The Descent From the Ivory Tower

With our freedoms coming under attack, we have arrived at a time when it is crucial for scholars and academics to prove their relevance to the people and show them they are on the same side.

In order to overcome the poverty of reason, academics must reach out to the masses rather than insulating themselves in ivory towers. Image for representation only. Credit: alfarman/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

In order to overcome the poverty of reason, academics must reach out to the masses rather than insulating themselves in ivory towers. Image for representation only. Credit: alfarman/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

It can hardly escape the notice of a casual observer that while there have been major twists and turns during the growth of the discipline of sociology, today it is facing an unprecedented challenge from both the inside and the outside – challenges that cannot be wished away.

It was in the 19th century that the study of society began to acquire a theoretically systematic and more or less exact character. These beginnings were part of a broad movement of human curiosity in the West that led to the organisation of various disciplines along the lines of the rational natural sciences – but they also revealed a reaction against a tendency to reduce everything to laws like those of physical or chemical processes. Sociology threw light on dim regions of symbolic behaviour and the inherent complexity of cultural activity that has an irreducible and inalienable subjective content.

As we look around us in the country, we see a bewildering range of social phenomena that threaten a confident faith in our ability to manage our collective life. Caste and class, gender and ethnicity, rural and urban forms of life, traditional and modern values, oral and literate cultures, institutions and forms of resistance, social continuities and traumatic transitions – these and many other things are boiling in a seething cauldron and every so often, spilling over in a manner we are hardly able to anticipate, far less control. Most of the received paradigms are barely able to grasp and order such phenomena. At the same time, it has been the untiring endeavour of our scholars to apply their minds to understand and engage with them. Even those who stridently renounce the aims of an invincible reach of reason are unwilling to jettison its hard-won achievements.

Eminent physicist Stephen Hawking has publicly expressed his despair over the failure of humanity to control the explosive consequences of a poverty of reason – such as imminent climate change, galloping economic inequality and the threat of starvation and famine stalking millions of human beings all over the world. Quite naturally there has been a growing clamour for a re-birth in spiritual life to counter these dangerous trends.

Hiren Gohain. Credit: Twitter

Hiren Gohain. Credit: Twitter

While I appreciate the earnestness of such appeals, it also seems to me that the cultivation of the spirit in complete detachment from material activity is likely to increase rather than temper human misery. Islam had been an enlightened, humane and liberating force during centuries of the Abbasid caliphate when it was accompanied by a tremendous surge in scientific research. The same is true for certain periods in ancient India. Bereft of such a stimulating social and political environment allowing the free activity of the human mind in its endeavour to study the world in a dispassionate manner, spiritual pursuit has often degenerated into a recall of barbaric and inhuman practices of primeval times when, for instance, human sacrifice was regarded as the supreme act of faith and piety. I feel compelled to ask whether spiritual life in our country today – in utter disregard of the shocking features of material social life, the rank social evils in the country – has generated an alarming growth and proliferation of superstition and irrational barbarities and cruelties. We can hardly afford to set adrift the vessel of civilisation, rudderless into such tempestuous seas. Sociology must participate in the search for lost directions.

The ivory tower 

With vast strides in technology and the apparent callousness to increasing mass misery, the need for a serious and fundamental review of the premises of our civilisation and its sciences has become imperative. We can no longer seek comfort in the security of concepts in our respective fields and must confront the perils of such elitism.

It has  recently been said, and rightly too, that the whole liberal project of unlimited freedom of enquiry and freedom of expression, of rational discussion and tolerance of dissent has unwittingly become confined to a small elite entrenched in their ivory towers. The have no understanding or even an awareness of the plight of the common masses in their increasingly desperate struggle for bare survival.

It reminds me of a somewhat personal experience of student revolts that swept over the campuses of Europe and the United States in the late 1960s. Students were angrily demanding relevance – social relevance – for the courses they pursued in universities. Some shocked scholars heatedly responded to student acrimony by reiterating the need for  dispassionate and rigorous studies of the specific subjects, regardless of consequences. There were even some harsh condemnations of the students’ radical demands by eminent scholars.

Students hurtling projectiles against the police. Boulevard Saint Germain, 6th arrondissement, Paris, France. May 6th, 1968. Credit: Magnum Photos/Facebook

Students hurtling projectiles against the police. Boulevard Saint Germain, 6th arrondissement, Paris, France. May 6th, 1968. Credit: Magnum Photos/Facebook

The scholarly objections are pertinent. But that does not justify or mitigate the horrors of a situation where Hindus and Muslims, or other communities in conflict, lunge at one another’s throats – or a situation where blind faith and brute force overturn all consideration of decency, sanity and humanity. Nor is the widespread and increasing wretchedness of the masses who have struck out blindly to enthrone demagogic leaders in high office to be ignored in disdain. The crying need of the hour, rather, is the expansion of these rights and powers enjoyed by the elite to the common masses. Hostility to such an idea is apparent in a new tendency in certain central universities to use ‘merit’ as a criterion to exclude Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students. And an essential condition to see that doesn’t happen is to ensure that they enjoy the same kind of economic security and access to the basic necessities of life including health-care and education as the elite – so that they feel in their bones the importance of these rights.

