Virtual Issues

Non-Human Intellectual History: Virtual Issue 1.1

Over its more than 80 years in print, the Journal of the History of Ideas has accumulated a pretty large archive. Oftentimes, that archive is representative of the history of intellectual history—its trends, priorities, methods. Sometimes, it involves scholarship that, by virtue of appearing once-in-a-while, cannot quite get either the visibility or the relevant context in which to be seen. 

With the Virtual Issues initiative on the JHIBlog, we propose to recall earlier articles from the JHI that fit with a particular subject or theme, and to place them in a new and current context. We do not pretend that the JHI could ever be comprehensive on these themes, and we are well aware of the limits of the journal’s success in addressing particular subjects. But as with every archive, all sorts of surprises await. With Virtual Issues, we bring out work that has some connection to current concerns, and to recall ways in which authors engaged a particular theme, including ways that may now be out of fashion but that are suggestive of past trends. Each Virtual Issue—the first being Nonhumans in Intellectual History, to appear in several installments—features an introduction that resituates these articles. Anyone interested in curating such an issue together with us should contact the lead JHIBlog editors with a proposal and a list of relevant articles. 

     — Stefanos Geroulanos, on behalf of the Executive Editors 

By Shuvatri Dasgupta

How can we think of nonhuman intellectual histories, in times such as ours, which has been rightly characterized as the Age of the Capitalocene? An attempt at defining what nonhuman intellectual history may look like as a discursive field within intellectual history and political thought, is a task akin to Penelope’s robe-making. It is a definition that needs to be continually made and unmade, until the well-being of all beings have been ensured. Much like Penelope who weaved in her attempt to buy time till the end of the Trojan war, we must weave till our climate crisis has been mitigated! The installments in this Virtual Issue on non-human intellectual histories, consisting of articles published in the Journal of History of Ideas, curated by the journal’s executive editor Stefanos Geroulanos, and introduced here by the blog’s primary editor Shuvatri Dasgupta, is one such initiative. Through these virtual issues on the JHI blog, we hope to provide some methodological indications of what nonhuman intellectual history may look like, and what its stakes would be. 

  • Chaplin, Joyce E. “Can the Nonhuman Speak?: Breaking the Chain of Being in the Anthropocene.” Journal of the History of Ideas 78, no. 4 (2017): 509-529. doi:10.1353/jhi.2017.0029
  • Shyovitz, David I. “Christians and Jews in the Twelfth-Century Werewolf Renaissance.” Journal of the History of Ideas 75, no.4 (2014): 521-43. doi:10.1353/jhi.2014.0033
  • Coen, Deborah R. “Big Is a Thing of the Past: Climate Change and Methodology in the History of Ideas.”  Journal of the History of Ideas 77, no. 2 (2016): 305-201. doi:  10.1353/jhi.2016.0019

Starting with an overview of the epistemicide of anthropocentrism, our introductory set of articles seek to ask and answer: Can the non-human think/speak? Joyce Chaplin’s article highlights, how the failure of intellectual historians to engage with non-textual archives in an attempt to take nonhuman cognition seriously, results from the history of the discipline itself, which took its present form by valorising text, and human speech. It is through this logocentric prism that the epistemic violence of anthropocentric intellectual histories have functioned. Richard Serjeantson’s article explores the debates on nonhuman speech, and shows us how European philosophers in medieval and early modern times grappled with deciphering how humans were different from and superior to other beings on earth. By historicising anthropocentrism and critiquing its textual and logocentric bias, these articles leave us with the firm conclusion that nonhumans can and must think and speak, alongside humans.  

How have we historically thought of the nonhuman?: Through an etymological excavation of the term ‘vampire’, Katherina Wilson’s article shows us how we can incorporate insights from comparative philology, and linguistics, within the field of nonhuman intellectual history. Similarly, Steven Nadler’s article has indicated how both literature and philosophy can shape the writing of nonhuman intellectual history, by juxtaposing the works of Descartes and Cervantes’. Similarly, David Shyovitz in his article, illustrates how humans have thought with, and thought through, the nonhuman-ness of nonhumans, by looking at constructions of monstrosity in relation to werewolves within Christian and Jewish polemics from late twelfth century Northern Europe. Lastly, directly intervening into the debates on methodology, Deborah Coen’s article illustrates how nonhuman histories, and more broadly, histories of climate change, must take into account seemingly incommensurable temporalities, and spatialities. Written over a span of four decades, this set of articles illustrate the diachronic development of our ecological crisis, by tracing how articles by historians such as Wilson, Shyowitz, Steven, and Serjeantson, have culminated into the questions posed by Coen, and Chaplin, and addressed by us in this forum. 

In an attempt to center the nonhuman and chart out a space for conceptualizing their intellectual histories, this forum will also bring to light gaping holes in the existing intellectual history scholarship. In this introductory section, it is imperative to point out  that historians of ideas have not taken into account the question of political economy, during their engagement with the climate crisis, and nonhuman histories, as can be seen in this small set we have curated here. Simply put these articles do not ask: how did capitalism bring about the present environmental crisis?  By overlooking the question of capital, they have only partially traced the causality of anthropocentrism, and have downplayed its potential for epistemic violence. In an attempt to address this, in my research, I argue that the unhappy consciousness of the dialectic of colonial capitalism manifests through a lack of care (yatna) for the humans and nonhumans within the household, in colonial India. Similarly Milinda Banerjee and Jelle Wouters look at how histories of multispecies beings and their thoughts on social and political organization, hitherto obscured by the vampire-like tendencies of capital, can actually help us conceptualize mutually interdependent ways of being. David Wengrow in his global historical exploration of monsters argued that they originate in human cognition in response to, and alongside urbanization, and cosmopolitan trade networks. 

What defines the ‘human’, and differentiates it from those beings that are not humans? How do we move beyond anthropocentrism, and start thinking with them, for writing nonhuman intellectual histories? What would those multi species and multibeing histories look like? How can we imagine a methodological framework for hearing, translating, and comprehending the nonhuman? In this task, our pathway has to be interdisciplinary, as we learn from anthropologists, and biologists, amongst others. Eduardo Kohn in his monograph shows us how human thought on forests is informed by ways in which forests actually think. Similarly, Marisol De La Cadena in her soul stirring work shows us ways in which we can move beyond the human, by thinking with Quechua concepts such as “earth beings”. Merlin Sheldrake’s study of fungal organization, Thomas Van Dooren’s attempt to think with crows, all provide inspiring indications of what a nonhuman history of ideas might look like.

In the following installments of this forum, we intend to delve deeper into these questions, and reflect upon the adequacies and inadequacies of the existing scholarship, in our collective attempt to chart out a framework for imagining nonhumans as actors within their own (hi)stories.  

Shuvatri Dasgupta received a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in History from Presidency University, Kolkata, India. She was also an exchange student and Charpak Fellow at Sciences Po Paris (Reims campus), studying for a certificate programme in European Affairs and B1 French. She is the editor of the Journal of History of Ideas blog, and a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, funded by the Cambridge Trust and Rajiv Gandhi Foundation Fellowship. Her doctoral dissertation is tentatively titled “A History of Conjugality: On Patriarchy, Caste, and Capital, in the British Empire c.1872-1947”. Her general research interests include global history, gender history, intellectual history and political thought, histories of empire, histories of capitalism, Marxist and Marxist-Feminist theory, and critical theory. For the academic year of 2021-22 she is the convenor of the research network ‘Grammars of Marriage and Desire’ (GoMAD) supported by CRASSH, Cambridge, and the Histories of Race Graduate Workshop, at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.

Intellectual history Interview

Genealogies of Survival: An Interview with Adam Y. Stern

By Jonathon Catlin

Adam Y. Stern is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison working in German and Jewish studies. His first book, Survival: A Theological-Political Genealogy (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021), casts Jewish thought and politics in a new light by tracing their recurrent tropes of survival and redemption back to the representation of Jews and Judaism in a long tradition of Christian political theology. Tracking the discourse of survival in writers such as Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Franz Rosenzweig, Sigmund Freud, and Jacques Derrida, Stern argues that survival serves as a powerful index for the secularized traces of Christianity that define Western modernity. His book compellingly highlights the persistence of the trope of “the survivor as a universal figure for death-in-life” up to the present day (149). Contributing Editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed Stern about his book.

Jonathon Catlin: Your book begins with a striking epigraph from the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, who famously once referred to himself as “the last Jewish intellectual”: “Who do these people think they are, that they can make light of or ignore what they have done to us and still wrap themselves in the mantel of ‘the survivors’?” The book ends with an epilogue reflecting on how “the survivor” has been associated with both victims of colonization (by Jean-Paul Sartre and Abdelkebir Khatibi) and with colonizers (by Emmanuel Levinas) in the context of Israel/Palestine. How did you first come to interrogate the category of “the survivor,” and how did you arrive at the perhaps unexpected organizing framework of the decolonial political questions of whose survival is valued and what violence can be done in the name of survival?

