Sunday, 30 June 2013

Ranajit Guha & the praxis of stupidity

Ranajit Guha is an historian. He is over 90 years old. He was born in India and only emigrated some 12 years after Independence. Thus he must have known that the vast majority of Indian peasants under the Raj
1) couldn't read or write any language, let alone lawyerly English, and literary Persian and scholarly Sanskrit and so on.
2) didn't know the 'series of codes which defined his very existence'- because some of those codes were written in lawyerly English and very very few of the people who knew lawyerly English also knew precisely what 'series of codes' obtained and how they related to each other. The Viceroy didn't know-he'd ask his Principal Secretary. The Principal Secretary didn't know but thought he might meet someone at the Club willing to chance his arm and venture a guess. This guess if sufficiently canvassed and contested by vested interests might call forth a countervailing guess and mark the beginnings of a debate which might trundle on noiselessly, decade after decade, in dry-as-dust academic circles such as those in which the 'Subaltern' school of Indian historians displayed their Revolutionary credentials to each other as part of a Crendentialist Ponzi scheme.
Why does Guha tell us such absurd lies about the Indian peasant?
Well, he wants to prove that-
1) Peasants who rebelled under the Raj did not do so because they were at the end of their tether. Not at all. You see they were all, each and everyone of them, expert philosophical hermeneuts with plenty of leisure and cognitive capacity to just go on 'manipulating the familiar symbols they saw around them'- as in a Lullian zairja, or Glass Bead game,  so as to 'extract a meaning out of the harsh world around him and live with it'.
In other words, peasants under the Raj- though underfed, overworked, suffering from chronic and debilitating ailments, subject to corporal punishment and so on- nevertheless burnt up precious calories, not learning to read and write, but reading 'the familiar signs around them' so as to 'manipulate them and extract meaning'. Why? Well it's coz if they didn't undertake this very complicated hermeneutic task then their life would be unbearable and they'd rebel but do so in mere absence of mind.
I mean, suppose you took Heidegger and Gadamer and Ricouer and you beat them and starved them and forced them to work in the fields, what would happen? Would they 'manipulate the familiar symbols' of your whip and your cane and your gun so as to 'extract meanings' of the sort that can be found in the books they wrote while living comfortably off their Professor's salaries? Certainly not. They'd either rebel or die or get real depressed. Indian peasants, under the Raj, however were quite a different breed of men. Even when they did rebel it was simply part of this exhausting and exhaustive process of 'manipulating familiar symbols to extract meaning'.  That's why real history, genuine historiography, aint about how and why and when people at the end of their tether can and do rebel, nor is it about studying how those rebellions can succeed in making things better- no, perish the thought!, what a vulgar suggestion! you see, real history, real historiography- at least when we speak of Indian peasants under the Raj- is actually something highly cerebral and baroque- like sabak-e-hindi mystic poetry, where wine doesn't mean wine, it means mystic illumination, or Sanskrit verse, where 'the laundress with big breasts' doesn't mean a hot chick with big bazoongas but mystic illumination, or Aurobindo's verse where mystic illumination doesn't mean mystic illumination but 'T.S. Eliot is shite at Greek and fucks up soooo bad in Latin it aint even funny.'

2) if the Raj disappeared or went into occultation or suspended its operations- as in fact constantly happened at the margin and on a wider scale from time to time- the the peasant could afford to rebel in a state of absent mindedness. Since it is only safe to rebel absent mindedly when no serious sanction attaches to so doing, it follows that Ranajit Guha believes that there was some magic punitive power invested in those codes maintained by the Raj which alone posed an existential threat to the peasant. In other words, suppose Lord Curzon got drunk and said to the Imperial Code Conservator-in-Chief 'Tell you what, old boy, just you suspend them codes for the weekend. Don't tell anybody. It will be our little secret.'-what would then happen is the peasants would rebel. Kitchener would get the fright of his life and his mustache would uncurl completely. Of course, on the Monday, the Rebellion would collapse on its own because the Codes would be back in place and so the Indian peasant would have to go back to his drudgery of reading the familiar signs around him and manipulating them and extracting a meaning from them and that would keep him busy.