It is an arrogant assumption that the masses are just incapable of appreciating the value of qualities intrinsic to civilised life because of their material and cultural poverty. But for ages, before the ideas and institutions of modern secularism took shape, left to themselves, Hindus and Muslims in India’s villages lived side by side peaceably, co-operated in various social tasks and genuinely respected the piety of people of other faiths. Today they have also learnt the value of modern education and are eager to send their children to schools. When they fall ill they seek out doctors and clinics for treatment. Only the prohibitive expenses of modern medicine and schooling  drive them to ojhas (quacks) and purveyors of superstition. I do not mean to dispute the efficacy of certain folk or traditional herbal medicines, but only insist that they too are products of centuries of observation and experience and not of some arcane, mystical knowledge-system.

Even the makers of our constitution understood the danger to democracy from the divide between the elite and the masses. Along with fundamental rights they made ample provision for closing the divide with the substantial chapter, the Directive Principles of State Policy.

This vision of theirs is under threat today with the expansion of global finance capital sweeping away all check-posts raised by nation-states of the third world – as well as the cultural heritage of different societies – to the resounding rhetoric of globalisation. The universal is being rammed down the throats of these nations and is not a product of free consensus. Postmodern wisdom, with its cherished distrust of ‘grand narratives’ and scorn for universal aspirations of science, does not equip us to deal with triumphant new grand narratives like the panaceas of the market and technology. Nor does it show us how to respond to such compelling new grand narratives like climate change.

It is surely a welcome sign that contemporary sociologists in our country have become sharply critical of the conceptual framework within which sociologists here and elsewhere have conducted their research. But while theoretical blinkers dating back to colonial times must be removed from perception and conceptualisation in the field of sociology, one is not certain to what extent this healthy exercise is related to the struggle to transform given social and political structures in the country.

Thought as a product of society

As Karl Marx warned thinking people nearly three quarters of a century ago in German Ideology, one cannot push thought to a closer understanding of social life by the mere act of thinking alone. One also has to look at the extent to which our own critical tools are themselves being shaped by structures of power, in ways of which we are only dimly and intermittently aware.

Further, it is a relief that younger scholars of social sciences today are, in general, able to trace the whole body of the concepts of modern knowledge in social sciences to an epochal Western/colonial bifurcation of the East and the West and cognitive dialectic between them, leading to diverse theoretical positions on modernity but under one master narrative.

But whether in a Westernising advocacy of modernity or a revivalist construction of a superior knowledge-system that also has room for whatever is worthwhile in modernity, or whether in a strenuous effort to blend the two so that claims of neither is denied – the baggage of the past cannot be so easily shrugged off. In fact, the very critical tools we use to supersede them may themselves have been influenced by Western scientific-rational tradition. Without the contribution of thinkers like Kant and Hegel, this reflexivity itself might not have evolved in a prolonged subterranean struggle in the field of theory. So Western reason may not be as hermetic as is often made to appear.

In my humble opinion, instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, there could be a more patient and fruitful objective appraisal of the positive consequences and implications of the theoretical base derived from the Western intellectual tradition, constituted by its objectives and methods. The terrible thrall of casteist thinking that haunted even the great sants of the Bhakti movement faced the first serious challenge when modern colonial education counter-posed to it a different vision of humanity. While we certainly ought to question the capabilities of reason as defined by the West, we ought also to guard against the plague of assorted irrationalisms. While we rightly interrogate the assumptions of nationalism, we need also to ascertain if the aspirations of nationalism brought any real benefit. And it is imperative that we do not encourage new unrestrained provincialisms of the mind in our quest to purge the nationalist myths.

Police hold ABVP and nationalistic supporters outside JNU with barricades on February 15, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Files

Police hold ABVP and nationalistic supporters outside JNU with barricades on February 15, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Files

Here I invoke a term that has become fashionable ever since Fredric Jameson first used it – “the political unconscious”. Social phenomena, the province of sociology, can hardly be insulated from the political forces that impinge on and influence them. Since the 1990s, as presciently fore-warned by Mahbubul Haque in the UN Human Development Report 1998, the following decades in third world countries have witnessed a marked increase in criminality and anti-social behavior in ordinary social life. Aggressiveness, social oppression and blatant discrimination – all in the name of worship of the country and the nation – have begun to characterise what is sought to be passed off as patriotism. Globalisation had been a political decision more or less thrust upon the ruling-classes of those countries. Of late it has begun to invade the allegedly sacred precincts of science and knowledge. Our institutions of higher learning and their autonomy are being subverted in the worship of such gods. Since their foundations had already been somewhat weakened by corruption, nepotism, complacency and social apathy, they seem unable to offer resistance to such invasion with support from the general public. Autonomy and intellectual freedom are not privileges, but rights to earn through a hard-fought struggle to maintain the integrity of learning. It has to be kept in mind that the result of such apathy and complacency, however, is not only injurious to the virtues of learning, but to the health of society at large. It is as important to protect the intellectual as the natural environment.

