An Interview with Ashis Nandy published by Naked Punch on February 14, 2011
Prof. Ashis Nandy is a well known social thinker and social psychologist based at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi. He has been an outspoken critic of science, modernity and secularism. His writings since the early 1980s have been extremely influential, in conjunction with Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism, in exposing the universalist pretensions of Western thought and social sciences. His most important books include The Intimate Enemy, At the Edge of Psychology, Tradition, Tyranny and Utopia, The Savage Freud, Time Warps and The Romance of the State. Nandy’s critique of secularism in the mid-1980s unleashed one of the richest and most hotly contested debates in India – one that continues even today.
Interviewed by Aditya Nigam
Aditya Nigam: I wish to speak to you about alternative knowledge – or knowledges. But before I go into the more theoretical questions, let me ask you about your biographical entry point. Given that you are a trained psychologist and statistician – both part of mainstream knowledge-systems – and in fact, joined the CSDS as a statistical person, how did you venture into this intellectual area?
Ashis Nandy: That is more or less accidental. I was a trained as a sociologist. In fact, I initially went to a medical college and did three years in medicine. Later, in order to do sociology, I went to a department in Nagpur – one of the few sociology departments in India at that time. It was a department that was specifically trying to break away from the mainstream traditions of sociology. This department of sociology was very much oriented towards mathematics and mathematization of sociology. There was a major component of statistics and because I came from a science background, I found that attractive. Like many young fools of that time, I thought that society could be quantified; all data, all insight could be quantified. Subsequently, I went into psychology – in fact I was trained in clinical psychology, not simply psychology – and it was heavily psychoanalytic at that time and so was heavily anti-quantitative in orientation. Many of my seniors were trained psychoanalysts. But my interests in alternative knowledge proceeded in a convoluted way. I was interested in the psychology of politics. But in those days, about the only people interested in psychoanalysis and the psychology of politics were some of the Frankfurt School scholars, especially Adorno, Horkheimer – and Erich Fromm for a while. They actually made use of and combined quantitative studies with psychoanalysis and I will tell you some other time…interesting stories about that [‘the quantitative side of the story’.] But it is interesting that the Frankfurt school scholars were the only ones, and only Jews probably, who escaped the Nazi persecution because they took their own studies seriously and trusted their own data. Their survey on the ‘authoritarian personality’ revealed to them a prominent authoritarian core in the personality of the German workers, who were otherwise, technically communists or socialists. They understood that there if an authoritarian regime came to power, one couldn’t trust them. So they shifted, so the story goes, their office near the station and when the time came, they escaped from there to Switzerland…but that’s beside the point.
So in that sense, there was this conflict within me also. When I came here to the Centre [CSDS] – I was about 26 – I was interested in two kinds of things. First, the psychology of politics as reflected in major social and political reform movements in India. I started going through Raja Ram Mohun Roy and his life; simultaneously, I was interested in the psychological components – and the context – of the intellectuals and the intellectual world since the nineteenth century. Not much work seems to have been done since the nineteenth century. I wanted to study this indifference and this took me towards scientists. My first independent study in fact was a study of two scientists…I was interested in the psychological and cultural sources – well psychological sources to start with – of creativity and of the kind of knowledge they produced. That gradually took me to the area of culture because I found that we cannot figure out these things – even the psychological interpretation is not complete – without paying attention to the cultural context. Ultimately this became my more sustained interest. I became interested in the culture of science itself. The question of properly scientific creativity and the destructiveness of science…The psychology of politics had already taken me in that direction of understanding violence. And ultimately this became a kind of swing and my increasing preoccupation came to be with the sources of human creativity and destructiveness. This led to my more general investigations on the destructiveness of science and a search for a radical critique of science that would focus not only on the critique of its ‘faulty’ context but would examine the very text of science itself. I found it increasingly difficult to believe that it was merely the context that accounted for its problems and that there was some thought police guarding the borders of the text itself, as it were. That took me to different kinds of knowledge systems which had different kinds of starting points and different baselines…different points of departure. I was astounded to see the sheer diversity and the sheer resilience of many of these systems of knowledge. In fact, the resilience of these systems impressed me terribly and two things struck me while attempting to understand these knowledge systems. One, that in the ultimate analysis, dominance is not ensured through political economy, though it manifests itself through it; it is also not ensured through superior technology. It is mainly ensured through categories. If you can generate categories which marginalize the categories of others, then you have forced them to play your game. And as long as that can be ensured, you can be pretty sure that your dominance will not be challenged, because that game is yours.
