Ashis Nandy, Colloquially: Ashis Nandy in Conversation with Vinay Lal

[Excerpted from “The Defiance of Defiance and Liberation for the Victims of History: Ashis Nandy in Conversation with Vinay Lal”, in Dissenting Knowledges, Open Futures: The Multiple Selves and Strange Destinations of Ashis Nandy (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000; ISBN: 019565115-4), pp. 21-93; first published in Emergences, nos. 5-6 (1995-96). These few pages are drawn from a 70-page conversation, first recorded over a few days in August – September 1994.]

On Indian intellectuals, psychoanalysis, Freud, and Marx:

VL: Before we move into Gandhi, for that is a very large issue, I am interested in exploring further the move you have described from the psychology of politics to the politics of psychology. Though Jung had a considerable interest in India and ‘Oriental wisdom’, he does not appear to have excited any interest among Indian intellectuals or even psychologists. Freud, by contrast, never had even any pretense of being interested in India; in that sense he operates firmly within the parameters of Western civilization. Though educated Indians have since colonial times looked to the West for affirmation, how is it that they turned to Freud’s writings, and almost altogether ignored Jung? Your own interest in Freud is well-known, and indeed the ‘psychologism’ of your work is sometimes adduced as a reason for not taking it seriously.

AN: Early Indian psychoanalysts met Jung: they respected him, but they were not interested in him. And some of them did tell Alan Roland that Jung didn’t really understand much of Indian philosophy, but that is not a very satisfactory answer, because Freud knew even knew less of it. At least Jung had a fair guess about these larger concerns and contours but Freud didn’t even know that: to him Indian philosophy was no different from various forms of primitivism, and he couldn’t distinguish between Indian philosophy and Chinese philosophy. But while he could not distinguish between the two, there was something which Freud offered to the early Indian psychoanalysts which they couldn’t articulate but which I suspect informed their work. In India there had been a very long and very rich tradition of theories of consciousness and subjectivity; in Indian philosophy at least the dominant schools have consistently emphasized subjectivity, and theories of consciousness are absolutely crucial — in this kind of culture they were certainly not looking for a new theory of consciousness. They did not cognitively decide that this kind of theory of consciousness is better than the earlier ones or whatever — what they found in psychoanalysis was a theory of social criticism which at the same time was a theory of criticism in the West . Indians were looking for a theory of social criticism which had this double-edged nature. It would simultaneously be a critique of imperialism, for they were looking for something like that at that time, and simultaneously of Indian civilization — Indian culture at least — in a very radical way, for that was a project in which the Indian middle classes had been engaged for the last 150 years — certainly for 100 years. This function Freudian psychoanalysis could provide but Jung couldn’t. Now I have a second reason to offer. I have used Freud because there is no doubt in my mind that though there is some creative use I could make of Jung which could be said to have a political edge, on the whole the political potentialities of Freud are much higher and much deeper than they are of Jung. Jung has many things, but he certainly doesn’t have much politics. His personal life also shows that unless there is a sensitivity to politics in an age where politics has become the pace-setting system, you are pulled by storms of which you have little understanding. However sensitive might be your theory of mind, you may compromise, you don’t take strong enough of a position on issues which in some sense delegitimizes your entire edifice.

VL: Jung doesn’t have much of a political edge, does he?

AN: For the kind of work I wanted to do, I needed that political edge. That is true of Indian psychoanalysts, earlier and later, as well.

VL: I want to probe still further the relationship between psychoanalysis and the Indian intelligentsia. The account you have provided is very different from the relationship of psychoanalysis to the intelligentsia in both America and France. In the case of America, we know that psychoanalysis was received warmly much earlier than it was in France. But Russell Jacoby and others have argued that in America, psychoanalysis was quickly ’emasculated’ — that is, it lost its political edge, its possibility as a theory of social criticism. In France, on the other hand, we have to offer a different account. French intellectuals were for long averse to psychoanalysis because the retreat into the consciousness was construed as an escape from ‘structures’. Something handicapped the political uses of psychoanalysis in both France and the U.S. — were Indian psychoanalysts, however few they may have been, similarly restrained?

