by Marco Maurizi
(image by Mohit Suneja)
Aniruddha Chowdhury is an Independent scholar based in Kolkata (India). He has done his Graduate Studies in the Graduate Program of Social and Political Thought at York University. He is the author of Post-deconstructive Subjectivity and History: Phenomenology, Critical Theory, and Postcolonial Thought (Brill 2013).
Q: Why do you talk about a “post-deconstructive” subjectivity in your book?
A: Thank you, Marco Maurizi. My book was initially my PhD dissertation in the Department of Social and Political Thought at York University. I have used the term deconstruction in a quasi-synthetic manner to cover not only Phenomenology and Critical Theory but also Postcolonial Theory. I read very deeply Heidegger, Levinas, Benjamin (Adorno), Wilson Harris, and Gayatri Spivak (Derrida). [My position on the Postcolonial theory, in its Indian shapes, has changed to a certain extent which I will explain later.] There are different ‘narratives’ of deconstruction. Mark C Taylor, in his anthology on deconstruction, Deconstruction in Context, traces it back to Kant and Hegel, while someone like Reiner Schurmann in his influential book Heidegger on Being and Acting: From Principles to Anarchy uses the term deconstruction in the context of Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Now, when one speaks of deconstruction one generally means a Post-structuralist tradition, which is not incorrect, but my point is it is seriously misleading. If one reads Spivak’s famous Translator’s Preface to Derrida’s Of Grammatology one gets a Post-structuralist deconstruction. This is a tradition of radical decentring of subject, of radical anti-humanism, again absolutely correct, which can be traced back to at least Nietzsche and Heidegger. Yes, subject as identity, modelled on substance and self-presence, as the figure of mastery, is irreparably gone, according to this tradition, yet it is Levinas’s great work Otherwise Than Being that, perhaps for the first time, theorizes subjectivity not as identity but as non-self-identity, beyond ontology, as the figure of responsibility, which I, following Derrida, call post-deconstructive, which, as Derrida would say, passes through the experience of deconstruction. I read the post-deconstructive subject not only in Levinas but also in Heidegger in the form of what Heidegger calls finite being-with-the-other. I read it in Benjamin’s concept of “the subject of historical knowledge” which I interpret as the after-subject. I find it in Wilson Harris’s difficult conception of host-subject of history and in Spivak’s singular conception of subaltern subject. But Levinas opposes this ethical subject to history. So I ask can we think of a discourse of history that is not only non-totalizing but also non-ontological? Through a close reading of Benjamin’s texts I argue that Benjamin’s historical materialism seeks to rescue the singular non-identity of the past, and therein lies its ‘ethical’ character, as the materialist reconstellates a specific past with the struggling present in what Benjamin famously calls now-time, in the form of dialectical image. The historicity of the image lies in its figurality or indexicality rather than in its relation to essence. I have also read post-deconstructive subject and history in the famously difficult texts of Harris and Spivak. As I said, I use the term deconstruction, in the book, in a quasi-synthetic manner, it is quasi- because the logic of the synthesis is figural.
What is the influence of the phenomenological and ontological tradition on your post-deconstructive strategy about the Subject? I mean, part of Derrida’s critique of Husserl and Heidegger is that they don’t give an accurate (i.e. “generative”, not-static, not-abstract) description of temporality and being-with-the-other. For a Marxist the problem with Husserl and Heidegger is that they tend to dismiss social and historical relations as “empirical”, “ontic” and so on.
I have read very closely not only the two giants of Phenomenology, Heidegger and Levinas, and approached the Post-deconstructive subjectivity through their works but my readings of Benjamin’s “Critical Theory of History” and Wilson Harris have crucial phenomenological aspect. It is not only a phenomenological work but also, through Levinas, a certain critique of Phenomenology and hermeneutics. If Phenomenology has been horizonal Phenomenology, in Husserl and Heidegger, and transcendence has been horizonal transcendence (of the world as such), which I have interpreted closely, then through Levinas that horizonal phenomenology has been called into question. Transcendence belongs to the absolution of the Autrui that is anterior to phenomenology of the world. Now, as it is difficult to summarize my detailed reading of the two figures, I cite two short paragraphs from the Introduction of the book.
“The thesis I seek to defend in Chapter one is that the phenomenological parenthesizing of the metaphysical subject in Being and Time does not dissolve subjectivity in the neutral totality. It is only a step to articulate the conception of subjectivity as the subject of obligation which is expressed in the trope of being-with for the other, that Heidegger’s magnum opus should be read as a defense of the ethical singularity of the subject and the otherness of the other. I attempt to develop this somewhat unorthodox claim through a close reading of Being and Time. Heidegger’s ontological hermeneutic aim in Being and Time is to reveal Dasein’s originary temporality as the meaning of care. The temporal structure of care would disclose, in a hermeneutic manner, Dasein’s possible, authentic, wholeness. According to Heidegger, being-with for the other belongs to the essential, ontological structure of Dasein. In that sense, it can be argued that the ethical relation remains subservient to the ontological relation. But, there is, in Being and Time, a gesture beyond the ontological hermeneutic wholeness of Dasein toward what Heidegger calls “beyond being” and toward a passivity (death and the future), which indicates the trace of the entirely other. I attempt to unravel the “beyond being” and the trace of the other in a reading of being-toward-death, conscience as the call of care, discourse, and in Heidegger’s description of the structure of originary temporality. This would then allow us to revisit Heidegger’s concept of Mitdasein and argue that the relation of trace and alterity (of the other) structuring Mitdasein constitutes Dasein as the subject of obligation.
