us in this regard. All we find is a parochialism of universals (to use Immanuel Wallerstein's phrase) and an ethnocentrism in denial. An autonomous/open university must also be a local, non-parochial university. I stress the local as much as the non-parochial.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Do The World’s Poor Countries Finance the Rich Ones?

The Center for Popular Economics which is housed in my department at the University of Massachusetts, runs a series of short popular articles on issues of political economy. These are called EconAtrocity or EconUtopia depending on whether the writer is writing about a problem or a solution. CPE also runs a great progressive economics blog. I have written a few of these in the past, one on water privatization and one on community-managed water as an alternative to both large corporations and large state-run bureaucracies. Here is the most recent one I wrote.

Econ-Atrocity: Do The World’s Poor Countries Finance the Rich Ones?

Friday, January 18, 2008 by Center for Popular Economics By Amit Basole
CPE Staff Economist

Global Charity
In the year 2000, the richest 10 per cent of the world’s population held 85 percent of its total income and wealth. The bottom half owned a mere 1 percent. Such glaring global asymmetries have long justified redistribution of wealth from the “Global North” to the “Global South” in the form of development aid and loans. So much so, that the stock image of a developing country that springs to mind (particularly in sub-Saharan Africa) is that of a heavily indebted economy which continually borrows simply to repay its old loans and receives food and other forms of aid to feed and clothe its “naked and hungry masses.” Persistent poverty is often blamed on inadequate aid, and rich countries are periodically exhorted to donate more generously. This form of global charity is visible to all. But there is another flow of wealth across national borders, greater in magnitude and more clandestine. This is the flow from poor countries to the rich. Yes, the world’s poorest countries are today financing the richest. Far from being heavily indebted, many developing countries are net creditors vis-à-vis the rest of the world. How is this possible?


Eurocentrism, the University, and multiplicity of knowledge production sites

I am part of a international discussion list called "Edu-factory" which hosts discussions on the transformations currently ongoing in the university (corporatization etc) and on possibilities and avenues for creating non-hierarchical, autonomous universities. I had posted two scheduled contributions to that list. This is the first one, posted in April 2007. I am only positng a small excerpt below. For the entire post, click on the "more" link below. The second post, written in Jan 2008, is here.

The central theme on this discussion list is "Conflicts in the Production of Knowledge." There are of course many important conflicts to understand and many different ways to understand these conflicts. The one between market-oriented and non-market-oriented teaching and learning (or alternatively between liberal versus vocational/professional education) is one that has been alluded to many times. Similarly the conflicts over greater democratization of the learning process, over open access to research and so on are also important.

In my post I would like to take a somewhat different approach. The big questions that I am interested in are:
1. Can the
European University (what I mean by this will become clear presently) show us a way forward out of the global socio-ecological crisis of late capitalism?

2. Further, in the context of post-colonial societies such as India, how can the modern university escape or transcend its Eurocentric origins and bounds and become more immediately relevant to society at large?

Needless to say, these are topics for entire research programs and here I can offer no more than discussion points (indeed I am not qualified to do much more). Instead of attempting to answer these directly I will raise related issues:
1. What are some of the contradictions/conflicts in the "
European University" stand in the way of it being a force for radical change?
2. In the post-colonial context, how can we think of the University in relation to the other sites where knowledge is produced in society?


Friday, January 18, 2008

"Safar"ing and sacrifice or sugar-free romances?

By Shilpi Suneja

Safar vs. Cheeni Kum

Of course I liked Cheeni Kum. The very understated treatment of a wholly original love story, requiring a very mature understanding. It definitely heralds a new age of Indian cinema–here we are, talking about a romance between two people miles apart in age. It is what you call unconventional. I would also call it modern. That yes, we can finally talk about such unconventional romances.

But on a more subtle level, the tradition-modernity debate is implicated once again. This movie in a way suggest that it is only now that we can talk about such love, which defies our conventional ideals of marriage, family, the love between (reasonably same aged) adults. It is only now because only now has there been a triumph of reason. A triumph of freedom. Gone are the bonds of tradition. Of dated ideals of sacrifice.