AN: Indian intellectuals were not overly burdened with psychoanalysis. There were some psychoanalysts, and one might even speak of it as a cultish phenomenon, but psychoanalysis as a whole didn’t have much of a social presence. One shouldn’t expect it either, because India has very well-developed theories of consciousness of all kinds, constantly competing with each other. Most psychoanalysts tried to develop, at some time or the other, links between Indian theories of consciousness and psychoanalytic theories of consciousness. Now that’s by way of a preliminary remark; even in the U.S. and France, what the academics claim is not always what they do because they also have their own unconscious. I cannot, for example, see structuralist-Marxism or structuralist-radicalism, if you like, going very far without Freud; structuralism without Freud takes you probably as far as Levi-Strauss. For Althusser, and more so even for Foucault, you need Freud. What they say is secondary. If you allow me to stand structuralism on its head, and go into its structures of thought, you’ll find that they may have many different kinds of judgment. Much of the radical thrust of structuralism comes from either Marx or Freud — particularly when the issue of power is brought in, and when one is not talking about the manifest, but the latent, structuring of power. When one is interested in the apparent structure of power, Freud has re-entered structuralism, whether the structuralists like it or not. As far as the American situation is concerned, while it is true that Jacoby argues that the professionalization and scientization of psychoanalysis led to its emasculation, at least to the emasculation of its radical or political thrust, I would say that if you see the works of those psychoanalysts who have truly gone into radical psychoanalysis, they have also found it easier to load psychoanalysis with some of the burden of political analysis than they have found it in other schools of thought. Freud has been revived in certain ways which I wouldn’t have thought possible — within poststructuralism, for instance. You can’t expect Freud to survive without Marx surviving as in the last 100 years; you can expect Freud to survive the way Marx will survive now. One of the persons who has contributed to the growth of Western consciousness — that is what Marx is now. When I say that I expect Freud to survive the way Marx will survive now, I mean something as simple as the way Hegel survives in European consciousness; Freud will survive in that fashion after 100 years. That’s no mean tribute to pay to a thinker.

VL: Does that also mean that in your estimation Civilization and Its Discontents, a more general essay on Western civilization, will have a longer future than Freud’s more ‘technical’ works?

AN: Yes and no. I would have liked to agree with you, as Civilization and Its Discontents is one of my favorite books. Personally, I have always been more deeply moved by Freud’s philosophical and political essays, but I also think that even in some of his ‘technical’ works, where Freud himself thinks he is being technical, his impact is philosophical in a grand sense. Freud may have written The Interpretation of Dreams as a technical work that he might have thought was changing the science of psychology, but the philosophical impact of such a work will be appreciated perhaps one hundred years hence even more than its technical aspect.

VL: It has extraordinary literary qualities too, and is used in a great many literature or theory courses. But, in any case, how would you describe the relation to Freud and Marx in your work?

AN: Frankly, I have gained very little from Marx’s theories of social structure — not in the structuralist sense of structure, but in the old structuralist-functionalist sense of structure. I have never been too impressed by Marx’s theory, it is too mechanistic a model; and even when I was much younger, when I was into mathematical statistics and things like that, even then it seemed to me a rather naive model. I was always deeply influenced by, and deeply aware of, Marx’s theory of alienation — some of his psychological sensitivities were more obvious to a psychologist, and I would also consider Marx a major theorist of psychology, independently of his status as a thinker in economics and politics. Many of his observations and interpretations of human subjectivity I have resonated to; for a number of years, my model was quite close to that of the Frankfurt School — of Marxism or psychoanalysis, whichever way you want to think of it. I found them very useful.

VL: The Frankfurt School in its entirety, Marcuse as much as Adorno, or even the others?

AN: Mainly Adorno and Marcuse, less of Erich Fromm, very little of the others.

VL: So what works of Marx have been important to you? When I think of the corpus of your writings, Marx is visible in it only in a very amorphous sense, certainly not markedly.

AN: He wouldn’t be very visible. In my recent writings, Freud is coming back, but for a long time even Freud was not very visible. And that is because I made a systematic effort not to be burdened by very large, powerful, closed systems of thought placed squarely within the Western, post-Enlightenment academic tradition. In fact, I am noticing that in my recent writings, I have again gone back to some of the concerns of psychoanalysis, which was not the case a decade ago.

VL: But there is a sense in which Freud, even when he is not visibly present in your works, is present in other ways. I have always thought that you had a home-grown use of Freud, you have never really carried him on your sleeve; but there are many scattered remarks in your work which remind one of Freud, even when he is not being evoked. I recall a conversation we had long before when you said that trivia interests you, because through that one can discern larger patterns and arguments. The whole idea of the Freudian slip, the idea in The Pathology of Everyday Life that little things matter the most — this is partly what I mean by the home-grown use of Freud: not nativist, but domesticated, perhaps a ‘softer’ use of Freud, whereas in many, more professional, works the overt use of Freud is a good deal more mechanistic and ‘harder’. Your reliance on him is more intuitive and metaphorical. Would you agree with that?