Aditya: When you talk of alternative knowledges or alternative knowledge systems, what are the kinds of things you have in mind? One kind that easily comes to mind are those that can be called the ‘traditional knowledge systems’. They are also defined by the fact that their importance is more local…
Ashis: Yes, it can be local, but it can have much wider relevance also. Take for instance, something like healing systems. At a rough guess, a survey by CV Seshadhri shows this, that at least 80 percent Indians go to traditional healers. It is not that they do not approach modern doctors but their approach is more like that of going to a grocery store. There may be things that do not go with each other but when you buy you do not buy this and not buy that…I think they use all kinds of systems. At least one luminary of the medical profession produced some data contesting this figure and saying that only about 40 percent people go to traditional healers. This figure is not convincing to me – you know the figure for Australia is 60 percent. I suspect that his questionnaire asked in an either/or fashion: do you do x, Or, do you do y? And because you are the kind of person you are, I mean the interviewer is the kind of person he is, and given the cultural and status baggage, the respondents give the answer they do. I have examples in my own family where my uncles have been very well known doctors. Whenever I had a cold and cough, they would immediately recommend drugs to me. Their wives, aamaar maamiraa (my aunts), would ask me what they said. I would say they asked to take such and such medicine and their response would be, “Why do you listen to them? Who asked you to go to them?”[said in Bengali]. I will give you turmeric powder and pepper in warm milk – just have it. So this is there in almost all households. I am sure my house was no exception. We take recourse to these traditional systems all the time. But at the same time there is a healthy and robust skepticism regarding these – all healing systems – often expressed in common Sanskrit saying that circulate at a popular level, to the effect that the vaidya [a traditional healer] kills by the hundreds, while the doctor kills in thousands. This robust skepticism began to fascinate me because I noticed that this skepticism was absent in modern medical culture. One third of all medical reference in North America are iatrogenic – that is one third of all diseases reported are either drug induced or doctor induced.
Not that there is no skepticism in the mainstream medical culture…but that’s repressed. Illich [Ivan] has given some instances and Manu Kothari too has given some very telling examples…For instance, one of the instances he has given is that of surgeons who operate on intestinal ulcers. The rate of surgeons prescribing surgery to themselves or to their family members is one-third the rate they prescribe to others and these are cases of elite hospitals. In fact one survey says very explicitly that by standard medical conventions, doctors would routinely under-prescribe drugs for themselves and their kind and similar is the case also with surgical interventions. So I became interested in this…I began to think that talking of a science like medicine…It enjoys a kind of sanctity and once you say that ‘science says this’ then everybody takes it as gospel truth. So this is one kind of way in which the text is also contaminated.
The other way of looking at it is this that scientists, because they operate within a particular kind of context, produce a kind of science that is itself contaminated, like the example that I have used quite often that Amulya Reddy told me for the first time: when they were coming to drop the bomb in Hiroshima, three scientists who had worked on the Manhattan project, went to Norbert Weiner and told him that they had calculated that what height they must detonate the bomb in order to maximize the casualties. Weiner said to them, “please keep me out of it.” Three of the four scientists were Nobel Laureates. Weiner himself was a Nobel Laureate, so were the other nuclear physicists. The only one who was not a Nobel Laureate was a mathematician and that was presumably because there was no Nobel Prize in mathematics in those days. I believe that responsibility has to be shared by the scientists themselves and it will not do to always pass on the burden to impersonal forces of politics, or ‘American imperialism’ or ‘military-industrial complex’ or ‘capitalism’ or ‘Nazism’ and such other things, when it comes to the destructive uses of science.
