Thursday, May 13, 2010

Dependent Thinking versus Amlan Datta

Dependent Thinking versus Amlan Datta

Probal Dasgupta

[NOTE: Readers who find that this piece needs to be supplemented by background information may please suggest concretely just what type of information should be added. This is a draft for circulation.]

Some of us try to trace Amlan Datta (1924-2010) back to M.N. Roy, or to Gandhi, or some other thinker, to read his work as a line of thought derived from that source, and to seek to identify just what Datta has done with that inheritance of his. We all know, of course, that relating a major thinker to his or her sources is a difficult enterprise -- but that is not the main problem in this case. The main problem is that such an approach to Amlan Datta's thinking rests on a fundamental misreading.

Had Datta's style of cognitive functioning resembled other thinkers of his time more closely than it did, there would have been less of a risk of such fundamental misreading. To invoke the traditional Indian trio of cognitive processes -- listening, thinking, internalizing -- the point is that Datta preferred to maximize prior thinking as basis for listening/ reading, and for establishing a clear and truthful relation between his own thinking and that of others, a truthfulness that for him was the arena where non-violence would be articulated in the form of an unending practice. Datta once said to his boyhood friend Arun, `Suppose you hear that Plato has written about some issue. Your first job is to think about that issue as much as you can on your own, collect your thoughts -- and then look at Plato's text. If you read something Plato has written and figure it out, sure, that's one kind of understanding, but it's not worth as much. If you think yourself into the position that he's at, then you will really get his point.'

Could it be that Datta did not know that it is not possible for any reader to pre-think all thoughts of every author? The infinitely exorbitant demand that you should achieve cent percent prior independence of thought, and that this was an all-or-nothing precondition for any reading to be worthwhile, was not Datta's point. He was outlining an ideal. It made sense to strive in that direction -- this was all he was trying to say. His main question was, have you set yourself up as a self-reliant thinker on your own little patch of intellectual territory, and do you have your feet firmly on that ground when you listen and respond to what others have to say? You are not growing too dependent, are you, on what others are trying to feed you? Watching the conventional young Bengali intellectuals growing into conventional intelligent adulthood all around him, he had noticed, earlier than others, the pitfalls of their habit of reading a printed page and going "I get it, I get it". He could tell that they saw this as the whole point of reading -- and he found it necessary to try to change that goal.

Many people around him were getting carried away and cheering for causes without serious reflection on what this cheering would mean; Datta decided, quite early, that he would have to remain critical, and unswayed by thoughtless enthusiasms, despite all the peer pressure. He was willing to accept ideas from others only on condition that no source of ideas would expect to enthral him. He noticed that some peers felt attracted by certain widespread forms of wishful thinking and were quite happy to exchange one thraldom for another; his response was simply to redouble his own caution on that front. He saw, of course, that he could not possibly stop the vast majority of his peers from being swept off their feet. But it did not take him long to notice that exemplifying the unity of thought and action, and arguing lucidly in favour of his own ideas, was the only way to keep trying to change the opinions of others; there was no legitimate alternative to this way.

To cut to the chase, Datta's thought and action exemplified the project of working towards a cooperative social order. This vision stands in contrast to both the capitalist and the socialist variant of welfare economics. The welfarist enterprise takes it that it is up to the state to carry out welfare-focused analysis and planning. Do the specialized advisors to that state conduct a separate conversation with civil society? How much power does such a state have? To what degree does civil society take part in constituting and reconstituting the state? The various answers to these questions do indeed distinguish several models of capitalist and socialist development from each other; granted. But any variant of welfarism is bound to accord a certain centrality to the state. It is from that centre that the state is supposed to look at the public, to tell welfare from illfare, and to take on the responsibility of doing something about concrete instances of illfare; or so every known articulation of welfare economics has assumed. Datta sought to build an alternative to this entire project. He believed in the cooperative vision. Someone who tries to make sense of him in the idiom of capitalism versus socialism is asking for frustration.

Could it then be that this worker in the domain of social accounting got swept away by a non-accountable tide of imagining that one could believe in Gandhi's theory of trusteeship and allow social development to depend on the kindness of compassionate rich people? Or could he have been spinning some novel economic web around M.N. Roy's political formulations? If we play up questions of this type, we get sucked into the quest for sources. Of course there were sources; nobody starts from scratch. The question is just where the specific ideas Datta had taken from several sources -- regardless of what these sources were -- were situated in his vision.

