the two tourists
Most people leave India with a sense of spiritual enlightenment. Albeit their short sojourn into a third-world country, they leave with their minor trivial facts, most ripped fresh from the pages of their battered copy of The Lonely Planet. I find it perplexing that a tourist could ever truly understand the multifarious layers upon which India is built in such a short time. Yet their belligerent insistence upon having some sort of ‘spiritual awakening’ is difficult to reconcile – based purely on their resolve to eat from their hostel’s overpriced menu, or, from the Westernised haunts that line the main bazaars; all offering bastardised versions our local cuisine. Most, if not all these establishments heave with a multiplicity of languages, none being Hindi, Bengali, Tamil. In lieu of a more erudite introduction, I would like to talk about the two main types of tourists in India. For once you wade through the agglomeration of ‘journey’s’ most are invariably quite similar.
You can see them from a mile away. Dressed in the most resplendent saris, ali-baba pants and other ‘traditional’ Indian garments – many have come to escape from the decadence of Western materialism. To experience the rampant spirituality that India has to offer. By their own omission, they are trying to subjectively capture the true essence of a country with a rich tapestry of spiritualism, owing mainly to the manifold cultures in a country of nearly 1.2 billion. Some may be lucky enough to find it; most won’t. They’ll know its main streets, its highways, the stretches of roads flanked by the crumbling façade of their colonial era. But they will always be a tourist – regardless of their intentions. And when they return to the daily grind of post-modernity, they’ll believe themselves to be somewhat superior. Their self-aggrandizing will be evident at their dinner parties, where they part pearls of wisdom plucked from the touts in the temples. The ‘Traveler’ is just another hermetically sealed tourist; trying to subjectively capture a spiritualism that they will divulge at the dinner table.
The tourist is perhaps hidden from sight – they invariably stay at the growing hoards of bourgeois hotels dotting the pristine landscape; charging exorbitant amounts for those Western comforts that are of such importance. They are certainly not paying the $5 a night, which seems the median price for the undiscerning tourist such as myself. Dressed in multi-pocketed beige vests, cargo pants, and an overwhelming sense of complacency due to the proximity of their ‘local’ guide/guard, they too are searching for the same thing. They use their lustrous Nikon cameras to objectively capture a fleeting scene – the surreal majesty of heterogeneous temples that evince the landscape. Just like the ‘Traveler’ both are searching for a discussion – a point of conversation from their otherwise bourgeois existence. ‘Oh, the locals are just SO FRIENDLY, but they are VERY PUSHY’. You can almost imagine the same discussion taking part in the early part of the twentieth century, when this country was ruled by the British. Tea, jam, and poverty. Or perhaps, chai, dhal and poverty.
So both look for the same thing – one looks for a feeling to regale to their like-minded compatriots. A subjective state of mind – in which any form of perjury, has value. The other takes photos, an objective capitulation which betrays the country, its beguiling terrain, and it’s remarkable people.
I just haven’t worked out who I hate more.
• 24 December 2011
tea with dissidents - or, how i learnt to despise the indian government
A change is afoot in India. Not a change that frenetically stops trams in Swanston street, not a change that brings transient camps to the public spaces on Collins street, or Zucotti park, or St Paul’s cathedral. But a change in which one million Indians in Delhi alone put down their instruments of economic slavery, and strike. Strike against the corruption of the state, in which the modes of production are truly in the hands of the top echelon of society. Strike against the complexity of the state, in which their multi-party democracy has been reduced to a plutocracy. The movement, known as Anna (named after the prominent leader kisan baburao hazare) seems to be on the lips of every student, worker, rickshaw driver, shop keeper et al, that I speak to. Below is an account of my conversation with two Indian dissidents.
my driver, singh, took me to his friends house for lunch in a town about 50 km’s north of Agra. His friend smiled when he saw me, took my hand warmly, and introduced himself as arvind. He proceeded to parade his children before me – each smiling nervously as I extended my hand. Namaste, Namaste, Namaste. He directed me towards a low bed, where my driver had already taken position amongst the multitude of silk pillows. They began conversing in Hindi, while I, nodded and smiled, conditioned by my western egotism to believe that they may be talking about me. All introductory conversations in India comprise of the same questions:
‘where are you from?’ (Melbourne)
‘do you like cricket?’ (yes (fuck no, it is quite honestly the most tedious sport known to man))
‘shane warne, ricky ponting, brett lee?’ (I never quite know how to answer this….)
