Against Occidentalism: A Conversation with Alice Crary and Vishwa Adluri on The Nay Science

How should we read and interpret texts? And how might the modes in which we read be informed by, enriched by, and revised by our understanding of our cultures of interpretation? These questions have driven the work of Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee, doctoral alumni of the Department of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research.

This summer, Anthem Press will publish the second book written together by Adluri and Bagchee, Philology and Criticism: A Guide to Mahābhārata Textual Criticism. To mark the occasion, Research Matters presents a transcription of Adluri’s conversation with Philosophy Professor Alice Crary. They talk about Adluri and Bagchee’s first book The Nay Science: A History of German Ideology (Oxford UP), the practice of reading and interpreting texts, and a history of Indology.

Indology—the academic study of India—originated in Germany and served as a foundation for western academic interpretations of Indian intellectual, cultural, and social life. The Nay Science charts the history of German Indology to show that the nascent discipline was rooted in troublesome philosophical assumptions that generated inaccurate readings of the cultures they were studying and led to false images of India’s culture and written tradition. Against stubbornly persistent biases, Adluri and Bagchee write in favor of a more sincere reading of ancient and Eastern texts—a kind of “innocent reading” that goes beyond postcolonial method of critique—that might enable us to meet texts falling outside the Western Christian tradition on their own terms.

Pressing beyond a critique of the specific history of German Indology and its effects on our understanding and modes of reading ancient texts, The Nay Science offers vital reflections on philosophical and social scientific methods. Adluri says that the book aims to train us to, “read texts, read them carefully, but read them respectfully, because if you read the texts respectfully, they will talk to you.”

He also reflects on his training at The New School. On the practice of philosophy, he says: “You have to read everything, struggle your whole life to claim that life, and if they are capable—if they are competent—competent is not the right word—if they are capable of hanging on, and doing the work, there is nothing better to do in life than philosophy.”

Alice Crary (AC): The occasion for this interview is your magnum opus, the 2014 monograph written with Joydeep Bagchee, The Nay-Science. I really to […] talk about its significance and its implications. I thought it would be good to get a little background first, with a discussion of who you are and what you’ve done since you were at the New School for Social Research’s Philosophy Department. So can you start by telling us a bit about your life, and your intellectual work at NSSR, and then afterwards?

Vishwa Adluri (VA): Thank you, Alice. I’m Vishwa Adluri, one of the co-authors of Nay-Science, and I went to The New School where I got my PhD in philosophy, which has been an invaluable experience for me. Since then I can say that there has not been a matching intellectual challenge I have faced anywhere else, even in Germany. After I graduated from here doing ancient philosophy, I became very aware of thinking about the conditions of modernity. I was very influenced by [former New School for Social Research Professor] Reiner Schurmann as a teacher, and his book, Broken Hegemonies. He points to modernity as a complicated project grounded on a turn inward to self-consciousness as the primary referent for all knowledge. He calls [self-consciousness] the “hegemony of modernity.” And so I began to see that when we in modernity talk about ancients— ancient Greeks for example, other civilizations—we automatically subject them to the prejudices we have as moderns, as Europeans, as post-Enlightenment. I wanted to investigate those things in a totally different field. So Indology was a test case to study the influence of method and enlightenment vis-à-vis [the] episteme of the other. It’s important not just for the humanities but also for philosophy. I was very humbled by the enthusiasm, and traumatized by the disciplinary force which is contained in academic disciplines.

AC:  Can you talk about how you got started after the first monograph? How you got started on this project?

VA: I was working on Greek philology with a professor at the University of Marburg called Arbogast Schmitt […] He was very impressed with me. He wrote a wonderful book called Modernity and Plato, a big tome, which I translated because it jived with how I trained with Reiner, and rethinking the relationship of ancients and moderns was important for Arbogast as well. And Arbogast said, “Why don’t you study something with Indology here as well?” And he brought me into the Indology Department at Marburg, and he had the highest hopes for me. And I had also stopped taking Nietzsche’s cue, Heidegger’s cue, Reiner Schurmann’s cue, and Seth Benadetti’s—[and] started studying Parmenides and Plato in relation to Homer. So epic: Greek epic, Sanskrit epic. I also wanted to see how an ancient form of thought can unfold on its own without being interrupted by certain religious movements such as Christianity in the West. I just wanted to see what the ancient part would look like on its own. When I got to the Marburg Indology Department, for the first time in my life I faced racism. It was epistemic, it was—they told me that my questions were “theological,” and that Europe had already settled these questions.

