an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 3, November 2006, ISSN 1552-5112




Destinies of the Critical


D. Venkat Rao



 “[I]t is now the difference…on the one hand, between philosophy and the human and social sciences, and …on the other, between philosophy and the sciences of life and technosciences”[1]



Whether chronological or conceptual, contestatory or complicitous, the discourses of the “post” have now gained a place in the academy.  From being marginal and “illegitimate” at one point, they (have) move(d) through the passage of ascendancy and banality.  The discourses of the “post” have recast disciplinary/institutional production of knowledge.  But even as these discourses were making their way, a sort of planetary reorganization of forces and flows was under way – a reorganization that eventually began to undermine systematically the institutional sustenance of certain discourses of the post and put to crisis the very disciplinary constellations of the “social” and “human”.  This new conjuncture has emerged through the interrelated spectacle of the rise of technosciences and the release of capital flows. 


This paper is a reflection on two specific moments of the “post”: (i) the “post”-war period and the expedient intellectual discourse – area studies (and its attendant disciplines in the social sciences)– that became ascendant then; and (ii) the so called “post-liberal” and “post-historic” period of today (with the rise of technosciences) and the necessity of developing a critical humanities literacy.  These reflections are offered here from the techno-savvy, and rapidly (bio)informatizing Indian context.




Area studies is the expedient discourse of a postwar geopolitical conjuncture.  Area studies is inseparable from the ascendancy of the US to world leadership after the War.  All the major federal institutions (departments of Agriculture, Education, Health), universities (Harvard, Chicago, Berkeley, Pennsylvania), philanthropic organizations (Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie), Learned societies (ACLS, SSRC, AAA, MLA) – each one of these is deeply involved in the creation of this discourse and thus contributing to the (US) nation’s ascendancy.  Several federal Acts, commissions and committees across various institutions and organizations made such a thing as area studies.  Area studies is indeed a veritable discourse of crisis management – the “crisis” in question being the delegitimization of European territorial-colonial governance of the globe.  Area studies exemplifies a discursive and institutional remapping of the “democratic” world after the war.


Area studies demonstrates the West’s relation to and regulation of the non-West.  This theme (of the relation between the West and non-West) is of profound ethical and political (and pedagogical) significance; this theme is of crucial relevance to thinking in general.  Although, area studies is an integral part of all the major American universities, this theme never gets addressed as central to institutional and discursive formations in general.  Thus American Studies (a postwar phenomenon) symptomatically excludes area studies on its agenda.  American studies remains a national-domestic intellectual and institutional enterprise.  Area studies is relegated to the status of a regional concern.


To be sure, area studies always insisted on disciplinary affiliations and perspectives.  From Richard Lambert to Wendy Doniger, area specialists evinced methodological priorities.  In fact, area studies proclaimed nothing less than a new way of organizing knowledge – a sort of epistemological adventure.  The adventure involved a committed application and presumed extension of received paradigms of social sciences.  The area knowledges, thus, are the consequence of extensive covering of the “field” by these paradigms.


Curiously, in his recent plea to reconfigure area studies, Arjun Appadurai narrativizes the post-war emergence of area studies in terms of an aesthetic – a sort of “social imagination”:  “it is important to recall that one variety of the imagination as a force of social life – the academic imagination – is part of a wider geography of knowledge created in the dialogue between social sciences and area studies.”[2]   What kind of “dialogue” did area studies bargain with social sciences?  Did these two academic fields really have a dialogic status?  Wasn’t area studies largely receiving and extending/expanding the non-rigorous social science paradigm?  And what was the relation between the “academic imagination” and the “powerful interests” of the post-war US?  Appadurai covers over these questions in aestheticizing area studies.  What Appadurai completely avoids discussing is the actual architecture of this expedient cold-war discourse  - its gigantic institutional formations and formulations, and its material creations.  In this recuperative assessment of the field, area discourses are creations of an “academic imagination”[3]. The area – some region or theme of the non-West – is declared to be a great laboratory to test the Western social science models.  The detractors of these models confirmed them by erecting “regional” models of the grand paradigms (McKim Marriott is an eloquent example here).  The area expertise was more extensional and applicational with regard to the forms and substances of the European-Western human and social sciences.  The specialist inquiry never engaged the presuppositions of these very frames of knowledge production on the one hand, and the relation between such knowledge and its parergonal bounds – or what remains on the borders of the frames, on the other.  In a way the area knowledges assumed the transparency of the object (area theme) and foreclosed the problem of representation.


A discussion of area studies can no longer be isolated (as if a problem of “periphery”, “south”, “new society”) from inquiries into the governing assumptions and practices of the humanities and social sciences (as if the “center”, “north”, European-West) in general. Thus one can argue that area studies and analysis of disciplinarity offer an ill-conceived resolution of the relation between the specificity of the idiomatic and the possibility of its translation.  In area studies (and disciplinary inquiries as well), the emphasis has either been on the specific or the idiomatic and thus denies its translatability.  Consequently, nostalgic or celebratory response toward the area object persists; a preservationist and museumizing approach prevails with regard to the object.  Ethne oriented relativism emerges here as the best practice (From Marriott’s Indian culturalism to Taylor’s postmodern relativism one can find this trajectory continuing).  The swing can be to the other extreme as well – where the area object can be denounced for its anachronism and the essential need for it to change (from Millikan-Rostow dyad to the World Bank developmentalists one can find this spirit permeating.)[4]


These relativizing and generalizing tendencies, however, are exposed to deeply ironic consequences.  While the former in its insistence on the specific denies its translatability, this is done, even as the idiomatic (say, a song-text in Tamil) is eloquently represented in the English language of American area studies.  If one sees translation as a movement across acknowledged borders, the irony can be noted here (among others, Margaret Travick’s work can be cited here).  Whereas the “generalizing” impulse, in its aggressive recommendation of a unilinear path to the planet can hardly be said to respond to the specific.  In other words, in its arrogant dragging of events and entities, signatures and artifacts from their contexts into a supposedly universal normative line violates the idiomatic.  It commits a translational violence without attending to the idiomatic (starting with the Center for International Studies at MIT, international studies programs in general are “agents” of such translation).  These ironies betray the work (not only) of the area specialists.


Another deeply rooted and seldom-examined limit of area studies is also the inherited legacy of the human/social sciences: And it is the predominantly verbal-textual mode of its discourse.  Area knowledges – like their parental disciplinary frames are conceived and disseminated in print medium and printed material.  As in the mainstream human sciences, there is no inquiry into the mode and medium of organization of knowledge in area studies.  In the epoch of decolonization, as in the earlier colonial period, print technology and print medium were indispensable in the creation and circulation of knowledge.




Now with the global capital flows and the networked world of planetary communications (in principle), a new geopolitical conjuncture has emerged.  This has made area studies as a paradigm of organizing knowledge and demonstrating the West’s relation to the non-West not just untenable, but irrelevant.  For, in the new conjuncture, the class-mobile citizen of decolonized (“post”-colonial) world (a world deeply marked by postwar institutional domination by the US), as the “agent of change” not only contributes to the capital flows but also plays a key role in the formation and organization of “knowledge” itself.  In the new conjuncture, the very notion of knowledge and the nature of paradigm have changed significantly.  We are caught in the networks of what is called “information paradigm” and we are compelled to contribute to the creation of “knowledge society”.    Neither area studies nor their guarding disciplinary frames have adequately prepared the critical intellectual to face this new paradigm.  The very notions of critique and criticality need rethinking in the new conjuncture.  It is not so much the right doctrine that is required today.  Critical thinking must, while strategically attending to the specific and idiomatic with care, must reflect on a planetary scale.  For this we need to cultivate some kind of planetary critical literacy.


What follows is a sketch of the new conjuncture and the tasks to be taken up at individual, institutional and collaborative levels.  The ensuing reflection is a response from the specific (but mutating) context of Indian society today.




Today thinking and action will have to be conceived in planetary terms, on a planetary scale, for a planetary living.  Today the challenge of responsibility must be articulated only in the face of a planetary calling.  For the intimations of the past and the forebodings of the future are inescapably planetary.


Yet the planet is no simple and homogeneous unitary whole.  Its diversity is inexhaustible.  The strength and limits of planetary thinking are contingent upon this heterogeneity.  The diversity, as in the multiplicity of languages, gives idiomatic specificity to a particular thought.  But the apparent diversity, the division and difference of languages, disguises or blinds us to the regulating frames of the seemingly divergent.  The diversity might blind us to the “grammar” of the divergent.  If the planetary thinking and action must emerge, and it is most needed today, it must engage precisely with this double bind of thinking: the equivocating relation between the singular and shared, the unique and the universal.


The prevailing explanatory models of thought, ways of understanding what we do, how we live, who we are, and what we think – have emerged from a faith and investment in the categorical seperability of the equivocating forces of the singular and the general.  Most systems of thinking today, many educational and research paradigms today, are germinated and nurtured in the categorically divided and maintained poles of culture-specific (particularistic) and culture-transcendent (universalistic) framework.  Appropriate epistemological models – archaeological or eschatological or inductive or deductive – have generated inexhaustible mines of positive knowledges.  These knowledges have a hold on the planet’s thought and life today.


The consequences of the framework of thinking outlined above, at least from the 18th century, have been deeply ambivalent.  On the one hand, this thought has unleashed violence in disturbing and reorganizing prevalent structures on a global level.  Yet, on the other, the encroaching violence was turned into an enabling force across the globe.  It is precisely from the aftermath of this “enabling violence” that the planetary thinking and action must be conceived.




But before rushing headlong into designing a blueprint for a global thought and action, it is necessary to examine rigorously the way the received, “enabling-violent” continues to function and regulate thought today.  The double-deal of the European-western ana-lytic thought will be obvious as one recognises that when this thought refers to “itself” it takes the path of the cohesive, origin-seeking, foundational inquiry with assured identity and lineage.  Whereas when it represents what is outside its fold, it takes recourse to the divisive track of fragmentation, and particularism, devoid of commonality – lacking the identity of a common name.  Thus in the story of European modernity the eloquence of the ana-lytic double-deal systematically relegates the non-European to the fragmented, context-bound, uncohering, crowds[5].  Since philosophy – that sovereign story of origins and ends – can be European only, the non-European, by definition, remains empirical, lacking in universality.  The latter are thus forever, objects of anthropological, ethnological “wealth”.  As a result, any body of “reflection”/”activity” whether concerning the place of woman, the notion of debt, the idea of inheritance, the “concept” of “science” or that of the legal from the non-European provenance will only have a regional historical and culturalist status.  They are, in other words, unlike European categories, untranslatable. 


Against such enframing of non-European idioms of reflection, hasty assertions of native identity will only ironically reinforce European-western analytic framework.  If a planetary thinking must emerge, it must be wary of these traps and temptations.  What are, then, the chances of such thinking today?


Contemporary developments in divergent fields – such as genetic engineering, neurosciences, natural languages, Artificial Intelligence, robotics, image technologies, philosophy and literary studies – (“Descriptively it is an era of man-made brain-power industries.” Lester Thurow) point towards two differing paths.  Both these paths are in a way concerned with destiny or destinations of thinking and life.  One path seeks to invest in or determine a specific destination or end to these developments.  The other defers or suspends ends interminably: the ends of thought or activity are interminable.  The first path claims the “positive” sciences and knowledges as its progeny.  The principle of reason or more precisely the principle of calculative reason is the destiny-determining basis of these proliferating positive knowledges.[6] 


Increasingly the planetary thinking is being forced to reckon itself in accordance with this principle.  The ontology of the human is defined as calculable rationality.  The “book of life” has 3 billion “letters” proclaimed a genome researcher the other day.  This genetic archaeological research claims to have deciphered the codes, the calculative rules, “the reading frames”, which regulate the combination of the “alphabet” of life and create the “language” of life.  If the codes of life can be deciphered, why can’t we unravel the rules of our so-called natural languages – asks another scientist.  This is the very old dream of a quest for common language, the desire to master the “common code” – the code conceived in terms of a principle of calculable reason.  Today this dream seems to find its culmination in the informational and communicational technologies.  Calculative rationality is the essence of miniaturization (of processors, architecture, time-space and data crunching) that these technologies accomplish.  The supreme and unparalleled manifestation of this calculative rationality remains the Internet .


The new technologies redefine the notion of knowledge as information and convert all existing “forms” of knowledge or knowing into a common universal language that a machine can decipher and manipulate.  (“Knowledge is the new basis for wealth. This has never before been true.” Lester Thurow) The logical terminal of this movement appears to be to make systems, which can manipulate and calculate rationality on their own.


As asserted earlier this principle of reason – with its long history has manifested in many forms, regulated all systems of thinking – in short, canonized a heritage (of European provenance).  No science whether natural or biological, human or social has escaped the injunctions of this principle and its heritage.  This heritage has not just elaborated a “positive” thought but determined the very essence of the human as calculative.  Today, more than ever, we see the blatant manifestation of this essence in all forms of human endeavour.  Every form of molecularized, particularized, research (say that of PCR or of molecular medicine) inside and (more and more) outside the university is reckoned in terms of the calculated returns it ought to bring (the drugs/pharmaceutical conglomerate is worth over $380 billion).


As pointed out earlier, the new technologies are immensely capable converting all kinds of (exteriorized) thought forms of any epoch or eon into a “common” language of numbers – called information.  And information is the quintessential commodity for calculated returns today (global info business is estimated in trillions of dollars).


If calculative rationality dominates the research agenda, its another avatar controls the globe through the financial sector today[7].  Struggling under these new global compulsions and conditionalities – every sector in the world (health, agriculture, economic, educational and family) is violently being reorganized.  The vulgar figure for the forces driven by the principle of reason today is the “market”.[8] Planetary thinking cannot escape these forces.  To echo a contemporary philosopher: there is nothing outside this text of planetary forces. 




It must be asserted once again that these global forces, driven by the principle of reason, are no simple univocal or monolithic agents of destruction.  They appear to gain their ground and spread across entirely due to their “persuasive” visibility.  In fact, their permeation is deeply measured by thorough calculations and through inducement of desire. (“Capitalism’s bad genes cannot be separated from its good genes since both flow from the fact that capitalism taps into the greed that seems to be built into human beings. The desire to have “more,” however much one already has, is the human desire that makes capitalism work” Lester Thurow) 


In this specific conjuncture of ours at the beginning of the millennium, what is to be done?  How to conceive of a thinking and action that is not reducible to the manifestation of the principle of reason outlined above?  How to rethink the concept of science when what goes on in the name of science is little more than corporate governed commodified information? (What kind of “science” is being developed by say Celera Genomics or Monsanto or Syngenta?[9])  How does one articulate the notion of justice when renaming the usage of an element or thing, with disregard to its prevalent uses or manifestations, has the law on its side?  What are the ways in which reason – or rendering of reason - can be distinguished from its totalizing calculative path?  Is it possible to rethink the human beyond the enframing of the ana-lytic discussed earlier?  Precisely, rethink it on the threshold where the “organic” is permeated by the cybernetic (from the Greek kybernetes – the system that steers) or the prosthetic?   How to rethink the technological beyond its instrumental ends?  Above all, how should one live when life as a computational code disregards all forms of living and experience? (“The world has been reduced to two kinds of software objects – data structures and algorithms”).


Today, paradoxically, when the calculative rationality is encroaching upon every sphere, it seems possible to unravel its spread and interrogate its multiple avatars.  Such questioning is emerging at least from two heterogeneous directions today.  Paradoxically, one such force is emerging from within the heritage of the ana-lytic – from the experience of the principle of reason.  This has taken the form of a fundamental questioning of all the received categories, concepts and paradigms of thinking.  Importantly this questioning has practiced the strategy of using the resources of the very heritage it sets out to unravel.  This critical path thus implies and invests in the possibility of reconstellating the resources of the heritage[10].  It thus denies the conflation of the heritage with the calculative rationality that arrogates to itself the agentive role for the heritage.  In a way, it tracks and underlines the principle of difference supplementing (and thus distancing from) the forms of the principle of reason.[11]  This critical movement has had profound impact on thinking and institutions of diverse kinds in the last two decades.


If one force has taken the critical path of internal unraveling of the heritage another force has emerged (however discontinuously) from outside, in the tracks of this heritage.  This force today can be designated in the form of diverse social movements emerging from the non-European world.[12]  These movements, precisely in their non-totalised forms, are posing the most fundamental questions that we have indicated above: How to live today?  What are the ends of the science of progress?  Who are the beneficiaries of calculative rationality?[13]  How does one articulate the experience of relations among the diverse life forms (the so-called animal/human/plant) and the non-life forms? How does one negotiate the equivocal difference and distance between the so-called life and non-life?  Significantly the force of this questioning does not take the form of the most privileged avatars of the analytic tradition – those of the philosophical or scientific.  The a-theoretical form of these articulations can be found in song and gesture, performance and poem of the diverse new social movements that are encircling the globe today.  These movements are primarily concerned with the uses of available resources for unprecedented purposes.[14]


Although these twin forces are emerging from two different directions, curiously there is something common to these: Their concern for the singularity of idioms.  The critical path that interrogates the heritage persistently insists on the recognition of the idiomatic – the unique status of an articulation.  Yet, alert to the perilous possibility of this attention to the singular sliding into the lytic or lytological ethno-relativism, this critical force insists on the necessity and the inescapability of translation.  Nothing can arrest the movement of the singular beyond its alleged provenance. “This [desire for]” wrote Derrida in a related context, “justice…alone allows, the hope…of a unversalizable culture of singularities, a culture in which the abstract possibility of the impossible translation could nevertheless be announced.”[15]  Nothing less than the survival of the singular is dependent on its transference or translation.  The step of translating the singular, the unavoidable call of response must be taken up as a movement.  This critical path choreographs the movement of such steps.