Aditya: In Science, Hegemony and Violence, you have spoken of science as the new reason of the state, which can be used to ‘kill, main and exploit’ in the name of science and you referred to Robert Jungk’s claim about nuclear energy – that you have extended to science as such – that this produces a kind of set up that is incompatible with democracy and democratic governance. I would like you to elaborate a bit on that.
Ashis: This is really an empirical thing. Jungk was basically a journalist turned thinker. He figured out through his empirical observations that wherever you see nuclear weaponry or nuclear energy, there is a whole structure of secrecy, surveillance and authoritarian control. Everywhere, whether the country is democratic or not. It is absolutely mandatory; it is universal. In fact, that is why I am not only against nuclear weaponry but also nuclear energy. I have another reason also; I think this notion of ‘objectivity’ that science insists upon demands two splits, two kinds of splits in our consciousness: One, between the observer and the observed, or the subject and the object, if you like – the doctor and the patient, researcher and the researched; and the other is the split that science demands between your cognitive and your affective or motivational self. I call this the double split of consciousness and all this is the demand of objectivity. I have invariably seen that even if you do get probably more objective results in some respects, the division of subject and object is maintained no longer even in the philosophy of sciences. There are so many philosophers who have spoken about that. But one of the dangers of this objectivity is ‘objectification’ or what Aime Cesaire calls ‘thingification’. He states this in the context of colonialism particularly, where the subject races are treated as ‘things’ to be ‘improved’, ‘reworked’, ‘remodeled’ and if necessary recalibrated, discarded, junked or treated as obsolete, redundant or anachronistic – or whatever. And this split is in the heart of modern science – even though some of the recent work in theoretical physics and theoretical biology might protest against it, the entire culture is still very much built around this split. And once you begin to use science as the basis of deciding how to handle human affairs: whether to establish mega dams or not, whether to allow biotechnologically modified food grains, this becomes the ultimate sanction. Then it matters little if a few thousand people are killed or a hundred million killed – it all appears like some unavoidable ‘collateral damage’.
Aditya: One question here, since you speak of the ‘imperialism of categories’, about alternative knowledge systems. You have stated that modern, western knowledge systems not only produce modes of domination, they also produce and decide upon the limits of dissent, its forms and so on. Could you tell us a bit more about the alternative systems that you have in mind that do not conform to the framework and limits and criteria set by the dominant knowledge systems. Gandhi, of course, comes to mind…..
Ashis: I think they exist all around – Gandhi is only one instance and, in a sense, Gandhism is much greater than Gandhi. Gandhi himself said that what I am saying is that is nothing new and is as old as civilization. But it you read this very good friend of mine who died recently, Syed Hussain Alatas from Malaysia, you’ll find that some of those things are there too…where he talks about laziness also as a way of subverting the norms set by the dominant, the myth of the West if you please. So these kinds of things are not unknown. There was this conference of evangelists in Bangkok a few years ago whose proceedings I was going through. They think Hindus are Satanic, because they believe that all religions lead to Truth and that actually subverts the Truth of their religion. So these different modes that simply lie outside the logic and normative criteria set by the dominant have not been unknown in history. There are many instances of this kind among the plantation labourers in the Americas and Africa – one can even argue that Cecil Rhodes’ famous description – or notorious description, if you like of the African as half savage, half child, is partly a recognition that this is the way they remain intractable and unmanageable. But this is all over the place; it is human nature and I don’t think it is Gandhian very consciously. All large, dominant systems also create a space for dissent – in a kind of ‘Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’ style – using the same language, same conventions, to establish that dissent is sane, normal, reasonable and well intentioned. But I don’t think that the oppressed have any obligation to follow the rules of the game – and they do not. In a society where such sanctioned forms of dissent are prevalent, there will of course, be people in large numbers who will go towards them, but there will always be people who defy these and try to subvert the given mode of dissent and of course, they will not be seen as dissenters; they will be seen as lunatics. They will be seen as being outside the ken of conventional rights granted to dissenters. So for instance, sixty percent of the Americans believe today that torture is justified, especially, say while dealing with a ‘terrorist’ who apparently knows about an impending terrorist attack. Obviously, terrorism – rightly or wrongly, that is not the point – happens to represent then a new kind of dissent. The kind that does not conform to laid out criteria and there is always a scope that such dissent also represents a search for a different kind of world and challenges the dominant in a much more radical fashion – and the real test of tolerance and democracy comes there.
Aditya: In this context, one question about the efficacy of such dissent. …Often the sharp division and lines drawn between what is ‘authorized’ dissent and what would be considered to be reasonable dissent, lead to a situation where the latter are often reduced to ineffectivity.
Ashis: let me say this: that the really interesting kinds of dissent that flout the norms of conventional dissent are those that use the idiom of those actually marginalized and excluded by the system. To them such dissent is truly and easily understandable; to them it does not seem to flout any kind norm/s. They constitute the heart of common sense, to an extent, even the heart of everyday life. Here it becomes a very different kind of thing. The language is limited… When Nelson Mandela spoke of resistance, armed struggle his language was truly understood by his people. Even when he changed to non-violence, his language remained intelligible to them – as with say Aung San Suu Ki. Mandela’s almost natural acceptance in South Africa, was because that is the language of the majority of people. It was only a small minority, linked to a globally dominant knowledge system, what you may call a shared global common sense of a global middle class that thought he was taking a very odd position.
Aditya: I wish to now come to the position you have enunciated in “History’s Forgotten Doubles”. History, it seems is the other pole of your critique. If science forms one aspect, it is history and the notions of Time, temporality etc that form the second aspect…
Ashis: Well, in a manner of speaking, it is the same aspect. The drive towards ‘objectivity’, its fetishization is the main problem. If History was one among many ways of relating to the past then it would be different; it would enrich our understanding of the past. But as with science, it appoints itself as the dominant and in fact, the sole way. It institutes a certain hierarchy that banishes all other modes of relating to the past – myths, legends, shared public memory transmitted over generations. And so the past of communities which do not use History, is lost. It is not merely a question of excluding chunks of past, for that can always be dealt with by invoking a counter history. History relies on exiling notions, sentiments, feelings, pain. So the voice of a survivor (of any violent event), becomes invalid – except in ‘oral history.’. The pain of the survivor…or the families who have been destroyed have very little status in History. Take the Partition for example. At least two hundred books have been written on it and all excellent books but it is only recently in the 1990s, that scholars have started work on the nature of violence and suffering. We had to wait for one and a half generations before we would begin excavating this aspect of the Partition’s history. Likewise the best works on the European genocide came out only in the 1970s and 1980s. They came out partly outside the discipline of History. This is because it is not just a matter of the annihilation of a culture, or a community only in terms of numbers. It is also a matter of the trauma involved in it. It is a matter of the way in which the millions who survived transmitted the experience. One of the most tragic findings of mine in the Partition study is that those who are direct victims and suffered enormously during the Partition and saw families and children killed in front of their eyes – they still have fonder and warmer memories and openness about the community which inflicted the violence but their children and grand children do not because they only have atrocity stories. They have never lived in any situation with those communities, they have not experienced the other side of these relationships.
Aditya: I was actually struck by the way you formulate something in the beginning of the essay “History’s Forgotten Doubles”, which is otherwise such a radical critique of the enterprise of History. You say that there are people who live outside History but they also have theories of the past and that they also believe that the past is important in terms of shaping their present and future. And I wondered about this formulation, partly because I have been trying to look at issues of Time in so-called non modern contexts and one of the things that seems to be quite evident is that this separation of the Past, Present and Future – these are very modern notions….