AC: You would say there are parallels between the way you were treated, that are reflected in the attitudes that you are tracing as you go through part one of your book, where you are saying a partial and really flawed positivism is a cover for the projection and imposition of different strains of Protestant theologizing, Eurocentrism, and also various kinds of racialized and even racist thought.

VA: Correct.

AC: Would you like to talk about one of those strands?

VA: The racism one is very interesting, and painful. It shows that already in the institution of modernity, we had a certain turn toward subjectivity. Luther himself wrote no less than two whole anti-Semitic tracts, and this was picked up by German Indologists and philologists. What they did was to show that Germany has now a unique break with history, and an Archimedean point from which—called self-critical lore of so-called methodological or scientific perspective—to study without faith the texts. So with one stroke Rabbinical tradition becomes delegitimized, and the Catholic tradition becomes delegitimized, philosophical tradition becomes delegitimized. And we start hearing, even to this day: [the] end of metaphysics, destruction of metaphysics, destruction of this, destruction of that.

It begins the deconstructive task that modernity inherits. Specifically in the case of Mahābhārata studies, Christian Lassen—who was Norwegian but lived in Germany, wrote in German, and was buried there—began to posit [that] the mythical war in Mahābhārata was actually a racial battle between white-skinned Europeans entering India being confronted by dark skinned natives. This runs without a break into contemporary Indology. Lassen was read by [Count Joseph Arthur de] Gobineau, so the science of races was born suddenly. In Gobineau’s case, it becomes easy to separate the Jews from Europeans, repurposing it for local consumption: [arguing] the Jews are unable to write an epic, they’re always tied to their particularity and so on—echoes of which you see in Heidegger’s Black Notebooks. So you have this sort of racial assumption in the epistemic project that only the Prussian Lutheran academy is self-conscious. Systematically, Indological studies provided a racial analytic tool for European humanities.

AC: Heidegger just came up, but Gadamer has a big role in the project, and it’s a positive role, and he’s an heir of Heidegger. So as I understand it, Heidegger plays an ambiguous role here. Is that right? Can you tell us something about how Heidegger and Gadamer show up in different ways?

VA: For me, no thinker is just all bad and all good, and I am a big critic of Heidegger as well as Gadamer. But what I took from Gadamer was his idea of responding to the historicist crisis that Heidegger had pointed out. He himself was trained as a classical philologist, and he said that the best way to understand a text is through the rezeptionsgeschichte, or reception history: how the text unfolds and works in its own tradition. This came as an antidote to me to how the German Indologists were reading both Jewish texts, without reference to the rabbinical tradition, and the Indian texts without reference to the local commentators. So in just that move, I follow Gadamer. I’m not a Gadamerian.

But the question continues to Heidegger as well, that we have to distinguish between two types of anti-Semitism and Heidegger. There is this one anti-Semitism where he is anti-Semitic, but there is another way in which that kind of talk you see in the Black Notebooks was permissible. There was an academic milieu that stretches back to 200 or 300 years where that kind of talk had become part of the humanities. So we have to be critical of Heidegger and the category of anti-Semitism, it’s not just blanket, and there are certain varieties of anti-Semitism which could be just a part of the system. Does this excuse Heidegger? No. All the more, it is the task of the philosopher to become aware of what is being fed to him

AC: I want to talk about the reception to the book. A minute ago you said something, which I hadn’t detected in anything I know—as far as I know, the book has been greeted as a huge accomplishment. You suggested just now, in contrast to what the Indologists will say—I’m a nuanced thinker suggests that—you think that in places it is being received as a single-minded polemic? Is that it? Has it gotten the reception that you expected and hoped for?

VA: Just last week I got an e-mail out of the blue from someone called Susannah, and she said, “What a great book. It’s a gem.” And the person who said this was Susannah Heschel, she’s Abraham Joshua Heschel’s daughter. So I was very gratified. Reiner Schurmann was tormented by the Nazi legacy, and he would have been so happy to hear Susannah. So outside the Indological circles, the book is receiving rave reviews. In the Indological circles, there has been a silence because it is not really a book which is inviting a dialogue about method, because I have shown the method to work from racist principles.

