Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review of Time Treks by Ashis Nandy

Ashis Nandy.  Time Treks: the Uncertain Future of Old and New Despotisms.  NY: Seagull Books, 2008, 228 pp., US$ 34.95 (paperback).

It is easy to assume that we have no future.  Not a real one, anyway.  Business and government collude to limit our imagination of the future to a catalog of product releases.  Within the confines of advanced capitalism, the future can only be The Present 2.0.  The alternatives can only be, we’re told, atavistic returns to the “tribe” and to the various parochialisms they imply.  As Fredric Jameson complained a few years ago (2005: 281):
The surrender to various forms of market ideology—on the Left, I mean, not to mention everyone else—has been imperceptible but alarmingly universal.  Everyone is now willing to mumble, as though it were an inconsequential concession to in passing to public opinion and current received wisdom (or shared communicational presuppositions), that no society can function efficiently without the market, and that planning is obviously impossible.  
But there are possibilities, and one of the challenges for cultural critics writing in the West is to attempt to articulate—or at least evoke—the potential for alternative futures, if for no other reason than to open up a space for critical thinking outside of the morally, politically and (now) economically bankrupt “free market”.  But it has not been easy for Western intellectuals to mount a Great Refusal against an economic, social and political system which overdetermines consciousness and structures even haptic sensations.    Even academic publishing (like media in general) ensures the endless proliferation of certain theorists, keywords and texts, and the complete obfuscation of others—particularly Asian scholars.  Like the other products we consume, our scholarship is driven (and delimited) by the market it embraces.

I came to Time Treks looking for just such alternatives and come away intrigued with what I’ve found.  Nandy is one of a select few Indian intellectuals whose work is read and reviewed in the West.  Of course, he is hardly the only Indian intellectual to be so prolific or so wide in his breadth, but he is one of few to have maintained both a critical and geographic distance from the US and Europe for most of his long career. 

Time Treks is a compilation of academic addresses made over the past two decades, ranging over an exceptionally broad terrain—utopias, India-Pakistan relations, urban studies, poverty and development, nuclear arms races.  What ties them all together is an incredulity towards the kinds of futures thinking (literally) capitalized on in a globalized world—linear, progressive, teleological.
It is a remarkable feature of our times that so many individuals and collectivities are willing and even eager to forego their right to design their own futures.  Some societies do not any longer have a workable definition of the future.  They have a past, a present, and someone else’s present as their future.  (174)
Here, he joins a number of non-Western intellectuals (e.g.,  Afro-Futurists) taking aim at the monolithic one-dimensionality of discourses on the future.

And, whatever the target of these essays, his work can be seen in the context of a political psychology extrapolating on Erich Fromm in his sustained critique of Enlightenment rationalism, and, in particular, the way the Enlightenment sets up particular dichotomies of citizen and state, developed and developing, that both determine and contain the course of postcolonial struggle.
In ecology, human rights, and feminism, too, there is the usual aggressive ethnocentrism masquerading as global ethics.  In dissent, as in radical social protest. European and proto-European intellectual traditions are often as arrogant as ever about their centrality in the global order of cultures.  They continue to see the Enlightenment vision as the ultimate depository of answers to all basic human questions on society and politics.  (81)
This is a hard pill for those of us involved in any sort of global activism to swallow, but one that is, I think, ultimately salutary.  The question is the extent to which Eurocentric assumptions about politics, society, economics, religion and science limit our imagination about what might be.  How do we imagine the future of the multicultural state?  It is difficult to challenge the vague cosmopolitanism which forms the basis for many of our hopes and fears.  But, as Nandy (162) points out, there is much to be gained by challenging the “singular historical trajectory” at core of writings on the cosmopolitan.

But where do we find this post-colonial, Marcusean challenge?  Not in the prognostications of futurists and policy makers, whom Nandy singles out for special critique.  Instead, Nandy urges that we look to alternatives in the absurd and even occasionally half-articulated visions of people speaking from the margins.
This is not merely because the absurd and the surreal should have a place in the creative endeavour, but because in a multiethnic, multicultural world they can act as bridges among incommensurable worlds.  In a confederational global order of cultures, one’s normal is always someone else’s absurd, and someone else’s surreal is one’s reality.  (20)
Here, Nandy is little help in articulating what the visions of such a “global underworld” (109) might be, but this because he self-reflexively includes himself in the set of intellectuals who have been co-opted into Eurocentric imaginings of the future:
It is unlikely that I shall live to see the day, but I am consoled by the thought that I belong to a generation of South Asian scholars whose demise can only hasten the end of the present phase of self-hatred, of our ridiculous attempts to live out some other culture’s history.  (39)
But we can, at least, begin to sketch the contours of that vision by following Nandy’s Marcusean negation.

