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In Search of 'Postcolonial Subjectivity'

The Insurrection of the Little Selves: The Crisis of Secular- Nationalism in India by Aditya Nigam;

In Search of ‘Postcolonial


The Insurrection of the Little Selves: The Crisis of Secular-Nationalism in India

by Aditya Nigam; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006; pp 362, Rs 650.


s there such thing as postcolonial subjectivity? If so, what is its relation to the astounding array of identity politics we have seen irrupt across India in recent decades? These two questions lie at the heart of Aditya Nigam’s new book The Insurrection of the Little Selves: The Crisis of Secular-Nationalism in India, and, apparently, on the minds of many postcolonial theorists. Questions of this magnitude demand ambitious scholarship; on this count, Nigam’s book does not disappoint. Written over a decade since the debate over secular-nationalism in India reached its high-water mark, Nigam’s book retraces the contours of these debates within a broader history of the ideology of secularnationalism itself. With the benefits of hindsight and razor-sharp critique, the book provides, at once, a much-needed review of the debates over this ideology and a new theorisation of its chequered history in India. For Nigam, the prolifera tion of separatist movements and identity politics of all kinds that have marked the political climate of India since the 1980s amount to a profound crisis for secular-nationalism. These “insurrections of the little selves” signal not only the impossibility of secularnationalism’s project in India, but also something more sinister regarding the prospects of pristine liberal democracy in the postcolonial world. Within Nigam’s model, subjectivity becomes the key (mis) operator in this broken equation of poli tical modernity, and as such, the lynchpin of these “insurrections” and the failings of the secular-nationalist project in India.

Model of Subjectivity

Following Nietzsche and Heidegger, Nigam initiates his argument with a critique of the modernist assumptions of subjectcentred reason that support the theoretical logic of liberal democracy and abstract citizenship, both of which he sees as cardinal tenets of secular-nationalist ideo logy.

Pointing out that postcolonial subjectivity has developed in ways not predicted by this brand of enlightenment thinking, Nigam argues that what emerges then “is not always the individuated modern self that is assumed to be the basis of all democratic citizenship, but also a new kind of subject/agent that Hannah Arendt has called the ‘mass man’. Contrary to the common assumption that all individuals desire autonomy, this kind of an individual presents a fundamental problem for democratic theory insofar as s/he embodies what Erich Fromm calls the ‘fear of freedom’ – a fear of the alienation and loneliness of modern life” (p 305). “Uprooted from his hold contexts, habitat and community, of which he retains but a trace in his memory (p 9)… The only language that this agent finds ‘ready at hand’ is the language of community, always at odds with the abstract universalist language of modern politics” (p 14).

To bolster his model of subjectivity, Nigam calls upon the work of Memmi and Fanon to bring the effects of colonialism into the equation. Using what he will call the Memmi-Fanon thesis of postcolonial subjectivity, Nigam argues that colonial subjugation has produced a rupture in the subjectivity of the postcolonial subject. According to the models of Memmi and Fanon, the native intellectual necessarily first assimi lated with the culture of the coloniser, only then to rediscover who s/he really was, often inventing memories, and hence fabricated a continuity with the past. This anxiety over identity, Nigam maintains, has significantly altered the development of nationalist thought in postcolonial societies, often leading to xenophobic biases cloaked in discourses of liberal nationalism.

As can be inferred from its title, this book is necessarily concerned with class and other markers of social distinction constitutive of the many “little selves” announcing themselves upon the nation. With Arendt’s ideas on “mass man” and Memmi and Fanon’s on the postcolonial intellectual, the book thus presents us with a theory of lower and upper class subjectivities, respectively. Unfortunately, these facets of sociological differentiation are obfuscated in Nigam’s own model of subjectivity, leaving the reader with a confounding theory of postcolonial subjectivity that is problematic both theoretically and methodologically. It is the latter that is especially concerning.

Despite, or, perhaps, because of, its heady scholarship, in Nigam’s book there

Economic and Political Weekly October 20, 2007

is a persistent slippage between commentary and data, with the former often standing in for the latter. Take, for instance, Chapter 3 ‘Antinomies of Secularism: The Social Career of the Concept’. An erudite reading of the debates over secular-nationalism in India since the 1980s, this chapter offers a concise, evocative overview of one of India’s most fascinating intellectual debates in recent decades. The problem is that as one moves through the competing arguments of Nandy, Sarkar, Chatterjee, et al, we are asked to believe that these opinions were the “social career of the concept”. Very little is done to contextualise or connect these scholarly writings with the actual identity politics that marked the era of their entextualisation. In short, the theoretical commentary on the world is left to stand for the world itself. This leads to provocative, but compounded theory. The same metho do logical problem holds for Nigam’s analysis of subjectivity.