AC: I want to sort of talk a little bit about some larger morals that can be drawn from the book, and I know that you have thought about its relationship to post-colonial studies, so we could start there. I feel like when I think about what you’ve done, and what you and Joydeep have done together, we can think of a moral about the nature of interpretation—where that has an ethical dimension, making sense of people distant from us in time and place. And at the same time, the book itself is an exercise of social criticism. It’s a critique and—in a sense, writ largely—that moral about the nature of interpretation is, at the same time, a moral about what powerful critique is like.

VA: It would be wrong to see the book as just post-colonial critique, because that’s not what we are doing. It is essentially a philosophical book, asking us as moderns—especially in a global modernity—how to think, and more importantly how to treat each other, and how to respect what other people respect, and not perform autopsies on the ethical spinal cord of living cultures.

The positive message of my book is: read texts, read them carefully, but read them respectfully, because if you read the texts respectfully, they will talk to you. They will talk to you. I was able to read Homer and get something out of Homer. Surely you can read the Bhagavad Gita and get something out of it. It is not as—as hermetically sealed compartments as we think. So this exacerbation of cultural difference has become a problem, especially for me, because I am not Indian. I go to India, people look at me like, what happened to you? And I’m here, and—people always ask me,  “Where are you from?” And I always say, “New Jersey.” And the expectation that I cannot possibly be an American from America and so on. And I go home and my family always asks me—“You’re getting older. Do you want to get married and settle down?” So in many ways, all the categories have sort of deconstructed themselves for me, and I’m grateful for that.

AC: I’m interested in how you started working with Joydeep. I think I knew you both independently, so I know that his career here at The New School comes a bit after yours. And I also know that when he talks about you he talks about you in the most glowing terms possible. As a great teacher and as a role model. So how did you guys start working together, and how would you describe the collaboration?

VA: Joydeep called me from Freiburg. He got disillusioned with the Heidegger circle of people, which he felt to be extremely cultish, and they were just arguing about the preposition and so on, and Heidegger. And he said, “This is not Heidegger.” So he moved to Berlin, and he contacted me, and I flew to Berlin to meet with him. His dissertation, which he was in the middle of writing, was most strange and exhilarating, and I just thought: this is not an ordinary mind. So since then, we have been working, we talk every day, several times on the phone, and the whole book is a dialogue between us, and I’m very grateful for that.

But before I get too sentimental, why don’t we take up Hegel? Because in the background of this book there is Hegel, the arch-thinker of modernity, the creator of historicist master narrative, where everything is sublated or so we were told. But some things are excluded like Indian thought and Chinese thought, as preliminary forms of consciousness […] So Hegel actually interrupts writing one of his big prefaces because something was published by Humboldt. It is on the—on the Bhagavad Gita, and he says, “This is a truly universal poem, this is great—it talks about the work ethic and so on, which reminds me of Protestants. This is one of the felicities of my life that I came upon this.” And Hegel sees two problems. One is, if Indian thought is allowed to continue in dialogue with Western thought, it cannot provide—it cannot let his system get off the ground. Because it is on the heads of the Indians that Hegel leaps forward into the Greeks, and then ultimately into the Prussian state. So the Indians have to be kept there. So he writes a lengthy criticism, and he tells people that Indian thought has nothing to offer, there is nothing—and he closes the door on the kind of Humboldtian dialogue that was going on, and Humboldt actually thought Hegel was a crass, and uncultured person. So after that, the philologists took up Indian thought and began dissecting it, because they were given directions by Hegel, and Hegel explicitly told them to look for variations, look for hidden histories, look for textual discontinuities, and sort of this throughout the texts.

AC: we were just talking about Hegel, and I wanted to ask you about—the role that Foucault plays in the thinking of the book. I take it that when you talk about genealogical method, you have not just Nietzsche but also Foucault in mind.

VA: There are several versions of this, there is—Foucault’s connection of knowledge and power. German Indologists said that India was a spiritual colony, unlike the barbaric British, the Germans were more attuned to matters in the Geist. So they always saw it as a territory to occupy, besides the racist narrative. And when I started reading Foucault, especially with Reiner Schurmann, it became clear to me that disciplines are disciplinary. That they somehow constitute their objective study, and the real person who belongs within that framework now becomes trapped in it.