In text after text Datta writes that individuals attain initial self-awareness in a state of dependence on two spheres -- the narrow sphere of the family and the wider sphere of the country; on another axis, an individual is pulled towards affection and towards self-interest. Taking as a starting point the affection that an individual feels above all in the narrow sphere of a child's life-world, Datta's fundamental question is: as the individual grows up, as s/he modifies his or her methods of evaluation in the face of colliding customs and ideas all over the wider sphere, s/he does wish to reconnect with that primary affection in full maturity, doesn't s/he? How is a person to retrieve that affection in the public space of society as the foundation for the social interdependence of human beings without abandoning fundamental loyalty to any form of truth? We are born into dependence on spheres of various shapes and sizes; we have to attain independence by our own efforts; this point is crucial even in Datta's economics, for reasons to which we return.

In order to pursue his inquiry along these lines, Datta found it appropriate to contextualize the issues at a site where this type of inquiry was likely to prove fruitful. For this purpose he chose the interface where literature meets conceptual and social analysis. We are therefore not surprised when we find that a student of his, reminiscing in a newspaper, recalls that Datta had once said to him, "So you've read Dickens, have you? Good. Next month I shall teach Marx; since you know some Dickens, you will have no trouble grasping the point of Marx's enterprise." Datta did not accept an economics that would focus exclusively on material resources; his economics dealt with resource-endowed persons, who recognize themselves as human beings; and Datta was aware that the unique site of such self-recognition was literature.

Are we then to identify a literature-oriented model of social science research? Does such a concept serve to unify the entire body of Datta's thinking? Will future inquiry conclude that Datta found the key to the self-conscious subject of economics in literature?

That this was not Datta's point must be clear from the way he worded his Dickens and Marx comment. Literature too is a contested field. Why should anyone imagine that we can harvest a unique visualization of the human prototype there? Surely literature is a major site of articulate disagreement. Datta was a major exponent of the art of disagreeing articulately. One of the major facts about Datta was that he used to practise a form of non-violent resistance that was wedded to the art of literarily careful and articulate public discussion. Another major fact about him was that he rejected conventional economics, based on the belief that the state alone can determine and address welfare needs. This received wisdom fans out into capitalist and socialist variants that seem to many observers to exhaust the field of choice. But Datta maintained that the main task of our times was to fashion cooperative economic and political alternatives to this state-focused mode of thought and action. Reliance on handouts strikes Datta as a variant of dependence; this is where his economic thinking interfaces with that non-violent political practice that his fellow thinkers take as their point of departure.

In today's West Bengal, after Singur and Nandigram, many voices have been suggesting that indiscriminately dragging capital into West Bengal will not be in our best interest. Several commentators have begun to mention labour-intensive development, small industries, participatory rural democracy, and even cooperative management. At a time such as this, Datta's work is likely to get a hearing even from those of us committed to the welfarist project. It is thus fair to assume that Datta's economic, political and moral work (focused on cooperative self-uplift along the lines of Sarvodaya) will elicit specialist commentary and a quest for new implementations. The point is to prevent such initiatives from getting stuck in the privacy of specialists. The specific urgencies of our time merit careful public attention. Agenda items raised by each major participant need to figure in broader conversations in civil society. It is with this urgency in mind that I am trying here to present Datta's main line of inquiry and to link it to some contemporary threads that count as natural sequels to his work. Those of us who wish to follow up will do so, advancing the discussion.

The tripartite periodization of social history at the heart of Datta's thinking (see esp his book The Third Movement, Calcutta: Ananda, 1983) can be identified as the agriculture-focused village community, the industry-oriented city, and the yet to be established citizens' community based on cooperative principles. We get our portraits of human life from literary galleries; Datta drew our attention to the characterization of the rural and the urban in literature. The abstract impersonal forces of business in today's cityscape seemed to him to be in contradiction with the concrete neighbourly solidarities of yesterday's countryside. He believed that questions that civilization has raised will be answered by civilization itself. What do the answers look like, though?

