Report of the Presentation on Philosophy and Cultural Studies
For the module on Philosophy and Cultural Studies, two seminal works were discussed in the class; 1) Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences by Derrida and 2) Can the Subaltern Speak by Gayathri Spivak. This report is based on the presentation on the second text and the subsequent discussion on it in the II MA English Literature with Communication Studies as well as the lecture of Mr. Sunder Sarukkai on Experience and Cognition based on his article, Dalit Experience and Theory.
Gayathri Spivak’s essay problematises three central theories of experience; 1) the postcolonial theories, 2) the subaltern concern and 3) the subalternised woman. She argues that the intellectuals are complicit in silencing the experiences of the colonised, the subaltern and the woman by appropriating their experiences inaccurately in the narratives. She questions the authority of the intellectuals to speak of the experience of these oppressed. Theorisation on the subaltern experience is palimpsestic in nature because even as the intellectual tries to construct a history/experience of the subaltern, the authentic history/experience undergoes erasure. The intellectual’s attempts to essentialise the subaltern experience actually cancels out the multifarious entity of the subaltern experience. She argues that the intellectual should constantly question one’s own ground of argument. All the subalterns, be it the postcolonial countries or the women who belong to innumerable backgrounds and conditions, cannot be put under one monolithic categorisation. Citing a couple examples of women suicide in India during the colonial period she argues how the British understanding legal explanations under the pretext of supporting women’s cause, overlooked the actual reasons for their suicide. What then is the intellectual capable of theorising? The possibility is to form a strategic solidarity with the subalterns for the sake of an argumentative support and buying their own space in the debate all the while being aware of the intellectual’s shaky ground on which one stands to argue. This she calls strategic essentialism.
The crux of the argument is, that the personal lived experience cannot be in any way generalised. The humans are in need of an unmediated channel to share one another’s experience in totem. However the unmediated experience does not take place and what is transferred to others is only partial and makes the other incapable of making the experience for theorising.
Establishing the relationship between culture and philosophy is fundamental in proceeding any further on this module. Sarukkai considered experience as the basic stratum of culture while an argument was brought to establish culture as the substratum of philosophy or the latter as the product of culture. Further arguments are required to establish both the syllogisms. For example, is it possible for anyone to have an experience outside one’s culture? Or, is culture the common fund of experiences of a group of people? As the understanding goes now the linear progression of experience-culture-philosophy is the paradigm to work with.
The question on the emergence of different philosophies at different historical junctures deserves an attention. How will one account for the emergence of Platonian idealism and Aristotelian empiricism as the product of the Greek culture while the existentialists and phenomenologists appeared only hundreds of years later in another culture. A vague attempt at answering this question was that a certain political climate is responsible for the emergence of certain types of philosophies. It was monarchy that gave conducive atmosphere for philosophies that were centred around the analysis of matter and the world. With the emergence of democracy and other people-participative forms of government the discussion on the subject of experience shifted to the human person, the meaning of his existence and experience and thereby giving rise to the existentialist philosophies. The emergence of the nihilist philosphies can be attributed to the disillusionment caused by the world wars. Going into the depth of this argument one finds that the mode of exercising power influences heavily if not being the deciding factor on the emergence of different philosophies.
This further shifted the questions on the difference between what is generalisation and essentialisation. They are to be differentiated as two different logical procedures of argument. In the process of essentialisation a general principle is arrived at by observing the experiences of A, B , C and so on. The generalisation is the reverse process of applying a principle or a personal experience as a general principle to a larger category without actually observing all of them. The former is called induction and the latter deduction.
Sarukkai explores the quintessential difference between the subjective lived experience and the mediated experience. The mediated experience has primarily a certain freedom to choose to undergo or not a certain experience, secondly one has the freedom to leave from the experience if it is not satisfactory and thirdly he has the freedom to modify that experience.
While exploring the lines of argument of Sarukkai and Spivak the philosophies could be accused of complicity in essentialising the diverse human experiences. The question itself is heavily loaded with the nuances of the individualistic turn the capitalistic philosophy of the west has taken. This question arises only when individual is possible despite the social. But the society has not been always so. In the earlier cultures which privileged the social over the individual, the subjective experiences do not take significant discussions at all. When the society is essential to make the individual possible the focus of the discussion can centre only on the society. Society being a common institution, the individual variances are shed to create minimum common identities or the essential. To treat such essentialisation as a malady could arise from subaltern, post colonial or postsructuralist perspectives in social sciences. But natural or physical sciences cannot be held accountable for such essentialsiation. If these sciences fail to draw similarities and essentialise the nature of human bodies, every body has to become a ground of experiment at the cost of its life. The question then extends to what can be essentialised and what cannot be on the basis of empirical proofs.. Such normative approaches are still unacceptable to a postcolonial reading. The arguments go in infinite regression ad infinitum.