We protest knowing all too well that it is going to come to nothing. Today resistances and protests are conservative actions whether they are performed by what we still futilely call ‘the left’ or ‘the right’.
Shaj Mohan is a philosopher based in the subcontinent who has shown indifference to the schools of philosophy and the category of “east-west”. He is the co-author with Divya Dwivedi of Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics (Bloomsbury Academic, UK, 2018; foreword by Jean-Luc Nancy). According to Nancy, this work gives a new orientation for philosophy which is “neither hypophysics nor metaphysics”. His interviews and political writings have appeared in Le Monde, Indian Express, France Culture, Libération, La Croix, and Mediapart. Mohan’s philosophical writings draw on scientific, mathematical, technological, as well as metaphysical resources to create new concepts that are necessary to respond to our crisis-ridden present. Mohan recently intervened in the “Coronavirus and Philosophers” debate with Agamben, Nancy, and Esposito in order to mark out the contours of a politics without any nostalgic shadows.
Below is the ILNA's interview with this mysterious philosopher on concepts such as "resistance", "biology", and "commons". Mohan argues that today what we need is collective shared political inventions—“the invention of new worldwide institutions, protocols, and research programs".
ILNA: You wrote that “The romance of resistance lies in the social illusion it provides with the noise of action, which is never political action, nor transformative participation.” You rejected “resistance” as a useful category in your co-authored book Gandhi and Philosophy. Today, it is believed that politics comes to being only if there is a "resistance” to external power. But does this mean that "resistance" is no more a radical gesture?
Resistance is very useful in all systems and we should know the function of resistance in each instance. Let me give a musical example, for you to “bend a note” on a stringed instrument there should be a certain ratio between the resistance of the string and the strength of your fingers. In metaphysics resistance is as interesting as existence is. Existence shows us the protrusion of each thing from out of the law which comprehends it as a member of a species; and, resistance shows us the tensile aspect of the relations between things as they stand against each other. We can think of Kantian critique as the system of resistances. Kant wanted to find a new zone of political action between resistance and revolution. Through critique, he discovered that for a political system to endure, it has to explicitly conceive protocols for handling resistance so that it could avoid revolutions, by which he understood a mere exchange of ‘power’. He would call the essence of these protocols which holds politics between resistance and revolution as “enlightenment”.
All this shows that resistance is not any special kind of action, but it is something that is necessary in all systems, including political systems, for their regular functioning. In the 20th century, especially through the misunderstandings generated around M. K. Gandhi, resistance was seen as the good. This led to a funny proliferation of resistance and as a result, we began to see protest as prayer or as surprise party; that is, we protest knowing all too well that it is going to come to nothing. Today resistances and protests are conservative actions whether they are performed by what we still futilely call ‘the left’ or ‘the right’.
ILNA: Nowadays, we are witnessing a rise of radical Right in the world which represents itself as “resistance” to the ruling power. How are we to interpret the notion of “resistance” in the end times we are living in?
This proliferation of resistance, which owes to several other factors, has made redundant the coordinates, “the left and the right”. We aligned along these lines of bilateral symmetry of politics and this division was given the function of regulating the speed of politics—the conserving side of politics slows down the progressive side of politics.
Today we are still unaware that all the institutions—the parliament, university, the courts, the police—on the basis of which we formulated all our political concepts and theories do not have their principle of reason. Let me explain a little. In most instances what is encoded into a concept is the regularity of a phenomenon and its ranges. The concept of “fever” has encoded in it the ranges of temperature possible for the regular phenomenon of an immune response. Fever raises the homoeothermic regular temperature above 37 degrees Celsius. But it is never 100 degrees Celsius. The regularity of political and social phenomena are determined by the parameters which are held in our familiar institutions; according to those parameters we come to know if what we have is a ‘fever’ in politics. At the level of politics, there is no more ‘fever’, we are getting fried!
Continuing in the mode of resistance is enabling the installation of a new techno-corporate world order without democratic consultation. Today resistance is a mere distraction, and instead, in its place, we need political invention—the invention of new worldwide institutions, protocols, and research programs.
ILNA: Jean-Luc Nancy wrote in the “coronavirus and philosophers”ii debate “Neither “biology” nor “politics” are precisely determined terms in today's world”. One can still argue that the COVID-19 pandemic is being used by capital to enforce, through the instrument of the state, unheard-of levels of market discipline to secure profits at the expense of working people’s lives. Can we once again risk merging the two as Foucault did?
Nancy’s remark demands that we show a reticence in using these terms “biology” and “politics” casually. Before Foucault, in a different way, Gandhi was one of the first to begin the style of thinking which conjoins biology, morality, and politics. Gandhi used Darwin and said that populations without (what he understood as) morality will perish. Then, he created something like a moral biology to counter such bio-immoralities!