Sociology, therefore, at its own peril ignores the politics that animates such phenomena. The notion of consent that is the minimum condition of legitimate authority is under a threat from blunt and brutal assertion of power. It appears that in the last resort the scholars must fall back on the support of the very masses they have so long scorned or patronised as the unlettered and rude. But that has a price – scholars must stand up for the rights of the people to basic necessities of life not in sporadic instances, but in a systematic and collective endeavour. They cannot disarm dangerous political forces by remaining politically neutral.

The dangers of disconnected narratives

So the issue is not merely the worth of science and reason, but their appropriation and exclusive use by a small minority in its own interest. The name of humanity is taken by a small club. Universal human reason is in practice only a highly parochial instrument of a privileged elite. Recent events the world over have shown that these enchantments are no longer working. But the overwhelming danger is that these may be supplanted by brute force and blind faith. If scholars are to justify their pursuits they have got to persuade the common man that these bear some relevance to their lives, their hopes, fears and dreams. Without calling for change in the social and political order that thrives on their privations and sufferings, we can scarcely expect their support for valuable scholarly pursuits.

Can we renounce these obligations by scaling down our theoretical aspirations? By modestly confining ourselves to fragmentary little narratives in place of ‘grand narratives’. By abandoning the quest to make sense of the whole gambit of social life and taking shelter in numerous cubby-holes without much communication among them? By accepting it as a fact of life that things just happen and that all we can do is to pick up the pieces?

Then the narrow room that is still allowed to us may be used to seize occasions such as this to discuss these issues openly and ensure that the community of scholars are fully aware of their responsibility of defending academic freedom for the greater good of society. On the one hand, the role of the University Grants Commission, of the human resource development ministry and the implications of the new draft national education policy – as though anything can be justified by just putting a ‘national’ label on it – may be put under the scanner. On the other hand, the socio-economic crisis which is grinding the poor and the unemployed of the country may be discussed with the sympathy and urgency it deserves. People in general must be persuaded that freedom and independence of enquiry, objective discussion of government policies that put people’s lives at grave risk, are well worth the price they call for. After all, a university cannot be run like a factory with submissive mental workers.

Taking advantage of scholarly self-doubt and hesitation about the capabilities of reason and the disconnect between these human sciences and the fears and hopes of the masses, the powers that be have started a well-planned campaign to subordinate these sciences to their narrow political goals. The notorious if ill-conceived association between sociology and the state may be practically redefined by insisting that the state must serve the people and not lord it over them.

Crisis of reason in Indian academia

It may be plausibly argued that a way out is to fall back on the well-worn grooves of ‘understanding’, the approach that validates knowledge in humanities. A transcendent ‘human condition’ is posited as the very basis of the culture of humanities which may be extended to include even pure sciences. These are conceived as organs of human self-awareness, indeed the very stuff of ‘humanisation’.

If that is intended to mean the cultivation and appreciation of the arts and the culture of enquiry and research, then at best it is a truism. For it is what cultured people and their followers have been doing throughout history. And at worst it is a reactionary plea to retain their present status as gate-keepers of humanity without really contributing much to resolution of the present crisis in reason.

There is no transcendent ‘human condition’ except as an idealistic postulate. The concepts and methods through which understanding of the arts is reached in any age are transformed utterly in the next. Ancient elements remain, but  are reconstituted drastically in the new approach to ‘understanding’. That is why conservative elements in the older generation often fail to ‘understand’ new offshoots in the creative arts. The classic instance is modernism, whose products are fast reaching the stature of classics in our times.

The self-proclaimed gate-keepers of humanity are a cultured minority who see themselves as heroically engaged in preserving ‘culture’ from the debasing touch of ‘mass civilisation’. Thus they practically define the essential ‘human condition’ as something to be attained by keeping the majority of the human population at a presumably ‘sub-human’ level.

The net result of late has been a rapid denudation of the culture of the arts. The vaunted claims of analytical philosophy, are in substance an arid mind-game, singularly unattractive to young questing minds. Literary criticism has ended by calling in question literary culture itself. History is on the point of abdicating responsible objectivity. So much for the ‘human condition’ and the efficacy of ‘understanding’ as an agent of humanisation.

This article is adapted from Hiren Gohain’s inaugural speech at the 42nd  session of the Indian Sociological Society at Tezpur University on December 30, 2016 and additions made by him later.