AN: I would agree with you, but mind you, this came later, after a long exposure to Freud. There has been a kind of attenuation of the presence of Freud, and therefore it looks more intuitive and metaphorical. Secondly, I would like to say that even in the case of Marx, you will probably sense his presence, if you think not so much of Marx himself, but of Adorno or Marcuse. My sense of how modern science has become a sign of violence in our times obviously owes much to Marcuse; the resort to subjectivism, and the critique of objectivism and the scientific nature, derive from Adorno. Marx after all was ‘hard’ with his own theories of subjectivism, being driven by a secular model; whereas these people were less burdened by such an attitude. The other thing which you find often in my work is not so much the use of metaphors from either Freud or Marx, but debates with them, whereas in some sense I will not debate many others. It gives some an undeserved intellectual prominence; whereas in the case of Marx and Freud — the former more important politically, the latter intellectually — there is a continuous running debate, because they are two persons in the pantheon of Western knowledge who have to be seriously debated, whether one admits it or not.

On Civilizations, Violence, ‘Cultural Difference’, Partition, and the Hindi film:

AN: I was trying to say that the only way that the violence of Auschwitz could be captured was through modern systems of knowledge. But not entirely. There may be better ways of capturing it, but that is the only way in which it has been captured. Whereas there is probably an increasing awareness that if you want community life to survive, if you want certain kinds of cultural and social values to survive, you have to construct the violence of partition in a different way; and people have. There are the usual accounts of communal violence; but you will be surprised how many moving accounts there are of how families have survived because one Muslim friend in Pakistan helped them to come to this side: “Sorry, I can’t protect you here; go away to India, and I’ll look after your property and do something about it.” From family after family I have heard this; I have asked people about this: similarly in Pakistan. I think that qualitatively the violence was different, it was seen as an aberration. I will give you an instance. Nadira Mustapha, a Pakistani journalist, is a friend of mine; her grand-mother died a few years ago. As long as she lived, she used to have nightmares where she used to scream, “The Sikhs are coming. They are killing all of us.” She had seen her own family butchered by the Sikhs. When a few days before she died, Nadira asked her, “Grandmother, you must be very bitter about the Sikhs”, she said, “No. That was a period of madness. We had gone mad, and they also had gone mad.” You cannot say this in the context of Auschwitz or Dachau. There is a qualitative difference there. Nadira’s grandmother cannot be replicated among the Jewish victims of Auschwitz.

VL: Insofar as you are speaking of an aberration . . .

AN: I don’t care if it is empirically an aberration or not. It matters that some people have constructed it thus; it matters that even one person can say that. And she’s certainly not alone; there are others I’ve met of that kind.

VL: Then you would surely disagree fundamentally with the continued attempts of most European and American historians to describe Nazism as an aberration within European history itself?

AN: The industrialized, scientized, technological violence Europe had tried outside Europe. In Europe, there was at most you could say trench warfare, but that was not self-conscious. Even in World War I, the killings in places like Flanders were not self-conscious exercises, as was Nazism; outside Europe it was often a self-conscious enterprise. Nazis, with Teutonic thoroughness, brought that experience to work within Europe; they applied to Europe what Europe had done outside Europe.

VL: So to make available the kind of writings on the partition that we have for the holocaust would require that we do so through modern systems of knowledge, but you have some reservations about that. . .

AN: That also would be important, but that is not the whole story. Whether it would do good or not, I don’t know. Maybe for the moderns it will be a self-aware thing; maybe they will learn something.

VL: So in lieu of that we can have the kind of impressionistic accounts that we’ve had so far.

AN: Can Nadir Mustapha’s grandchildren say what Nadira’s grandmother said? That would be my first question. After the history of partition has been thoroughly written, where impartially one shows both sides, then you can transcend it in a way in which Germany or England have transcended their past, with a conscious effort that in the European community we don’t want any more holocausts. That is a different kind of exercise.

VL: And it may lead to a different set of problems.

AN: Yes, but once the historical score has been settled, from there one can move on. Here the logic is different, the patterning of experience is different. I will like to keep open for Nadira’s grandchildren the option of saying what Nadira’s grandmother said. That’s all.

VL: This is an aside, but I’d like to know what you have to say. It is often said that the Germans, unlike the Japanese, have been willing to admit to their war guilt; and one of the things that testifies to this is the presence of thousands of memorials, all across Germany and Europe, in memory of the victims of the war. On that account, the Japanese, as an ‘Oriental’ country, have been unwilling to recognize their own war guilt. Do you think it is possible to provide an alternative reading to this account?