Datta maintained that, if our way of facing the ecological crisis takes Schumacher's `small is beautiful' path seriously, then our hearts and minds, our social practices will overcome the city-countryside binary and step into a caring, understanding future. Such a future will base its economic management on cooperative principles and its investment allocation policies on an ecologically sensitive balance between the needs of agriculture and of industry. The development of interpersonal relations among inhabitants of such a community, he believed, would strike a balance between the friendly neighbourliness of yesterday's rural communities and the atmosphere of necessary mechanical amenities and resources that today's city should make available. (Notice the key word `necessary'; Datta never assented to the proposal that an economics that takes charge of the future could conceivably regard luxury goods as essential.) This was nothing other than the quest for a way to ensure that everybody's freedom is given equal importance. What yesterday's countryside saw as love and what today's city sees as rationality need to be reconciled; the issue of this reconciliation seemed to Datta to be the main question of our time. He was sure that we would overcome the tension between these two visions and move onto a higher plane of existence. He did not make the mistake of losing faith in humanity. A man who was able to follow cricket results with enthusiasm minutes before he died can hardly be described as having become bitter or cynical.

Datta's thinking regards as crucial the poles of the binary between `self-interest' and `love' -- ordinary words that Datta consistently employed for his purposes, running the risk of being misread but preferring to avoid bizarre and private inventions that would remove his work from the ambit of public discourse. In the absence of love, the basis of the non-violent quest for truth becomes shaky. Only love makes people strong enough to wish to cooperate and sustain convivial institutions. It is this love that empowers people to make sacrifices, to feel the urge to bring about a serious social transformation.

On a couple of points, Datta's texts are not entirely explicit. It is up to us, as readers, to plot the curve from the dots that are quite clear in his writing. I have already spoken of Datta's focus on literature. It is literature that guides us into our understanding of love. Books are important, but literature is not confined to books alone. Even in the case of so-called illiterate aboriginal peoples, it is their oral literature that serves as the repository of human self-knowledge -- the elders of the community are the bearers of a millennia-long line of textual transmission.

The self-interest that serves as the counterpoint to love in Datta's work -- a self-interest that gives rise to the binary of narrow self-interest and wider self-interest -- is also articulated in our encounter with literature. We are born into biological reality, which is indeed responsible for our instinctual drives, but learning how to want is something we do in the context of our initiation into language and literature.

What economists, in the interest of specialist formalization, characterize as choices performed by homo economicus is an abstract stylization that simplifies human desires to keep their description within the limits of set-theoretic treatment. However, the compulsions of this simplification for the sake of rigorous description end up forcing the formal economist down a path that sidesteps the question of taste. Such a formalization amounts to the claim that it is possible to calculate the modern city's `self-interest' in total abstraction from the old countryside's `love'.

If we take another look at this apparently rational calculus, we find that, once formal economists get themselves into this `choice'-based stylization, if they subsequently wish to retrieve the notion of taste as a factor capable of guiding particular acts of choice, they are forced to make a bizarre move. What kind of move? They are compelled to say: "Do you want to dress up as an elderly middle-class Bengali male, and will you accordingly choose to buy a dhoti and a kurta? Or do you prefer to have a convenient commute and will you thus choose a shirt and a pair of trousers instead? As I build an explicit account of this choice you face, I cannot confine myself to a picture of you as H, Homo economicus, choosing between S, Shirt and trousers, and D, Dhoti and kurta. In order to take your taste literally into account my description must state that H's choice D amounts to a mapping that associates this choice with D/non-D-choices made by other members of the reference set S consisting of elderly middle-class Bengali males. Another constituent of the fuller unpacking of your choice has to do with the other commodities you could have chosen but do not chose. To take into account what those items mean to you -- trousers, pajamas and so on -- we must add several mappings that associate those non-choices of yours with choices by corresponding reference sets with which you are not affiliating yourself. The set of these mappings shall count as your cultural preference coefficient. If this coefficient is removed, what remains is an uninterpreted, bald, H-chooses-D specification. But that H is hardly you. You realize, of course, that we have to do our economics with H rather than with the real, fully interpreted you, we do hope you don't mind."

Do such prestidigitations look like a viable account of culture? Hardly. That adding such complex coefficients to H in the name of a theory of interpreted choice is neither good economics nor a serious take on culture is surely obvious. And yet, if you accept the initial idealization formal economics rests on and then try to take more aspects of reality on board, the task of portraying taste or preference does push you into such contortions. Despite its superficial implausibility, you feel bound to say that these coefficient-endowed choosers count as the real subjects of economic activity, and that Homo economicus is a mere algebraic skeleton fleshed out by these coefficients. In other words, economics works with a particular type of simplification or abbreviation of culture, and the shadow that its accounting casts on culture makes culture itself look like a desimplification or complexification of economic accountancy that outcalculates calculation itself.