Whereas the articulations of most of the social movements are inseparable from the distinctive idioms and rhythms in which they emerge.  The widely spread and deeply tangled immemorial roots that sustain these idioms and rhythms have gained accents in women’s voices and maternal tongues.  Today, they sing the question songs and carry the elemental inquiries.  Their origins, like the origins of the maternal, are intractable, and their destinies or destinations, like that of maternity, indeterminable.  The singularity of these accents is outside the heritage of the analytic framework we are soliciting here.  “I don’t write songs”, says Gaddar.  “When I think about something, I go on to weave.  You should write in your words, about yourself, for your emancipation.  Do not wait to someone.  Write in the language that you know.”[16]  Therefore no linguistic science can measure the accents and steps of these figures.




If a planetary thinking and action must emerge, then it is imperative to attend to these distinct interrogations.  It is imperative to take steps and mix voices in these directions.  In the Indian context today there is no single institution that, in its present form, makes these moves possible simultaneously.  This is essentially due to their acquiescence to the mandate of the principle of reason.  The research institutions – whether in the field of the natural, biological or the social, human sciences – have nurtured only paradigm replicating research, and thus foreclosed interrogations at the level of paradigmatic assumptions that regulate inquiries.  Pedagogical models – especially in the sciences, but not just there – have been deeply formalistic (or formulaic), determining the protocols of inquiry within the internally defined and guarded boundaries of molecularized disciplinary divisions. 


In the process these practices generate armies of experts who would protect the borders of a science from contamination.  They would foreclose systematically any kind of “anomaly” (in Kuhn’s sense) from emerging in the practice of science.  Consequently, basic inquiries concerning the assumptions about science, the protocols of its justification are hardly addressed.  One crucial testimony to this is the fact that most pedagogies of science have no place for history and theory of science (or any discipline for that matter) on their agenda.


Another symptomatic instance of paradigm-replicating teaching in the sciences is the drive to impart the subject in the vernaculars.  This activity of  “translating” the sciences into the vernacular remains the most ill-thought and dogmatic venture of the educationists in the country.  This is for two reasons: the idea of translation that governs this venture is a simplistic one.  It understands translation to be carrying the content from one pole to the other (from source to target).  In this conception, language (of either pole) remains an instrument, a negligible carrier for transmitting something that could otherwise exist independently.  Secondly, this conception spurs the fabrication of a wholly synthetic language from the archaic (or unexplored) Sanskrit base.  Even the “target” language remains a mere carrier.  Neither the language affects thought nor thought leaves its mark on language in this beehive of translation.  This pedagogy cannot encourage reflections on science from the specificity of its receptions.  Further, in the absence of historical and theoretical inquiries into science, it is impossible to expect this pedagogy and research to attend to the specific, idiomatic conceptions of science prevalent in the heterogeneous languages outside the European-western language of science and philosophy.


No wonder, the institution of science today is quickly submitting itself to the new paradigm of corporate-driven science.  Kant, the German philosopher-architect of the modern university, would have dubbed all the claims of today’s corporate sciences as “illegitimate”.  For, these claims are no longer judged by the rigorous inquiry of the philosophical faculty (not to be confused with the departments of philosophy).[17]  And Kant insisted that the university autonomy depend on the independent judgement of the philosophical faculty – independence, precisely from the state power.  When the remote controlled global financial flows have usurped the state powers, the state could only impose the conditionalities advanced by the calculative global powers on the university thinking.  How can scientific inquiry maintain its autonomy in the present conjuncture?  On the contrary, the science and technology establishment remains the celebrated avant-garde of the global-financial state-regulated mandate today.


Kant would certainly have judged contemporary encroachments illegitimate; Humboldt, who followed Kant’s architecture to found the modern University of Berlin in 1808, would have resented contemporary ends of knowledge. 


Whether Kant’s judgement is appropriate for today’s situation or not, what he identified as the “conflict of the faculties” is surely raging in the university and the society on a planetary scale.  Hence the need for a planetary thinking and action on the most sedimented categories of thought and action today.  This thinking will have to emerge from a fundamental and rigorous inquiry into the received categories, codes and institutionalized thought-frames. 


The critical interrogation of the received codes and frames could proceed on two lines: (I) Inquiry from within the accepted protocols of a code or discipline; and (ii) “setting to work” these codes and concepts beyond their customary tracks.[18]  Here the enormous amount of work already available in the specific – demarcated disciplinary domains and its advances must be rigorously analysed to unravel the presuppositions and the destinations that regulate this work. 


Further, the possibility and necessity of translating the codes beyond their formalised frames and territories must be explored.  This will indicate the limits of a code’s (discipline's) assertions of its universality.  This latter activity can be called setting to work of the system – in that it invites an inquiry into a system within and outside of its assumed (assured) protocols.  Here one must recognise the necessity of a negotiating encounter between highly guarded, rigidified, formalised systems on the one hand and practices and conceptions that are not easy to measure with the established protocols of the systematic and the formal on the other.  Medicinal and agricultural systems today require/make possible such encounters. But such an encounter is possible only when there is an attempt to attend to the singularity of the idiom, only when the ear learns to have patience for the accents and rhythms of the singular voices. 


Otherwise, the encounter will be as futile as the European exposure to the multiplicity of languages in the 18th century: all the newly “discovered” languages (Egyptian and Chinese) were judged by European conceptions of (alphabetic) language.  The encounter will be a failure if one looks for correspondences, approximations and confirmations to what is already codified and systematized (an easy security against anxieties).  This kind of inquiry requires enormous amount of patience and labour – but above all the ability to actively forget or suspend the regulations of the codified.[19]




Today[20] the fields of science and technology are forcefully tethered to the ends of business and economy; they spectacularly extend the culture of calculated returns.  Undoubtedly new energies and new talented human resources will burst forth and these will be harnessed as techno capital of the country.  “Knowledge means business,”[21] declared a group of Vice-chancellors at a conference in UK recently.  Two questions demand attention in this context: 


(i)                                         Given the deeply iniquitous social order that has historically developed, what will be the fate of those, in this new techno-economic order, who have been deprived access to the resources of human capability enhancement?


