Hard Ways of Lucidity – Thinking About the Crisis in the University: Prasanta Chakravarty

Guest Post by Prasanta Chakravarty

As I see it, university spaces are being assaulted at least from two sides; though it seems as if the two sides are antagonistic to each other, in practice they come dangerously close to each other. How and why is this happening, and what can be done about it?

Prasanta Chakravarty, immediately after being assaulted on February 22nd. Image from the India Today Website.
Prasanta Chakravarty, immediately after being assaulted on February 22nd. Image from the India Today Website.

The university is being seen as running on a different discourse and agenda, outside of the one that is necessary for a new cycle of nation building to take effect. This is happening because universities now have a chance to make a difference in the way our known world will be defined or undefined in future. Under these circumstances, universities can go back and celebrate themselves as safe havens. Or one may see this space as a continuum with the rest of our public life where the social must erupt from time to time.

The great project of revenge, being undertaken by the populist mass is apparent, whose emotional anger at not being able to be part of good life is vented through a great backlash against those who are able to reap the benefits of economic reform and globalization. But it is not just the revenge of the have-nots whom the far Right has been able to successfully mobilize right now.  The role and the status of the mobilizers are also to be marked: these are deeply rational and smart people, ruthless technocrats who want to reap the benefits of extreme rationalization in the work space. But simultaneously these same people revel in a deeply prejudiced and regressive private sphere. This double life was always an aspect of modernity. It is only that the prejudice unleashed within the private sphere has now reached pathological proportions. This class of people, comprised of those who wish to peddle a technocratic rational economic view in our public sphere are at once worried and attracted by the great unwashed masses. The common ground is of course that the business-technocrats are culturally and socially irrational and regressive too since the education that they received had been illiberal. They hope that this cultural commonality with the masses might save the day. Many of us are not so sure that such a glaring contradiction will run its full course.

One thing is certain: that these tendencies are clear signs worldwide against the very critical nature by which reason looked at certain auretic tendencies in the last three centuries. And along with peddling these universal European norms (or even the indigenous argumentative tradition) such discourses have helped question not only our deep rooted cultural assumptions but also certain fundamental auretic tendencies: say, devotion to one’s nation, religion or community. And in personal relationships, it helped foster a discursive climate, by keeping at bay ‘loyalty’ to one’s blood or to one’s sensual/emotional faculties. At the deepest level these values stopped us just short of surrendering ourselves completely to our lovers, mothers or children—and yet we could be deeply in love in such relationships.  It showed us that our deepest forms of attachment could also be critical. This porosity between reason and unreason is being now challenged. There is again a renewed bout of dissociation of sensibility.

This has happened from both sides. The passionate masses are always highly charged and prone to romanticism and to the unleashing of its fervour.  The detached enlightenment scholar, lawyer, and essayist tended to curb this tendency by placing these under the rubric of the private sphere. But consequently something happened within the so-called enlightened minds too. They were left only with ideas at the great cost of the sensory and the sensual. Those who constantly argued in favour of materiality, themselves became empty and abstract creatures. So, the dissociation of sensibility has happened from the side of rationality too—since the great faculties of reason have been deployed often in order to mercilessly and righteously judge a large swathe of humanity. The gradual detachment of our best minds from the faculties of wonder and awe and the senses has much to do with this backlash that we now see. The lock-gates have been opened and the price that the great irrational forces are asking now from the critical brigade is the wholesale recantations of enlightenment values—lock, stock and barrel.

But does merely summoning the ephemera of the senses do the trick? Does a mere internalization of the ‘good irrationality’ reconnect us with the everyday and to our times? Not the least. Instead we have to rethink how to reorder the university space itself which is concrete and historical. And that can happen if we can relate our sense of wonder with a constant, practical critique of the university and its location. This is how one forces the truth of the event.

How is the nice person in each one of us reacting to all of these developments? Not acting. But reacting.