Adam Stern: I’m glad you’ve decided to begin at the beginning by citing Said’s powerful observation about the role of the “survivor” in the Nakba, i.e., the ongoing settler colonization of Palestine. I came across the quote itself only late in my research, but it encapsulates many of the initial questions I wanted to pose about a language and a discourse that both pervades public speech and often evades reflection. This observation was coupled with an interest in the philosophical uses of “survival,” as they appear, for example, across Derrida’s work, in a different way for Agamben, and then in Butler’s interventions into “precarious life” and “vulnerability.” The project finally came together for me following one further observation, which is the prominent discursive relationship between “survival” and “Jews.” For Said, of course, the “survivor is a “mantle,” precisely because the category authorizes the hiding and displacing of colonial violence against Palestinians onto the precarious life and vulnerability of a symbolic, sacralized Jewish Holocaust victim. As others have noted, Israel styles itself a “survivor state.”

This was enough to pose a working hypothesis; namely, that the discursive proximity between Jews, survival, and colonialism could serve as a point of orientation for a more general inquiry into the genealogy of the word(s): survival, survivor. Methodologically, this meant returning to an archive of well-known figures: Arendt, Benjamin, Rosenzweig, and Freud. These are thinkers whose work has framed both the specific discussion of “Jewish survival” as well as the more general theoretical debate about survival’s conceptuality. In a preliminary way, my re-readings try to fracture the link between “Jews” and “survival” by showing that these canonical, secular, Jewish writers actually open up a different genealogical horizon: a horizon in which the rhetorical formation of survival has less to do with Jews than with the Jewish question. In other words, I wanted to see whether the very notion of “Jewish survival” could serve as an index for the theological-political (not to mention racial and colonial) history of Christianity.

JC: I see your book as part of a recent wave of scholarship including Emma Kuby’s Political Survivors (2019), Carolyn J. Dean’s The Moral Witness (2019), and Dirk Moses’s The Problems of Genocide(2021) that have historicized received categories of victimhood and highlighted their political dimensions in postwar struggles for recognition, justice, and human rights. More polemically, Robert Meister argued in After Evil (2012), in your summary, that “​​the protocols governing the ‘survival of the Jews’ have made the Holocaust a virtual shibboleth for the acceptance of others into a universal discourse on human rights” (9). Your book traces the trope of Jewish survival back to older and primarily Christian works, from the Bible, to Pseudo-Dionysus, to Shakespeare. As you write in your chapter on Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, “The Jews,” in a significant Christian tradition, “are nothing less than a corpus mysticum, a repudiated and intolerable church but one still indispensable to the work of redemption,” for, since Augustine, they have been said to serve as witnesses to Christian revelation and, in their survival, as a proxy for the resurrection of Lazarus and ultimately Christ (29). In a way, your book de-Judaizes and universalizes the category of the survivor: “At various times and in various ways, Christ’s body has played host to a survival slot, which has sifted through a series of occupants (Jews, Muslims, Africans, etc.) as well as filtered the deposits of multiple discursive domains” ranging from antisemitism to biopolitics (176–177). What new insights does this political-theological lens reveal?

AS: At the center of my critique of so-called “secular” histories is the fact that they are not really all that secular. On a simple level, this means recognizing the implicit equation of secular history with the notion of a “Judeo-Christian tradition.” I won’t rehearse the many problems with this framework, but simply emphasize that the continuity it implies between secularism, Judaism, and Christianity has implications for the way one approaches the history of concepts. As Kathleen Davis has shown, the historian is the sovereign who decides on the state of periodization. At stake, for me, is an alternative, genealogical form of writing that takes seriously Christianity as an object of thought and not merely as a disappearing passageway between antique origins and modern, secular transformations. To put it another way, and following Gil Anidjar, we need a concept of Christianity. We need a form of naming that reads secularization (and, indeed, the word religion) as a technology of self-erasure. By this, I mean the way that Christianity has made itself invisible even as so many of its structures, concepts, and modes of knowledge continue to underwrite that vague thing we call modernity. That’s why I would also say that my goal is not exactly to universalize “survival.” While I do generalize survival beyond a certain Judeocentric perspective, the decentering itself is an attempt to circumscribe survival’s universalization within a parochial Christian history.

I also want to say something about the Latin phrase corpus mysticum. The expression belongs to an old, complex debate about the body (and bodies) of Christ. I try to show the significance of these debates for the emergence of the “survivor” by tracing a line of thinking about Christ’s body that runs from Eucharistic theology, to the notion of the “king’s two bodies,” to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But, as you suggest, some modern writers (e.g., Jacques Maritain) have also turned to the corpus mysticum as a gloss for the ambivalent position of “the Jews” in Western Christendom: the condemnation and preservation of the Jewish body for the work of salvation. This was also true for the influential Zionist historian Yitzhak Baer, (1880–1980), who, in addition to drawing on Romantic, organicist notions of the Jewish body, also sometimes referred to Jews as a “mystical body” (guf misti). So to come back to your first question: If Israel is indeed a “survivor state,” this is perhaps because it is also the contemporary dispensation of a specific theological-political lineage: one that is (I hesitate to say) decidedly “Judeo-Christian.”

JC: Invoking Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life (1999), you situate your study amidst a postwar “shift from victim to survivor,” whereby “those formerly identified as the passive, silent, and weak objects of Nazi aggression gradually became figures endowed with agency, speech, and power, capable of moving ‘from the realms of exclusion and invisibility to public recognition and moral authority’” (4). Remarkably, “This revaluation would lead to the construction of the Holocaust as an occasion for feelings of pride” (5). Today we take the moral authority of survivors for granted, but you show that this required a turning of the tables, a Nietzschean revaluation of values. At the same time, scholars like Robert Jay Lifton tried to universalize “the survivor” as a transhistorical category spanning from medieval plagues to the bombing of Hiroshima, in the process transforming the concept of survival “from a sign of the extreme to an element of the everyday” (6). Through such semantic transformations, the term also underwent a “militarization” that “has increasingly combined perpetrators and victims of violence into a single generic category” (7). Where do you come down on the specificity of this category? Are all these interpretations legitimate, or do some distort the meaning of the term beyond recognition? To put your own question back to you, “What are survival’s limits?” (10).

AS: I’m not interested in defending legitimate or illegitimate uses of survival. My project is not to correct a distortion by purifying the term of its problematic resonances; it is instead to highlight the various, contradictory ways in which survival circulates and to take stock of survival’s efficacy as a prominent term in our contemporary political lexicon. But even without trying to determine a more proper meaning for survival, there are troubling things to underscore about its alliance with a certain militarization of thinking. I’ll just point here, by way of example, to a newspaper clipping Dagmar Herzog includes in her important book on postwar Freudian thought. It’s from an article published in the New York Post in 1972 that bears the title: “Auschwitz & Viet:—The Survivors.” The article surveys contemporaneous insights into the parallel psychological effects (e.g., guilt) experienced by Holocaust victims and American combatants in Vietnam. As Herzog and others have shown, it was largely US antiwar activism (and not a particular concern about the Holocaust) that brought questions like “survivor’s guilt” into public view. On a conceptual level, I simply want to understand the genealogy of the term—“survivor”—that seems to move seamlessly between civilian and combatant, genocidal victim and imperial soldier. What does one make of a history that emerges from a comparison between persecuted Jews and American G.I.s? How did debates about Vietnam recruit the image of the Holocaust survivor for military ends? My ultimate point here is not to rectify a problematic conceptual transfer, but to show that the genealogy of survival has always been about sovereignty. That’s why the real question may be how and why Holocaust victims became survivors at all. From another angle, what does it mean to take seriously Derrida’s remark that “we are all survivors”? If this is so—especially here and now—what does the notion of survival tell us about political formations of the “human” and the “subject”?

JC: Speaking of conceptual transfer, as a Curb Your Enthusiasm fan, I loved that you mention the iconic episode “The Survivor” (2004), in which Larry David stages a vicious contest of “oppression Olympics” between an elderly Holocaust survivor and a contestant from the reality television series Survivor. What makes that exchange so funny to us? What does it illustrate about the semantics of “the survivor” in the contemporary cultural imagination?

AS: Yes, I almost didn’t include that episode in the book, since it has been so widely commented upon elsewhere. I did finally decide to mention it, though, because David’s astute juxtaposition highlights something important about the proliferation of survival-talk across apparently incommensurable spheres (especially in popular media). The discomfiting humor no doubt lies in the obscene analogy it draws between the reality of genocide and the artifice of “reality TV.” But I wouldn’t necessarily read the exchange as a contest of suffering or as an “oppression Olympics.” If anything, lurking in the background here is the historical interface between post-Holocaust discourse and the culture of survivalism (prepping, bunker-building, etc.). What David implicitly asks us to note is that survival is about strength, about agency, and about power. Perhaps he knew that, already for Spencer and Darwin, survival was a contest of the “fittest.” Today, one might also consider Evan Osnos’ perceptive formulation regarding survivalism among the wealthiest of elites in the age of planetary catastrophe: “survival of the richest.”