Confused? You should be. That culture amounts to extremely calculative, exceedingly opaque business transactions is obviously a bizarre thought to think. Surely culture requires less, not more calculation. A baby is born into culture. Culture meets her needs. She learns articulate greed only later. After taking her Greed 101 course in a couple of shops, the child begins to see that business involves hard calculations. If we are to come up with a serious account of how the hard and the easy fit into more general equations, where should we look? Datta shows us that we need to deal with that precalculative moment of reckoning at which the literary arena of culture works out the equation between the calculations of self-interest and the impulses of love. The abstract formal procedures of the laboratory of economics do not precede, but follow, that working out. It is only if we give due importance to the literary arena of cultural articulation that we can tell the easy from the difficult -- and stop getting tangled in our own formal knots.

It would be a mistake, however, to accuse accountants and economists of narrow materialism. When we go shopping, we are looking after our self-interest. We may spend time chatting with a friendly salesperson, but obviously these relationships are not about love; our accounts are never out of sight. The point is not to press economists for an answer about the types of formal accounting they go in for at the level of disciplinary abstractions. We should spend our energies figuring out what we are up to when we, in the market, pursue our self-interest: what admixtures move our behaviour or attitudes away from the pure model of homo economicus making bare, unadorned, coefficientless choices?

Choice is normally portrayed in terms of a relation between me and the commodity; the assumption is that I am a buyer, and that the commodities are arranged in front of me. But I am related to the seller, to my fellow buyers, to the people on whose behalf I am shopping. My behaviour that takes these factors into account can perhaps be usefully portrayed in terms of choice, at the level of the pages where I do my book-keeping. But my book of reckoning is not confined to those pages. Questions surrounding the accounts -- who is accountable to whom, for what, and on whose terms -- are also part of the reckoning of self-interest. Even when we seek to understand the market behaviour of our homo economicus, everybody acknowledges that we need to think in terms of the pursuit of self-interest. In addition to the choice of commodities, each buyer has to consider fellow buyers, the folks at home who will consume the stuff, sellers and so on in order to settle accounts with any seriousness.

It is time we paid some attention to the fact that choice is not a primitive in Datta's theory; in book after book, he has used self-interest as a key concept. Choice and self-interest are quite distinct. The concept of choice has to do with potatoes and beans; but the story of my pursuit of self-interest neither begins nor ends with potatoes and beans. I want my potatoes cheap -- over and above my choice, I would like to achieve control over the potato seller's choices; it would be great if I could get them for free. I want the best potatoes -- I will be pleased if the other buyers all turn out to be morons, if they pick up the rotten potatoes and leave the good ones for me. I would like to grab some good potatoes, pay for them, and get out of the shop quickly -- what a pity that everybody else has picked (= `chosen') this very day to do their shopping, did they really have to. The pursuit of my self-interest involves not just my own choices, but wishing for control over all choices by all others. The question `what is best for me' has a two-part answer -- choice (getting the commodities I want) and control (may others choose what I would like them to choose).

The way the chips fall is like this: self-interest = choice + control over the choices of others.

If we look at the matter from the angle of choice and control, and if we imagine that the market is where people's real priorities get defined, then the zone of human life called love looks like an exceptional zone. In the market, if I alone were free -- if everybody else were entirely subject to my wishes -- then that would be very convenient for me; and it is convenience that I want in the market. But if I love someone, what I want is for that person's freely arrived at choices to magically coincide with my innermost desires. If someone is completely dependent on me and I imagine that I love that person, I am obviously deluding myself; that is slavery, not love. Love is the zone where two or more free choosers desire to experience coincidence of choice; that desire is what we recognize as the desire for love.

To link love -- as Datta does -- to the restricted sphere of a child's earliest years has the consequence that identifying love as this type of exceptional zone in a choice-theoretic sense becomes a formally insufficient characterization. In Datta's work, the association with the child's earliest experiences is also crucial. The dimension that this consideration brings into play is that of cognition. A concentrated form of attention is one of the core elements of love. How can either the economic theory of choice or a scientific theory of cognition afford to leave this dimension completely disconnected from the theory of choice? Even game theory, a favourite tool in the formal economist's repertoire, has begun to take faltering steps towards a link with linguistic theory and can be reasonably expected to move towards the larger arena of cognitive science. When that connection is articulated, it will be time for formal economics to return to some basic questions. My purpose here is to adumbrate a few of these questions -- in the long run, economists need to keep in view the relation of mutual accountability between economics and cognitive science, and in this context Datta's work assumes great importance.

