Confronting Indology – Part 1

Confronting Indology – Part 1Sanskrit Manuscript
Snapshot
  • A question that arises when one studies the academic assault on Hinduism is: Why Hinduism?

    What has Hinduism done, that is even remotely comparable to the excesses of Western racism and genocide, or Islamic violence, that draws this type of criticism and attempts at subversion?

    To understand the current academic view of Hinduism, we have to go back to the founding of what is called the Frankfurt school of Marxism.

    This school was founded by Marxist thinkers who wanted to develop a new way of thinking about why capitalist societies developed in the 20th century, and why Germany, instead of becoming Marxist, became Nazi instead.

    The critical theorist, in order to develop his or her ‘critique’, has several tools at his or her disposal, including Freudian psychoanalysis.

Introduction

Since Rajiv Malhotra’s release of the book “The Battle for Sanskrit” (TBFS), a spirited debate and conversation has ensued between people who are concerned with the problems TBFS highlights, but disagree on what is to be done and how it is to be done.  What this article wishes to explore is informed by not only Malhotra’s book and various essays he has written on the subject, but also the recent articles by Ashay Naik, Shatavadhani Ganesh, and Kalavai Venkat.

My interest has been piqued by certain comments and analyses these authors have used, along with some further insights I have gained by additional readings.  In particular, I want to highlight the connection that Indology, including that of the Pollockian variety, has to the Frankfurt school of Marxism and critical theory.

This will help the lay readers understand the ‘intellectual’ underpinnings of much of not just Indology, but also the humanities and social sciences in general.  I also want to review the criticisms of this approach that have already been done in Western academy and how they could be useful to Indians to confront this type of post-Marxist ‘Indology’.

Background

A question that arises when one studies the academic assault on Hinduism is: Why Hinduism?  What has Hinduism done, that is even remotely comparable to the excesses of Western racism and genocide, or Islamic violence, that draws this type of criticism and attempts at subversion?  To a lay person, it might seem that Hindus and Hinduism are being singled out by a patronizing racist west as they have done historically.  However, this is not entirely true.

To understand the current academic view of Hinduism, we have to go back to the founding of what is called the Frankfurt school of Marxism. This school was founded by Marxist thinkers who wanted to develop a new way of thinking about why capitalist societies developed in the 20th century, and why Germany, instead of becoming Marxist, became Nazi instead.

The school had to move from Germany when Hitler rose to power, and it eventually moved to the US, where it became affiliated with Columbia University in New York. Thinkers associated with the institute included Theodore Adorno and Walter Benjamin, who declared that “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”


Theorists of the Frankfurt School
Theorists of the Frankfurt School

A key aspect of the Frankfurt school was the development of “critical theory” to analyze the functioning of a capitalist system and its misrepresentation of human interaction that led to its justification and legitimization of dominance of certain classes of people over others. This critique of capitalism turned into a critique of Western civilization as a whole in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment

This critique was motivated especially by the need to understand the Holocaust and what led to it. Adorno also criticizes modern music and art, and argues against beauty itself because it is part of the ideology of advanced capitalist society and false consciousness that contributes to social domination.  This is the aesthetization of power that Malhotra also talks about.

Another influential text was the “Authoritarian personality” by Adorno et. al. that invented a set of criteria by which to define personality traits on the ‘F scale’, with ‘F’ standing for Fascist . Again, the impetus was the Holocaust and attempts to determine what in the Western man’s personality could lead to such behavior.

This book relied on Freudian psychoanalytical techniques: for instance, harsh parenting that causes children to feel immense anger towards their parents that they cannot directly confront, but instead causes them to identify and idolize authority figures. Plus, the book argued, that authoritarianism was rooted in suppressed homosexuality, which was redirected into outward hostility towards the father, which was, in turn, suppressed for fear of being infantilized and castrated by the father.

Critique

Rita Felski argues that over the past few decades, many in cultural studies and literature have thought of themselves as engaged in “critique”, or “critical theory” that has its roots in the Frankfurt school as mentioned above.  As she says:

“Critique is widely seen as synonymous with intellectual rigor, theoretical sophistication, and intransigent opposition to the status quo. Drawing a sense of intellectual weightiness from its connections to the canonical tradition of Kant and Marx, it has managed, nonetheless, to retain a cutting edge sensibility, retooling itself to fit the needs of new fields ranging from postcolonial theory to disability studies.