AN: I don’t think it has ever been proven that Japanese war crimes were ever centrally managed or centrally ordered. There were war crimes, no doubt. Atrocities were widespread; all I want to say is that they didn’t make an industry of it, as did the Nazis. Mind you, the Japanese paid very heavily for it. Do you know that many more Japanese than Nazis were hanged? Nobody ever claimed that Japanese war crimes were as extensive or as brutal as Nazi war crimes. There is the other part of the story too: Japan was subjected to Western racism, it knew it was a victim of racism, and that also was never acknowledged. That part of the story was entirely wiped out; so there is a reactive refusal. In the Japanese case neither of the sides have owned up their past, and I do think that the Japanese refusal to own up their past is partly a reaction to the refusal of the West to own up their own past vis-a-vis Japan.

VL: But that might appear to be an attempt to exculpate them on reactive grounds . . .

AN: I’m not trying to exculpate them at all. I’m only trying to understand their refusal to own up their past. Things would have been very different if the other part of the story had also been acknowledged.

The West had to acknowledge that war-time Japan wanted to beat the West at its own game, that a significant part of Japanese imperialism was only a reflection of the West’s disowned self. Like Aime Cesaire, who traced Nazi racism and violence to attempts to try out within Europe what Europe’s colonial experiments in the non-European world had ‘legitimately’ done over the centuries to its colonial subjects, Radhabinod Pal set the Japanese imperial guilt in this century in a larger global context. If the accused were guilty, so were the plaintiffs.
(“The Other Within: Radhabinod Pal’s Judgment of Culpability”, in The Savage Freud, p. 79).

VL: Do you think that one could furnish a more radical, a different epistemological explanation that would validate the Japanese position? I’d be prepared to argue that in the case of Germany, there is really a kind of forgetting; in other words, we have to read memorials rather differently. Far from constituting a form of remembering, they constitute a kind of forgetting. Let me offer a simple illustration. There is always a transformation in the public use of memorials. One goes to a German town, and wants to get from one place to another. A memorial becomes a geographical nexus, a geographical space for locating oneself; it is the bus stop next to the memorial that keeps it alive. The functions the memorial eventually serves are very different — there is a displacement that memorials create, and if one reads that displacement politically, these memorials are a form of forgetting rather than a form of remembering.

AN: That’s beautifully said.

VL: The Japanese don’t have such kinds of memorials. The reasons you’ve given have more to do with factual things: more Japanese were killed, Japan was itself a victim of Western racism, and so on. But there may be a different epistemological paradigm.

AN: You’re making a very significant point. In your sense, the Japanese remember more; they live the past more than do the Germans.

VL: I bring this in because I wonder if that’s true of the partition, which hasn’t evoked those kinds of monuments — I mean not only physically, but in terms of artistic and intellectual endeavors. Is there some kind of displacement here? Apart from the fact that the memory of the partition resides in folk memories, is there some kind of displacement? Is there a memory of the partition in other forms which have to be read differently? The Hindi film, perhaps?

AN: I was going to mention the Hindi film. There is a split in the Hindi film between the slogans of the nation-state, to which they seem to give uncritical and total allegiance on the one hand, and on the other hand is the simultaneous existence of very subtle criticisms of the ideology of the state which they project into the same films without knowing they’re doing so. Maybe that contradiction comes from survival of memories of the partition. After all, the Hindi film to a very significant extent, particularly in its present incarnations, is a product of the people who were refugees. The psychology of refugees is dominant in much of this. You also see it in journalism. Some of the most violent and blood-curdling nationalists belong to that sector; they are the victims of partition. If you read Arun Shourie, you are left in no doubt what partition has done to us. Arun Shourie, Girilal Jain, M. V. Kamath — we are not left in any doubt as to what partition has done to us.

VL: A very large number of Hindi films shows families that are split or broken; the separation of brothers is a dominant motif, and you have read it as the divided self within the person. But can that also be read as a psychobiography of the tormented nation-state; there are the bifurcations that take place at the time of the partition, and perhaps individual narratives inscribe a larger narrative.

AN: Doubling actually came in earlier. Maybe it now has a different kind of meaning, maybe it has acquired a different tonality. Maybe it could be a good empirical question: do the doubles created after the partition represent a different redistribution of qualities between the two brothers than the doubles in the Hindi film before partition? It is possible that things have changed.

VL: In any case you don’t think that capturing the partition through historical narratives will provide us with the readings of partition — they provide us with partial readings, no doubt — we want . . .

AN: Let me put it this way: in a massified society history probably can vaguely contribute to a moral framework.

VL: But India is not that yet.