That love looks exceptional from the viewpoint of the pursuit of control over other people's choices is of course because of the expectation of reciprocity. If I am in love, I hope that there will be space for mutual perception between my wishes and my partner's wishes, regardless of how important or unimportant this may look to my partner. One precondition for this closely aligned dance is that at least one partner should be attentive to the other -- the alignment is possible even in the absence of complete reciprocity, hence the minimalist formulation `at least one partner', though of course reciprocity makes the alignment optimal. The choice-theoretic point is related to cognitive issues in ways that matter at the level of cognitive science as well -- where considerations of attention and memory are central. If you pay limited and casual attention to someone's moves, this may be a sufficient basis for managing a relation of hostility -- but not for love. Datta was committed to building a society where people would be attentive as a matter of principle; that the fundamental right to receive recognition is the basis for several other rights is a point made by Hobbes in his Leviathan, as many readers will recall. Datta noticed the importance of the right to be heard, the right to receive attention and recognition, earlier than and more acutely than many of his contemporaries. Those of us who wish to understand his work need to grasp this in order to see how such concepts as love, attention, non-violence and peace remain crucial to his enterprise throughout his trajectory.

Datta knew that control was not just a matter of one's power over other people's choices; it was crucial to look at autonomy, at control over oneself. But why should the theme of self-control be pertinent to economics? Because the formal theory of choice on which economics rests articulates a notion of choosing, but elides the issue of greed; one consequence of this omission is that economics has been unable to get its theoretical act together. Greedy humans do not covet things alone; as I have said earlier, the content of self-interest is choice plus control, and the lust for control that comes to the fore in many instances is so interwoven with choice that it becomes hard to find any pure choices in reality; likewise, we need to construe greed as a composite of acquisitiveness and the lust for power.

This is the point at which we need to tweak our apparatus. The mathematics of greed can be summarized in the formula `desire minus self-control equals greed'. It is possible to set aside the attitude of conventional religions towards greed; but even the modern outlook is not unfamiliar with the fact that greed captivates the imagination and leads to delusions, and that a deluded person often fails to pursue his or her best interest and makes hasty, irrational decisions. One would have therefore expected votaries of `rational choice' to have systematically and fundamentally thought about greed and ways to overcome it. Notice that they have not. Economists who advocate capitalism are willing to construe greed as freedom of choice and to praise it -- their line is that any type of restraint of desire amounts to an attack on human liberty. Those who hold the socialist banner aloft speak negatively of private greed and positively of the welfare state's planning -- a narrative that elides the fact that the culture of planning in such a state is bound to pass into the hands of players endowed with a lust for power, since the socialist conceptual repertory has no resources to address issues of lust of any sort. Datta invites us to notice that we have a lot to learn from authors of these schools of thought, and that we must give credit where it is due; but the fact is that greed clouds one's intelligence, and one needs to resist it on one's way to serious, self-controlled, informed freedom of action. The welfare state's capitalist or socialist fans do not help meet this need. If we wish to free our vision from greed and to give love the serious respect it deserves in our thinking, we have to turn to Gandhi.

Some readers are bound to say: "What makes you think that we have never heard of the idea that greed is bad?" For public consumption, some words mildly critical of greed are indeed uttered from time to time; this may be what prompts such a response. But consider the following. The entire apparatus of every state is, at all times, prepared for war, a continuation of politics by other means. The welfare state theorists whose words rule the world, in the conceptual basis of their work, have had nothing to say that recognizes the elementary need to reject war and install a durable and universal peace. As long as people are encouraged to cheer for national greed in the military arena, it is futile to even mention the minimization of individual greed as a desideratum in theory, let alone try to achieve this in practice. That some theoreticians are not into greed and that others are is still viewed as a matter of individual preference. As long as prominent thinkers to whom civil society delegates its serious theorizing regard this view as natural -- as long as they fail to see that they must place non-violence in their formal repertoire as an essential, non-negotiable presupposition of any serious social analysis -- the prospects for rational discussion of these issues will continue to remain quite remote.