JC: Your original reading of Hannah Arendt’s landmark The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) in chapter one shows how “the racial theology of chosenness” developed by European racial supremacism rearticulated “the mystery of Jewish survival” through the ages (40). “From Jewish survival and African survival to total survival and European survival,” you write, “Arendt projected the outline of a single redemptive image: a portrait of the glory and horror, spectrality and mysticism, of Christ’s death and resurrection” (119). Your fourth chapter then connects this empty signifier of Christlike survival with political theology, which posits the survival, not of individuals or a people but, in the spirit of Ernst Kantorowicz’s classic The King’s Two Bodies (1957), of power as such after the dissolution of monarchy. You see this being enacted in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (as read through Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, and Jacques Derrida), which dramatizes “the ghost story called Christianity” by casting the threatening “survivor-ghost” of Hamlet as the rightful heir to his father’s throne (137). Do you agree with Benjamin, and later Michel Foucault, that these ghosts continue to “haunt the life of the state”? (146).

AS: Many political thinkers have attempted to trace the theological-political vectors of the modern state. I follow out some of these lines of inquiry in the figures you mention as well as in others such as Louis Marin. In my reading of Arendt’s Origins, for example, I emphasize her simultaneous reliance on and suppression of Carl Schmitt’s theological-political analysis of total domination. Especially significant, I think, was his suggestion that Hitlerism forged a racial identity between leader and people that reiterated the Eucharistic theology of Christ’s “real presence.” This is the idea that the sacramental consecration of the Host not only recalls the history and memory of Christ’s crucifixion, but also transforms the very substance of the bread and wine (i.e., transubstantiation) into the body and blood of Christ. If you think about the historical influence of this ritual (sacrificial death, resurrection, and incorporation) on medieval theories of kingship and Hobbes’s Leviathan, Schmitt’s suggestion might seem less strange. What codes of blood and body make possible the identification of sovereign and people? The crucial question here—which goes beyond the context of totalitarianism—is whether theological-political genealogies (or analogies) can help diagnose the specific forms of representation that permit the survival of racial and crusader states, white supremacy, Orientalism, and more. As I mentioned above, the political theology surrounding Zionism and the Israeli state is one (but by no means the only) confirmation of the fact that in significant ways “we have never been modern.”

JC: You describe your book as a “genealogy” and a “history of the present” (Foucault): “the book is less a history of survival than a genealogy of its contemporary force” (x). Invoking Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular (2003), you argue that critical genealogies working back from our present “can help us think through the contingencies that have come together to give us our certainties” (16). What are the stakes for you in writing intellectual history in this way?

AS: You are hinting here at one of the organizational peculiarities of the book, which is that it more or less runs backward, beginning with Arendt’s postwar texts and concluding around 1900 with Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. This is a minor displacement of common intellectual-historical procedures, but it highlights a more serious issue regarding the difference between history and genealogy. Talal Asad points out that genealogy is not merely a form of history-writing that gestures toward contemporary political topics. It is better understood as a framework for questioning the way history is written and for seeing “beginnings” as a problem for theoretical investigation. This was also a concern for Freud and Derrida, who, in different ways, elaborated the concept of Nachträglichkeit, or “belatedness.” On a practical level, the question of beginnings meant approaching the genealogy of survival neither as a search for origins nor as a linear account of survival’s uses across specific contexts, but as a set of discontinuous readings in twentieth-century texts that raise the question of where, when, and how to begin constructing survival’s documentary archive.

My book, then, is best read as a prolegomenon to the conceptual history of survival and not as an encyclopedic compendium on the topic. I pose preliminary questions that could establish a framework for future critical interventions. Like Dipesh Chakrabarty, I claim that translation is one key, provincializing tool for reading “survival” as a problem of language. Thus, the term that I borrow from Derrida—globalatinization—is as much about Christianity as it is about the materiality of the Latin idiom. The point is that the proliferation, breadth, and generalization of survival in the present calls for some methodological constraints, which can make room for tracing survival’s genealogical contours. While this might frustrate some, my aim was not to make it easier to talk about survival but to make it more difficult and, in doing so, gesture toward different vocabularies and grammars for the present.

JC: Since your book engages the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s Foucault-inspired theory of biopolitics, I’d like to ask you about the controversy surrounding his remarks on the Covid-19 pandemic. Early on in the pandemic, Agamben suggested that lockdowns and other measures designed to slow the spread of Covid-19 are forms of potentially totalitarian biopolitics, the state regulation of who shall die and who shall live (or, as it were, who shall merely “survive” in an animal state of “bare life” exemplified by the Nazi concentration camps). He even went so far as to liken those cooperating with such regulations to the Holocaust perpetrator Adolf Eichmann, who infamously claimed to be just following orders. Adam Kotsko, who translated some of these texts, as well as Eric Santner, have observed that Agamben’s commentary descended into a rigid “ideology,” or what Anastasia Berg called “bare theory.” Amidst a profusion of dubious Holocaust analogies, I wonder if you read Agamben differently today. More generally, has the pandemic taught us anything about the nature of survival?

AS: I have learned a lot from Agamben, and I rely on his methodological and theological-political insights throughout the book. But I was ultimately not that shocked by his comments on the pandemic. For one thing, even as I’ve found myself influenced by his way of turning modern political concerns into theological questions and philosophical concepts into linguistic problems, I’ve never been persuaded by his positive political project. Likewise, I’ve long been convinced by critics who have noted his marginalization of colonialism and transatlantic slavery to the genealogy of homo sacer.

At the time, it also seemed to me that Agamben’s response relied on a misreading of his own work and a stereotypical presentation of his thought’s potential contribution to pandemic politics. Not that he was necessarily wrong to be concerned about “states of exception” or governmental violence, but recourse to the Nazi model occluded the ways that the spread of the pandemic was already exposing the biopolitical fault-lines of both the liberal state (essential vs. non-essential workers, racial disparities, healthcare austerity, immigration policy, police violence, “wars on terror,” etc.) and the inequities of global capitalism (e.g., vaccine distribution, travel bans, etc.). It seems to me that the phrase “make survive” perfectly encapsulates the production of a difference between bios and zoē, humanization and de-humanization, that already defines the current, catastrophic order of things. How do class, racial, and geographical divides traverse and manufacture the difference between survivors and victims? And what mode of political intervention could bring about a “true state of exception”? The genealogy of survival is one attempt to reflect on these questions by charting the term itself as a trace of such historical asymmetries.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of catastrophe in modern European thought. He tweets @planetdenken.

Featured Image: Anselm Kiefer, Merkaba (2002), from the cover of Survival.

Think Piece

The Statute of Subaltern Statues: Empowering the Decolonization of Academic Decolonization

By Gray Black

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece discussing the disassembling and rewiring of the white, cis-heterosexual “Great Man” histories advocated by Thomas Carlyle into “Intersectional Great Person” histories when combined with the intersectionality put forth by Kimberlé Crenshaw. While the exaltation of minoritized racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, ability, and cognitive figureheads is exciting for us Leftist historians and holds promise for equalizing the discipline, there are some axiological and teleological problems which may arise when associated with tokenism and inadvertent reinforcement of coloniality. We must ask ourselves if exalting subaltern greatness to the myopic (and nevertheless standard) notional greatness of Carlyle is, in fact, the best way to approach dismantling the stratification of the “other”. Therefore, it is necessary to deconstruct how this discourse materializes for those involved and how to properly include the subaltern.

Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci created the portmanteau subaltern to shed light on those muzzled and marginalized by hegemonic forces. These forces are superpowers that control, divide, sequester and socioeconomically enchain aforementioned power-minority peoples. To restate, the ultimate goal of what I have deemed to be the “Intersectional Great Person” approach to history is to illuminate inequalities of minority groups but to simultaneously legitimize and empower them as worthy, equal, and great in their own right. Nonetheless, given Gramsci’s definition of what it means to be subaltern, the moment the academy recognizes and hears a subaltern voice, they would, inevitably, no longer be considered subaltern for they have entered into a prevailing discourse in a way that is catered to dominate culture. By raising those residing in the understructure to the rafters of the superstructure, the essential importance of their identity and cultural work may be negated. This same phenomenon of neutralization remains pervasive in established liberal academia. Although broadmindedness in educational institutions pursues impartiality, it jeopardizes dismissing all the distinctions that are born from power structures.

Additionally, individuals crucial to subaltern histories could once again be paralleled to, or in the worst-case scenario, in competition with those established by dominate culture as great figures. Introducing Fanon’s ideas from his book Black Skin, White Masks is especially useful when considering this dilemma. Fanon asserts that power exists in one space and is guarded by people who look a specific way. Ultimately, the only feasible way to “sit at their table”, so to speak, is to prove to them that you are alike; the subaltern historical figure must substantiate their humanity and existential worthiness which are measured according to the imperial academy. Although this method might include more subaltern historical figures within the elitist academic domain, this process of recognition is founded upon inequality since the rigorous vetting and acceptance of paradigmatic “greatness” is a procedure through which all figureheads except those in dominant culture must enter. Fundamentally, based on this schema, the female, queer, disabled, neurodivergent, and racially/ethnically subaltern figure cannot be essentially equal, and, by proxy, nor can the masses. If we, as academics, deem a propagandistic pedestal as a platform of and for power, then decolonization cannot transpire; we would simply be re-envisioning a space that is inherently privileged without dismantling that privilege.