AN: Not yet. I think that the patterning of memories in ways to which we are accustomed has a very strong moral component to it; because of that moral component we stick to them, probably unwilling to give them up. Probably there was this awareness among historians, artists, and social scientists that these are memories that one doesn’t fiddle with. The history or social science account of that experience cannot really compete with public memory, and probably should not; now of course two generations have passed, and maybe now we shall see a different kind of awareness in this area. It’s possible.

VL: So you would see history as a narrative form, a discourse, that colludes with colonialism. The entry of history into India is in tandem with the entry of modernity.

AN: Yes, it has its costs. No use in underestimating these costs. Everything has a cost; even in the world of knowledge, there is no free lunch. Everything has a cost; depends on what cost you are willing to pay.

VL: Of course history also claims a priority; it claims it is prior to ahistoricity . . .

AN: . . . prior to alternative constructions of the past. It is not accidental that the two groups or sectors in India which are sworn to history are the Hindutvavadis and the secularists.

On Defiance:

VL: One of your books is dedicated to those who dare to defy the models of defiance. So how does one dare to defy the model of defiance?

AN: I meant something quite modest, really. I meant that the only way to be not part of the loyal opposition, the Queen’s opposition on the Westminster model, is to defy the key categories of the Enlightenment. Without that you cannot make it.

[“No hegemony is complete unless the predictability of dissent is ensured, and that cannot be done unless powerful criteria are set up to decide what is authentic, sane, rational dissent and, then, these criteria are systematically institutionalized through the university system. This is the process that we are witnessing in the burgeoning intellectual fashion industry, inundated these days with such powerful brand names as post-modernism, post-coloniality and post-structuralism.”
(“Bearing Witness to the Future”, Futures 28, nos. 6-7 (August-September 1996), p. 638.)]

VL: So Gandhi’s recourse to fasting would be a defiance of the models of defiance.

AN: There can be no doubt about that. I would fully agree with that.

VL: But each act of defiance of Gandhi’s sort was at the same time an attempt at communication.

AN: A two-level communication, mind you: a communication which is understood by that part of your self which has been marginalized by the Enlightenment, but not eliminated, that is your latent self; it is also a communication to the Enlightenment self where it may end up triggering a moral thing or contradiction within the Enlightenment. You must recognize both.

VL: I take your argument, but I am a bit uncertain how it would work. So let me take a more complicated example. You have somewhere a discussion on the fatwa issued against Rushdie. You point out that if Khomeini was really interested in killing Rushdie, he would never have issued a fatwa. Rushdie could have been eliminated quite easily, without the formality of a public death sentence. Rushdie was, if anything, given an opportunity to flee death. You go on to argue that the fatwa is really to be understood as a mode of communication which defies the usual modes of communication, such as diplomatic exchanges, that are expected to govern relations between states. Are you entirely comfortable with that?

AN: Yes, it doesn’t mean that all modes of defiance are automatically acceptable. The range of dissent has to widened in a certain fashion . . . It doesn’t mean that Khomeini’s endeavor has the same meaning attached to it as the kind of defense within the Islamic world mounted by someone like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, or in intellectual terms by the famous liberal theologian and theoretician, Ali Shariati. You must have this two-fold communication: but Khomeini’s fatwa did not defy the internal opposition, though it did defy the Great Satan. However justifiable in other ways, however much you grant the provocation, even then you have to admit that the fatwa did not perform that role.

VL: If you say that in certain instances it would be justifiable, and in others it wouldn’t, there is still the question of parameters: let me advert again to Gandhi’s fasts. Gandhi was certain that a fast could be undertaken only if there was an implicit condition that by fasting you are in fact actually making it possible for the other part to respond; there has to be that possibility, an invitation to a dialogue. How does a fatwa amount to an invitation to a dialogue?

AN: Because it is communicative.

VL: There has to be some capacity within the party that is receiving the communication to understand it as such.

AN: Yes, both sides have to do so, one party cannot understand it alone. There is the factor of the market morality: it is after all a death threat which is an incentive. As if the religious good you would do is not enough, as if the very fact that you are killing an enemy of Islam and establishing your moral superiority is not enough — you have to be given an economic incentive. Don’t forget that part of the story.

VL: It’s not cricket any more, one might say: even cricketers need large material incentives before they’ll be a sport. So let me move to the book on cricket. What were you doing in that book?

See also on MANAS:

Ashis Nandy, “Death of an Empire

Vinay Lal, “Partitioned Selves, Partitioned Pasts“, commentary on “Death of an Empire”

Ashis Nandy Bibliography

Ashis Nandy: An Intellectual Profile, by Vinay Lal