Many concerned and thoughtful individuals are willing to provide explicit support for various types of struggle -- even armed struggle -- and are convinced that such struggle will increase human welfare. They regard non-violence as an object of derision. My view is that such thinkers have not had the time to take a serious look at the geo-political realities of our period of history. I request the reader to consider, in the light of a particularly acute comment of Datta's, four of the crises that people in our time have had to keep in view as they grow up -- the crises of the environment, of religion, of the world economy and of the state system.

In his book The Third Movement (Calcutta: Ananda, 1983), Datta said of certain religious and ideological movements that "Whatever their proclaimed intentions, revivalist movements and militant ideologies are today a deeply divisive force, as one can see all around. They have the power to create crises which they are powerless to overcome" (p. 3).

I find this a perceptive comment that helps make sense of the other crises as well. In religion, individuals and communities are held hostage by their genuine, religiously impeccable affective commitment to certain people that they have always been close to. In the economy, people have been falling into technically perfect traps of their own devising. The ecological crisis reflects highly skilled exploitation of natural resources, following the rules of what had been taken to be the scientific and industrial game. In the state system, the industrial and management skills of statecraft have brought us into a world of nuclear bombs and terrorism in which the question of providing serious security to populations sounds like a cruel joke. In each of these domains, the role of human intelligence and sincerity is clear, and the public thought it was cheering for the good guys. But these successes seem to have added up to failure. How did this come about? What can be done about it?

Datta provides a general account, though not quite in these words; the articulation I am about to propose, though based on his texts, is mine. In several domains, people have used their keen intellect in ways that colleagues in those endeavours regard as major contributions. Busy evaluating each advance in terms of the technical criteria prevalent in the privacy of the relevant field, people have failed to notice that the application of these excessively sharpened tools is leaving their hands bloodied and unusable. The piloting devices slip out of their wounded hands; the supersharp tools themselves take over; the machinery on auto-drive, embodying human intelligence and sincerity, thus erode the freedom of humans capable of self-determination -- without any violation of rules of intelligence or sincerity occurring at any stage of the process.

How are people to win back the freedom, the self-steering, that they have lost through this process? An answer based on Datta's reasoning might be -- the antidote to this supersharp intelligence is a delicate intelligence that is not accountable to the private athletics of the sports team of religion or science or commerce alone. Such a delicate intelligence is accountable to a public critical space. We all have to fashion such a public space together. This work of regaining territory for truly public evaluation is necessary if we are to regain control over fundamental thinking, as we reverse the delegation of all our serious thinking to these `sports teams'. Such `teams' have allowed a dialogue-obstructing, private-bonding-based cronyism to hijack notions of intelligence and genuineness, replacing them with privately developed expressions of team spirit. The result is that these `teams' do not even try, dialogically, to reconnect with other `sports teams', let alone humanity as a whole.

Let us now elaborate this line of reasoning in the context of one particular crisis -- that of the system of states. Trying to be exhaustive would mean taking on all four crises in this text -- and stretching the reader's attention span to its breaking point; that would be precisely an example of the cognitive overload that has got us into the contemporary mess. I am sure that readers who agree with the spirit of this article will develop these or related ideas in other sectors -- and criticize what I say in this article. Out of such cooperation, a genuinely public critical space will grow.

The terrible experience of the use of nuclear bombs in 1945 has made one thing clear to humanity as a whole. The most heavily armed states of any given moment -- the `superpowers', as they are called, such as the US and the USSR in the fifties or sixties -- must avoid direct armed conflict so that the system of nation-states does not move into the world war setting, for that would spell the demise of civilization. Since then, despite numerous proxy wars, superpowers have carefully avoided engaging each other, and have reserved nuclear bombs for strategic use. The sophisticated writing of `mutually assured destruction' narratives has become a new activity for the war industry. These are well known points -- with certain consequences that seem not to have received much attention.

