Colonised's Madness, Colonisers' Modernity and International Law: Mythological Materialism in the East-West Telos

AuthorPrabhakar Singh
PositionAssistant Professor, Jindal Global Law School. B.A./LL.B(National Law Institute University, Bhopal), LL.M.(Barcelona)

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I Introduction

Der Zeit ihre Kunst, der Kunst ihre Freiheit

Ludwig Hevesi, Vienna Secession of 1897

This German maxim translates as: to our era its art, to art its freedom. There is nothing new about the discourse on art, myth and modernity. But it is exciting nonetheless. Such has been the pervasiveness of modernity that new facets emerge every time an author takes on modernity. Today a discourse of modernity must not remain an exclusive preserve of anthropologists and sociologists; it should now engage as many international lawyers as possible. A series of thinkers first from the West and then from the East have spoken about modernity and capitalism. Michel Foucault,1 Arjun Appadurai,2 and Ashis Nandy,3 among many others, are some of the names that I personally find stimulating and revealing. They have spoken about modernity and colonisation, and its effects in shaping our consciousness about how modernity has altered societal relations producing conflicts within and outside colonised societiesthe contents of postcolonial studies. In more layman’ s term, modernity evokes hesitation, often timorous, as human conscience around the world has shown a fetish for its past.

Appadurai’ s decisive discourse on modernity reveals modernity’ s ability to create five kinds of pasts. These are history, tradition, evolution, antiquity and civilisation.4 “India,”Ashis Nandy analyses, “has many pasts; depending upon the needs of each age, the nation brings a particular past into its consciousness.” 5 I am of the view that such choices of pasts are guided by two aspects of human psychology. They are:

  1. A particular culture’ s obsession for particular mythology as the ‘real’history, and

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  2. Cultures’ abhorrence of science and technology that often create conflicting social situations, new modes of interaction, and new behavioural changes rekindling the “old-new”or “modern-ancient”debate.

    The political and cultural sphere of India has witnessed a fierce battle between forces that are folk and Sanskritic. The Constitution of India and the political turmoil of the 80s and the 90s amply reflect this.6 In its lived experience, the humanity has shown marked love for one or the other kind of past at different times. Therefore, the coloniser and the colonised held to different choices: of the types of past offered in Appadurai’ s analysis, coloniser chose civilisation, history and evolution whereas the colonised settled with tradition and antiquity as their authentic past. The psychological pull behind choosing a type of past lies in its ability to distract people, Eastern or Western, and offering relaxing co-ordinates which direct their imagination to glory, prosperity, happiness, wealth and good environment. Nonetheless, Appadurai identifies a minimal set of four formal constraints on all sets of norms about past. These are authority, continuity, depth and interdependence arguably present in all kinds of cultures.7 Says Nandy, colonisers saw history as reality as against myth:

    ...being a flawed, irrational fairy tale produced by ‘unconscious’history, meant for savage and children. The core of such a concept of time- produced in the West for the first time after the demise of medievalism - consists in the emphasis on causes rather than on structures, on progress and evolution as opposed to self-realization-in-being, and on the rationality of adjustment to historical reality ... 8

    Thus a set of impromptu questions follow from this discussion: what is the relation of myth/mythology, antiquity, history and tradition with modern art and to the lived experience of humans? Can we use art and myth to see history and perceive reality in the way Marx perceived his, using historical materialism? Can we not see reality through the prism of what I call “mythological materialism?”Can modern art and myth become the explanatory coordinates of reality? In other words, can reality be the myth that colours art? Or is it the myth that colours realty using art?

    Such questions beg sustained discussions on modern art as the location of modernity. Post-modernists and anti-modernists have indulged in such enquiries before. Such an exercise has been primarily a task in the epistemology of myth,Page 70imaginations, capitalism, consciousness, and narratives of modernity. A sustained discussion on art as the location of modernity also informs the coloniser-colonised relation for now it is widely evident that the East and West have different purposive intent behind their pastoral choice. The coloniser-colonised debate, by its nature, leads us to issues of racism, imagination of men as sub-human, native science as folk, knowledge as ignorance and modernity of the ‘Other’being Western myth. Post- colonial theories, thus, remain ...

    [w]edded to ways of conceiving the relation of the non West to the West, and of conceiving human motivation and political agency more generally, that emerged from a distinctively European mid twentieth-century intellectual climate in which non-Western peoples and societies were understood to be in principle incapable of historical emancipatory agency until “jump-started”by Western material and conceptual colonial violence.9

    Throughout this monograph, the term ‘myth’has been used in a number of its guises: the Barthean-identified framework of understanding where systems of knowledge are understood as ‘truth’within a cultural context; in its form as the label used in European discourses de-legitimising other knowledge as lacking in scientific ground; and as allegorical stories of folk and tribal cultures. This has been done to encapsulate myth in a comprehensive fashion. As the story of myth traverses different sections of the monograph, it will become evident which of the above meanings of myth has been applied. This composite nature of myth has a mutually exchangeable set of actors - as symbols that appear different on its face but emerge from similar psyche.

    A European child and a colonised native thus will appear as two inseparable sides of a single coin. Modern art will appear as violent and destructive as the forces of science. Colonisers will seemingly acquire a paedophile’ s face and an artist will become a ruthless cog in the dialectic of historical materialism. In such a narration, international law becomes an unpopular and vicious project that endorses historical materialism as against more nuanced mythological materialism.10 The table below has been prepared with an aim to throw a comparative light on ‘mythological’materialism.

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    Table 1: Distinctions between Historical and Mythological Materialism


    An attempt at defining mythological materialism’ s phenomenology is an exercise in semiotics of both sociology and anthropology; international law has understandably avoided myth for history. Mythological materialism signifies the struggle between various narratives of competing pasts which eventually characterise particular cultures’ symbiotic semiotics. Mythology essentially is a kind of symbolism, thus semiotic in its appeal to cultural relativism and its detractors both. I am often tempted to see Gandhi as the chief protagonist of mythological materialism. This will be discussed later via narrative of Gandhi by Nandy, though very briefly. Thus, following pages will engage the readers in a discussion about myth, history, art and modernity. Modern art will be used to explain an industrialised modern view that was instrumental in the superiority claims made by the colonisers.

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II Examples of Myth as History and History as Myth: The Case of Greek Alexander and Nazi Hitler

Our dreams and imaginations both, says Foucault, are seemingly made of the same matter.11 Both offer soothing solutions to consciousness, albeit, mostly intangible. Yet consciousness has never been argued as constituting one of the types of past, partly because the discussion of history is not aimed at creating solutions. History as an offering to the non-dominant, the subaltern, the uncivilised, the heathen, the folk and the non-modern has been made possible by “ideology”of the Western intellectuals.12 Ideology uses history as a device of political explanation of world events. It sees history as a monolithic and homogeneous process - it does not offer “history of the world”as it is, but “world-as-history.” 13 Therefore, an ambitious and war-mongering Greek Alexander was written by Western historians as “Alexander the great”and not a villain of history. On the contrary many war-mongers from the East with similar ambitions were simply invaders who invaded the West. History is thus simply an agenda of the dominant ideologue of a particular time. The untold sufferings inflicted upon India by Alexander;

[m]assacre, rapine, and plunder on a scale till then without a precedent in her annals, but [was] repeated in later days by more successful [Muslim] invaders like Sultan Mahmud, Tamerlane, and Nadir Shah. In spite of the halo of romance that Greek writers have woven round the name of Alexander, the historians of India can regard him only as the precursor of these recognized scourges of...

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