‘what do you do?’ (student; philosophy (never social theory) and politics)
‘why are you alone?’ (because no-one wanted to come with me)
‘where is your wife’ (she doesn’t exist)
After these establishing questions, intercepted by much grinning, they continued their conversation. I was left to smoke my Indian cigarettes and gaze upon authenticity. Arvind seemed quite apt and English; he explained to me that he was a teacher, who spent time studying in England ‘many years ago’. Singh tilted his head in my direction, and, in Hindi, made a comment in which I could understand the significant word: Anna. With this Arvind’s face lit up; ‘you know Anna, James? What do you know?’. I explained to him that I had a interest in social movements in general, and had read about Anna before coming, though I could scarcely comment on its significance. I told him that I was aware that there was a million strong protest currently in Delhi. His face expressed a subtle joy:
‘It’s nice to know that there are travelers who actually care about India beyond its spiritualism. I mean, that is an important part of our history, of our sense of place. But I am not a religious man. Why look to the skies for answers when the material conditions on the ground are so grim. Anna is the most important movement to happen in India since the independence movement. We beat the British, now we must beat our own countrymen. It can be done. We must take back our country, make It a true multi-party democracy, and take control of the production’
Control of production? That phrase sounded undoubtedly Marxist. I knew that Marxism was in vogue in some social movements throughout India in the 60-70s, but no idea that it held continued influence. At my suggestion that his remarks sounded very left-wing, he jumped up from his chair, and proceeded to the book-shelf in the corner. He brought back pamphlets, faded and creased from extensive use, which bore the familiar faces of Marx, Gramsci, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao – and other activists from Latin America and the Asian subcontinent which I did not recognize.
‘I am a student of all these (pointing towards the pamphlets) people. They all help me understand the current situation, and remind me of how we can win. I’ve read about your occupy movement. One thing that you don’t seem to understand in the west is the importance of your body. The body is the most important revolutionary tool. You must sacrifice it for the movement. That is why we Indians, when we strike, do not eat. We use our body as a tool – because that is all it is. A tool’
I could not believe that I was actually in conversation with a political dissident. I had come to a country, renowned for its spiritualism, and was having the most amazing conversation about the formation of a political class, the role/responsibility of the proletariat, the organization of the means of production.
‘Could India ever get to the point of revolution?’ I asked, truly transfixed by my host’s command of leftist political theory.
‘Who knows. We are merely in a transition phase. We beat the British 70 years ago, but still haven’t truly achieved independence. The Indian people are still prisoners in their own country. The lords just have the same skin colour as us now.’
We continued to chat, laugh, and eat. I had had my first taste of Indian leftism, and was truly stunned.