So I reacted to that, and Foucault was greatly emancipatory [for] Islamic studies and Jewish studies, to ask this question of who benefits: who is the subject, the powerful subject, of whom this area becomes an object of study? What do they profit from it? And it seems to me that individual scholars no longer are—and here again Foucault—individual scholars are probably even unaware of it, they probably do their work with good intentions, but you only have to occupy the space in the watchtower of the panopticon for you to perpetrate that regulatory structure. And I am hoping that scholars will realize that they should just get off that tower.

AC: One related philosophical question because you just described Foucault. And I think it comes out really clearly that this is what the book not only tries to do, but does—as providing some of the resources or some of the methods that you and Joydeep use to dismantle—critically dismantle a discipline. Foucault is also brought to bear in a lot of other people’s work, and yours as well, positively in describing the kind of self-awareness, and kind of method one needs to positively approach a text. This is—I hear the references to some of his writings on these topics and the things you just said—one of the interesting things about your project, at least I hope I understand it correctly, is that you are not recommending a skeptical moral about our relationship to texts.

VA: Correct. The question I bring Foucault to bear on is, it’s not so simple that we are modern and the ancients are in the past. They are probably not, they decidedly are not. When I embraced, or became conscious of modernity, for me modernity itself had ceased to make sense. So turning to the ancients became one way of going forward, and Foucault helps with me with that. And to remove the debris of this discipline from the re-appropriation of the ancients was a crucial task for me.

AC: I’ve heard you say that your book can be read as an argument for Indian philosophy. Could you clarify that?

VA: It is an argument for a new way of reading texts innocently, and without being hemmed in by concerns of accuracy and scientific precision. There is a classicist called William Arrowsmith, and he wrote—he is highly influenced by Nietzsche’s work Wir Philologen—something called “The Shame of Graduate Schools,” in which he points out that this idea of specialization is losing the big picture. So I hope that Nay-Science iscathartic, that we need it to be able to make ourselves worthy of reading the ancients again.

The aim of philology and the aim of philosophy ought to be humility, and I know that there are—the book is full of fireworks, but those fireworks are secondary and expressions of a frustration against a wall, a brick wall, of ignorance that was built up between beautiful texts and beautiful minds. But humility is important, no philologist can stand up and say, “I am smarter than the ancients,” it’s just—they have proved themselves silly.

AC: Is there anything further you want to say about the wider consequences of this project, including political ones?

VA: Politically it is important because we did see there were thinkers in America who interpreted the Middle East for us, such as the neo-conservatives, and they felt that they knew cultures better than they knew themselves. And this has had disastrous consequences, political consequences, for America. The Indologists seem to carry on without blinking with their interventionist petitions and so on, and they don’t seem to have learned anything from the debacles of trying to figure out cultures from the watchtower of the Panopticon. And so, politically, it is very important for Indologists to learn the limits of their discipline, their power, and what they were meant to do. They were meant to learn grammars, and they were meant to clarify texts, and create access to texts on behalf of students. And when they step out of that role, they—they just make—they just create political mischief.

AC: I know you just finished another book Philology and Criticism. Is that a continuation of this project? You said it was at the beginning of the interview, and what aspects of The Nay Science are you continuing to work on?

VA: In a way, it’s an homage to philology as lower criticism, it is an homage to studying manuscripts carefully, and scrutinizing them, and also to get rid of ideology about texts. Philologists think that they have a role to play in turning society. That train has passed. Their last chance was to embrace Nietzsche, and when they did not, nobody turns to the philologists. Culture does not turn to the philologist to take its cues, much less should politics. And in this book, I argue further that it remains to study the manuscripts carefully. There is still a need for going over and preserving texts, physically and intellectually.

AC: So imagining either your younger self or students who are here at The New School right now, does your experience in your life as an intellectual post-PhD, make you wish that—or think that—you could have told your younger self something?

VA: Do they stay up at night worried about philosophy? Even if there is no prospect of a job, will they still do it? That will be an important question. Of course, the job prospect is a necessary thing and an important thing but not the only thing. The other thing I would say is, that big dream that they see, when you are a graduate student, that glorious dawning of truth: it has a price. You have to read everything, struggle your whole life to claim that life, and if they are capable—if they are competent—competent is not the right word—if they are capable of hanging on, and doing the work, there is nothing better to do in life than philosophy.

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