Question of Subjectivity

By definition, the question of subjectivity is about experience. To make claims about another’s subjectivity is to make profound claims upon his/her being. It is to infer understanding of an interiority that we – not merely as researchers, but as humans – have neither direct nor privileged access. The sociological phenomenologist Albert Schutz, pointed this out decades ago; his thoughts are especially poignant for postcolonial critique today. For Schutz the impossibility of pure intersubjectivity did not spell the end of the questioning of subjectivity for social science, rather its challenge. As Schutz championed: at the end of the day, all we have is communication between subjects, and thus it is within and upon the nuances of communication where we must calibrate our understandings of subjectivity.

In the spirit of Schutz, to question subjectivity is thus to commit oneself to a research methodology that puts communication – real, dialogic communication

– front and centre. What subjectivity is to be found through textual analysis (a method which Nigam relies upon heavily) is but subjectivity’s trace – shrouded in mediations knowable and unknowable. This is one of the principle reasons why the project of writing subaltern histories has proven such a difficult one. Questioning the subjectivity of today’s “little selves” is, however, a different project, for they are, of course, among us. In venturing questions of their subjectivity, it is incumbent upon the researcher to pursue phenomenologically attuned methodologies – something along the lines of, say, ethnography or psychology. Both of these methodologies are capable of generating the intimate experience-based data that the question of subjectivity demands. Let us remember that, his political ambitions aside, it was Fanon’s evidence – often gut-wrenching testimonials of his own confrontations with racism – that made his self-proclaimed “psychoexistentialism” one of the most riveting analyses of postcolonial subjectivity to date.

Unlike Fanon, Nigam’s analysis operates at a remove from the people in question. In his pursuit of postcolonial subjectivity, we are often left to rely upon scholarly readings of scholarly texts as evidence. His commentaries on minority communities are cases-in-point. In his work on the emergence of a collective Muslim identity, Nigam offers fascinating readings of significant 19th and early 20th century Muslim treatises, to which he supplements relevant historical anecdotes. On dalits, he again focuses primarily on political treatises to argue that the dalit political critique “presents a challenge to the central diremption instituted by modernity, that between the subject and object” (p 223), and “represents in its very existence, the problematic ‘third term’ that continuously challenges the common sense of the secular modern” (p 222). Nigam’s acknowledgment of the experience-centred qualities of dalit politics is a commendable phenomenological gesture, yet the analysis fails to overcome the mediation of its textual sources. Though Nigam acknowledges that internal politics of representation undoubtedly attended the social production of these texts, anything like a subaltern voice within the groups under study remains silent.

In Chapter 6, ‘Secularism the Marxist Way: ‘High’ Theory and ‘Low’ Practice’, Nigam makes his first and only ethnographic turn. Through interviews with Marxist political workers of West Bengal, Nigam develops his idea of the “bilingual activist”, who mediates the world of liberal democracy and that of “mass man”. For Nigam, political society (as it has been conceptualised in recent writings by Partha Chatterjee) entails a necessary translation between these worlds – hence, the “bilingual activist”. This chapter then charts an intriguing entry into the social ecology of political society. However, the inquiry itself proves somewhat hamstrung by its fundamental premise. Why, it may be asked, must the common man be relegated to some figurative, foreign-tongued, sub-world? Does s/he not possess the power of negotiation through articulation? Moreover, does a relegation of this sort not automatically eliminate a primary avenue into the myriad experiences of poli tical modernity – particular strains of which we have seen coalesce and morph into highly volatile forms of identity politics? It is true that Nigam’s book moves toward a promising – and indeed, timely

  • questioning of subjectivity and the conditions of postcolonial governance. But with the lack of communication with the actual “mass men” into which he theorises a so-called postcolonial subjectivity, the sentience of the common man remains a methodological hinterland, acknow ledged yet largely unexplored.
  • For its ambitious, incisive analysis of the debates over secular-nationalism, Nigam’s work should hold a central place in any inquiry of secular-nationalism. Strangely enough though, as a highly theoretical exercise, in its strength Nigam’s book is metonymic of a yawning deficiency in postcolonial theory of India to date
  • perhaps, too of postcolonial theory at large. It is at once a facet of postcolonial theory’s methodological imbalance with regards to subjectivity and a testament to this body of scholarship’s intellectual savvy and sophistication. Crucial questions are raised in the course of this book, which can and must be grappled with, not only in contemporary India, but also beyond, where other countries grapple with old and new nationalist ideologies. The Insurrection of the Little Selves deserves high praise for what it is: a cutting analysis of an ideology that continues to churn the cauldron of political society in contemporary India and the inkwells of its commentators. As for whether there exists postcolonial subjectivity, perhaps, in this book’s very strength, we may find exposed a greater weakness, which calls for a critical re-evaluation of the means through which postcolonial theory is pursuing the answers to this question. And, if through a more sensitive methodological approach, we are to learn that the question itself is inappropriately constituted, then so it shall be communicated.
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    Economic and Political Weekly October 20, 2007

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