• 14 December 2011
kant, nietzsche, and the enlightenment
i thought it best to upload an example of my writing, albeit a rather poor example. more topical essays will be published shortly…
Kant’s most unequivocal definition of Enlightenment can be found within the first lines of his essay ‘An answer to the question: What is Enlightenment?’ (‘What is Enlightenment’ herein). For Kant, Enlightenment is a historical and philosophical process, by which an individual emerges ‘from his self-incurred minority’. This ‘minority’, to which mankind has been ascribed, is based upon our dependence on leaders, be they religious or political, for guidance. Our status is that of a minor; we utilise authoritarian figures to reason for us, as we have a ‘lack of resolution and courage’ to think freely as autonomous agents. For Kant, the process of enlightenment is dependent on numerous assumptions. While it is ‘difficult for any single individual to extricate himself from the minority that has become almost nature to him’, our ability to use reason, to believe ourselves to be autonomous agents, is the guiding tenet on which the goals of enlightenment rest. Thus, the first element to Kant’s evocation of enlightenment is mankind’s ability to use reason for the betterment of our own current condition. Yet despite our capacity for reason, this attribute alone cannot progress towards an enlightened end without the assistance of ‘independent thinkers’, who will ‘disseminate the spirit of rational value of one’s worth’, only if given the freedom to do so. Kant believes that the ‘public can achieve enlightenment only slowly’ if these ‘independent thinkers’ are given enough civil freedom to circulate their opinions within the state. Thus, the second element of Kant’s thought becomes clear; freedom is the pre-requisite to enlightenment. However, it is important here to discern the differences between two key features of this process, public and private reason. Kant distinguishes between the two thusly:
By the public use of one’s reason I understand that use which someone makes of it as a scholar before the entire public of the world of readers. What I call the private use of reason is that which one may make of it in a certain civil post or office with which he is entrusted.
While Kant believes that the public use of freedom ‘must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among human beings’, the private use of one’s reason must be curtailed to ensure that such state mechanisms which allow the free dissemination of ideas not be tarnished, or altogether destroyed. Our tutelage to leaders is replaced by our ability to act as moral agents – caused by a cessation of public censorship in matters relating to the state and its various institutions (including religious traditions). For Kant, this seems inevitable, as the propensity to think freely is a naturally occurring phenomenon in human nature.
Kant’s evocation of the process of enlightenment raises quite a few issues, principally found in his distinction between public and private use of reason. While he allows the public freedom in all matters, he maintains that those entrusted in a ‘certain civil post or office’ must be kept submissive. For Kant, enlightenment cannot occur without the interdependence of the two uses of reason. While we would usually regard any curtailing of reason as an antithesis to freedom of conscience, Kant sees it as a necessary precondition. He remarks that ‘the private use of one’s reason may, however, often be very narrowly restricted without this particularly hindering the progress of enlightenment’, as ‘he represents as something with respect to which he does not have free power to teach as he thinks best, but which he is appointed to deliver as presided and in the name of another’. By doing this, as Michael Clarke points out, ‘he presents the public use of reason as the means by which reason can provide the critical standard for an authority that might never be fully rational’. As it is clear that the state does not have the propensity to be rational all the time, how are we to put faith into a system that is entrusted with perhaps not the dissemination of enlightenment, but certainly the means by which it is achieved (namely the abrogation of censorship)? Indeed, as Kant himself claims, ‘argue as much as you will about what you will; but obey!
It is clear that this obedience to the state can only maintain prosaic status quo. Kant seemingly wants to protect institutional tutelage under the guise of their want for the citizens to become autonomous agents. James Schmidt understands the protective nature of Kant’s appeal; ‘the free public use of reason was the most ‘innocuous form’ of freedom, since the scholarly reflections which take place in the public sphere pose no threat to the functioning of the private sphere’. In this sense, Kant does not guarantee the ability of the masses to destroy the power and control the state has. While not expressly stated, it seems that his obedience leads not to a liberal democracy (where the core principles of enlightenment should be fulfilled), but a totalitarian state. Borrowing from the anti-Enlightenment rhetoric of Foucault, Geoffrey Galt Harpham, emphasises that the true answer to Kant’s original question of what enlightenment actually is can be defined as both a ‘shrewd attempt to circumscribe the sovereign’s recognised appetite for the suppression of dissent, and a prescient disclosure of the (totalitarian) obscenity of Enlightenment itself’. Without the ability of the private sphere to enact change from within, it is difficult to see how the state and religious institutions would not continue their hegemonic rule. Indeed, nowhere in Kant’s treatise does he make it explicitly clear that such centres of societal power should change their ways when faced with mounting pressure from the public, and so called ‘independent thinkers’.
