ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Suffering and 'Lived Experience'

This letter grows out of Sundar Sarukkai’s analysis of Gopal Guru’s premise that ‘‘lived experience” is a precondition for a scholar to theorise about that experience; otherwise it will be theoretical exploitation and necessarily inauthentic (October 6, 2007). Sarukkai enlarges the scope of discussion by bringing in the theoretical formulations made by Habermas who had no lived experience of Nazism as against Levinas who based his formulations on the basis of his personal experience of Nazism. By giving these two examples Sarukkai examines whether the premise of Gopal Guru is tenable. “In principle,” Sarukkai holds, “we can theorise about another person’s experience because there is a space within that experience which is not related to the experience.”

Sarukkai also examines the context and structure of lived experience. To my mind there are three aspects to lived experience, particularly in the context of the oppressed people: (a) the subject living with a situation; (b) ways to deal with that situation – acceptance, denial or rejection (one can see this in black Americans and, to some extent, dalits), where the question of historicity becomes important (Sarukkai calls it materiality); (c) the struggle to change the situation. Besides, the situation of lived experience cannot be abstracted from the total experience of which it is a part. Also, it cannot be taken independent of those who stood alongside the oppressed. In America, during the period of slavery, white Americans helped slaves to reach the free states, even at the risk of their lives. It was done through a carefully designed strategy, what they called “underground railroad”. It was not for nothing that Jyoti Rao Phule dedicated his book Slavery (2 vols) to the good work done by white Americans for the liberation of blacks in America.

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