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May 03, 2005

Does This Mean Anything?

In The Valve, Jonathan Goodwin writes:

The Valve - A Literary Organ | What's up with Social Text?: Ever wonder why Bombay was the bitch city [in Rushdie's Satanic Verses]? Feel as if your intuition that [the movie] Shri 420 was about smoking dope might be uninformed? Then Rashmi Varmi's 'Provincializing the Global City' is just what you need. An intriguing paragraph:

if the urgent political task is to make sense of how both the Hindu Right and transnational capital have achieved a necessarily incomplete hegemony over Mumbai's image and reality, it is equally urgent to construct alternatives. The somewhat hasty fabrication of an earlier universalism needs now to be refashioned in the context of an ever more careless celebration of the global marketplace. Our work, both political and intellectual (and across that potent divide), too, must answer to the new political configurations of our times that do not allow either for the easy recuperation and celebration of the older socialist and nationalist utopias or for an outright rejection of the possibilities of decolonization and global solidarity...

Ummm... Does this mean anything?

I think I understand what "transnational capital [has] achieved a necessarily incomplete hegemony over Mumbai's image and reality" means: it means that a lot of large businesses inside and outside India are trying--and in many cases succeeding--in finding some way to hire the people of Mumbai and sell the products they make on the world market and so make profits, and that this process is playing a powerful role in shaping both how the people of Mumbai live and how people inside and outside Mumbai think of the city, but that this is not the whole story. I think I understand what "the Hindu right [has]... achieved a necessarily incomplete hegemony over Mumbai's image and reality" means: it means that a certain political movement is playing the reactionary nationalism card, linking it to religion--we are Hindus and Indians and India is a Hindu civilization--and so trying to attain political power through shaping public memory into a revulsion of a hated "other" in their midst, and that in this case the hated other is not the African-Americans (as it was in the American Jim Crow South) and not the Jews (as in right-wing movements all across nineteenth and twentieth century Europe) but India's Muslims.

I don't understand what the "If the urgent political task is to make sense of [these two phenomena]..." means. I think we understand them pretty well. I don't know in what way the world market and National Hinduism need to be "made sense of." And I don't understand what "it is equally urgent to construct alternatives" means. Alternative economic systems to open engagement with the global market economy? Is this a call for the return to the License Raj of the Nehru Dynasty? (Varmi's text certainly suggests that as the alternative.) Alternative political movements to National Hinduism? Alternative ways of thinking about India today? But what is the purpose of this critique of critical criticism?1

1Shri 420 is supposed to be a very good movie. The Satanic Verses is a good read. The first is, in large part, a reinvocation of the very old theme of the corruption of an honest and naive young man by the city where everything is for sale, people are treated by others as means and tools, and what is sought is not love or happiness but wealth--with the interesting twist that what is exalted is not the honest conservative squires of the country (as in Tom Jones and Oliver Twist) but Jawaharlal Nehru's hopes for socialist utopia. The second is, in large part, a cry of anguish against the authoritarian use of religion to control and condemn. One purpose of Shri 420 was to support the Nehru Dynasty. One purpose of The Satanic Verses was to mobilize opposition to religious intolerance (in a manner somewhat analogous to Voltaire). I cannot discern what the purpose of Varmi's juxtaposing and writing about the two of them is.

Posted by DeLong at May 3, 2005 09:55 PM