This becomes clear if you compare Cheeni Kum with a movie such as Safar. The male protagonists of both movies are arguably in similar predicaments. Both are apparently closer rather than farther away from death. One is 64 and has no more than anywhere from 20 to 6 years of sane, un-wheelchaired adulthood, and the other has barely a few months as he suffers from terminal cancer. And in both cases the woman has good reasons to choose another man who is likely to live a longer life. In Safar she chooses another man. In Cheeni Kum she doesn't.

What we know, what we feel is that we have come a long way. What has happened to us during this process? 20+ years of feminine lib, 10+ years of neoliberal capitalism (in India), loud Americanization (Hollywoodization, McDonaldization) and you have it. A short, shy, dimpled, sari-clad Sharmila (I did say shy) is replaced with a tall, broad, lankily independent Tabu. There are important similarities. Both have a strong sense of independence, although I find Sharmila's more convincing. She is a true working-girl (not like Tabu's character who merely says she is a software engineer, but all of her time in the movie is spent walking in the streets of London and the by-lanes of Delhi). Both are given the option of making their own decision. But what changes? I don't think it is the women so much as the culture around them. It is no longer necessary or possible for the Devdas-like hero to compel the heroine to sacrifice her and his love. In fact, the modern day and age cannot give us a Devdas. Are the very aesthetics of sentimentality, of rona-dhona a thing of the past?

The man wishes to choose in his interest, in her interest. And so does the woman. After all, it is the age of choices. That is the least capitalism can afford to us. It is the age of reason, of individualism. The age of choosing happiness for oneself. Compared to this the poignancy of self-sacrifice in Safar seems so pointless, so hopeless, so unnecessary. This, I think is a not altogether healthy loss. I think we have lost something of beauty.

Shyam Benegal's Ankur

My interest in cinema is only a few years old and I am admittedly a novice in understanding its grammar and its aesthetics. My attempts at making sense of film are mostly grounded in the social philosophy that they articulate to me. In this regard Shyam Benegal's early film Ankur is very interesting. I had seen the film in India one or twice when it aired on television. But the impact of a film (or for that matter anything else) is proportional to your capacity to absorb the material. As Ghalib says,

girni thi ham pe barq-e-tajalli na toor par
dete hain baadah zarf-e-qadah-khvaar dekh kar

The lightning of glory should have fallen on us not on Mount Toor
They only give wine after seeing the capacity of the wine drinker

[F.Pritchett's translation]

click here for Frances Pritchett's annotation and explication of this verse.
So the gist of it is that when I saw the film again several years later, my capacity for drinking the wine of social commentary was greater! I wrote the following after seeing the movie.

A still from Ankur

Ankur is the film that shot director Shyam Benegal to fame and in my opinion it is a beautifully nuanced portrayal of contemporary social dynamics in rural India. I say contemporary in the long-historical sense since 32 years have passed since the making of the film. I think that the most prominent conflict the story depicts still remains important. The two characters of central importance are the kumhar woman Lakshmi (Shabana Azmi) and the landlord’s son, Surya (Anant Nag). Lakshmi’s husband, Kishtaya (Sadhu Meher) is also an important part of the puzzle. I understand the kumhar couple (Lakshmi and Kishtaya) as articulating, through their acts more than their words, the central problematic of the twin evils of feudal-capitalism and industrial-capitalism. This is not the place to go into an elaboration of these two concepts but briefly, I construct these categories to capture, in very abstract terms, what has also been referred to variously as the Bharat-India or the bahishkrit-paschimikrit divide, the dual economy etc. “Feudal-capitalism” (a contradiction in terms for many Marxists and perhaps even for non-Marxists), but a concept well-developed by World-Systems Analysts, is meant to convey the idea that those social formations that are routinely labeled “feudal” in the Indian context (for e.g. the type of rural society depicted in Ankur) are themselves, in the form that we know them, a product of the development of the capitalist world-economy. Thus the “feudal” rural economy is a vital part of capitalism. “Industrial-capitalism” refers to social formations that are mostly labeled simply as “capitalist” or “industrial” or “modern”. In the film, this world enters the story via the character of Surya, the city-educated, feudal lord.