Parenthetically, this more abstract, value-rational inculcation of the subaltern into dominant greatness can be likened to internalized capitalism in subaltern spaces. All that is symbolically associated with Western, proto-industrial capital, such as meat, money, and merit, is mimicked and sought by those in the Global South. Once where predominately plant-based diets, provincialized bartering, and communitarianism predominated, there has been a mass transposition of violent eco-atomization, entrepreneurial industrialization, and hyper-individualism over imagined communities. While many in post-colonial nations reach for the branded idea of success, other native, indigenous, and globally minoritized people consider degrowth and ecosocialism to be a conduit for social and environmental benefits, but also for decolonization. In this sense, just as instrumental greatness must be deconstructed to enact true systemic, institutional, and social decoloniality, cerebral capital must be rejected for the purpose of academic degrowth and subaltern empowerment.

This proposition may also benefit from an analogy. Using the dismantling of Confederate statues across the United States, the difference between lifting up to a colonial preestablished level and showing an inclusive alternative can be exemplified. While effigies exalting Confederate generals and slave owners alike being torn down is one part of the decolonization process, many are being replaced with statues of antipodal figures such as Frederick Douglass and Maggie Walker. The common reactionary rhetoric touted by not-so-covert bigots is that history will be erased if these problematic icons are removed. Instead, monuments for minoritized indivdiuals not only retain the same historical legacy and chronology, but the historical narrative is publicly redirected from xenophobic sympathy to lionization of the minoritized.

While this representation is fantastic in itself and reclaims a historical physical and societal space without necessarily placing subaltern figures next to symbolic bastions of social hegemony and bigotry, even more poignant for the case for total academic decolonization are the creative origins of these newly represented historical figures. The recently raised statue of Harriet Tubman, a disabled Black woman who helped many slaves escape servitude in the American South, was designed by Alison Saar, a mixed-race artist. In Richmond, Virginia, the Black and queer artist, Kehinde Wiley, designed the three-stories-tall “Rumors of War” statue, depicting a Black man on horseback. This anti-Confederate statue was one of the catalysts for the former Confederate Capitol’s memorial of Robert E. Lee to topple just a few months ago. This past year, a group of queer activists in New York City erected a guerilla bust of Martha P Johnson, a Black, trans, and disabled woman who was a keystone during the Stonewall Riots and who dedicated her life to LGBTQIA+ liberation. After an unkept two-year promise to erect a memorial for Johnson and other Stonewall activists, Eli Erlick, a culturally Jewish, trans activist who was indispensable in the statue’s erection, averred to CNN that the NYC queer community would not “wait for the city to build statues” for them. Anarchistic minorities like Erlick teach all historians a critical lesson; while we wait for administrations and other academics to catch up, it is crucial for all teachers, most especially those whose identities exist outside of dominate culture, to relay self-established and inclusive oral histories and literature. For here, not only do these great subaltern historical figures unfetter you, as a teacher immured with a particular discriminatory system, but they inspire other subaltern children, young adults, and mature students who likely haven’t seen their identities represented as respectfully and openly, if at all. When historical representative greatness is not offered by the establishment, it is our duty to represent ourselves.

Overall, in order to avoid further perpetuation of categorical imbalance, we must reconceptualize the pedestal of greatness not necessarily being built for power but as a tool to empower. While the requisite of hiring of more Black and Brown, indigenous, subaltern, queer, disabled, and neurodivergent people to teach history is an easily conceivable institutional solution, teaching self-directed curricula which is representative of those minorities already existing within the academy is an alternative solution to decolonization in the interim. Moreover, ideally, a global coalition of multicultural, diverse agents may be needed to help pick and choose inclusive curricula for those in dominant culture while those in proto-industrial nation-states accept (not permit) the autonomy of those in subaltern demographics, territories, and societies to choose their own distinctive, shared, and interconnected historical discourse. Furthermore, the implementation of the “Intersectional Great Person” historical narrative may entail obligatory explanations of power relations and inherent inequalities to take steps towards a global paradigm shift of other people and their intelligence and capabilities.

It is long overdue that the cherished accounts of heroes be reappropriated by subaltern societies, and for all those hailing from dominant societies to incorporate the stories of “great” minority voices into our studies. Like the subaltern statues monumentalizing across the world, we share our groundedness to the reality of the world, the weight of our burdens, and the resolute, concrete resolve to exist freely and equally. On decoloniality, we shall not crumble.

Gray Black is a human and non-human animal justice “world-maker” and an upcoming doctoral researcher. Their work uses Marxist-feminist political thought, analytic psychology, and psychodynamic perspectives to examine empathy, affect, minority mutuality, eco-socialism, and the intersections between speciesism and queerphobia. They have been published by Scotland’s leading campaigning animal welfare charity, OneKind, as well as /Queer, the audio-visual platform which offers queer historiographies and analyses of global current events effecting gender and sexuality variant communities. Their critique of cis-heterosexist capitalism and animal consumption was featured in Queer + Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Anti-Oppression.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Statue of Harriet Tubman, New York. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Intellectual history Think Piece

Simone Weil on Attention in Times of Affliction

By Kelby Bibler

No matter where you direct your attention today—whether out your window or through a screen—the world seems to be in a state of decline. In the past year alone, poverty, war, disease, and natural disaster have been simultaneously dedicated their own news cycles and integrated into the background of everyday life. Some, like historians and philosophers, investigate the sources of these tragedies, others, like climate scientists and economists speculate how they will affect future generations. Still more common, it seems, is to disassociate and carry on, ignoring the realities of suffering around them.

As the philosopher, mystic, and political activist, Simone Weil (1909-1943), writes: “The secret of the human condition is that there is no equilibrium between man and the surrounding forces of nature, which infinitely exceed him when in inaction; there is only equilibrium in Action by which Man recreates his own life through work” (Gravity and Grace, 232). While this quote might initially confound someone unfamiliar with Weil’s writing, encapsulated here is a mysticism of action bred out of suffering. Like us today, Weil lived at a time of unprecedented suffering; however, instead of letting it incapacitate her, she turned to those at the margins and emptied herself so that their suffering might be diminished.

Despite being born into an upper-middle class French family in 1909, Weil’s passion for the marginalized started at a young age. At age 6, she refused to eat sugar in solidarity with the troops entrenched on the Western Front, and by the time she was a teenager, she described herself as a Marxist, trade unionist, and pacifist. Though, in her 20s, she became critical of Marxism—on several occasions trading heated letters with Russian communist, Leon Trotsky—Weil continued to support the German communists in opposing Adolf Hitler. In 1934, she took a leave of absence from her teaching post to work on a factory floor so that she could understand the plight of the working class, and in 1936, she gave up her pacifism and went to Spain to fight for the Republican faction against Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. The inter-war years were a formative part of her life. Indeed, it provided a testing ground for the profoundly difficult positions and actions she would take in the beginning stages of World War II and the rise of Nazism.

Shortly after her parents forced her to flee Nazi-occupied France to the United States, Weil traveled to the United Kingdom to create a brigade of women who would be parachuted onto the front lines of WWII to assist wounded soldiers. Before this transpired, she became ill and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. While this was by no means a death sentence, Weil gradually ate less and less as a form of protest against the treatment she thought the soldiers were undergoing in occupied France. Not long after her diagnosis, she died of starvation.

This short biographical sketch, on the surface, might suggest a political theory of public action centered on democratic ideals and French feminism. However, to understand Weil’s thinking requires going deeper into the subtleties of a religious thinker caught between finite political goals and metaphysical claims of truth. While her life makes it obvious that she cared deeply about those suffering, she was never interested in receiving public acclaim. Shortly before her death, she expressed the fear that people would ignore the depth of her philosophy and instead focus on political actions. She was right, of course, as people quickly latched onto her political work as both a means of systematizing and denouncing her broader philosophical and religious thoughts. Her writing, though, reveals a deeper meaning that informed how and why her actions took the shapes they did. For this reason, we will now turn to what she believed to be most integral to the ideas that inspired her actions: her mystical writings.