(ii)                                       Given the returns-based ethos of technocapitalism – where is the guarantee that the new forces of capital (science and technology) would not reduce all those who have been kept away from resources of mobility to just a treasure trove of exploitable natural resources?


(Already, after the recent proclamations about the Human Genome sequencing, Indian scientists have eloquently declared what a rich human genome diversity India possessed among our Adivasi communities.[22] As is well known the states of our biodiversity resources are already precariously poised in the valances of WTO conditionalities.[23])


Given the orientation of the sciences and the new technologies today, it is difficult to imagine how investments in science and technology[24] alone would tackle the issues of magnitude indicated above, as is the case with current developments in Indian scenario.  For these issues cannot be addressed only by means of technological solutions (increased bandwidth in Narmada Valley surely does not solve the Adivasi rehabilitation problem? The Andhra Pradesh Biotechpolicy document announces that “The presence of a large number of corporate hospitals…and government hospitals…will facilitate clinical trials of biotech products”[25].  Who is the beneficiary of these trials?  Some abstract “mankind”?  Will the IPR question be addressed in the context of patients’ “offer” of their bodies for the trial?  Have the patient rights been thought of in this euphoric venture of clinical trials?  Does the state own the bodies of all the patients?)  They make demands on the question of perspective: (i) How do we see the issues; (ii) what do we foresee as the future of the country and our common planet; (iii) what place do we have, in real terms, for divergent communities who are at the other end of decision makers and task forces in their designs and visions of the future? (iv)  What is it to be human in the digitally divided equivocal future?


There are no simple technical solutions to the problems indicated above.  Whereas scientists, engineers and technologists are wont to reduce every issue to technical problems (problems to be dealt in isolation from the myriad other related matters).[26] They require longer historical understanding of human organization as series of efforts to comprehend and struggle to communicate what it is to live in the complexity of inscrutable elemental forces.[27] Our deplorable science education in schools and colleges has no place for longer, historical and a more comprehensive of the field (science and technics) as a human activity.




In the new conjuncture formed by the global flows and Information technologies, education is indeed the issue of great magnitude.  Now the most challenging task is what kind of education should one design?  How does one impart it? Who are our audience?  What is our content?  How do we address our contexts?  Should expediency alone be the determining factor?  These are not mere desperate questions.  These are questions concerning our common future.


In the Indian context and more particularly in the apparent situation of the precarious future of the disadvantaged sections of our society, what is of prime importance and urgently needed is a critical literacy programme.  Keeping in view all the spectacular advances in diverse fields (neurosciences, genomics, biotechnology and the humanities), this programme can identify three core themes for the critical literacy.  These are: (i) Languages, (ii) Technics, and (iii) the Body.  Let me elaborate.


Language (extended to include verbal and non-verbal) is the most primordial communicational system that forms our expressions and articulates our experiences.  It is indispensable to any conception of the social or cultural.  Despite the hierarchies and gradations imposed in studying language (“standard”, “non-standard”, “primitive”, “cultural” etc.,) language lends itself to undermining such dogmatic conceptions.  Given that social stratification draws on and reinforces linguistic stratification, a critical understanding and sharing of language is essential for any education. 


In developing a suitable curriculum for such an understanding of language, the programme would emphasize a non-linear or non-sequential communicational mode.  In other words, the programme would draw from a range of communication systems such as gestural, oral, scribal/print, audio-visual and digital (non-sequentially), and develop a participatory response to these systems.


In conceiving a curriculum for an alternative literacy (alternative to the fearfully overburdening scholastic curriculum of today’s schools) another crucial theme that needs attention is “technics”.  This theme concerns basically the way we do things.  If the earlier theme of language domain broadly involves the work of the face (speech), the theme of technics underlines the work of limbs.  The use of hands and legs in making things is made central to the designing of curriculum.  Here, once again, the domain of technics ranges across the complex manifestations of physical work (artisanal tacit knowledges) to the prosthetic work of cyber limbs in virtual worlds.  Technics, in this conception, implies bringing forth something (unavailable) from the resources available and at large.


The dazzling array of communications in language and the spectacular accomplishments of technics are unthinkable without the body.  In fact these are in a way inscriptions and manifestations of the body.  Conversely the body itself embodies inscriptions of a very intricate kind – and these inscriptions are the traces of a very long historical past on the one hand and intimations of an interminable movement, on the other.  Conceptions of the body for curricular purposes could gather inscriptions from the inexhaustible range of the Zinjanthropic symbolic representations of the body (in mythograms) to gender and species based differentiations, from the received organic and inorganic lineages to the genetic lineaments across the zoological and biological phenomena and extend even to the elemental chemical forces that make and unmake the bodies of our known and unknown (“the heavenly” or “celestial” bodies) galaxies beyond our planet.




Keeping in view of the developments and ramifications of the educational models of the colonial and decolonization periods, the three themes, language, technics and the body, are offered here as central to the critical literacy sketched earlier.  Unlike the classical pedagogical models, the critical literacy project is deeply sensitive to the contexts of its formulation and function.  Consequently the curricular material for the three domains will have to emerge from specific contexts.  For example, curricular or learning resources must be drawn from the diverse linguistic and cultural heritages on the one hand and the natural/biological/technological phenomena on the other.  These resources can be gathered together by only those who are in intimate relation with them.  Hence the imperative of context or locally based curricular material.  However the project would be alert enough to reduce any constricting relativisms and it would persistently explore the possibilities of transmitting or translating the context specific material (cultural, natural biological and technical). 


The focus on the three themes and the concentration of context specific curricular/learning resources is essentially aimed at releasing or making visible the long inherited (but seldom circulated beyond a restricted context) experience and unarticulated but real and pertinent understanding of the available resources of specific ecobiomes, gendered bodies, inherited technics and differentiated languages.  Further, it can be noticed that these resources would provide not just curricular/learning material for the disadvantaged, but open up fundamental research possibilities of the most radical kind. 


Needless to say that there is an imperative need for such a research into our inherited resources.  The deep heterogeneity of Indian cultural fabric in languages, narrative, visual and performing traditions would provide challenging material and modes for thought and action.  It must be said that after the early British and European explorations and sketching the cultural (and other resources) map of Indian living traditions, a comparable work of quality critically examining that earlier sketch is yet to be undertaken. 