Why does Guha want to make such an absurd claim? Well, it is because he wants to show that Indian peasants weren't ordinary human beings. They didn't act or react like ordinary human who have been pushed too far or have had enough and decide to rebel. You see, these expert hermeneuts were actually doing something quite different and magical called the praxis of rebellion. 

Prior to Guha, Historiography was very nasty and mean to the Indian peasants. It said stuff like- 'they were angry about x and so they rebelled' or 'they scented an opportunity to throw off their shackles and so they rebelled' or 'believing such and such rumors, they rebelled'- which is tooootally unfair and diabolical and Racist and Eurocentric and Bourgeois and like CULTURAL RAPE AND GENOCIDE SAME AS McDONALDS & COCA COLA!

Now, while we can all agree that Historiography is fucked because people who get PhDs in History have shit for brains, it does not follow that Indian peasants, under the Raj or otherwise, have been fucked over by Historiography. This is because peasants know that who owns what and who owes what is determined by dominant coalitions- indeed, as I have written elsewhere, village politics is much more sensitive to barometric shifts in Shapley values and shadow prices (indeed, this has a seasonal aspect) arising from the underlying core stability dynamics than are our psephological computer models- and, moreover, unlike the proletariat, peasants can change both their class and inter-class status through rebellion- something Indian vernacular history amply testifies to.

What militates against this is not Manu, or the Manchester School of Econ,  but Marx- at least the corrupt, Credentialist, Marxist Historiography which valorizes peasant rebellion as having a deep hermeneutics of an Idealist type rather than representing an instrumentalisable  pragmatics from which the body politic can benefit Economically.

Indeed, the Developmental State in its take-off phase is nothing but a series of bloodless insurrections of this type. Read Vishvevaraiah's Plan from the 30's. He wanted 10 per cent growth. The Industrialists behind the Bombay Plan settled for 7.5 per cent because they were frightened by the Marxists. Once the Leftists gained ascendancy this was scaled back more and more.

Guha emigrated to the U.K in 1959. He currently lives in Vienna.
The odd thing is that he rose to fame in India at precisely the time when the true desires and potential of the Indian peasantry were becoming apparent. Historiography, it seems, only fucks up its own. For which, I need hardly add, I personally blame David Cameron.
That boy aint right.


  1. What makes you think Guha is a Marxist? He is a Tagore on steroids
    Read this interview
    Ranajit Guha: 'I think I am somewhat unique in having faith in the theme of uttaran or transcendence. It would be wrong to view, as some scholars have done, the Hegelian transcendence or movement of the Geist as something which operates narrowly and in a deterministic manner through immanent human history. Rather, the stages Hegel describes in the movement of the Geist should be seen as ideal types, exemplars, not narrowly in the form of actual human societies. In a related manner, Heidegger’s phenomenological approach has also left a deep impression on me. I consider both Being and Becoming to be important. Kant and Nietzsche have also deeply influenced me. Through Heidegger I have also approached Thomas Aquinas. Among the Greeks, I consider Aristotle to be more important than Plato in showing this appreciation of the phenomenological totality.
    For me, intellectual history, the history of ideas, is very important. My first work was on the intellectual origins of the Permanent Settlement in Bengal, something to which I have returned in a recent Bengali book. My Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India also worked on these ideas from archival sources. I emphasize philosophy, but a philosophy which is worked out through the primary sources by the historian such as through the archival records which help us trace peasant mentality. What animates my earlier as well as later works is concern for the philosophical implications of the search for perfection. Man is imperfect, but he searches always for perfection.'
    Sometimes he does this by trying to conquer and destroy and take away things from nature and from
    others. Sometimes, he tries to achieve perfection by creating new things. So when he sees that birds can fly, and fish can live under water, but he himself cannot do these things, he feels inspired to create planes and submarines. This search for perfection also animates man’s desire for justice. For me, this has been a prime object of study, to study the norms of transcendental justice embedded in human beings, which manifests in peasant insurgency, in popular religion, and so on. The notion of justice present in popular religion has always moved me immensely. This theme of perfection again animates the quest for upliftment, uttaran, for going beyond one’s self'