For its many wanderings and contradictions, Weil’s philosophy can be, in part, localized around the concept of attention. This concept, made difficult to fully interpret because of its paradoxes and religious inflections, is described both as a focused effort and a passive waiting. At several points in Waiting for God and Gravity and Grace, Weil’s writing demonstrates a conception of attention that involves an unwavering focus on the object of attention mixed with a view that the attentive subject should empty themself of desire and subjectivity (WFG, 63; GG, 171). While this might sound familiar to the phenomenological method invented by Edmund Husserl, Weil’s conception is not a mere exclusion of contextual modifications to experience. For Husserl, though the subject gradually reduces the contextual modifiers they bring to a given phenomenon, the subject necessarily remains a part of the method, lest the object of investigation falls outside the realm of experience. For Weil on the other hand, the subject should be almost wholly excluded so that God might be the primary actor in the state of attention. In fact, the subject should renounce even the desire that the attention be fulfilled or answered (GG, 171). This of course is only a redirection of intention since she writes, “Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul” (WFG, 59). For a more comprehensive understanding of her view, we must turn to the analogy of meditative practice—a condition without which her notion of attention is impossible.

Anyone who has practiced meditation recognizes the tenuous relationship between activity and passivity. At once, the meditator must passively let things arise in consciousness while actively focusing their attention on something like their breath or the voice of a guide. Further, most forms of meditation advocate a detachment from the self. Here again, the analogy is maintained. Weil writes, “Attention alone, that attention which is so full that the ‘I’ disappears, is required of me. I have to deprive all that I call ‘I’ of the light of my attention and turn it onto that which cannot be conceived” (GG, 171-2). This is not a kind of detachment like that advocated by Meister Eckhart. For Weil, the individual’s subjectivity impedes the passivity required of attention. Even if what Eckhart calls “transitory things” elicit my attention, for Weil, it is not these things but my ego that gets in the way of perfect attention (“The Book of Divine Consolation,”61). Specifically, the attentive gaze Weil advocates should be a look not inward, but upward, so that God might pass through the one waiting in attention to love that which transcends the subject, especially the stranger afflicted by suffering.

It is here that we begin to see how the creative action of Weil’s life and attention are reconciled. She writes, “Extreme attention is what constitutes the creative faculty in man…The amount of creative genius in any period is strictly in proportion to the amount of extreme attention” (GG, 170). For Weil, a person’s greatness comes through their creativity, with the caveat that it not be centered on themself. In other words, while Weil takes a passionately sympathetic view of the other, she thinks that the subject should, through attention, reduce themselves to the status of an instrument for God’s use. Such a radical humility contextualizes her sacrificial desire to suffer for those at the margins of society, displayed by her time on the frontlines of the Spanish Civil War and in departing her comfortable academic post to work on the factory floor.

It is also through this creative notion of religious consciousness that the charge for us today comes to light. For Weil, suffering is not only desirable but inevitable given a person’s relationship with time (GG, 133). It is this necessity of suffering that, for her, catalyzes a reorientation toward suffering whereby one comes to desire it. Weil writes, “I should not love my suffering because it is useful. I should love it because it is” and “We should seek neither to escape suffering nor to suffer less, but to remain untainted by suffering” (GG, 131-2). Taken together, Weil’s philosophy also closely mirrors that of the Buddha’s—something she would have no problem with—whereby the love of what is, informs one’s orientation toward it (GG, 58). In any case, this orientation should be a self-diminishment and a desire for more suffering. Just as Weil directed praise away from her sacrificial actions and, in many ways, desired to suffer to the death for another, her writing calls on others to do the same. When one comes upon the stranger or the overworked laborer, when one reads about those killed in combat or affected by natural disaster, one should desire to suffer for them. This is not a recapitulation of empathy where one noetically feels for the other person’s suffering. For Weil, when one encounters someone who is suffering, they should desire, and even go so far as attempt, to suffer in their stead. On the reverse side, though, when one suffers affliction of their own, they should not evade it, but rather, reorient their suffering into joy.

Practically, this means that while the world seems to be irreversibly changing, we should train our attention on those around us who are suffering the most, desiring simultaneously that we suffer in their stead and are ready to do so at any moment. On the other hand, though, this attentive desire ought not to be a static passivity or something that causes one to further dissociate from the world. As Weil writes in what has been compiled under “The Mysticism of Work,” “Man’s greatness is always to re-create his life, to re-create what is given to him, to fashion that very thing which he undergoes. Through work he produces his own natural existence. Through science he re-creates his universe by means of symbols. Through art he re-creates the alliance between the body and his soul” (GG, 232). Such a quote might sound like an echo of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous charge for people to create their own value following the death of God; however, Weil’s uniqueness again appears in her desire to diminish the importance of the self.

Like Weil’s own life modeled, this creation should always be in service to another and with a focus toward increasing the love of God in the world. Because one can, through work, “fashion that very thing he undergoes,” one’s own suffering and the suffering of others should catalyze a reorienting action. If you suffer, look for the source in the past or future—since it is from there that suffering derives—and deny the chains of the non-present on your life (GG, 65, 133). If you are an artist or a scientist, leverage your craft to advance those at the margins of society. If you are religious, direct your love and attention to the source of love itself so that, in time, you might become an instrument by which that love can be transferred to another.

Overall, the synthesis of Weil’s life and work creates a model for how, amid unprecedented suffering, the individual can seek to be a force of and for good in the world. Like Weil, we should not seek validation in our service to others but should desire to become instruments or vehicles of love. While, in times of affliction, it is easy to interpret the evil of the world into the philosophy of chaos or meaninglessness. Weil recognizes this shadow-side of the human condition, but she argues that we ought to nevertheless seek to overcome it. Evil and suffering cannot take anything from someone who does not first have joy (GG, 136). Though suffering and joy appear in opposition, they are two sides of the same coin. This is why after a period of great joy, suffering seems all the more intense, and, during the darkness of suffering, the light of joy appears even brighter. Practically, this idea should reorient one’s perspective of suffering toward the equanimity that underlies it. While Weil says that one should not seek to escape suffering, she affirms this perspectival reorientation. This, fundamentally, is the power of attention.

In closing, it seems appropriate to quote Weil’s words on the relationship between affliction and mysticism since, in the context of her life and work, they appear even more profound. She writes,

It is in affliction itself that the splendor of God’s mercy shines, from its very depths, in the heart of its inconsolable bitterness. If still persevering in our love, we fall to the point where the soul cannot keep back the cry ‘My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ if we remain at this point without ceasing to love, we end by touching something that is not affliction, not joy, something that is the central essence, necessary and pure, something not of the senses, common to joy and sorrow: the very love of God (WFG, 44).

Because, for Weil, God’s love shines through experiences of affliction—evidenced by the experience of Jesus on the cross—affliction should not be viewed as a separation from God but rather the potential avenue for a more profound experience of love. The only thing for those who are suffering to do is to remain focused on a desire to be purified by their suffering and wait for the answer from God.

Kelby Bibler is a graduate student in philosophy at Boston College where he works at the intersection of phenomenology and philosophy of mind. His current research centers on the relationships between altered states of consciousness, perception, and belief. He tweets @kelby_bibler

Edited by Jacob Saliba

Featured Image: Towards the Infinite. Creative Commons


Reproduction: A Global Intellectual History—An Interview with Mytheli Sreenivas

By Shuvatri Dasgupta

Courtesy of University of Washington Press.

Mytheli Sreenivas is Associate Professor of History and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at The Ohio State University. Her research and teaching focus on South Asian history, the history of women and gender, transnational feminisms, and reproductive politics. Her book, Wives, Widows and Concubines: The Conjugal Family Ideal in Colonial India (2008) received the Joseph Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences from the American Institute of Indian Studies. She is also the author of multiple articles, including most recently, “Feminism, Family Planning, and National Planning,” in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies (2021). Her research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Institute of Indian Studies, and the Fulbright Hays Foundation.

Editor Shuvatri Dasgupta spoke to her about her monograph Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India, now available open access thanks to the TOME initiative and the generous support of The Ohio State University Libraries. The book is also available in South Asia with Women Unlimited Press.

Shuvatri Dasgupta: I could not resist the temptation of approaching your work as a decolonial reading of Malthus. You trace the anti-colonial engagement with Malthusian thought, especially the way thinkers like Ranade, Annie Besant, Radhakamal Mukherjee, T.S Gopal, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and Rama Rau (amongst many others), flirt with Malthuse’s central claim that poverty results not from inequality of distribution, but from an inherent imbalance between resources and the population. Simply put, reproductive control (through sexual abstinence/through contraceptions) was thought to be the answer to India’s growing poverty. Population was framed as the cause of a problem, which was actually caused by the violence of colonial, racialised, and gendered exploitation, over the course of the twentieth century. With an extremely thought provoking critique of the developmentalist and extractivist agenda of the state sponsored Green Revolution, you illustrate the power of Malthusian ideas by showing that even though “production” had increased, it failed to have any significant impact on postcolonial India’s reproductive policies which continued to control and exploit lower class/caste bodies. In a way, you trace a continuity between the policies and ideas on reproduction under colonial capitalism, under the post colonial modern Indian developmentalist state capitalism, and eventually under neoliberal capitalism in the age of climate crisis, through the prism of this Malthusian argument on population. I am wondering, what are your thoughts on how we can decolonize intellectual history, and decanonize it, in order to shape a history for the present, and imagine a politics of the future?