First, a disavowal of Enlightenment teleologies that imbricate our imagining of technology, democracy, progress and change.  This can involve a direct critique of institutions, as in Nandy’s characterization of the UN as “only an edited version of the present global nation-state system” (193).  But it also means overcoming cherished myths of Western progress and replacing them with more fluid, even heterotopic, possibility:
Perhaps in the present global culture the shaman, taken metaphysically as opposition to the king and the priest, remains the ultimate symbol of authentic dissent, representing the utopian and transcendental aspects of the child, the lunatic, the androgynous, and the artist.  In this he remains the least socialized articulation of the values of freedom, creativity, multiple realities, and an open future.  (178)
There’s a question here about the ultimate value of something like the “shaman,” itself a Western reification resting on pernicious binarisms of nature/culture, western/non-western, rational/ irrational.  But I would argue that Nandy’s shaman is not Castaneda’s shaman (nor Eliade’s, nor Campbell’s).  Instead, the “shaman” stands in for a kind of sublimated possibility at the core of globalization—the possibility for unrest, certainly, but also the virtual potentials that have been silenced by the head-long rush into neo-liberal oblivion: “In this he remains the least socialized articulation of the values of freedom, creativity, multiple realities, and an open future” (178).   Perhaps here Nandy’s shaman might be compared to Michael Taussig’s, a figure of magic and secrecy, to be sure, but also “a set of tricks, simulations, deceptions, and art or appearances in a continuous movement of counterfeit and feint” (Taussig 2003: 278).

The “shaman,” in other words, is less some exoticized figure standing outside science and rationalism than a place-keeper for the tactics on the margins, involving not only alternatives to present configurations of power/knowledge, but also the heterogeneity of challenges to the center in the oftentimes unrecognized and delegitimized tactics of the powerless.

Jameson, Fredric (2005).  Archaeologies of the Future.  NY: Verso.    
Taussig, Michael (2003).  “Viscerality, Faith, and Skepticism.”  In Magic and Modernity, ed. by Birgit Meyer and Peter Pels, pp. 272-306.  Stanford: Stanford University Press.


stuart candy said...

Excellent review, thank you for posting.

I've read some of Nandy's other collections, but don't have this one yet, so what follows puts his contribution in a wider context to go with what you've written here. Please forgive the length.

Firstly, his stellar contribution to the project of elaborating alternative futures -- the "game of dissenting visions", as he has brilliantly put it -- forms part of a tradition of scholarly futures studies going back to the late 1960s and early 70s. Notwithstanding criticism rightly aimed at more narrowly focused "futurists and policy makers" as mentioned in the review, there is a community of practitioners, many also self-labelled as futurists, who assume multiple futures. Right out of the gate, they have a postcolonial or pluralising commitment in mind. (My own PhD would be one example.)

Although in a different vein from the contributions of other figures noted in the review (Jameson, Marcuse, and Fromm), readers should be aware that Nandy's efforts have not been made in isolation. He situates his own thinking in relation to the wider futures field in an indispensable 1996 article, "Bearing Witness to the Future" (in a special edition of Futures journal called "What Futurists Think").

Secondly, let's be clear that this project is by no means exclusively nonwestern. Many of my favorite "decolonising" futures writers are of nonwestern, particularly South Asian, extraction: Zia Sardar, Sohail Inayatullah, Vinay Lal, Susantha Goonatilake and Shiv Visvanathan are all sophisticated critical futures thinkers along lines comparable to Nandy. And other excellent exponents of plural futures include Jim Dator, Richard Slaughter, Jose Ramos, Ivana Milojevic, Peter Hayward, Eleonora Masini, Elise Boulding, and many others from the "western" world. (An early example: Dator's 1975 paper De-Colonizing The Future.) We should not make a trap inadvertently out of a western/nonwestern binary of legitimacy.

Fortunately there are ways of being a "futurist" without also being a prediction-mongering cultural imperialist, and ways of contributing to an emancipatory, "postcolonial" sensibility and agenda without actually being nonwestern by background. Our way through the cultural predicament of future possibilities foreclosed will necessarily route around or transcend such legacy pitfalls.

Overall, then, given the increasingly obvious importance of slipping the inherited shackles on our forward-looking imagination, the futures field deserves much wider attention (notably from those such as the still-active Jameson, who evidently has developed an interest in related themes). It may be that all this is amply described in Nandy's text -- my copy won't arrive from India for at least a few weeks -- but if so, all the more important to note it in review. And either way, I hope my mentioning it here is useful. On that note, for anyone interested, Sardar's edited collection "Rescuing All Our Futures" (1999), Dator's "Advancing Futures" (2002), and Slaughter's "Knowledge Base of Futures Studies" (2005 edition) all provide excellent places to start exploring the futures field further.

One final observation: I think the shamanic aspect of futures, mentioned at the end of the review, is greatly underappreciated. (So I was delighted to learn just recently, from Sohail Inayatullah, that Australian futurist Marcus Bussey's 2008 doctorate addressed that topic.) Particularly given your anthropology background, any further thinking you'd like to share on shamanism and futures would be fascinating.

Meanwhile thanks again for your great review of work by an outstanding futurist.
Stuart Candy

stuart candy said...


I'm aware of what may appear as an irony in my earlier remarks making what could seem to be an argument for futures as a discipline, given that Nandy's own attitude to the futures studies field -- an attitude which in fact I share -- is that its primary challenge is to maintain "plurality of dissent", which entails resisting pressure to become overly disciplined.

The issue is simply this: if a tradition of scholarly publication is good for anything, it must include avoiding unwittingly and unnecessarily retreading thoughtways already mapped. The way information moves today, there's little defence for such oversight, or redundancy. The argument isn't for erecting new disciplinary boundaries; on the contrary, it's part of a case against them, and militates for following the contours of a subject wherever they may lead. So it is incumbent on anyone seeking to make a scholarly contribution to thought about the future to recognise what by now is a substantial and varied body of futures/foresight work.