If Lakshmi and Kishtaya constitute a (feminist and subaltern) critique of the central problematic, then Surya epitomizes a “worst of both worlds” distillation of the same problematic. As noted in the film’s review on the Strictly Film School site, “Surya soon disrupts the dynamics of everyday life in the village by flouting tradition and local custom: asking the lower caste Lakshmi to brew his tea and cook his meals”। Thus, when Lakshmi expresses disbelief at Surya’s request to cook for him (“aap mere haath ka khana khayenge?”) Surya asserts that he does not believe in caste-prejudice (“main jaat-paat nahi manta”). So far Surya seems to behave as the stereotypical city-educated, modern young man over whom the “customs and traditions” (riti-rivaaz) hold little sway. However, Benegal makes the story a good deal more interesting by exploring the limits to Surya’s “progressive” qualities. Here I disagree with the analysis presented at the Strictly Film School site. It is stated there that “despite Surya's seemingly progressive ideas on the irrelevance of the caste system, his moral integrity proves suspect when he develops an irrepressible attraction towards his enigmatic and beautiful servant”. I think that blaming Surya’s crimes and misdemeanors on lack of “moral integrity” misses the other half of Benegal’s civilizational critique. Having shown us the evils of feudal-capitalism, through Surya’s vacillating nature, Benegal is showing us the sexism or patriarchy of modern-capitalism. To put it another way, if we can blame Surya’s failings on lack of moral integrity why not credit his “progressive ideas” to moments of high moral integrity? Or conversely, why not portray all the myriad crimes committed by agents in the feudal-capitalist social formation as resulting from individual moral failings? We do not do the later because we recognize the systemic nature of abuses such as caste exploitation. Well, the failings of industrial-capitalism are systemic as well. If we credit progressive ideas to it as a system (of values imparted via education etc) we must debit the failings of its product (Surya) as the system’s failings as well.

Thus through Surya’s blunderings and moral cowardice, Benegal, in my opinion, shows us the devil (feudal-capitalism) and the deep-blue sea (industrial-capitalism) between which women (Lakshmi) and the subaltern (unemployed, ex-artisan Kishtaya) are trapped. The deeply symbolic ending shows a little boy, who we have previously seen observing the film's climatic moment of violence (which itself symbolizes the clash between industrial capitalism and its hapless dispossed victims), hurl "the first stone" crashing the window of Surya's home. It is the innocence that we attribute to a child that makes this action something more than a venting of anger at the local tyrant and yet the film's ending leaves something to be desired. Of course I do not expect Benegal to "offer solutions". His job as a socially conscious artist is to hold a mirror (as in the shot above) which reflect his own understanding of social processes.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

गांधीवादी इतिहासकार धरमपालजी की पांच किताबें ऑनलाइन उपलभ्द

कुछ दिनों पहले मुझे यह जान कर बेहद ख़ुशी हुयी कि मशहूर गांधीवादी धरमपालजी ने लिखी पांच किताबें, जो Other India Press, गोवा ने हालही में पुनः प्रकाशित की हैं, अब इंटरनेट पर पूरी तरह उपलब्ध हैं। वे मुल्तिवेर्सिटी लिब्ररी और समनवय वेबसाइट दो नो ही जगहों पर से डाउनलोड की जा सकती हैं। इन पांच किताबों, जो सारी अंग्रेजी में है, उनके के नाम हैं:
Vol 1: Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century
Vol 2: Civil Disobedience in the Indian Tradition
Vol 3: The Beautiful Tree Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century
Vol 4: Panchayat Raj and India’s polity
Vol 5: Essays on Tradition, Recovery and Freedom (which includes Bharatiya Chit, Manas and Kala)

धरमपालजी ने खुद अंग्रेजों द्वारा लिखित रपटों आदि में अनुसंधान कर गांधीजी के कुछ मूल सिद्धांतों और वक्ताय्वों के लिए ठोस ऐतिहासिक सबूत जमा किये हैं। अंग्रेजी हुकूमत से पहले कि (यानी सत्रवी अठार्वी सदी कि) भारतीय सामाजिक-आर्थिक व्यवस्था की जो छवि धरमपालजी प्रस्तुत करते हैं, वह आज भी वैश्वीकरण नामक साम्राज्यवाद से मोर्चा लेने में अत्यंत उपयुक्त साबित हो सकती है। और इन दिशाओं में कई लोग काम भी कर रहे हैं।