Mytheli Sreenivas: You are absolutely right regarding the continuity of Malthusian thinking over time and the ongoing implications of this way of thinking for reproductive politics. At each of these moments (colonial, postcolonial, and our current neoliberal capitalist times) I am interested in how and why Malthusian ideas became so convincing—so believable—to people as an explanation for the world they saw around them.

Starting with colonial history, I think Malthusianism became a powerful idea in the nineteenth century precisely because of imperial relationships both in India, as well as in Ireland. As I discussed in my response to your first question, Malthusian claims of overpopulation helped to absolve the imperial government of responsibility for Indian famine. In fact, many Malthusian thinkers pointed to famine as—ironically—one unintended outcome of the successes of British rule. They believed that the supposed security and stability brought by the British Empire in India allowed the population to increase, with the unintended consequence of famine. Even sympathetic British observers, like Annie Besant, were convinced by these claims. Indian nationalists who were critical of colonial rule, like Ranade, nevertheless accepted the premise of overpopulation, and re-purposed these ideas into what I call a “national Malthusianism.”

After independence, Malthusian thinking, joined to eugenics, offered a compelling promise to the postcolonial state, which staked its legitimacy on the success of its development agenda. A focus on controlling population growth suggested that the state could alleviate poverty without addressing inequality. At a mid-20th century moment when states, not only in India but in many parts of the world, were claiming greater authority over the lives of their citizens, state planning of population became one variable to manipulate vis-à-vis other economic indicators. The Indian government’s first Five Year Plan set forth this agenda when it called for a “reduction of the birth rate to the extent necessary to stabilize population at a level consistent with the requirements of national economy.” Our current moment continues this way of thinking because, once again, controlling population growth offers the compelling promise of curbing climate change. As in the past, this Malthusian idea claims to address a real crisis without taking on its root causes.

So what can all this offer for a project of decolonizing intellectual history? Recognizing the colonial origins of the power of certain ideas, and pointing out that nationalist responses sometimes utilized the same paradigms, may be a starting point, but cannot be the end point for a decolonial project. Years ago, in her famous essay “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Chandra Mohanty noted the distinction between two, equally necessary, projects: “deconstructing and dismantling” hegemonic discourses and “building and constructing” alternatives. I admit that my book falls more in the former camp. I aim to take apart and make visible the power of an idea, and show how it has become part of the common-sense of colonial, nationalist, and capitalist thinking. But to truly think differently—to envision human and non-human relationships outside of a devastating Malthusian and eugenic logic—is not so simple. We might start by looking at some ways people have contested this logic, which I try to do in the book. But I don’t think we’ll simply find an “elsewhere” or “otherwise” available for “our” expropriation, nor should we. I think it’s through the difficult work of unlearning, and of creating the conditions for living differently, that we might begin to imagine new worlds. After all, the power of Malthusian ideas came from imperial relationships. Who is to say that truly transforming those relationships will not help us to think, and believe, differently?

SD: By analyzing reproductive politics over the course of the twentieth century, you illustrate how the Malthusian state sponsored discourse on family planning gradually gave way to a neo-Malthusian discourse on reproductive rights. I am wondering, in the context of India (and elsewhere too), when and how does the question of reproduction get entangled with discourses on rights, agency, and choice of the individual, as a consumer, in the liberal free market?

MS: It’s true that the question of reproduction is deeply entangled in discourses of rights. However, the precise nature of this entanglement may seem surprising to us if we take contemporary debates about “reproductive rights” in the United States as a model. This perspective represents only one, among many, possible ways that “rights” have been configured in relation to reproductive practices, behaviors, and labors.

If we look at India in the decades surrounding independence, we find that discourses on reproduction consistently linked rights to duties. This was the position of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), for instance. On the eve of independence in 1946, AIWC president Hansa Mehta asserted that “Woman shall have a right to limit her family,” since it was women who bore the brunt of most reproductive labor. At the same time, she maintained that “woman should be conscious of this right which she must learn to exercise for her own good, for the good of the family and for the good of the country.” For Mehta, the “right” of reproductive control served a pedagogical function; women needed to learn their personal rights in order to exercise them for wider benefit. As Mehta, made clear later in this speech, this required women to understand the relationship between population growth, national resources, and economic development, and to curb their reproduction accordingly. Elsewhere, as in its “Indian Woman’s Charter of Rights and Duties,” the AIWC brought in the state as the guarantor of women’s reproductive rights, noting that while “Woman shall have a right to limit her family,” it would be the “duty of the state to provide the necessary knowledge” about birth control to women.

Within this framework, rights and duties became something that citizens, communities, and states owed to each other. A woman could exercise her rights to family limitation as part of her duties to these other entities. However, with the acceleration of the Indian government’s population control campaigns in the 1960s, this rights framework disappeared both discursively and in practice. Population policies did not represent poor and marginalized women as exercising rights or duties. They were seen only as dangerous bodies who propelled a population “explosion” that threatened national development. The implications of this way of thinking emerges most clearly in the Indian government’s disastrous IUD campaigns after 1965.

These varying conceptions of rights, and their negation in the context of population fears, is the context for understanding reproductive rights as consumer choice in a liberal free market. My book ends its historical narrative in the 1970s, and so does not analyze the decades of economic liberalization and neoliberal globalization that followed. However, as feminist scholars of new reproductive technologies make clear, contemporary reproductive markets (e.g. in surrogacy) offer only an illusion of “choice” or “rights” to women. Indeed, the very same women whose reproduction was stigmatized as a dangerous “population explosion” in the 1960s and 1970s are now told to make their wombs available to facilitate other people’s “rights” to reproduction via surrogacy. This new notion of neoliberal choice and rights is thus built upon a prior devaluing of reproductive autonomy, health, and citizenship that has its origins in the era of population control.

SD: In your third and fourth chapter you highlight the bourgeois nature of the postcolonial transnational “women’s movement”. By using an intersectional lens you produce a scathing critique of this, and show us how middle class upper caste women’s efforts at “family planning” progressed the postcolonial state’s violent “developmental” goals. But for you this is not a pessimistic story. Alongside your class critique, you record instances of resistance amongst your actors. Sometimes they remain anonymous in the archives, but even then you relentlessly trace their radical acts of resistance. In a field such as women’s history, where locating the subaltern in the archive can often be a matter of challenge- how does one look for hope against the pervasive hegemony of state and capital, in these histories? Where did you locate these instances of hope in the course of your historical excavation of reproductive politics?

MS: The third and fourth chapters hinge on a central question. From the 1940s to the 1960s, why were some leaders of the Indian women’s movement so committed to state-directed family planning, even when these state programs typically disregarded, and frequently violated, women’s reproductive rights and autonomy? There are a few ways to answer this question. One is to suggest that women leaders were simply co-opted by the state. Buoyed by the promises of independence, they followed state policies on family planning and population control uncritically. However, this explanation ignores the active role that many leaders in the women’s movement played to push the state to make family planning part of its development agenda, especially in the First Five Year Plan in 1952. Women like Hansa Mehta, Durgabai Deshmukh, Dhanvanthi Rama Rau, and even to some extent Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, did not passively follow some pre-existing model of state-led population control. They actually helped to create and implement that model, and to make birth planning part of the state’s development planning. At the same time, there were moments when these same leaders questioned the state’s patriarchal policies, and sometimes they sought alternatives. Here too, they were not passive observers.

If we refuse to assume that the women’s movement was merely co-opted by the state, then we need to look seriously at how state-led family planning came to be represented as an important component of economic development for, and by, women. That is what my chapter aims to do, and in the process, I find numerous contingencies. I try to show how a commitment to providing women with birth control de-centered subaltern women’s agency and autonomy even while claiming to support their welfare, and ultimately, how women’s well-being was undermined in a quest to control population growth. The middle class leadership of organizations like the All India Women’s Conference and the Family Planning Association of India tended to see subaltern women, at best, as recipients of social welfare, and failed to imagine solidarities of struggle with the lower caste, poor, and rural women whom the state targeted for population control. At the same time, a powerful transnational scientific and demographic consensus advanced fears of a “population bomb” and promoted draconian programs in the name of achieving a “demographic transition” in India, as elsewhere in the formerly colonized world. The women’s movement was thus hardly alone in supporting state-led family planning.

This brings me, finally, to your question about hope. I admit that the grim narrative I outline in the book can feel somewhat hopeless at times. Yet I do find hope in the contingencies. If outcomes were not pre-determined in the past, I feel convinced that they will not be in the future either. The Indian campaign for IUDs in the 1960s is one good example. Although there was not a widespread or organized movement to resist the government’s plans, many thousands of women refused to get an IUD in substandard conditions and the state failed to meet its own targets. Eventually feminists, health activists, and others came to reject top-down, target-driven models of population control. Their organizing pushed the U.N. Conference on Population and Development to reject targets, and even the term “population control” at its conference in Cairo in 1994. Although the more progressive vision offered in Cairo has not been fulfilled, its commitment to sexual and reproductive health and rights has offered a vocabulary for reproductive justice organizing. All of this is incredibly hopeful to me. Without ignoring the power of systems and institutions—the state, capital—I think there is still space to recognize people’s ability to advance ideas that are opposed to dominant ideologies.