It will be impossible to repeat Foucault today, for several reasons. First, we are not certain what Foucault had understood by either “life” or “biology”, as compared to Gandhi who had a theological understanding of life as that which demands invariance from its bearer. Another way of saying it is that there is a suppressed a priori that articulates “bio” and “power” in Foucault’s texts. Second, today the techno-corporate project has already captured both these terms—biology and politics—and what remains outside it is the question “what is life?”, which has been left over for philosophers, perhaps.
However, these crises of the meaning of life, biology, and politics did not come about suddenly in Foucault’s time. The experience of the absence of any ground for metaphysics which explained these terms—life, politics, man—was made explicit in the works of several philosophers, especially Wittgenstein and Heidegger. The problematics, the style of thinking, and the questioning of the conventions of thought by philosophy, in turn, affected the philosophies of biology, medicine, and politics. Of course, not everything was affected in the same way and not everything was effected solely by philosophy.
ILNA: How do you evaluate the terms "politics" and "biology" in the current situation of the world?
Values appear in individual systems as those parameters which are necessary to give it regularity; in Nietzsche’s terms, it is the set of conditions which determine the strength of the system. The disaster of evaluation arises from our tendency to abstract the values of one system and then use it to determine the regularity of another kind of system.
Further, evaluations are possible only if we retain a relation to the thought and experience which make values exchangeable, mutable, and finite—a relation to the freedom of evaluation. This is a rather obscure experienceiii because it cannot itself be evaluated, therefore it is the most invaluable thought, which still belongs to philosophy. For this moment politics is the fight for the conditions which give us the freedom to exchange values and to invent new values.
Today, the most common understanding of “life” which determines biology as the “science of life” has a general form, which is an interesting kind of tautology—Life is the invariance which conserves itself through variations of its conditions. Unlike the classical form of tautology—P is P—this form is able to explain phenomena. The Spinozist concept of “conatus” lies hidden in there—things tend to conserve in their own being. There is no such “conatus”! If we can speak of a tendency in things, it is to enjoy being-other-than-oneself and to be elsewhere. There is another way to think “life” starting from there, because practicing biologists do not accept the old concepts such as milieu, species, and aberrance, and so on. But that will take a lot of time!
ILNA: With agreements such as the Bologna Process, the link between the humanities and theoretical thinking is disappearing constantly. Under the current situation and with the increase of private education and the reduction of study opportunities for all, colonization of the logic of the market and capitalist values over the educational field is now crucial. How do you imagine the future of institutions such as the university?
Education belonged to the privileged men for the longest time, it was systematically denied to the majority of the world, especially women. It is only in the 20th century that we could have something that was pejoratively called “mass education” and come to think of education as a basic right. The appearance of this interval (interval, because we should not take it for granted) had many causes including modern sciences and technologies, colonialism, and the normativization of constitutional and parliamentary form in politics. The myth of this model is “Humboldtian University”. Something external to the formation of communities of knowledge insisted in that educational model: It was education as the conscripted procedure over the whole society through which nationalistic parameters and linguistic constants were introduced to create a new kind of national-organism which created uniform “ages of man” with specific nationalistic differences. Giorgio Agamben’s idyll of education—of the ethnically attuned elite “scholarii” bonding over the ‘words of the past’—brings together the worst of this model.
The Bologna process was preceded by other initiatives to restructure education, primarily to integrate it with the world economy and international job markets through an emphasis on the employability of the graduates. The last decade saw the integration of techno-corporations into the higher-ranking universities. Some of the reasons for this process have to do with the deeper changes in what we think of as knowledge, and that process comes to us from (at least) the middle of the last century when knowledge and information theory got mated. Today, in many fields it is important to have massive computational structures to conduct especially empirical research, including in mathematics which was anticipated by Imre Lakatos. For example, human beings cannot make sense of the data coming from array telescopes. But these changes are not yet necessary to establish a computational model of knowledge and education, because of various theoretical problems, including our limited understanding of the terms like “information”, the loose metaphysics built around a term like “entropy”, and above all our need to incessantly engage with the question “what is knowledge?” before accepting something as knowledge.
But we can see where we are going with education. Many educationists and academics have been writing about it. Elite universities have been offering expensive on-campus education and relatively cheaper online education in partnership with techno-corporations. Since certificates from elite universities would seem to matter more than the on-campus education in a lesser-known university we will see the monopolization of education, mainly by American universities. But alongside we will see another current of online education formed by individuals who are outside the university system, which already exists today. Some of these organizations are funded by techno-corporations, for example, “Khan Academy”, and out of them another layer of commercial education will emerge.