Critique is contagious and charismatic, drawing everything around it into its field of force, marking the boundaries of what counts as serious thought. For many scholars in the humanities, it is not just one good thing but the only conceivable thing. Who would want to be associated with the bad smell of the uncritical?”

Felski characterizes “critique” as having five attributes:

1. Negativity: Critique is always to be in opposition to the beliefs of others.  The idea of critique is to highlight the contradictions, oversights, omissions in the object one is analyzing.  Felski quotes Robert Koch who says that “critical discourse, as critical discourse, must never formulate positive statements: it is always ‘negative’ in relation to its object”

Because all of this negativity may come across as an overbearing nay-saying humorless school madam, a preferred way to be negative, instead of outright condemnation, is by ‘scrutinizing’ the presumptions and procedures through which truths are established, and ‘problematising’ the beliefs rather than denouncing errors. Felski says “The role of critique is not to castigate, but to complicate, not to engage in ideas’ destruction but to expose their cultural construction”. Or as she quotes Barbara Johnson who says “the critique reads backwards from what seems natural, obvious, self-evident, or universal in order to show that these things have their history” and to show that the “start point is not a (natural) given, but a (cultural) construct, usually blind to itself”

2. Secondary: A critique is always of something else; it does not and cannot stand alone. But the goal of criticism is always to come second temporally, from the object under consideration.  The goal is construct a different reading than what the text gives of itself, and this reading is supposed to be the definitive final word because of the benefit of hindsight. It presumes “to understand the past better than the past understands itself”.

3. Intellectual: Critique is interested in the “big picture”.  It is a process done slowly, by hours of painstaking working over of language that rejects ready-made phrases and formulas.  In short, it is against common sense itself, and that gives scholars a privileged position of ‘thinkers’ as opposed to the people of whom they speak.

4.From below: Critique has to rail against ‘authority’; this is from its grounding in the Marxist Frankfurt school.  Critique is to be the natural ally of marginalized groups and ‘subjugated’ knowledges.  It is also a call to action to bring forward whatever these subjugated knowledge might be.

As Felski writes, the determination of who constitutes the ‘opposition’ is determined by a partisan, though not uncritical identification with oppositional social movements. The entire theory of ‘sub-altern’ studies also concerns itself with finding these suppressed voices and using the axioms of critique to ‘bring voice to them’.

5.Intolerance: Felski, “Declaring itself uniquely equipped to diagnose the perils and pitfalls of representation, critique often chafes at the presence of other forms of thought. Ruling out the possibility of peaceful coexistence or even mutual indifference, it insists that those who do not embrace its tenets must be denying or disavowing them”.

“In short, critique thinks of itself as exceptional. It is not one path, but the only conceivable path.”Critical theory is washed over by a thought process called “Postmodernism” that is typically defined by an attitude of skepticism or distrust toward grand narratives, ideologies, and the existence of absolute truth. 

It asserts that all knowledge and truth are products of unique systems of social, historical, and political discourse, and are therefore contextual and constructed.  The phrase “There are no truths, only interpretations” is a standard characterization of postmodern criticism. The skepticism regarding “grand narratives” is due to the musings of Francois Lyotard, a French philosopher.

The critical theorist, in order to develop his or her ‘critique’, has several tools at his or her disposal, including Freudian (and Lacanian, from Jacques Lacan another psychologist considered to be the most controversial since Freud) psychoanalysis which is obviously useful for determining hidden, subliminal messages that the text can be alleged to have outside of what is actually written.

Another tool is one of “Deconstruction”; a postmodernist theory for philosophy, literary criticism, and textual analysis developed by Jacques Derrida (who taught at UC Irvine until his death in 2004). As the wiki entry for deconstruction summarizes:

“The notion of a “deconstructive” approach implies an analysis that questions the already evident understanding of a text in terms of presuppositions, ideological underpinnings, hierarchical values, and frames of reference. A deconstructive approach further depends on the techniques of close reading without reference to cultural, ideological, moral opinions or information derived from an authority over the text such as the author. At the same time Derrida famously writes: “Il n’y a pas d’hors-texte (there is no such thing as outside-of-the-text). Derrida’s method frequently involves recognizing and spelling out the different, yet similar interpretations of the meaning of a given text and the problematic implications of binary oppositions within the meaning of a text.”

The next part will explore how some Indological ‘research’ appears to follow the axioms of critical theory as described in this section.

Ram Kumar is a senior scientist in a large Fortune 500 corporation. He holds a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, is well published in his field including two monographs, more than two dozen papers in journals and conferences, and holds more than a dozen patents. He tweets at  @RamKumar1133

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