SD: In your last chapter, you paint a haunting trajectory of the discourses on population explosion, and the false consciousness it generated through the “small family, happy family” campaigns. You point out quite correctly how this discourse sidestepped the question of undervaluing the female child. How does the intersections of patriarchy and class (with caste/race/ethnicity/religion), shape the lifeworlds of women who have reproduced, and women who hope to reproduce in the future? How has this shaped inter-generational and intra-generational female kinship?

MS: The last chapter, on the discourse of the “small family, happy family,” looks at the intersections of two histories that are often understood separately: the history of sexuality, and the history of the economy as an idea or concept. I trace how heterosexuality, in particular, became a site to enforce a set of claims about the economy. Population controllers, especially from the 1960s onward, tried to mobilize heterosexuality to promote planning for the future—the future of the nation, and the future of the family itself. They claimed this kind of planning and future orientation would provide immediate emotional and financial benefits to small and happy families. Attention to the visual images that saturated print culture and public spaces helped me to trace this history.

The image of the small and happy family sidestepped many things, and among them, as you point out, was the question of son preference. Representations of this family in the 1960s invariably showed a boy and a girl child; if a third child were present, it would be a baby of indeterminate gender. I cannot claim to know how people reacted to this vision, or how it shaped lifeworlds. What I do know, based on the work of feminist scholars, is that we cannot assume gendered solidarities. There are many reasons for women to accede to and even support patriarchal ideas, and to become active participants in a family’s drive for sons, not daughters. Not least of these reasons is that patriarchal structures give some women, at some life stages, a measure of power.

From the oral histories in the book, I learned that an apparent acquiescence to dominant ideas does not mean that these ideas are completely accepted, or that they shape the whole of a person’s consciousness. For the women interviewed, planning for a small family was not based on the promise of future prosperity. The small family was a response to their precarity in the present. Some spoke of it as a loss, something they had to do because of an insecure family or financial situation. The inter- and intra-generational solidarities they forged with other women were necessitated by their needs, and motivated by their commitments to their children and grandchildren. But they were not, from what I could understand, rooted in a belief that small families were the path to happiness.

SD: On a concluding note, I find myself wondering about the act of writing histories of ideas, which uncover trajectories of oppression, and exploitation, but also bring to light instances of resistance against domination of state and capital. In your acknowledgements, you mention in a heartwarming manner that this history of reproduction which you present in your work, is after all a history of life itself. In resistance to neoliberal capitalism, Marxist-Feminists, environmental activisits, bring to light life-making work (all kinds of actions taken to maintain and reproduce life, which remain undervalued and unquantifiable-mostly performed by women) over the thing-making (abstract, alienating, quantifying, value-generating) urge of capitalism. Your history of reproduction in that sense then is also a history of life-making. Does the act of writing global histories of ideas, such as yours, then emerge as an unquantifiable labor, a radical act of caring, against the increasing quantifying violence which characterizes the age of the capitalocene?

MS: The book investigates what happens when “life-making” work gets understood, and measured, in the logic of “thing-making.” I hope, in the process, it may tell us something about life-making labor, or at least point to its importance in sustaining our worlds. I wrote the acknowledgements during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when it seemed many people were re-valuing the work of life-making, and this was at the forefront of my thinking.

I feel gratified by your suggestion that the book might be a radical act of caring, and thank you for that. Yet I’m wary of putting it into the category of an “unquantifiable labor” that may be life-making.  Given the structures of academia, scholarly books are necessarily implicated in thing-making of course. One has only to look at how research productivity is measured, and labor is valued/de-valued, and it becomes difficult to lay claim to a life-making space. From my perspective at least, there is something of love in this book, which is rooted in a commitment that these are histories that need to be told. But the true life-making work, I think, is happening elsewhere.

Perhaps such work may happen via dialogue. I thank you for these generous questions, and for creating a space for our conversation.

Shuvatri Dasgupta received a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in History from Presidency University, Kolkata, India. She was also an exchange student and Charpak Fellow at Sciences Po Paris (Reims campus), studying for a certificate programme in European Affairs and B1 French. She is the editor of the Journal of History of Ideas blog, and a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, funded by the Cambridge Trust and Rajiv Gandhi Foundation Fellowship. Her doctoral dissertation is tentatively titled “A History of Conjugality: On Patriarchy, Caste, and Capital, in the British Empire c.1872-1947”. Her general research interests include global history, gender history, intellectual history and political thought, histories of empire, histories of capitalism, Marxist and Marxist-Feminist theory, and critical theory. For the academic year of 2021-22 she is the convenor of the research network ‘Grammars of Marriage and Desire’ (GoMAD) supported by CRASSH, Cambridge, and the Histories of Race Graduate Workshop, at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.

Featured Image: : Stamp of India, 1966, depicting ‘Small Family, Happy Family’ ideal. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Reproduction: A Global Intellectual History—An Interview with Mytheli Sreenivas

By Shuvatri Dasgupta

Courtesy of University of Washington Press.

Mytheli Sreenivas is Associate Professor of History and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at The Ohio State University. Her research and teaching focus on South Asian history, the history of women and gender, transnational feminisms, and reproductive politics. Her book, Wives, Widows and Concubines: The Conjugal Family Ideal in Colonial India (2008) received the Joseph Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences from the American Institute of Indian Studies. She is also the author of multiple articles, including most recently, “Feminism, Family Planning, and National Planning,” in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies (2021). Her research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Institute of Indian Studies, and the Fulbright Hays Foundation.

Editor Shuvatri Dasgupta spoke to her about her monograph Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India, now available open access thanks to the TOME initiative and the generous support of The Ohio State University Libraries. The book is also available in South Asia with Women Unlimited Press.

Shuvatri Dasgupta: I will start our conversation on your wonderfully moving monograph, “Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India”, with what I found to be the most striking aspect of your argument. Your work historically contextualizes the argument that our climate emergency can be addressed by limiting population growth through reproductive control, and hence, minimizing consumption and carbon footprint. By tracing the racist and imperialist roots of this discourse from the late nineteenth century, you illustrate the neo-Malthusian nature of this argument. You show us the ways in which, by controlling lower class-caste, brown and black women’s reproductive labor, this discourse seeks to legitimize the exploitative and extractivist politics of the Global North, in the Global South. It is only rarely that one encounters a historical narrative which speaks as empathetically and compassionately, as yours does to the problems of our present, such as climate change, structures of racial and gendered exclusions, not to mention a global pandemic, and what is now broadly known as a resultant “crisis of care”. In a way, your work is a history that seeks to imagine a politics for the present, and a future. My doctoral research is also largely shaped by a similar presentist concern. I read a history of marriage in colonial India, through the prism of a “care crisis”, under colonial capitalism. Our collaborative research network titled “Grammars of Marriage and Desire” is also inspired by the same set of questions. In what ways does your evocative research on reproductive politics help us imagine a “more just reproductive future” (in your words) and more generally a better and more caring world?

Mytheli Sreenivas: To imagine a more just reproductive future, we must grapple collectively with past injustices. This does not mean we need to dwell in the past. But commitment to a more caring future does require a clear-eyed understanding of how reproduction became, and remains, a site to perpetuate inequality and enact oppression.

            Looking across a century of history, my book traces how crises of subsistence were understood as crises of reproduction. This was the case, for example, during late-nineteenth century famines in India. Faced with widespread starvation, colonial administrators embraced a Malthusian worldview to argue that India was “overpopulated” because its population size was out of balance with the country’s resources. This argument turned attention away from the extractive policies of the imperial state, and from the failures of the government’s underfunded famine relief administration. Instead, it blamed famine on the reproductive practices of impoverished Indian peasants who were living at the edge of subsistence. Both British and Indian observers looked to marriage and kinship practices to argue that the poorest Indians were reproducing at unsustainable rates. Some Indian nationalists of the time, most notably Dadabhai Naoroji, pushed back against this Malthusian view, maintaining instead that an imperial “drain of wealth”—and not population size—explained India’s poverty. However, as you know, Malthusian ideas had a long life. By the mid-twentieth century, as Indian population began to grow, fears of overpopulation took hold both in the postcolonial state, and in global public discourse. As in the past, the size of India’s population became the pre-eminent explanation for Indian poverty, and reproductive practices were blamed for population growth.

            As you note in your question, these old ideas have gained new life in the context of the contemporary climate crisis. Top-down population control offers a seductive promise to global elites. It suggests that controlling the reproduction of others—rather than tackling the actual emitters of global greenhouse gases “at home”—will solve the problem of global heating. In India specifically, these ideas are gaining momentum with rising Hindu majoritarianism. Hindutva ideologies have long depended on the stigmatizing of Muslim reproduction as responsible for “overpopulation” and consequent failures of development. The recent Population (Control, Stabilization and Welfare) Bill in Uttar Pradesh, introduced in July 2021 by the BJP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, traffics in precisely these ideas. This way of thinking stigmatizes certain people’s reproduction as a problem. Typically, these are people who are already the most marginalized, due to class, gender, caste, religious identity, indigeneity, and the intersections of all these. The result is a system of stratified reproduction, to borrow Shellee Colen’s evocative term, which asserts that certain people’s reproduction is of social value, and that of others is not.