In the middle of all this there is the necessity of conceiving education and the pursuit of knowledge as a world-wide community that can imagine together a democracy of the world. We should urgently imagine, with precision, a community which would “learn to rejoice at the world’s progress, although it may not be to their own advantage or that of their country”iv as Kant said.
ILNA: With the tragic situation of whistleblowers like Julian Assange, the idea of radical and free journalism is at stake. Will there be a place for such institutions in the future?
Journalism as we understood in the last century cannot last for long, which relied on national models, advertisement revenues, and party politics. It is one of the most important institutions for there to be a world at all today. They are after all our wandering senses.
The self-reflection of journalism relies on an idyllic a prioriv derived from a certain history which never was true, anywhere. It repeats the tiresome phrase “speak truth to power” which means nothing, because ‘power’ knows more ‘truths’ than you can ever imagine. Instead, journalism performed an important function. Journalists negotiated with various ‘powers’—including the state, the industries, the militias, the mafia, the political parties—in order to determine the optimal concerns for a society; to find that point at which the diverse concerns of society met with the concerns which it can afford to attend to. Journalists were never the conduits of truths (whatever that can mean!), but the negotiators of the concerns of the “people” with respect to the arrangements of power. Realizing this ‘truth’ adequately will determine the futures of this profession because that old arrangement in which the optimal concerns were negotiated are not there anymore, which makes it a most vulnerable profession. Otherwise, we will have “cargo cult”vi journalism!
ILNA: Many Leftist theorists believe that the current COVID-19 pandemic might provide a unique chance for global coordination. In this sense, the ongoing health emergency could be chance to once again survey the idea of "commons" in all its dimensions - the commons of nature as the substance of our life, the problem of our biogenetic commons, the problem of our cultural commons, and the commons as that universal space of humanity from which no one should be excluded. How are we to re-think the idea of "commons" in this day and age, given the fact that we are witnessing the inability of nations to confront this situation accordingly? What is the relation between the commons and your conception “democracy of the world”?
The ancient Greeks used the word stasis to denote a certain evil in politics. When many groups compete within a city to have the sole power to legislate over everyone everything strains and all regularities breakdown. Today the components of the worldwide political arrangement—the armies, the capitalists, America and China, the technologists, the ethno-nationalists— are all competing against one another to become the one law that could comprehend the whole political arrangement. In other words, we do not have a comprehending law. But the component laws are seeking to be the comprehending law, or to be the new “hegemon”; it is analogous to interpreting a computer on the basis of the function of its random access memory. Therefore we are in stasis.
The “common” as you say is the question of this hour so that we can think of a democracy of the world on the basis of that common. But what do we have in common? We share the sense that we are the forsaken of anything transcendent, wherever we are. We are shared by the common angst of the question, for what must we carry onvii. This can be thought more intimately. But I know that we have to be quick!
We know that some things may or may not happen; for example, the falling of a meteor tonight in the garden. Some events, such as the Perseids meteor shower, have a regularity. We anticipate them and they do not disappoint us in early August. We know that “a world” of a certain “someone” will withdraw, even our own world; death is the withdrawal of the world of someone, other than us. In all this, we follow the drive of reason, which also leads us to something which reason reveals as that which is almost without reason: That is, we intimately embrace the persistence of the world as an absolute certainty that its disappearance with us in it is never a concern; this is the only absolute that we know. Behind this certitude, we play the games of rational expectations. I have called it the obscure experience because it is the most distinct; it gives a disorienting certitude.
Logically we can accommodate this experience if we learn to think together with Kant and Wittgenstein and then we can give this experience transient schema: The end of the world is not an event, because it is not an event in the world. This is the most shared and mundane of all experiences. Then, we have to think of a democracy of the world as that which shares the astonishment, humility, responsibility, mystery, and the disorientation given by the obscure experience. Thank you for this conversation Kamran!
Interview by: Kamran Baradaran
[i] Shaj Mohan, “Beyond Resistance”, https://worldcrunch.com/opinion-analysis/beyond-resistance-what-india-needs-now-is-a-revolution
[ii] See “Coronavirus and Philosophers”, https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers
[iii] “The Obscure Experience”, https://thephilosophicalsalon.com/our-mysterious-being
[iv] Immanuel Kant, On Education, translated by Annette Churton, New York: Dover Publications, 1899.
[v] See https://thephilosophicalsalon.com/our-mysterious-being and the translator’s note 9 in https://antinomie.it/index.php/2020/05/09/la-corona-della-stasis
[vi] See Richard P. Feynman’s text http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/51/2/CargoCult.htm
[vii] See “What Carries Us On” in https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers