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We are language animals

Her language is important so long as its pronunciation and grammatical nuisances are concerned
12:00 AM May 30, 2024 IST | Prof Ashok Kaul
we are language animals

The recent row over seminar in JNU between Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and one Mr Kumar, a student of sociology, reaffirms that ‘humans are language animals’ not social animals, as perceived. It was an invited lecture on ‘W.E.B. Dubois and Democracy’.


Look at the whole seminar, possibly it gives us the feeling that the presentation, its context, text and display were of seeking, at least, a fractured solidarity, in the times that eludes the notion of social solidarity.


Gayatri Spivak speaks conceptually and is conscious of her linguistic nuisance that predictability got missed in the signified ambiance. It created ‘epistemological violence’, a term she has given to us.


This is the rise of individual radicalization, without any direction. It is indeed  a stepping out for a new order, where artificial intelligence digitalization and compression of time and space remain the gamut of an individual, not the old bond of social institutions, where the speaker and the audience remain structured, at least notionally.


Gayatri Spivak is a literary critic, who is rooted in her past to measure it in terms of modernity, an evolved scholar. Her language is important so long as its pronunciation and grammatical nuisances are concerned, for she still feels perhaps that ‘Indians have tradition to handover their dignity to someone else for their existence’.


She, like a teacher, in her old age, took her credentials known, speaking on someone who has articulated the narrative of Black sociology.  On the other hand,  the questioner for all practical purposes, a radical individual, yet rooted in that past, which provides him not a plank of resistance, but  trespassing of social, easily with assurance.


His reaction on his wall, one would not be surprised with it. Both are right in their misunderstanding of each other. Otherwise, if, the seminar would have been a few decades ago, both would have agreed W.E.B. Dubois has given the canon of Black sociology, which frames the plank for Dalit sociology  in India, as  many would  argue.


Dubois’s well-known books, especially ‘The souls of Black Folk' and then ‘Black Reconstructions in America’ remain master pieces in narrative understanding of people out from power realm.  Dr. Tulsiram (Murdahiya, Murdhiya) is an autographical narrative of being Dalit, a significant work overarching with  Dubois’s works.

If language is structured conscious, it is linked with the culture of evolution. Anthropology tells us that number of universals exist to make up our human nature, precisely, language, speech, family systems, symbolic communications, myth and notions. The question of language is ‘somehow strategic for the question of human nature’.

Levi-Strauss, like Chomsky explores the relationship of nature and culture through the language and structure. In this way, it is an engagement in deciphering and formalizing of an underlying logic in human beings. The consciousness factors intertwined with fractured social order producing individual responses have lost predictability. Decentring language is complex, not so instant and comprehensible.

AI is supposed to work on it, till then controversies shall remain, even if purpose and context remain the same. It is what we know as the absurdity of argument of current times. The presence of subaltern continues to form new shapes. Its location needs new lenses. The slightest camouflage in text or context would create a situation beyond imagination. It is what has happened in the high value seminar.

Caste is more of solidarity to seek power and resources. One wonders, why did student need to fake his identity? The language impressions on the speaker, on the other hand, failed to find connection between conscious behavior and unconscious structure.

Therefore, the misunderstanding, in disseminating the human subject turns into a scene of anti humanist stance. The pronunciation of the name became important. It was important for the student as well, but he took him out from his frame, the notion of subaltern that he felt he had not remained.

Tacitly, conceitedly, or openly, it is a process of creating ‘the other’ or reminding the essentialism of historical other on all occasions, a renewed attempt of new stratification. We witness its dynamics during contesting occasions when power and resources get distributed. Caste discussions cut across class distinctions, when it comes to personal interests.

Caste rivalries and out caste solidarities for finding the other have been not a simple dynamic. Caste, as a ritual or an imagined holistic stratified notion has undergone complete change. To equate it with subaltern is problematic question. Subaltern is the ‘large portion of people who are out from power realm’. Subaltern cannot speak. Those who speak, as the agents for subaltern, an agency for dissent and correction, do fall in the language game conundrum.

We do not live in traditional order. The present order is shaped by fragility, market and access to share and resources. Subaltern needs to be explored with inter-sectional ties  in the emerging process of exclusion. A vast section of humanity is falling in the realm of subaltern on daily basis. However, class remains paramount in these sub identities.

Within the caste, the class dynamics works.  What it is to be, that a student or a teacher in the present times has to learn? The  more it is clear, lucid and direct, better reflective vibes on the addressee  it could generate. Second, ‘where there of you do not know, there of you should not speak’, a  Wittgenstein adage.

JNU has a history and reputation for being space generating ideas, dissent; an institution that continuously experiments. It should continue its role, but both the students and the teachers have to be honest with themselves, accountable to their humanistic self.

For, a university stands for the best of ideas and for the exchange of ideas to generate the potential for a common humankind project.  Institutional merit may not be objectified, however, it still holds the ground. We need to respect and preserve these sacred spaces.

 Prof Ashok Kaul, Retired Emeritus Professor of sociology at Banaras Hindu University