For Levinas, the Heideggerian concept of ontological difference is trapped in the thought of the horizontality of being. Ontological hermeneutics, according to Levinas, is the structure of thought through which the singularity of the existent is neutralized. In ontology, the question of subjectivity remains correlative with being. Subjectivity would be a moment of the being-totality in which every ex-ception of inwardness is recuperated. In chapter two, as in chapter one, the singular subjectivity and the singular relation with the absolutely Other (articulated as the singular experience of heteronomy) are thought in terms of the temporal structure of the relation. Whereas in Heidegger, as Levinas would argue, the transcendence that characterizes Dasein still remains facticious, and the temporal structure of the being-with for the other is couched in the language of totalization, the time of the subject, in Levinas, is given by the event of the Other. Rather than reading Levinas as a transcendental thinker, I insist on the event-ness of the time of the Other. The thought of the event of the Other allows Levinas to develop an innovative ‘phenomenology’ that we can call a ‘phenomenology’ of enigma. The enigma, I argue, lies in a secret repetition, the already and again, that marks the event, what Levinas would call recurrence. In both Heidegger and Levinas time is thought as otherwise than what Derrida would call the time of the line and the line of time. Yet, if, in Heidegger, ec-static temporality, as the meaning of care, is still thought under the project of the being whole of Dasein, that is, under the sign of totality, in Levinas, the already and again of the event of the Other refer to the time (the lapse of time) without being and presence. Levinas thinks the subject, as the subject in saying, as sensibility, as proximity, that is (un)conditioned by the time of the Other, the time that is anterior to ontological temporalization.”
How did you get interested in post-colonial thought and what relation do you see between post-colonial studies and Marxism?
I came to be aware of the Postcolonial theory in the early 1990s when I was a MA student in Calcutta, and it was still a new thing. Now, although academic Postcolonial Studies became popular, or if you like, fashionable, from the mid-80s with the publication of the seminal works of Edward Said (his Orientalism) and Gayatri Spivak (her essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’), in India (especially in West Bengal) it became critically prominent with the brilliant appearance, in the early 1980s, of the historians’ collective called Subaltern Studies, led by Ranajit Guha. The latter’s own work (Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India) has signalled a major turn in the historical discourse in India and in what is called colonial discourse analysis. However, it is my opinion that it would not be naive to broaden the scope of Postcolonial studies beyond its academic scope to include the great anti-colonial political-philosophical works of, say, Aime Cesaire, C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon et al, or great philosophical-literary writers such as Wilson Harris and Derek Walcott, for example. My own interest in the Postcolonial theory has been shaped by the non-nationalist texts of Postcolonial theory (Fanon, James, Harris, Said, Spivak and many others.) During my graduate studies at York University I studied Postcolonial theory seriously from a non-nationalist perspective and have written two philosophical chapters on Wilson Harris and Gayatri Spivak in my book. I have written a philosophical work with a very broad scope to read very deeply texts of Heidegger, Levinas, Benjamin, and also Harris and Spivak under a quasi-synthetic topic of deconstruction, which does not mean that I have written a work with nicely rounded conclusions but rather a work with ragged edges which is exactly what I intended to do.
Now, I would like to say that much of the Indian Postcolonial theory and its uses are bourgeois, to put it blatantly, whose theoretical discourse consists in what I would like to call positivism of difference, which is not really difference but identity in theory and practice. It is overtly nationalist, in a time when Indian capitalism is “growing” fast, which rests on the totally undialectical identity theorem of “our” and “their,” which they, most laughably, justify by the catchword “strategic essentialism.” Note that it is not the anti-colonial nationalism that we are talking about but an academic nationalism that emerged in the time large scale capitalist development in India, and which has erased the Marxist discourse from the intellectual scenario. This is, as I see it, a symptom of intellectual failure and decay. It has also become apparent that this global, albeit nationalist, trend of Postcolonialism stands opposed to the Marxist Critical tradition though they (the postcolonials) have used and abused Gramsci and Althusser. They really took advantage of the Postmodern spectacle. Some Foucault here and some Derrida there. Gayatri Spivak is the only thinker among the Postcolonials who has consistently used Marx, but her Marxism remains Social democratic and revisionist, which is really incompatible with the radical tradition of Western Marxism and Critical Theory. Take for example, Robert Young’s White Mythologies, published in the heyday of the Postmodern-Postcolonial spectacle, where the author consciously targeted and maligned, I would say, the Western Marxist and the Critical Theory tradition as Eurocentric, if not colonial. This really indicates the ideological side of Postcolonial studies. I am not saying that Marxism is something sacrosanct, that there should not be a critique of Marxism, but am saying that to contrapose Postcolonialism to Western Marxism is, strictly speaking, ideological. It is also my position that to criticize bourgeois Postcolonialism one must use not only the Marxist categories but also other critical vocabularies rigorously, which have been misused by the Postcolonials. There should be a Marxist critique, which I call the discourse of the Proletariat (Lukacs, Benjamin, Marcuse, Debord), of the Postcolonial theory, but also, why not, Heideggerian, Foucaultian or Adornean critique of it. Do you see what I mean?