While Nietzsche does not explicitly define Enlightenment as Kant does, much of his work during the ‘Middle Period’ is directed towards his thoughts on enlightened individuals. A distinguishing feature of this period of writing is Nietzsche’s appraisal of the field of science; indeed, the process of enlightenment could loosely be seen progressive scientific evaluation. As Ruth Abbey states, Nietzsche believed that ‘science offers the possibility of seeing the world as it is, without wishful thinking’ and that ‘scientific thinking as a source of social progress’. In a passage in Human, all too Human entitled ‘Reason in school’, Nietzsche makes this clear, stating that schools should ‘forcibly promote what is essential and distinctive in human beings: “reason and science, the supreme powers of man”’. For Nietzsche, this seems to be re-evaluation of his previous philosophical position. Indeed in Philosophy and Truth, he argues that it is ‘impossible to build a culture upon knowledge’; a position that is radically altered by Human, all too Human, where he argues instead ‘that the ‘higher culture’ of the future will be based on knowledge and ‘science’ rather than on religion, art, and metaphysical philosophy’. The enlightenment process, then, is espoused as scientific development. As he writes in a section entitled ‘Irresponsibility and innocence’, Nietzsche explains that ‘the highest degree of human intelligence that can be reached at present will surely still be surpassed: and then, in retrospect, all our actions and judgements will seem as restricted and precipitate as the actions and judgments of backward, savage tribes now appear to us to be’. Through this a process of reassessment ‘all humanity will gradually be raised up to this manliness, when it has finally grown accustomed to esteeming lasting, durable knowledge more highly and has lost all belief in inspiration and the miraculous communication of truths’. It is through freedom and scientific reason that humans will attain an elevated level of enlightenment.
Yet despite Nietzsche’s insistence that mankind must break away from pejorative tradition, he too shares Kant’s concern for revolutionary change. It is evident that he sees drastic and instant social and political overthrow as being counter-productive to the overarching goals of humanity; arguing that ‘unfortunately, we know from historical experience that every such revolution brings with it a new resurrection of the most savage energies in the form of the long-buried horrors and excesses of the most distant ages’. However, he does break from Kant’s general appraisal of the Germanic state in Daybreak, insisting that it had, in fact, been hostile towards the general goals of the Enlightenment, claiming that ‘[German philosophers] had retreated to the first and oldest stage of speculation, for, like the thinkers of dreamy ages, they were content with concepts instead of explanations’. Furthermore, Nietzsche contends that the freedom that is most important is that which belongs to all people, regardless of status. It is this relative ‘free spirit’ that is most important; through their work, they ‘reach upon those paths that might therefore be truer and more reliable than those of the constrained spirits’.
It seems that Kant’s insistence on the maintenance of status quo, albeit under a guise of promoting social freedom, has to be rigorously critiqued in contemporary society. Yet despite its faults, it can be concluded that much of Kant’s treatise still holds some form of truth. Though we have (in this country) freedom of thought and expression, in the media, and through religious institutions, there is still a schism between the public and private spheres. The zeitgeist is still debated, yet effectively unchallenged by the public. Far from moving towards a heightened society of full intellectual debate, the effect of modernism has seemed to quell our insistence on achieving an enlightened society.
Abbey, Ruth: Nietzsche’s middle period (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)
Clarke, Michael: “Kant’s rhetoric of Enlightenment”, The Review of Politics, Vol. 59, No. 1 (1997)
Franco, Paul: “Nietzsche’s “Human, All Too Human” and the Problem of Culture”, The Review of Politics, Vol. 69, No.2 (2007)
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt: “So…What is Enlightenment? An inquisition into modernity”, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 20, No. 3 (1994)
Kant, Immanuel: Practical Philosophy, trans. and ed. Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966)
Nietzsche, Friedrich: Daybreak, trans. R.J Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982)
Nietzsche, Friedrich: Human, all too Human, trans. Gary Handwerk (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995)
Schmidt, James: “The Question of Enlightenment: Kant, Mendelssohn, and the Mittwochesgesellschaft”, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol 50, No. 2 (1989)
• 25 October 2011