  2. RG: More important than the question whether I believe in the existence of God or not, is the question whether I believe in the concept of God. I do believe in the concept, and I think that this belief is essential because it prompts man to go beyond himself and search for justice and perfection, to seek and to create what he does not find in this world.
    It is to study this quest that I have also engaged with Indian philosophy, with thinkers like Bhartrihari, Abhinavagupta and Shankaracharya. Indian philosophy has always dwelt on this theme. Modern Indians, however, to their detriment, have neglected this extremely rich heritage of Indian philosophy.
    In my recent works, writing in Bengali, and using Indian philosophy, I want to remind people of the
    need to go back to these concepts. Specifically, the theme of self-other relations has become very
    important, and explicitly articulated, in these works. The going beyond one’s self, the ability to take on new selves, to reach the Other, to transcend: these are issues which, I think, are particularly visible in the realm of literature, whether in Tagore or in later Bengali poets. Literature offers insights, and modern Indian writers have been able to achieve new directions, which have neither been so articulated by the discipline of history nor by historians. By going into Indian literature and philosophy, these insights can be recovered, and also be made ready for use by new generations of scholars with eyes less jaded than those of their predecessors. The German idealist philosophy of Kant and Hegel also articulate these concerns which were earlier expressed in Indian philosophy. Talking about these things might require the usage of a certain conceptual language which may appear difficult to some. But I have always written to express myself, to satisfy myself, and not with an immediate audience in mind for whom I must dilute things.'
    So there you have it. Guha wasn't really interested in the peasant under the Raj, rebellious or otherwise. For him, the peasant represented MAN who looks at a bird and invents the aeroplane, or looks at a fish and invents the submarine or looks at the Sun and invents the hydrogen bomb or looks at the black hole and invents Calcutta University.
    Indeed, even what MAN can't look at becomes that thing he realizes he lacks and which he promptly invents. So, the Indian peasant under the Raj- who doubtless had already invented aeroplanes and submarines because they could see birds and fishes- noticing that what they didn't have was a Marxist State promptly engaged in the proper type of Revolutionary praxis and brought it about. Historiography, however, because it is Eurocentric, totally failed to notice or shamelessly hid these true facts and so the Peasant rebellions were pitilessly crushed by philistines who didn't understand that MAN needs the planes and submarines and Marxist Utopias which Indian peasants, under the Raj, were ceaselessly inventing.

  3. Thanks.
    I googled a section from your quote and found this link to the full interview -
    I must say I'm warming to Guha. It is a fundamental tenet of old fashioned Hindutva that the ancient Aryans had flying cars and televisions and so on. No doubt the Bengali peasant did have aeroplanes and submarines but Eurocentric observers mistook them for a pile of cowdung.

  4. Just read the whole interview. Priceless!
    He ends thus-
    'I have formally signed a contract to donate, after my death, all my private papers and books to the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna. These contain materials, including letters exchanged between me and other Subaltern Studies scholars, which are absolutely essential for the writing of a history of the Subaltern Studies Collective, a school which, I think, has made the most original contribution to historiography on India in recent years. If scholars from Heidelberg University come and work on these in future, that would be very good.'
    Guha assumes that even the famous German sense of humor won't prevent scholars from Heidelberg from killing themselves laughing at his fatuous correspondence. I am not so sanguine. Yes they will die laughing but not before they carry out an Anschluss & invade Poland the way they did the last time they were exposed to a School of Historiography as hilariously fuckwitted as Subaltern Studies.