by Aftab Nasir
How ought we to live? The question is multi-faceted and janus-faced. The disciplinary boundaries disappear when one wants to address this question. Is it a philosophical debate, a political discussion, a psychological model, or a historical perspective that is under investigation in this question? The answer is all and none. Yes, these disciplines try to grasp the concept of life in their own institutionalized mandates yet they end up dividing the whole in to parts that do not add up once they are combined back. There is something specific to the inner workings of these disciplines that make these parts look alien to each other once they are filtered through the methodological lenses of disciplines.
A local tale in my native language goes like this. Once a group of blind people were put in a room with an elephant and were asked to describe what the elephant looks like. The one who grasped its ear said that the elephant is flexible and thin, the one who touched the trunk called it to be round and elongated, the one who was near belly called it thick and gigantic, and lastly the one who stood towards the tail called it fluffy and small. One can imagine what kinds of debates might have ensued on the “reality” of this thing called an elephant. At times, I wonder if the disciplinary approaches towards how ought we to live also divides this elephant in the room in their respective theoretical frameworks that they are trained in and then keep debating endlessly what to call it.
What intrigues me more is the logical fallacy that becomes visible once the debates are followed in lengths. The historical currents of the past three centuries within epistemological realms point towards a general trend, i.e., a universalizing tendency of the flag bearers of most of the academics. One can see that knowledge production of the traditional wisdoms produced across various scientific disciplines was put to tests in the works of giants like Marx, Einstein, Heisenberg, Foucault, or Chomsky. Yet one can see that there remain some unshakable foundations that guarantee the continuation of a worldview that dominates over any or every alternative view of life. For example, what enlightenment means, how far scientific knowledge can be implied in resolving human crises of today, how technology must be put under scrutiny for efficiency are the questions that go unanswered. It seems that there exists a general consensus that technology, science, enlightenment are the keys to “progress” no matter how one interprets it. It is within this perspective that post-/decolonial perspectives become relevant. I want to emphasize that I have nothing against science or technological advancements yet I contest the idea that there is one way of defining and employing these concepts and methods towards the betterment of human lives.
Most recently, Bruno Latour has done important work in showing the working of social conditioning in constructing what we call scientific facts. His theses are poignant and convincing though these are being used by the alt-right movement groups to deny the principles of sciences. If one follows these debates closely one feels that the topics of debates, scope of analyses and the target groups change drastically when one moves from one hemisphere to another.
For me, the most important question becomes how one can benefit from the existing body of knowledges, without being trapped in one view or another. It seems that the basic rules of the game support what is being produced under a certain academic hegemony and discredits the rest, both historically and currently. It is here that one sees the contribution of post-/decolonial perspectives most clearly. It is through the alternate lenses that we can decipher and decode what kind of powers (social, cultural, symbolic) these traditional controlling mechanism hold over the knowledge production mechanisms. Here the “might is right” thesis comes in full force to silence what is produced outside the realm of academically sanctioned discourses of academia. The nexus of coloniality, i.e., of enlightenment, military superiority and economic advancements become the final factors in deciding whose voices are to be heard in the echo chambers of power. On the other hand, the tendency to criticize the colonial powers for all the ills in post-colonial societies is itself a form of trap much common among post-colonial scholarship. History is a field where conjectures work most efficiently than in any other discipline. The construction of a narrative based on one’s presumptions is easier if it also sells better in the market, hence I distance away from both the camps, be it Eurocentric or post-colonial. For me the key question is how ought to live in the light of certain local, decentralized, and cultural patterns. I try to move away from big debates not because it is not legitimate but because it ends up producing the power relations that are responsible for the unequal distribution of resources (be it economic, cultural, or symbolic) in the first place. I read Hegel, Lacan, or Ferguson with delight yet I see no reason to doubt that these theoretical frameworks fall short of providing any substantial clue for dealing with the mundane, day-to-day practices of injustice, inequality or asymmetry. For me, it is impotant to hold a dialogue with people of varied educational experiences to dislocate the center of abstraction from one point to another. I purposefully use the term educational “experiences” as it includes academics but is not limited to it. The domain of experience extends farther from seminar rooms to the actual workings of human imagination in the existential sphere.
A few days ago, I gave my shoes to the cobbler who sits across my street. He polished the shoes and asked for 20 rupees in return. I gave him 30 as I see him working diligently every day and I know that he merely makes enough to make both ends meet. When he received 30 instead of 20 rupees, he inquired me grudgingly why I was offering 30 when he asked for 20. This was surely an educational experience for me. This man who lives just over the poverty line values some principles more than the model of rational man theory that would dictate that he might welcome any penny he could get. Yet he was not happy for getting the amount more than he thought is appropriate for his services. I want to theorize on and with such people. Sometimes, these souls can teach us more, enlighten us deeper than any theory of modernity or postmodernity. Post-/decolonial perspectives matter because they are the narratives of these people. These perspectives matter because they are embedded in the living realities of those on whose behalf we academics want to speak.
Aftab Nasir is lecturer at Forman Christian College University Lahore and co-founder of convivalthinking.org. He can be reached via email@example.com