Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Another beginning


How far can we go, will we go, or perhaps go at all? Grappling with the forces of change and seemingly unchanging political culture, this is a question every Nepali must be asking today.

It is only humane to change, to continuously explore avenues of creativity, and to yearn for new possibilities. Human history offers many examples where the rational animals have exercised ingenuity in discovering, experimenting, and perfecting diverse range of human values and practices.

But there are those who believe that humanity has reached its point of exhaustion, or rather perfection, from where no substantial transformation is possible.

It is said that after an unprecedented wave of scientific discoveries in the late 19th century the US patent office asked the government whether it was time to close the office; the patent officials thought there was nothing more to discover! This hilarious anecdote underlines many of the ongoing debates among intellectuals today.

Following Francis Fukuyama’s rather chauvinist claim that perhaps history had come to an end, conservative thinkers around the world began to blow his trumpet. The “endist” wave swept across not only humanities and social sciences but also the natural sciences. It is now fashionable to read books titled The End of Humanity, The End of Education, or The End of Physics. If anything, this “endism” only underscores a paradigm shift in the way people do history, sociology or other areas of human inquiry.
Yet I see some value in this debate, though I do not agree with their central arguments, such as the end of ideological divide, racial discrimination, molecular miracles or the triumph of liberalism, naturalization of social justice or equality and the irreversible quantum leap. As we can very well see in Nepal, someone’s end is always another’s beginning.

I think, by and large, Fukuyama’s inquiry was a speculative project rather than an assenting statement about the course of ideology or the future of political history. I also think that his overzealous followers, such as Dinesh D’Souza (End of Racism) and others, and his unscrupulous critics have misinterpreted his zeal behind his hypothesis, if not his overtly persuasive content. Even if he meant the genuine end of history, his biggest contribution lies in his book’s ability to open an important debate, and hence new possibilities in the field of human inquiry.

Certainly, echoing the second part (…another beginning?) of Fukuyama’s compound question, we may ponder how our own historical journey in Nepal is approaching another beginning.

Fukuyama’s proposition encompasses the political dimension of human progress. Fukuyama reduces humanity to the market model of neo-liberalism, with excessive emphasis on total economic freedom rather than the organizing principle of polity, as political scientist Amy Gutman would argue. The question then is what happens to the many resistant political forces that have emerged in the last couple of decades? What happens to the mix and flurry of conflicting and disengaging voices or ideologies that we have been inundated with in our own country? In our quest for renewal and perfection, how far can we go, will we go, or perhaps go at all?

My area of media studies is not so much a heterogeneous and multifaceted field; it’s still largely unidirectional. It is still in the clutches of the enlightenment spirit of empiricism, or what the late American scholar James Carey would call “moribund academism”. The grand narrative tradition of mainstream history still dominates mass media history. This is the case everywhere in the world, not just in Nepal.

New experiences shaped by emerging social, cultural, ethnic and “virtual” sensibilities increasingly suggest that a coherent and directional human destiny may never be possible. These sensibilities are messy and are in themselves full of variations. So what is the nature of historical knowledge, how do we know historical reality, what strategies are useful to know it, and what is (should be) the subject matter of history?

Coming from critical, cultural and post-modern perspectives, these are important questions that merit close scrutiny today when Nepal itself is at a historical juncture, trying to redefine and reorganize our ways of thinking and doing things.

Happily, Nepalis are way ahead of many other nationalities in their critical faculties. In recent years, it seems, there are no questions that have not been asked and no issues that have not been questioned. No wonder, we invoke the names of Marx and Mao so often. Any and every socio-economic structures that are seen to be maintaining status quo, including mass culture and mass media, have been the targets. Earlier, even when the mainstream, establishment ideology did not entertain alternative views, ‘criticalists’ could not be shrugged off easily.

Much of critical ire is directed against the conventional practices in political and social history, such as patrimonial, cast- and gender-based grand narratives; a linear, biographic, ahistorical, elite-biased, chronological, descriptive thought tradition marked by occasional crises, ruptures, and catastrophes. However, every-day experience shows that our criticalists, either ideologically leaning or social-oriented, are most often content merely to mock, chide or reprimand their opponents or to point out their faults.

“Criticism” or “critical” has lost all its positive connotations also because of its excessive focus on scrutinizing ideologies, epochs, and events, combined in master terms like Ranas, Panchayat, Satra Sal, Bahun, and Janaandolan and Maobadi rather than emphasizing meaning and understanding in everyday life within alternative social and cultural contexts. This can be as repressive as the mainstream tradition. Our lived realities are always unique and different. History is not linear, but circular; things keep changing and they cannot be viewed as being essentially progressive.

So besides merely chiding dominant forces, the next task before our criticalists would be to focus on the expression of collective processes involving various interests in the emerging political, economic, and cultural order of Nepal. There are many histories to be explored, revised and rewritten, such as that of marginalized groups, women, children, class and ethnicities.

Voltaire’s famous quote “we have lots of histories of kings. I want history of man,” appears relevant to us given the exclusion of so many alternative experiences in the mainstream history. If we fail to regain our truly diverse historical consciousness our democratic experiment may cease to exist not because we exhausted our critical faculties but because we underutilized them. So, rather than simply chiding opponents, criticalists must constantly emphasize context and work to create understanding, which may help dismantle the hegemony of power and knowledge.

Similarly, culturalists, though less radical or activist than the criticalists, may be another source of energy in reconstructing our new national consciousness. However, our cultural sensbility, even in the secular order, does not seem to have progressed beyond pashupati darshan, bhai tika or rath yatras, or Tirupati idol (as displayed by Upendra Mahato in Tundikhel recently). True culturalists need to be able to probe the complexities in the reconstruction of collective social consciousness in order to understand the meanings of daily lives in a given historical situation. These are not confined to religion or customs and they include, for example, the study, analysis and advancement of professional cultures in a modernizing society with brimming aspirations of a new beginning, not the end. Culturalists look for new interpretations and meanings.

Alas, because of the rise of the “virtual” world, mediated 24/7 by our mass media channels and the Internet, both context and meaning (the domains of criticalists and culturalists) have been considerably diminished.

For many in the young generation, thinking the present historically is an uncomfortable task. For we are living in an age in which we have forgotten how to think historically. We live in breaks, in slices of events rather than new worlds, in instant sound bites and images. The difference between nature and ‘being’ is gone for good, as intellectuals of the “linguistic turn” tradition would put it.

We don’t even have to go anywhere. History comes to us via our tubes, in bits and pieces.

The greatest challenge, then, is to meaningfully reconcile our critical and cultural sensibilities with the emerging mediated world.

Published in Republica, Feb 29, 2012