            What kind of imagined reproductive future can challenge these past, and ongoing, injustices? One starting point for me comes from the definition of reproductive justice first outlined by African American and other women of color activists. They define reproductive justice as the “right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” The right to have or not have children implies a whole host of other important rights, including a right to reproductive healthcare, access to contraception and abortion, and support for childcare. A drive for population control has diminished those rights, both through an active disregard for reproductive autonomy, and a persistent neglect of maternal and child health. Addressing these rights and needs is essential to address a broader care crisis.

It’s the last principle—to parent children in safe and sustainable communities—that makes reproductive justice a potentially radical premise for thinking and action. Creating a safe and sustainable community for all our children, those we birth, those we care for and raise, and all those near and far whom we love, requires a fundamental and wide-ranging social transformation. It takes on inequality and oppression in multiple forms. It refuses to turn ongoing crises of subsistence into crises of reproduction. And it makes clear that any solution to climate crisis must recognize that the greatest burdens of global heating are borne by the most marginalized among us. For me, that is a starting point to imagine more just reproductive futures.

SD: Your path-breaking monograph begins from the premise that it traces the history of three broad concepts—population, reproduction, and economy—over the course of the twentieth century. Although the title explicitly positions your study in “Modern India” (a subject we will return to later in this conversation), the spatial expanse of your study ranges from India to the United States of America, from Sub-Saharan Africa to Puerto Rico, from  New Zealand to Canada. Within this broad expanse, your actors, and their ideas, remain fluid and mobile. However, you always remain careful not to collapse categories of nationhood, womanhood, and racial and ethnic identities into one another. You illustrate wonderfully how a global intellectual history can generate languages of solidarity between groups and environments, which have been oppressed and exploited by intersectional, and interconnected structures of exclusion (such as race, caste, class, imperialism). Can you tell us a little bit more, with examples from the book, on why we need a global intellectual history of reproductive politics?

MS: I hope it will not seem overly simplistic if I say we need a global intellectual history of reproductive politics because (1) ideas about reproduction matter in the world; and (2) these ideas traveled across national boundaries and were transformed by this travel. My book aims to understand this history, and in the process to uncover a story of reproductive politics that was rooted in and routed through India, but was never about India alone.

As you note, I’m interested in the history of population and economy as abstractions—as a set of ideas and discourses that shaped the terrain of reproductive politics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In other words, I’m curious how claims about the impact of the “population,” or the importance of the “economy,” came to frame reproductive questions about the age of marriage, about appropriate forms of (hetero)sexuality, about the relationship between parents and children, or about the place of love and desire in conjugal relationships. The entanglement of population and economy in these questions was connected not only to Indian, but also to transnational and global contexts.

One example of this process comes from the book’s second chapter, which centers on the interwar decades. During this period, activists and thinkers put forward two different ways to grapple with what they understood as India’s overpopulation. One option was migration. Thinkers like Radhakamal Mukherjee, for example, argued that India’s “surplus” population might make admirable colonizers of supposedly emptier lands in the Americas or in the African continent. This call for migration offered a geopolitical solution to the question of population, suggesting that national borders be opened to Indian migrants. The second option was to regulate reproduction within the space of the nation. This offered a biopolitical solution to the population question, and was adopted by birth control activists, demographers, and others. Over time, however, the option of migration began to fall out of the discourse, and biopolitical interventions became the dominant mode of thinking about population. Even Mukherjee himself, who first wrote a book called Migrant Asia that envisioned a complete overhaul of migration globally, turned inwards to a biopolitical regulation of the body and the nation’s citizenry to address subsistence crises in his next book, Food Planning for Four Hundred Millions.

            To explain this shift from promoting migration to controlling population, we must investigate the creation of a “global color line” across the Anglosphere during the early twentieth century that excluded Indian migrants from the United States, Australia, and Canada. This transnational context is immensely important if we are to properly understand why reproductive control became so central to Indian thinking on population by the 1930s. The push to control birth gained ground when it seemed increasingly difficult to control land, that is, when a geopolitical solution to Indian population growth appeared impossible. At that moment, a biopolitical solution suggested that the nation-state could control its “own” population via closer control over its reproductive practices. By the 1950s and 1960s, Indian biopolitical thinking about population would become a foundation of global population control. I hope that a global intellectual history of reproductive politics makes these dynamics visible, and shows us how ideas about “Indian population” were never confined to India alone.

SD: I am particularly struck by your innovative methodology in the book, especially with regards to two aspects—the way you braid ethnographic accounts from anthropological studies (what historians call oral history) with historical archives; and the way you creatively broaden the frontiers of the archive itself by including deeply haunting visual, and oral sources, alongside textual ones. Through these methodological reinventions you ask: how have we historically thought of reproduction, and how did power relations (of state, of capital) shape global reproductive politics in the twentieth century?. Can you tell us a little bit more about how interdisciplinarity can inform the methodologies for writing global histories of concepts and ideas? How can we rethink intellectual history (and its inherent Eurocentric , elitist, and gendered biases) by rethinking the archive, and by incorporating insights from other disciplines such as anthropology?

MS: On one level, the book traces the genealogies of a dominant idea that understood reproductive norms and practices through the lens of population. This idea had Malthusian and eugenic roots, and over time, it became the basis of state policies.  Yet it was never the only idea in circulation. This becomes clear if we look carefully at the production of the dominant idea itself. For example, reports of family planning workers are replete with instances of interruption and questioning. It seems that each time these middle class women went to rural areas, or to working class neighborhoods, to persuade women to use birth control or curb their childbearing, they faced questioning and occasional hostility. Some of these questions make their way back into the family planners’ written accounts. For instance, one family planner reports back that a woman in an industrial neighborhood in Madurai believes that family planning need not apply to her, since both she and her family members earned good wages and could have as many children as they liked. I find this interjection significant because it is clearly aware of dominant Neo-Malthusian ideas, and apparently agrees that reproduction ought to be balanced with economic capacities. At the same time, the woman in Madurai—whose name is never given—situated herself differently within this idea. She seemed to see herself not as a “poor” woman whose reproduction ought to be curtailed, but as a “working” woman who earned her right to children.

I dwell on this example because it suggests how dominant ideas were at once adopted, reworked, and challenged. Any good intellectual history must recognize this process. However, although reading against the grain of archival texts can make some of this historical messiness visible, I was frustrated by the limits of these sources. Archives can serve to reinforce the dominance of dominant narratives; this is perhaps why so many contestations appear in my archival accounts as “rumor” or “gossip.” This is when I turned to ethnography. As Emma Tarlo argues in her brilliant ethnography of the Emergency in Delhi, the archives offer “paper truths” but ethnographic research and historical memory can tell us how those “truths” claimed their veracity. Deepa Dhanraj’s powerful documentary film, Something Like a War, shows us how women reject dominant narratives that stigmatize and demonize their reproduction. Even while confronting the power of state policy and ideology, they offer alternative understandings of their own desires and labors.

This kind of work inspired my own turn to oral history in the book’s epilogue. I wanted to learn from women who, by virtue of their caste and class positions, became the primary target of the Indian government’s population control policies. I’ll admit here that I approached these oral histories in hopes of finding resistance to the dominant Malthusian and eugenic narratives. But with help from my ethnographer colleagues, I eventually recognized that this was a limiting approach. Given the real material power of dominant ideas, why should we put the burden on the most marginalized women to articulate alternatives? Rather than seeking something a priori defined as resistance, I tried to understand how women had negotiated and engaged with reproductive healthcare systems that typically de-valued their reproductive work. And I found in their narratives a consistent re-valuing of their own reproductive labor, even when their conclusions sometimes aligned with the dominant assumptions of population control.

Shuvatri Dasgupta received a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in History from Presidency University, Kolkata, India. She was also an exchange student and Charpak Fellow at Sciences Po Paris (Reims campus), studying for a certificate programme in European Affairs and B1 French. She is the editor of the Journal of History of Ideas blog, and a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, funded by the Cambridge Trust and Rajiv Gandhi Foundation Fellowship. Her doctoral dissertation is tentatively titled “A History of Conjugality: On Patriarchy, Caste, and Capital, in the British Empire c.1872-1947”. Her general research interests include global history, gender history, intellectual history and political thought, histories of empire, histories of capitalism, Marxist and Marxist-Feminist theory, and critical theory. For the academic year of 2021-22 she is the convenor of the research network ‘Grammars of Marriage and Desire’ (GoMAD) supported by CRASSH, Cambridge, and the Histories of Race Graduate Workshop, at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.

Featured Image: Cover of Brochure The Population Bomb, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.