Decolonizing Theory: Thinking across Traditions

Athil Banna

The central truss of the text is questioning and reminiscing through some of the critical issues concerning ‘theory’ and wresting it away from the Western episteme. It starts with the crisis of the colonial mode of knowledge production and its outcome of treating non-Western societies as a ‘field.’ The text is a weighty emboss on the theoretical crisis of capitalism, secularism, modernity, and decoloniality. The central concern of the book comes under the crisis of ‘Modernity and Capitalism as Totality.' Modernity projects itself as a totalizing ‘structuralist’ philosophy and individual-centric liberal ontology, which did not leave any space ‘outside’ the query of modernity, capital, secularism, and politics.

The very question of “decolonizing theory” and tracing its genealogy in the Indian context is the concern of the first chapter. The term decolonization is used here to imply the idea of ‘epistemic reconstitution.’ Looking at the history of scholarship in India in the context of the ‘decolonization of knowledge,’ there were various schools of thought including nationalist, Marxist, and Hindu right-wing. But these schools became either limited within the nationalistic discourse or turned into a measly venture of ‘rediscovering the past greatness of India.’ But after the mid-20th century, two institutions critically scrutinized the European episteme in India – namely, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and Patriotic and People-Oriented Science and Technology (PPST). These elongated engagements with knowledge exposed that the questions weren’t purely academic; rather, they were existential. This is where the concern with decolonization of theory hails from. To decolonize theory or to address the question of alternative modes of knowledge, one of the possible ways is thinking across traditions. 

The second chapter deals with the upheaval of modernity and its self-referential official narratives. Sudipta Kaviraj’s proposal on the ‘revisionist theory of modernity’ shows the relationship between ‘democracy’ and ‘development,’ and how this gives rise to the idea of ‘sequentiality.’ The author’s main criticism of Kaviraj's theory is its residual structuralism and Marxist approach to India. That is to say, when discussing modernity in India, Kaviraj rightfully articulated that Indian society’s cultural and historical practices are critical in transforming both democracy and modernity, but when it comes to theoretical formulation, the agent of this entire logic becomes modernity itself (p. 50). By breaking down the constellation of modernity the author shows that it had complex multifarious chronologies including the influence of Islamic, Indian, and Chinese civilizations. The particularity of European modernity/rationality that is distinct from earlier civilizations is a new ontology of the ‘politically possessive individual,’ which gives rise to capitalism and the bourgeoisie – i.e., an economic-centered, ego-mastered worldview gives rise to what we call 'modernity' with ‘coloniality.’ 

The third chapter, ‘Marxism and Non-Western Thought: Apropos a Debate on Slavoj Žižek,’ is a fascinating take on the theoretical framework Eurocentric universal theoreticians like Žižek. In Žižek’s own words, “one is tempted to add that, if there is one good thing about capitalism, it is that under it Mother Earth no longer exist” (Žižek 2010:97). This can be seen as erasing all indigenous way of being and knowing in this world. It is this capitalist modernity or Euro-normality that is the foundation of the structural framework of Euro-centric Marxist scholars. The author outlined that Western leftist philosophers “have made capitalism integral to the ontology of the human condition. Also, Žižek’s worries about the nuclear threat in the Middle East and his evaluations of Indian civilization, especially on Tantra, become the subject of the chapter. Saying this, the author enters into the heart of “Capital and Totality,” which is to say there is nothing outside capital and that all life forms outside the capital are termed as solely the effects of capital or variants of capital. As an alternative to this totality, the chapter examines Nagarjuna’s concepts like “emptiness” (sunyata) and “dependent origination” (pratitya sammutpada).

The question of ‘political’ is the central concern of the fourth chapter. The idea of ‘political’ usually goes back to ancient Athens and is articulated and theorized mainly from the European experience. This chapter is an inquiry into the possible lines of connection between erased or other histories of politics and how it is governing present existence. Articulating the history of the “Congress System” and South Indian Poligar’s political and social history, the chapter underlines that both had a relation with the precolonial Indian concept of the ‘Mandala,’ representing social polity in India’s historical experiences. This implies that colonialism didn’t erase everything. Carrying Ambedkar as a reference point, the chapter proposes that the structure of social power cannot be separated from political power and that the social has the potential to determine the nature and limits of political power.

The fifth chapter could be termed as the inciting and enlivening chapter of the book – namely, “Secularism and Subalternity: The Paramodern and the Puranic, After Secularism.” The incapability to discuss the premodern or non-modern ways of being is the failure of secularism. In the Indian context, the author calls such a way of living ‘para-modern’ and ‘puranic.’ First of all, these are not ‘past’ modes of being but rather very much contemporary, addressed as ‘non-synchronous synchronicities.’ The idea of ‘para-modern’ or ‘puranic’ implies the state of being populated by humans, spirits, jinn, and all other kinds of beings. Furthermore, the author clarifies that the idea of ‘puranic’ is not confined to Hinduism and Brahmanic ideology alone. After this, the chapter gets into the stories of the Ghazi Miyan, the Chauri Chaura movement, the Santhal uprising, Kala Bandar (or Monkey-Man) in Delhi, and the theoretical dilemmas faced by Shahid Amin, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Guha showing that modern binary disciplines are incompetent to comprehend alternative modes of being.

The book ends with its sixth chapter “Capital and Historical Time: Synchronicity of the Non-Synchronous." It begins with a brief discourse on the idea of ‘the universalization of time.’ Then the chapter takes A. Gramsci’s ‘Passive Revolution’ in the Indian context. In this revolution, there was little space for popular involvement, and it was mostly dependent on the ability of the bourgeoisie to transform from pre-capitalist to capitalist. This passive revolution argument was implemented in the theoretical works of Asok Sen, Partha Chatterjee, and Sudipta Kaviraj. Thus, the logic of explaining Indian social and political history becomes limited to the weakness of precapitalist landlordism alone, forgetting class-caste interests and Brahmanical power structures. At the end of the chapter, it gets into the arguments of Kalyan Sanyal and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s articulation about Capital and pre-capital. Like many Western Marxists, they too see the entire process of earlier economic practices or modes of being as mere intervals to capital itself – or ‘non-capital,’ posited by capital itself. The result is that there is nothing known as ‘outside’ to either modernity or capitalism.

As a concluding remark, what is the most burning and fundamental mission upon us is to realize “the very enunciation of the theoretical or philosophical question. Where do our questions arise from? How do we formulate them?” (p. 248). The answers and theoretical framework will be inevitably prompted by the questions we probe. And those questions have to come not simply from the intellectual nosiness or academic drive but because of existential necessity.