The well meaning liberal will continue to be concerned about irrationality in public life and yet be compromised in this whole warfare for two simple reasons. One, the nice, suave and tolerant person has lost complete touch with ground realities, and with the emotional quotient of people who are passionate and more directly connected to life and life’s joys and horrors.  We are unable to take the side of passion and sensuality because we flinch from taking head on the many intensities of life. And hence we have no clue about ways of mounting battle against technocratic forms of irrationality in the first place. Unfortunately, the Right wing is forcing us to face that side of life with full virulence. But temperamentally liberals will be unable to do much and must capitulate after a point. We must remain plumed quetzals. Our sympathetic and grounded friends would love us for our generosity, humility and good sense. But at heart they will know how far removed we are from the real. These very laudable attributes are the greatest chinks in our armour. Hence, we have no other way but to participate in the politics of petition and consider that as solidarity.
There is another significant issue. Far too many liberals are intricately involved in the project of good life. Good life in academia, good life in literary festivals, good life in globetrotting, good life in clubs and sanatoriums, good life in echo-chambers. It is for this reason that we are seeing our public intellectuals and scholars in cahoots with the new shining malls that are also known as private places of education. Our scholars give these spaces legitimacy lest they turn irrelevant and the good life evades them. I am very much a part of such a group of people in many of these ways. Howsoever argumentatively I might teach Grundrisse or The Buddha and His Dharma, I remain beholden to Immanuel Kant’s idea of cautious Enlightenment. There is no other way out but to look at myself in the mirror. But I sometimes wonder whether others, those who risk life and career, seek paltry things from life when they at once confront the ugly and the joyous? Do others lionize suffering and struggle for the heck of highlighting such aspects? My being brought up in a certain way, the books I read, the films I watch, the friends I meet and the places I travel are very much part of the world view that I have just described. I am totally and completely cut off from my country and countrymen.  But that cannot give rise to any politics of melancholy and mourning. Self reflection must lead to new action, fresh resolve. Silently and over a period of time.

It is impossible to blame ourselves for what has befallen us. Factionalism is a scourge. And yet far too many of us are undecided about taking a position. So we waver and try to balance within the livery of neutrality. We must continue to talk about a coming coalition in order to take the might of the worldwide resurgence of the Right. It is a popular movement and as such is deeply powerful. It might not vanish overnight.

But solidarity: this word is voided of all meaning if it comes to stand for periodic empathy for a likeminded soul who is the latest victim in the populist-technocratic deluge in which the world is inundated at this point of time.  Many things are to be thought afresh, thought beyond events and petitions. Disciplines, wholesale, must create new ways of imagining themselves. For the available tools of thought and passion are being repeatedly found wanting and moribund.  The critics of critique are not sitting silently either. So, we must start afresh. Universities are not isolated havens. They never were. And they ought not to be just silos. We want our students to be deeply passionate about life and yet be considered and matter of fact enough so that they are able to tackle the many hits that life is bound to buffet them with. Skirting issues is never an option.

It is a slow and painstaking process by which sanity can be again made lucid and insanity again turned poetic instead of being fanatical.

[ Prasanta is back home from hospital, recovering, singing about what it means to dance on a snake’s head. This video is taken from his Facebook page]

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Prasanta Chakravarty edits humanitiesunderground.org and teaches in the English Department of Delhi University. He was seriously injured by ABVP activists who attacked the students and teachers protesting on 22nd February, 2017 against the ABVP’s disruption of a seminar organized by the Literary Society of Ramjas College, Delhi University on the 21st of February.

2 thoughts on “Hard Ways of Lucidity – Thinking About the Crisis in the University: Prasanta Chakravarty

  1. Malini Chaturvedi

    There is a great need for the two sides to engage meaningfully with each other. There is an equally great paucity of strong sensible broad minded leadership. Patronising and condescending attitudes don’t really help.

    1. Aditya Nigam

      Yes, Malini. Please try and convince the other side about trying to engage – with arguments and not by forcibly and violently preventing people from speaking. And when you do succed, let us know, we will certainly engage, in any forum. Wish you all the best in your endeavour.

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