The critical literacy project outlined earlier gives a central place to the new technologies in its agenda.  Based on these new technologies the critical literacy project would develop sharable knowledge systems from our inherited resources.


The university must be made to play a crucial role in bringing forth and realizing of the critical literacy programme indicated above.  Here the universities, especially with rural, provincial bases, must be encouraged to participate and explore further the possibilities of such alliance.  More concretely the universities, with their research and training agenda can initiate what can be called a “virtual adoption” of specific villages.  The idea of a virtual adoption, in avoiding the “top-down” approach of solving problems according to what is thought from above, aims at building capabilities through shared work, through inculcation of confidence and encouraging responsible choice.  In all this, the three core issues of literacy suggested above would be explored as thoroughly as today’s most advanced regions of research would allow.  Since this critical literacy project aims at developing a cultural practice of responsible sharing – it would deeply involve the participants (university academics and researchers) in learning from below, learning through exploration with the communities.


As the urban based universities and research institutions individually may not have the required competencies nor the vision of the proposed curriculum/literacy, alliances and affiliations among the region-specific institutions be undertaken (within the urban institutions, from primary to tertiary and research level, the curricular and research agendas are in need of a fundamental change.  This change can be initiated keeping the three figures of language, technics and body in mind).  Since this critical literacy project runs on the principle of vigorous interanimation between the largely marginalized rural and adivasi communities on the one hand and the privileged and insular urban institutions on the other, the aim of the project of developing responsibility- based sharing must also govern other extensions of the project.[28]


All the enterprise-based initiatives that wish to reap the benefits of the collective work outlined above must be made to abide by the principle/ethic of responsible sharing. For one’s own existence must be seen as the effect of giving and receiving of the other and not the monument of some unaging essential core.[29]   (Here the practical issues like the use of databases, IPRs, returns to the participants etc can be worked out from specific concrete situations.  If, for example, the nomadic [“dalit”] Dakkali Katalu’s herbs have a potential for arthritis, the possible future uses of his “received knowledge” must assure real and sustainable returns not just to Katalu alone but to the destitute Dakkali community in its entirety.)


Clearly, given the vibrancy with which these 21st century technologies and the governance models are developing, leveraging these sectors is indispensable.  Yet what is at stake here indeed is precisely the lever or what the Greeks called the mochlos – how we lever the use of these technologies and their presumed teleologies.  Here we must initiate and practice a radical departure from a conception of the self based on personal interest or domestic benefit toward the other earlier suggested conception as responsibility-based sharing. 


The major human gain accomplished through the exponential growth in communications technologies must be sustained through a collective planetary involvement and this cannot be reduced to some top-down versions of administration and specialist economics or engineers.


The networked society conceived as the force emerging from the interanimation of our rural and urban (and by extension metropolitan and planetary) regions would surely release new energies and unprecedented opportunities.  Such energies and opportunities would be unleashed globally as well.  The consequences of these developments would remain definitely equivocal.  They would certainly propel our societies into post-human, engineered virtual worlds, animated by virtual lives.  The futures of the “human” are precariously exposed to these difficult-to-control breakthroughs.  While enforseeing such futures, our immediate challenge is to develop capabilities to recognize and respond to such new situations.  All alliances must recognize this fundamental responsibility.  “What we call society,” wrote Raymond Williams meditating precisely on communication technologies of an earlier period[30], “is not only a network of political and economic arrangements, but also a process of learning and communication.  Communication begins in the struggle to learn and to describe”. 


In conceiving alliances the spirit of the figure “network” must be borne in mind.  The network can strangulate all those caught in it.  But its strength can enhance when it is recognized as the intricate structure of enormous complexity – a structure impossible without the participation and confluence of divergent energies and communities/communications.  The network is the supreme figure for collective capabilities. 


Therefore in weaving this network of knowledge society, the question of responsibility must extend from our context-based nodes to our larger planetary abode of alliances.  Where the ethical political core of these commitments lies is a matter for negotiation, through the existence of “collaborative alliance”, then its commensurate efforts to achieve this must make the agenda a collective effort and collective responsibility from the context-specific communities to the planetary human (even posthuman) collectives.




A planetary thinking is inconceivable without a collective and collaborative exploration.  This thinking together has to draw on international resources.  Such an alliance committed to internationalist scholarship is indispensable for a transnational critical literacy. 


A planetary thinking certainly demands persistent engagement on a planetary basis – to keep open the inquiry interminably.  The new geopolitical conjuncture formed by the capital flows and informational paradigm can be unraveled only through such “collective alliance” of planetary resources beyond the existing “posts” of our world.




an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 3, November 2006, ISSN 1552-5112



[1] Richard Beardsworth, “From a Genealogy of Matter to a Politics of Memory: Stiegler’s Thinking of Technics”, Tekhnema 2/”Technics and Finitude”/ Spring 1995, p. 13.  I am grateful to Beardsworth for his comments on this paper.

[2] Arjun Appadurai, “Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination”, Public Culture, Vol 12 no. 1, 2000, p. 6.

[3] Ibid., pp. 7-8.

[4] From a plethora of legitimizing documentary texts and commentaries one can site the following few: Robert Hall, Area Studies (New York: SSRC, 1947); Charles Wagley Area Research and Training: A Conference Report on the Study of World Areas (New York: SSRC, 1948); Point Four and Education: Report of the Educational Policies Commission (Washington D.C.: National Education Association of the United States, 1950); Wendell C. Bennett, Area Studies in American Universities (New York: SSRC, 1951); Annals, November 1964.  Social Sciences and the Public Policy in the Developing World, edited by Lawrence Steifel and James Coleman (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath & Co, 1982); Edward Berman, The Ideology of Philanthropy: The Influence of Carnegie, Ford and Rockefeller Foundation on American Foreign Policy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983); George Rosen, Western Economists and Eastern Societies: Agents of Change in South Asia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1985); W.W. Rostow, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Foreign Aid, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985).