यह बहुत ही ख़ुशी कि बात है कि यह किताबें अब इंटरनेट पर मुफ्त उपलब्ध हैं। अपने पाठकों से मेरी दरख्वास्त है कि वे इन्हें ज़रूर पढे और औरों को भी बताएं।

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Jama Masjid, oh and where to find good Urdu books in Delhi

Approach to Jama Masjid

Masjid-e-jahan-numa (mosque from where the world can be seen) more commonly known as Jama Masjid is a prominent landmark in old Delhi. It is located near Lal Qila (The Red Fort) at the beginning of Chandni Chowk. It is also very close to Gali Qasim Jaan in Ballimaran, where Ghalib lived towards the end of his life. I took this teeming picture standing on the steps leading up to the Jama Masjid. Lal Qila (The Red Fort) is visible looming in the background. Looking at it now, many months later, all the greenery in the frame gives a sense of coolness to the atmosphere. In fact, it was a hot late summer day. The road leading up to the mosque the lines with sellers of devotional music, chaddars, rooh afza sherbet, shoes, food and what not. Its a market not fashionable enough to be called a mall, because not exclusionary, not air-conditioned, not formal (as is usually the case, defined by lack, by what it is not). The area around the mosque has served as a bazaar since the earliest days of Shahjahan, when the mosque was built.

Sun setting behind the Jama Masjid

Non-Muslim visitors are allowed inside into the main courtyard/compound only as certain times of the day when it is not being used for prayer. The courtyard is very large and is said to hold up to 25,000 worshipers. This picture was taken sitting on the marble balustrade at the edge of the clearing, gazing at the facade as the Sun sets behind. But click here for a far more beautiful picture of the sun setting behind the mosque, than I could ever take.

Arabic Calligraphy on the Jama Masjid

They say music transcends language, one doesn't need to understand the language of a song to feel it in one's body and soul. I certainly felt that when I started listening to Persian qawwalis. Except an occasional word here and there, I understood almost nothing of the meaning. Yet, it grabbed hold of me and wouldn't let me go, until I painstakingly looked up meanings and grammar, and pieced together the song. When I look at Arabic, Persian and Urdu calligraphy, it seems as though not just music, but language itself seems to transcend language. One does not need to understand what is written to appreciate the elegance and the beauty. But when one does understand it, the joy is that much more enhanced. As with all good art, there are layers here to be uncovered, slowly, savoringly. It makes you work hard to appreciate its beauty, as it should.

Urdu Bazar seen from Jama Masjid

Alongside the Jama Masjid there is a small lane lined with bookshops selling Urdu books. This is known as Urdu Bazaar. A good place to find cheap copies of the classics and also modern day works in Urdu. Maktaba Jamia, a well-known publisher of books in Urdu language, has its outlet here. I spent a good two hours in their store, unmolested. No one shooed me away or asked me what I was doing there so long etc. To someone used only to bookshops in the United States, this fact may seem un-noteworthy, but alas, in India free browsing of books is not the norm (it is making a comeback though). In any case, part of the reason I lingered so long in the bookshop is because I can barely read Urdu, so it takes me a long time to read the title on the spine and make out what the book is about! The assistants must have noticed this, but they didn't say anything. Instead they helpfully dug out books I asked for and hung about waiting to be of service. I found excellent cheap editions (Rs. 20-Rs.100) of the divan of Dard, Hali's Muqaddimah, Faruqi's Urdu ka Ibtadaayi Zamana (which has been translated into English as "Early Urdu Literary History and Culture", I highly recommend it) and a few other books.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

"Nandigram and the Blind Faith in Industrialization"

An excellent theoretical analysis of the larger meaning of Nandigram for models of development was published in the Hindi magazine Samayik Varta, this past June. I translated the article into English. It is available at

I highly recommend it for all interested in going beyond discussions of party politics in West Bengal or of what is adequate compensation for displaced peoples, and what is not.