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Enlightenment and the post-colonial response

A scholarly exchange with a bright young academic

Enlightenment and the post-colonial  response

Every time Mahboob Ahmad, a young Fulbright scholar from the University of Oregon, USA, pays his visit to Pakistan, several sessions of serious academic discussion are sure to take place. A voracious reader of literature and critical theory with profound analytical acumen, Mahboob Ahmad is destined to be an accomplished academic. These days he is poised to take an anti-Saidian (Edward Said’s) position in his analysis of post-colonial history and literature.

In our recent debate, Ahmad underscored with a certain measure of equivocation, the connection between the Enlightenment, industrial revolution and colonialism. Modernity, he said, was the culmination of the epistemic and cultural ethos, embedded in the Enlightenment which transpired in Europe because myriad socio-cultural and epistemic strands converged there. Thus, the phenomenon was not essentially European.

When I raised the point about the cultural context in which the Enlightenment manifested itself, he was of the view that during the medieval and even up until the early modern period, culture was fluid and not as strictly space-bound as we find it these days. Under the empire system, there had been enough cultural flexibility where mingling of different lingual and cultural groups could come about. That argument had its merits, but it wasn’t convincing enough. Ahmad did not persist with culture.

Then ensued a subtle as well as interesting point concerning the post-colonial critique of the Enlightenment and the values stemming out of it. Knowing my anti-colonial inclination, he was vociferous in highlighting the downside of that line of thinking. With all caveats that I entertained, Ahmad nevertheless appeared spot on when he mentioned the modern form of democracy, human rights, gender equality and the right to life, values necessarily linked with the Enlightenment and the ambivalence of post-colonialists. He also cited what Prof. Tariq Rahman had said a couple of days ago, that the writers who espoused anti-colonial movements like E. M. Foster and Joseph Conrad were very much the products of modernity, which became possible only because of the Enlightenment.

The crux of the argument was that both colonial and post-colonial streams of scholarship have the same origin — the Enlightenment. After conceding whatever he was saying, which sounded more like a set of declarations, I called to his attention the connection between the Enlightenment, modernity and colonialism. The niggling question pertained to the possible realisation of the objectives and goals that modernity and the Enlightenment had set to achieve without colonialism and the socio-economic exploitation associated with it. Even industrial revolution probably could not have borne fruit in England and beyond, the way it did, had there been no colonies. The labour for London’s underground network too was extracted from the colonies. Industrial projects yielded fruit just because the raw material for industry and drain of resources of all kinds from colonies made it possible.

All said and done, colonialism with all its exploitative mechanism holds a central importance in making the ideals of Enlightenment a success. That obviously is an old, somewhat hackneyed, but truly puzzling question, which in many ways validates the anti-Enlightenment assertions of post-colonial theorists.

He countered my question with another question which turned the whole debate on its head. He believed the scholars must move on and they must not stick to the debate, rehearsed time and again in the last few decades: Where did the anti-imperialist or anti-colonial movements draw the impetus from? That impetus of course came from the Enlightenment. He was right on the money.

The interesting thing about the Enlightenment as well as modernity is the dichotomy that it carries within; thesis and anti-thesis both. Here dialectics or contradiction is not a bane but a boon, in which lies the sustenance of the values of Enlightenment. Thus, not only the contradiction is essential for the continuity of the intellectual as well as material being of the humanity at large but equally important is the fact that anti-colonial theory, thought and practice sprouted from the discourses of Enlightenment and modernity. From Gandhi and Jinnah to Mandela, from Trotsky to Che Guevara and from Franz Fanon to Edward Said, all employed modernist tools in their respective bids to set the colonised free from imperialist shackles.

Ahmad made another point which seemed interesting to me: “If we consider tradition and modernity as polar opposites, then the intelligentsia of the colonised (or the post-colonial world) had the opportunity to galvanise the onward march of history in the direction whereby a new social synthesis could have been possible. That was a unique opportunity for the post-colonial world to develop its own epistemology, qualitatively different from the Western system of knowledge, which has been professed as Universal.” He was categorical in critiquing the academia of the post-colonial world. In all the success stories in the East, from China, Malaysia to India and Turkey, the tyranny of the collective has been ensured at the expense of the individual. Similarly, the discourse of development which has gained currency in Asia is squarely shorn of individual liberty or human rights. If any free humans exists in these countries, they are the rulers. In these countries the ‘citizen’ and ‘subject’ seemed to have conjoined.

Ahmad’s assertion smacked of Hegelian formulation. Asian polities have digressed from values of the Enlightenment and the individual has paid the cost, by losing his/her freedom. I took this statement with a pinch of salt. To me, it seemed far too simplistic. I think the economic development and its equitable distribution are inalienably linked with the Enlightenment and modernity which do not prevent to pursue the economic wellbeing in general.

Our differences notwithstanding, Ahmad is one of those young scholars who make you think that all is not lost in Pakistan. Bright and brainy, he picks the subtlest of arguments promptly. I wish him well in his future endeavours.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

One comment

  • A good analysis, indeed

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