Sunday, December 13, 2009

On Harvinder Bhandal’s Review of Amarjit Singh Grewal’s Sach Di Siyasat

(Published in Filhaal, No. 5, Oct-Nov 2009, Pp. 13-17)

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Harvinder Bhandal’s review (“Sach di Siyasat ate Siyasat da Sach”) of Amarjit Singh Grewal’s Sach di Siyasat (Politics of Truth) in Filhaal (Oct-Nov 2009) is a well-written and interesting piece, but as someone who has read Grewal’s book I wish Bhandal had re-read the book before hastening to ‘demolish’ it. The form and argument of the book demand that it be read and re-read, and seen from a distance. Intellectual judgements are best not made in haste and passion. And it is always good to reflect on one’s opinions before rushing out to proclaim them in the streets. There certainly are several problems with Grewal’s book, but Bhandal’s hasty reading only puts them out of focus, thus forestalling a fruitful critical discussion that should rightly follow the arrival of a work of serious intent.

Bhandal probably misreads the book because of his own un-deconstructed position. The first evidence of this is provided on the very first page of the review. He rushes to summarize the book and so plunges into a trap which a little reflection could have helped him avoid. If Grewal’s methodology is “textualizing”, as Bhandal admits it is, his “text” can obviously not be subjected to summarization since “text” and “summary” are embedded in different and incommensurable paradigms. Here, then, Bhandal’s error is methodological, and therefore fundamental (as Aristotle would say). Secondly, anyone who reads Grewal’s “text” followed by Bhandal’s response can see that the summary is both reductive and incorrect. Grewal does not really state that historians are motivated by their specific objectives to “create” history as they imagine it. On the contrary, he repeatedly says that he does not disavow historical events but only suggests that those events are not transparently available to us in a purity unmediated by discourses. In fact, he does not reject history at all but only problematizes conventional historiography. And in this, he does not do anything new.

Yes, he does nothing new in the sense in which the ‘new’ is habitually and uncritically understood. But then Grewal does not also claim to be doing anything new. It is a misdirected quest that wants to find something new, such as new historical facts and discursive form, in the book. One of Grewal’s main points is to problematize the given. His stance is that of a cultural critic and theorist, not of a historian. In any case, the fascination with the new deserves to be interrogated: it can be covertly theological (hunting for an absolute genesis, a delusion that Buddhism has so sharply pierced through), or consumerist-capitalistic. As a serious and insightful reader, Bhandal could have been more alert to what the ideologies of the ‘new’ might conceal.

While the book’s discursive form is manifestly not innovative, there is something to be said in its defence. Grewal mentions at the outset that it is a response to the invitation for a paper. Instead of penning a paper, Grewal however weaves a dialogic text. The authorial, authoritative and authoritarian connotations of a scholarly paper as a mode of discourse that sets out to state a “truth” are too well known to readers of theory to bear another restatement here. The very choice of discursive form should be sufficient to warn that the author of the book cannot be seen to be making any ‘truth claims’, including the claim that there is no truth.

Actually, the parameters of Bhandal’s reading can be discerned in his inability to shed the baggage of binarism. He refuses to think beyond binaries, such as the subjective-objective dichotomy. The book, however, makes its very inaugural move on the rejection of binaries. Indeed, even when the author speaks of the relationship between history and memory, he is careful to insert a third term: discourse as a practice that shapes both. And as practice, discourse has a material presence, as the examples and treatment of the subject matter also indicate; it is not some transcendental fog. Bhandal, however, seems to have expected a kind of clarity that can only be called, with considerable restraint, pedestrian. Grewal complicates the issues progressively because he asks fundamental questions; Bhandal oversimplifies because he assumes that the fundamental questions have been resolved once and for all.

It is precisely such assumptions that lead Bhandal to accuse Grewal of treating his interlocutors as no better than his mouthpieces. As a matter of fact, from Bhandal’s assumed point of view (that sees Grewal’s project as “textualizing”), Grewal as the “author” of the text should himself stand radically “textualized”: neither he nor his numerous interlocutors can be seen as “selves” in an unqualified Cartesian sense but only as “speaking subjects” within the matrices of discourse. But then Bhandal perhaps does not want to concede, even to himself, that so many among the articulate Punjabi intellectuals think the way they do. He does not wish to believe that the time of unquestionable certainties has long since passed. He is not willing to recognize the contemporary Punjabi intellectual moment.

To that extent, of course, his review is symptomatic of the Punjabi intellectual crisis today.


bita said...

not having read the book,I shall not judge your review.But I am glad to see that kriticulture holds civilised conversations and I am all for such exchanges. I am neither 'theorizing',nor 'problematizing',nor 'discoursing' and am therefore beyond the pale of contemporary theoretical palaver aka discourse.But all stength to your elbow,Rajesh.As Beckett would say 'the dialogue must go on'.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma said...

M L Raina's comment has been incorrectly attributed, thanks to a cyber-glitch, to a non-existent bita. Apologies. . . .