[5] Here I am drawing on Jacques Derrida’s unraveling of the term analysis in the context of Freudian psychoanalysis.  Derrida goes on to argue that psychoanalysis, though inescapably linked to the conceptual heritage of Europe (philosophy), marks the advent, “under the same name, of another concept of analysis” – a “concept” different from the one that “held sway in the history of philosophy, logic, science”. Freud’s differential reading of the same consists of – as in the case of his dream/analysis – making the analysis interminable – the deeply disturbing recognition of the impossibility of any finality  - either archaeological or eschatological – of analysis.  Later Derrida goes on to articulate the Freudian radicalization of analysis  with the “undoing, desedimenting, decomposing, deconstituting sediments, artifacts, presuppositions, institutions” of deconstruction.  Cf. Derrida, Resistances of Psychoanalysis, translated by Peggy Kamuf, Pascale-Anne Brault, and Michael Naas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), pp. 19, 27 and 33-37 respectively (all emphasis is original).

[6] I understand the term, calculative rationality, as it is deployed in the field of computer science where “intelligence” is measured in terms of millions of calculations it can perform in a second.  This method of measuring seems to derive from neurosciences where rationality/intelligence are explained in terms of  stimulations, electric impulses operating in minutely localized areas of “gray” matter of the brain.  The effort in these fields seems to be to capture the master key in the matter to unlock or key the enigma of life.  From among a plethora of instances some typical pronouncements: “Neuroscience is showing that all aspects of mental life – every emotion, every thought pattern, every meaning can be tied to the physiological activity or structure of the brain.”  And “ The mental world can be grounded in the physical world by the concept of information, computation and feedback.  Thinking is a physical process…we are our brains”.  Steven Pinker.  Also see, Hans Moravec’s provocative thesis on bodyless intelligences of the future in his Robot: From mere Machine to Transcendent Mind.  The term calculative rationality is deeply constitutive of the contemporary market-seeking, returns-based economies.

[7] If one reads the European Enlightenment as the moment of the projection of calculative rationality, then the “financialization of the globe is the most robust vanguard of the Enlightenment” today.  Cf. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present, (Harvard: Harvard University Press 1999), pp. 429-30. (Hereafter CPR).

[8] For a more recent, but sensational criticism of “ideological” and political nature of international financial organizations and incorrigible motivations of profit among the role players, see Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalization and its Discontents, (London: Allen Lane, 2002).

[9] Debashis Benerjia, “Risks inherent to r-DNA technology”, The Hindu, May17, 2001, p. 11; and “A Tale of Two Botanies” by Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, Wired, April 2000, p. 247.

[10] Here obviously I am underlining the work of deconstruction.  Insisting on the “structural solidarity” of the military and economic violence with “linguistic violence” of the West, Derrida identifies two related strategies for intervention (in 1968):

i)                     “a deconstruction without changing the terrain, by repeating what is implicit in the founding concepts and the original problematic, by using against the edifice the instruments or stones available in the house, that is, equally, in language”.  This is  the radical unraveling of the habitat on inhabits, the deconstruction of what one loves.

ii)                   The other strategy is to “decide to change terrain, in a discontinuous and irruptive fashion, by brutally placing oneself outside, and by affirming an absolute bareak and difference.”  As is well known, Derrida’s own practice – certainly combining the two strategies – explicitly, at least in terms of the texts and indices he focuses on, moves around the “instruments” and “stones” of the European heritage.  Derrida suspects all the declarations of radical breaks and decisive discontinuities.  Such pronouncements can be “caught, thereby inhabiting more naively and more strictly than ever the inside one declares one has deserted, [for] the simple practice of language ceaselessly reinstates the new terrain on the oldest ground”.  Cf. Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass, (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1982), p. 135.

[11] “Which amounts to saying that one must speak several languages and produce several texts at        once”, Derrida, ibid. p. 135.

[12] If Derrida affirms the need of a new Enlightenment, Spivak persistently asserts alternative forms of “development” – a sort of “ab-use” of the Enlightenment.  This ab-use, Spivak argues, can be witnessed in the social movements of the South:  “the real front against globalization was in the countless local theatres of the globe-girdling movements”.  Cf. CPR, op.cit., p.413.     

[13] Critiquing the role of the ascendant migrant in the North (the class-mobile citizen of decolonization), the “gendered outsiders inside”, Spivak challenges them to rethink their countries of origin not as “repositories of cultural nostalgia”, but more as a part of “the geopolitical present”.  They can begin to do so and participate in the redirecting of “accumulation into social redistribution” if and when they can “join the globe-girdling Social Movements in the South through the entry point of their own countries of origin.” CPR, p.402.     

[14] There are several issue-based social movements forging questions from the roots of Indian subcontinent today.  Most of these movements are concerned with elemental issues such as water, land, access to nature, space, shelter, mode of living and manner of expression.  It is from these concerns and experiences that the question songs and elemental challenges burst-forth in the singularity of idioms.  From among many examples one can cite here the extraordinary compositions and performances of Gaddar and the Jana Natya Mandali – of the Marx-Mao inspired Naxalite movement (now banned) – over the last 30 years. Further the emerging work of mourning of  Gorati Venkanna from the devastated Telangana area can be cited here as a scintillating example of mnemocultural resistance.  One can also cite here the forms of response among the diverse movements working with NAPM (National Alliance of Peoples’ Movement).  The well-known Narmada Bachao Andolan is a part of NAPM.  It is impossible to learn from these movements without attending carefully to the diverse forms of hand and face in which they manifest.  “I also realized”, writes Spivak, “that if one wanted to intervene – rather than stop at exchanging ideas with the activist leaders – and learn from those seemingly ‘local’ initiatives, one had to know the language well enough to move with the dialectal shifts” (of the Bengali language, in Spivak’s case).  CPR, p. 413.

[15] Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge: Two Sources of ‘Religion’ At the Limits of Reason Alone”, translated by Samuel Weber, in Religion edited by Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 18. (italics added).

[16] Gaddar, Prasthanam.

[17] See for a recent reaffirmation and radicalization of such a rigorous thinking in Derrida’s “The Crisis in the Teaching of Philosophy”, in his Who’s Afraid of Philosophy: Right to Philosophy I, translated by Jan Plug, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 99-116.