In the 80s it was a routine for po-mo academics to attack Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s Dialectics of Enlightenment as “eurocentric”. I’m curious about your point of view.
I don’t think it is true at all. Dialectic of Enlightenment is a radical historical critique of ‘modernity’ and of ‘Europe’ in that it traces the prehistory of ‘modernity’ (rationality as the domination of nature). But, more importantly, it is a ‘global,’ rather than just European, critique of ‘modernity.’ Its critique of Enlightenment as a discourse of the domination of nature, its tracing of the prehistory of bourgeois rationality, is a key moment of the post-humanist discourse that points toward the Eco-Socialist thinking. There is a kind of synchronicity – it is not only that Enlightenment reverts to myth, but myth is already Enlightenment — that makes impossible any nostalgic return to prior fullness of the world so to speak. They are also not looking for the signs of uncolonized nature in any other tradition in any other time. I think they offer a ‘global’ prehistory of ‘modernity,’ if I may, which is totally relevant today.
The ongoing crisis of capitalism made Marx fashionable again in Academia, after decades of oblivion. What about your country? Are Marx and Marxian categories still relevant to current debates?
Marxist critical categories, which Marx called the relentless critique of the present, is more relevant than ever in India. This is a time of large scale capitalism in India. What is taking place is the great class differentiation, unthinkable inequality, a capitalism not separable from what Weber and Lukacs respectively called rationalization and reification. Capitalism dominates all aspects of political-economic and cultural/academic spheres. The latter, more and more entrepreneurial in nature, follow rigorously the logic of accumulation, which is the watchword. Those who say Marxist categories are Euro-centric and are not applicable in India deceive their students. Marxism is more relevant than ever. I think what Trotsky called Combined and Uneven development has to be related to the Blochian notion of non-synchronicity to explain the non-synchronous capitalist development in India. But here again the common sense positivism of Postcolonialism is a massive stumbling block. There is a new Orientalism that no longer speaks of East and West, because that is not fashionable, but monolithic North and South. The discourse of academic social science is positivist, retrospective and documentary in nature, that not only justifies the present but hypostatizes certain conclusions from the past. It is truly strategic. There are brilliant Marxist and radical Postcolonial historical studies but Marxists have generally failed to contest the global current really. I cannot go into Indian Marxist tradition here. But suffice it here to say that Marxist internationalism, even though misguided by Stalinism for a very long time, is hundred years old. Now, after the massive Postmodern-postcolonial reaction intellectuals in India are again getting interested in the Western Marxist and Critical Theory tradition.
When you talk about the necessity to criticise Marxism what are the main problems you see? Give me some catchwords; I don’t expect you to answer at full length here. And, are these problems related to Marx’ theory or are they just an effect of the Marxist tradition (i.e. an orthodox reification of Marx’ analysis)?
When it comes to the Marxist tradition I work mainly within the Western Marxism and Critical Theory tradition. It is not a subjective choice; the CT tradition that includes what I would like to call the discourse of the Proletariat and a radical philosophical critique of capital is crucially relevant in large part of the world. The Postcolonials have never really engaged with this tradition because they are not comfortable when it comes to a critique of capital. Even though Communist movement is one hundred years old in India the discourse of the Proletariat has been really repressed. It returns. Decade after decade what dominated in the Indian Marxist tradition was the Stalinist Soviet and Chinese Marxism which is the tradition of what Trotsky called National Socialism. It blocked any serious critical tradition and certainly offered a scaffold for Indian bourgeois Postcolonialism.
In Europe, class struggle has been absent from the scene for years. Now it’s gaining attention again: it seems like we’re even slowly moving towards renewed forms of international class struggle. In the meantime, we’ve been looking for signs of life abroad, hoping that growing economies (like China or India) might produce new class conflicts and perspectives. What about the political scene in your country?
I think the political and cultural scene in India is reactionary. First, there is almost total presence of reactionary Hindu fundamentalism which is not only communal but also massively casteist/classist and deeply patriarchal, which also draws on the capitalist ‘growth.’ Secondly, especially in West Bengal, where I live, which used to be the centre of Left movement in India for many decades, where there is not yet a big presence of Hindu fundamentalism, the threat consists in the cultural/academic corporatism (everyone is little entrepreneur these days,) which is responsible for the immense erasing of the egalitarian discourse among the middle class. There is hardly any cultural resistance let alone class struggle except certain important but sporadic popular resistance to the dispossession. Proletarian discourse has been erased by the ‘successful’ academic theorists. Political and cultural scene is bleak and reactionary.