After it became clear that the old war system could no longer be maintained, faced with a major crisis, humanity from the forties onwards has tacitly taken steps with far-reaching implications. Not a day has passed without armed conflict on the planet in the last sixty-five years -- it would be a cruel joke to suggest that an absolute cessation of hostilities is in place. But humanity has indeed put in place a cessation of absolute hostilities. Since Hiroshima, it has been clear to the superpowers that direct armed conflict between them will spell disaster for all; thus they have been discharging their responsibility to make sure that this does not occur. Despite hundreds of failures, working around thousands of human frailties, they have been able to do this. A planet full of crazed gun and bomb freaks has managed not to let even any non-state armed organization use nuclear devices. When we notice this, we find reasons for not losing faith in humanity. The adults who were responsible for various set-ups in the forties perhaps unconsciously realized that truly cleaning up such a fundamental mess was beyond their powers. The point was to cobble together some arrangement that would keep the planet intact for a couple of generations. Children born around that time would have to figure out the next move in a suddenly very complex game. Those who were babes in arms at that moment are today in positions of institutional power in politics, in culture, in other human endeavours. Notice that many local and global issues kept pending since the forties have now suddenly come back to the agenda. The crisis in the geopolitical system is now forcing us to look for a serious road to peace. The point has been on the back burner for ages; now we seem to be facing a deadline; procrastination has stopped being a possible response. It is now or never.

It pays to notice that people have indeed taken the challenge seriously. We all know that the foundations for tomorrow's politics are created in today's writing; examples such as Harriet Beecher Stowe before the American civil war or Voltaire and Rousseau before the French revolution come to mind. You can see that we are really getting ready for a fresh start on a large scale when you notice that the conventional nation-state-focused novel of what was called the `realist' kind, though it obviously has not gone out of business, is being superseded by a certain international genre that mixes a bit of science fiction with plenty of fantasy. Conventional children's literature used to teach the child unconditional and unique loyalty to the nation and contempt for foreigners, and proclaimed the purity of the nation's bloodline as a value all true citizens must cherish. But today's children are learning from the authors of their favourite books that a healthy school is a place where children from many backgrounds have fun and grow up together, that it is bad guys who make a fuss about the purity of blood and sow the seeds of hatred for others.

One pioneer of such writing -- J. R.R. Tolkien -- famously said: "In our dreams begin our responsibilities." This is a timely quote for two distinct reasons.

First, as we welcome the leadership of internationally minded authors in the fantasy genre who are showing us a way out of the system of nation-states based on war as a value, we need to note that by cheering for these authors we are also by the same token expressing non-confidence in the economists who have been playing the role of advisor to the prince. Economists who are able to see that the public has been voting with its feet against their views, and have the guts to face this challenge, will no doubt come up with fresh, original lines of inquiry and elicit our attention and gratitude -- lines of inquiry that consciously avoid the trap of positivism and pay direct attention to the status and limits of formalizations.

Secondly, in today's best fantasy novels we find that the protagonists are growing into a maturity that does not confine itself to outtoughing randomly emerging toughs by maximizing martial prowess. The dreams of today involve taking responsibility for acquiring what one might call a situated form of maturity. The protagonists of today's best novels are learning that the arch-villain who is a perfect, total embodiment of evil is a peer of yours, made of the same ingredients as you; if you cannot ferret out and vanquish my own innermost and deepest vices, you do not attain self-determination and thus cannot successfully face your adversary. That the conquest of oneself is the main battleground is a message that children today are hearing not from preachy religious types, but from their favourite fiction writers -- this is an enviable piece of good fortune. What begins in dreams is not only one's responsibility towards oneself, but one's responsibility for who everybody else has become, even one's worst and most evil enemies. Fiction used to allow itself the luxury of treating some people as residual, as expendable -- as figures that the reader or the main protagonist need not take the trouble to understand. Serious fiction authors today find that they can no longer afford the luxury of such non-inclusive writing. Just as absent-mindedly throwing things away makes you forget that garbage is what you produce in that format, and that your methods of garbage disposal determine how healthy various ecological cycles are going to be -- so also thoughtless avoidance or uncomprehending rejection of others is a mistake that protagonists today can no longer afford to make. This is what today's fiction writers are teaching us by way of preparing us for the task of peace. This, too, is a lesson in the art of achieving self-reliance and self-control.

This at least is how I construe Datta's legacy. It is of course important to compare this exposition with other construals of Datta, and with the views of those who have serious issues with this line of reasoning. That task, no doubt, will be carried out by authors far more competent to do so than I.



At May 19, 2010 at 7:30 PM , Blogger 嵇ImogeneL_Spielman said...


At May 28, 2010 at 12:13 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...



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