[18] Here, once again, Derrida’s work breaches paths.  Radicalizing Heidegger’s work, Derrida has repeatedly demonstrated the need to think/act inside-out simultaneously.  Gayatri Spivak’s own work, “outside in the teaching machine’, pursues these paths with great vigilance and care.  Derrida’s affirmative deconstruction in its interminable critique (or “hyperanalysis”) invokes a new International and a new Enlightenment which would “put to work otherwise” the received “ideal of democracy and emancipation”.  Cf.Derrida,  Specters of Marx:The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International, translated by Peggy Kamuf, (New York: Routledge, 1994) p. 90.  Also, see Spivak’s powerful elaboration of how deconstruction sets to work beyond the received calculi. Spivak, “Setting to Work of Deconstruction”, in CPR, pp. 428-430.

[19] Cf. Derrida’s  “The Aforementioned So-Called Human Genome”, in his Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews 1971-2001, translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), pp.199-214.

[20] What follows is a modified and abridged response to an Approach Paper called “India’s Development as Knowledge Society”, prepared by a member of the Information Technology Task Force of the Indian Planning Commission.  The document was circulated initially among a restricted group.  Now the Approach Paper is publicly available.  Cf. The Hindu, September 5, 2000, p. 25.

[21] Times Higher Education Supplement

[22] The announcement regarding the mapping of Human Genome sequence in June 2000 was more than anything else is a major media event (Clinton and Blair commended the “discovery” on TV).  Every corporate scientist, science bureaucrat, venture capitalist, informationist, captains of pharma industry, and molecular biologists was in the media making apocalyptic pronouncements on the event. (Sample headlines will point out the mediatic nature of the event: “Biological equivalent of moon landing”; “A landmark announcement”; “People can live for 1,200 years”; “A New scientific discovery dawns”).  A scientist from a prestigious science institution in India goes further: “India also had an important [genetic] source in its tribal and other close-knit communities.  Such groups could be carrying genes which offered resistance to certain diseases or made them susceptible to certain illnesses.” “India has rich genetic diversity, some 5,000-odd anthropologically well-defined human populations”, comments the director of a leading molecular and cellular biology center in India. India Today, February 26, 2001, p. 56.  Now the state and corporate aided efforts would harness all such genetic biological resources of heterogeneous communities and plants (the Indian biotech business is a fattening $ 2.5billion – following closely on the heels of India’s $6.5 billion Infotech sector).  Two south Indian states (Karnataka and Andhra), are racing against each other to attract biotech venture capital.  To catch up with Karnataka’s success, Andhra has recently announced the establishing of a “Genome Valley”, and identified a 600-kilometer area for the biotech ventures.  The Andhra Pradesh Government’s website on biotechnology is a veritable ad copy for attracting venture capitalists.  Cf.       The earlier quotations in the passage are from The Hindu, 27 June 2000 p. 14.  Also, cf. “The Next Big Thing” in  Business Today (India), May 21, 2001. Cf. “Biotech Park to be set up near city”, The Hindu, May 8, 2001, p. 1.

[23] Here, of course the activist work of Vandana Shiva, especially relating to agriculture, is indispensable.  Cf. Also, Spivak’s footnote 116 on p. 401 CPR.

[24] Budget increase for the sciences is regular now.  In 2001 alone some 11.7% hike in the union budget for the sciences has taken place.  This amounts to an actual sum of 128.4 billion rupees (US $2.8 billion). Cf. Nature, vol. 410. no. 8 March 2001. p. 134.  There is a separate Central Minsitry for Information Technology that oversees  the IT  and biotech sector.

[25] Cf.  “Biotechnology Policy 2001: Beyond Tomorrow”

[26] What is most curious about the Genome pronouncements is that everyone connected would invariably talk about how the “humanity” can now fight disease and illness.  More than anything this drug-talk tells more about the collusion between the HG research and the corporate controlled pharma industry (an industry that now systematically poised to reap the benefits of years of publicly funded public research institutions).  And the multinational drug companies are no charitable trusts.  If the recent AIDS medicine controversy in Africa is any sign – it could stand as well as an ominous harbinger of things to come.  “We cannot afford to miss the race to tap the technologies to provide better healthcare,” declared the head of an Indian biotech institution.  India Today, February 26, 2001, p. 56. “It is my belief”, says the high-tech highpriest, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, in his foreword to the Biotechnology Policy document”, “that biotechnology can benefit, in several ways, all sections of the society but more so the very poor – for instance, by increasing the availability and enhancing the nutritional value of food grains, by eliminating the use of harmful pesticides” by providing “cheaper drugs” and “improving the quality of livestock”.  But is any of these within the access of the very poor?  The recent spate of poverty-led suicides of farmers and weavers tells a different story of the very poor.

[27] Describing the aggressively manipulative plant genetics (transgenics) as research spurred by the “speed of next quarter’s earnings reports” (rather than any concern for the measured pace of biological evolution), the Lovins (cited earlier) write that transgenics is indeed the “industrialization of life by people with a narrow understanding of it”.  Likening the new researches to those on nuclear fission and the monstrous concequences of the new technologies the Lovins comment: “In both enterprises, technical ability has evolved faster than social institutions; skill has outrun wisdom.  Both have overlooked fundamentals, often from other disciplines wrongly deemed irrelevant.  Both have overreached – too far, too fast, too uncritical.”  Cf. “A Tale of Two Botanies”, op.cit. p. 247.

[28] Spivak in the Northern metropolitan context: “The village must teach us to make the globe a world. We must learn to learn”.  CPR. P. 391.

[29] Spivak’s gloss on Derrida comes to mind: “the body’s metapsychological script – Derrida mentions specifically genetic script as early as the Grammatology – is a figure of the alterity that defines the human as being called by the other – to responsibility – rather than as a repository of an ‘unique and essential quality’ that can only clamor for rights”.  Spivak, CPR op.cit., p. 389, fn. 101.

[30] Raymond Williams, Communications, ( Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), p. 11.