Ashis: That is one of the problems, at least when I wrote that article. I was bothered about that because that kind of clear separation in completely missing, say, in the Indian epics…
Aditya: Not just epics but one finds so many of these instances in our own lived cultures and I was struck by a recent study of the Zapatistas where the professors from Mexico University landed up – fired by Marxism-Leninism – to organize the indigenous peasantry of the Chiapas mountains. This study has a discussion based on detailed interviews with Sub-Commandant Marcos, and it is fascinating. Marcos explains in great detail how they had to unlearn so many of the things the knew and one of these concerned the indigenous people’s notion of Time – so that when they were speaking, it was difficult to tell whether the incident happened last week or five hundred years ago or in some absolutely ancient past…
Ashis: Yes, actually that was the problem. I had to traverse between the language of History and non-history. You are right and I tried to grapple with this question while making a critique of history. You find in many of the legends and myths not only here but in many other places and folk literatures, it appears quite clearly. We Indians don’t have that kind of conception…so somebody comes from the future and goes away…or you find in the Bengali upakathas [folk tales of a kind], where the birds talk like human beings. It is not as if they are blessed by some sage or some such thing. They do not feel any need to justify it. Similarly you have someone going to heaven or to paataal [hell] and coming back. This traversing of time is very well developed in our cultures and in Latin America too it is very developed, not just Sub-Commandant Marcos… and it appears in a very interesting way that when you are talking of the Past, the present and the future are present in it, and when you are talking of the Present, the past and the future are present in it and when you talk of the Future, the past and present are present in it. So there are three modes – it is as if when you talk of one modality say the Past, that is like the dominant gene and the other two become regressive and likewise when you talk of the Present and Future…Even then you doubt whether your can call them ‘regressive’.
Aditya: One question here about your relationship with Ivan Illich and others… How did you connect with Illich?
Ashis: Accidentally. Because he was very enamoured of India – Gandhi, India and India’s new experiences. I found his idea of “Deschooling Society”, in many ways to be a very powerful of justification of [Gandhi’s concept of] Nai Taleem or ‘New Education’. All my writings have come amidst a certain intellectual engagement with alternative knowledge systems and that brought me to Ivan Illich. Illich then led me to Gustavo Esteva and Majid Rahenema and a galaxy of other intellectuals…
Aditya: One final question. Since we have talked about dissenting knowledges as opposed to mainstream systems, at least one of the important influences for you has been Sigmund Freud…
Aditya: And you have also mentioned somewhere that Marx – as he came to you through the Frankfurt School, especially Adorno and Marcuse…
Ashis: Yes, Adorno and Marcuse in particular. There was a lot of influence of Erich Fromm among some in India though I thought he was the weakest of the lot. So for me, it was Adorno, Marcuse and Hannah Arendt. They were the only ones at that time who were critical or skeptical of the promises of modernity. Marcuse – though he himself was a product of the Enlightenment – was able to make a serious critique of the Enlightenment. Heidegger was not so much a direct influence and I came to him much, much later when people started telling me that what I was writing resonated with Heidegger. But Marcuse was important in challenging the idea of ‘normality’, of ‘sanity’ and his concept of ‘negation’ was important. Many of my attempts to reach out to other schools of knowledge, to writers like Castaneda and other knowledge systems, involved precisely such ‘negation’. It is not that I am looking for some pristine, ultimate Truth in the alternative systems, or for an undiscovered paradise in them I am looking for ways of making the world more fluid and more open and opened up for the future so that the next generation can define their future more democratically – in a more participatory manner. The openness and fluidity of emotional and intellectual life is what is most crucial.
 Ivan Illich (1928-2002) was an Austrian philosopher and an anarchist critic and theorist. He is well know for his sharp and insightful critiques of modern education, medicine etc.
FROM NAKED PUNCH ISSUE 10
Published at: http://www.nakedpunch.com/articles/115