“My friends and I saw politics as the default condition of being,” writes Prathama Banerjee describing her coming of age in India during the later decades of the twentieth century. Banerjee’s quest in The Elementary Aspects of the Political is to query why and how this came to be. Why was every domain of life – “art, philosophy, love, spirituality” – and every space one inhabited – “classroom, household, workplace, theatre” – subsumed under the master sign of the political?
Generations of historians, most prominently those of the Subaltern Studies school, have analysed the particular stakes of political modernity in India, especially its divergence and overlaps with the European modern. Despite its ubiquity, the concept of the political, to recall Carl Schmitt’s important book that made the adjective into a widely accepted noun, is rarely interrogated in historical works, not only South Asian histories but postcolonial studies of the global South more generally. Banerjee’s second monograph urges that we take a step back and ask the fundamental question about how the political comes to be.
Politics and history
Elementary Aspects is a history of the political that recognises the difficulty of defining the “political”, recalling Nietzsche’s maxim that only that “which has no history can be defined.” It pushes back against that difficulty and lays out its dense semantic field at a particular historical moment and place.
Banerjee’s analysis is situated during the decades of anticolonial nationalism from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries in India, times in which the experiences of colonialism and modernity gave rise to new horizons of expectations for the colonised. In conversation with Emile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) and Ranajit Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983), Banerjee draws from both the structuralist’s assumption that concepts must be thought not only through specific encounters such as those between “coloniser / colonised, Brahmin / Shudra, capital / labour”, but also as “common forms and general ideas” that carry over from one historical encounter to the next.
So, the “elementary aspects” of the political she lays bare here also speak to and help us understand other times and other places. At the same time, the fact that they carry over implies that the elementary aspects of the political manifest “multiple propensities and potentialities.” In thinking thus, Banerjee parts ways with structuralism.
Unlike Durkheim and Guha, Banerjee does not look for “primitive,” “originary,” and “simple” entities to read their elementary aspects. Her project is not like the chemist titrating for her basic constituents in mixtures and compounds. Instead, the study of “elementary” aspects, notes Banerjee, can only occur in highly charged and complex conditions.
Elementary in her usage is not “an objective set of stable and simple entities.” Highly “codified”, they require interpretive and historical labour to render them legible. They also “actively resist further decomposition – for, once decomposed or disassembled, they no longer appear as political or even productive of the political.”
Banerjee challenges assumptions of ontological givenness of the category “political.” Seemingly simple, stable, universal, and singular, the political, she argues, is anything but. How then do we recognise it? The political shows itself, she argues, through a contest or comparison with that which is not identical to it, the non-political. The semantic field of the political always includes the “non-political” and what Banerjee names as the “extra-political.”
The stakes of this beautifully emplotted project are considerable. First, Elementary Aspects is a pushback against an uncritical application of the concept of the political. To do so empties the category of contingency and potential. Not everything is political, not all the time. Understanding the political is a historical exercise.
By way of clearing ground, she notes fairly early on in the text that there is often “conceptual slippage” between power and politics. Power and politics, as Michel Foucault’s works show us, are not identical. Power saturates many aspects of society and polity: it is repressive and generative, it hides in plain view, it is top down and also spread out in horizontal sinews.
In one of her many insights in the book, she writes, “the only definition, a minimalist one, that we can have of politics is that [it is] one kind of orientation toward power, .. not the only kind.” Such minimalism goes against a variety of positions, both liberal and Marxist, that proffer pre-packaged understandings of the political in terms of rights, sovereignty, will and so forth.
The second stake of the project is disciplinary. Banerjee contests the primacy accorded to philosophy – mainly political philosophy – in understandings of the political. The political is often thought through a canon of great thinkers – mostly men (Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Arendt) or ideologies (liberalism, Marxism, Fascism and so on).
In Indian Universities (and South Asian Studies programmes elsewhere), the list is supplemented with Indian thinkers – Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar. There are also sophisticated analyses of why Marxist and / or liberal frameworks must be chronologically and theoretically reworked to speak to the realities of the non-West – projects covered under the ambit of “provincialising Europe.”
Banerjee does not dispute the “indispensability and inadequacy” of European thought for an understanding of the non-West. She takes issue with “the relationship between philosophy and history and its implications for the understanding of politics as such.” Hers is a historian’s exercise that can have transnational valence without purporting to bare core, universalist meanings of the political.
All “universal” philosophical ideas about the political, Banerjee argues, arose from local political events and anxieties but turned these “empirical historical events” (such as the French Revolution or Industrial revolution) into “universal philosophical archetypes.” Fired with a postcolonial acceptance of the stickiness of everyday politics – elections, political parties, unions, police, policy, revolts, etc – and in robust dialog with (rather than rejection of) European thinkers, Banerjee champions history-writing over abstract philosophising.
This is necessary to avoid hierarchising histories where one (the Western European, white, colonialist, expansionist) ends up as the norm or prototype against which all others have to be compared and / or measured. As a historian’s challenge to the presumed primacy of philosophy, the book posits that the elementary aspects of the political must also include histories of the non- and extra political.
A question of place
Each section of the four parts of the book, each part representing an element, consists of two chapters. The components of each dyad highlight the “internal tension,” the “split” within the element. The political consists of four elements: Self, Action, Idea, and People. The self in turn is thought of as the renunciate and the realpolitical; action is considered through the themes of karma and labor; idea is analysed through the contrast between spirituality and economic reason; and the concept of people through party and fiction.
The internal dialectic between each component of the dyad represent the dialectic between the political and non- and extra-political. Taken together, the four themes characterise the semantic field of the basic concept – the political.
There is much to be said about this ambitious and erudite text, but for reasons of space let me focus on Banerjee’s capital contributions. The first of these is the way she produces theoretical knowledge through history-writing.
Elementary Aspects does not shy away from descriptions of its textual archive. Among some of the most engaging passages in the book are those that describe the numerous Sanskrit, Bengali, Marathi, Kannada, and Oriya plays and films about Chanakya or her reading of Hemango Biswas as the “People’s Poet.”
Second, description bolsters Banerjee’s claim about the place of aesthetics in theory. An arresting illustration occurs in the section entitled “Economic Reason and the Literary.” Here she describes literary depictions of women’s labour – particularly works by the Bengali communist author Manik Bandyopadhyay – to stage “the aporia of pure economic reason.”
Manik Bandyopadhyay’s series of short stories about wives “creates a strange mirroring of men’s and women’s work, with women’s work acting as a mode of exposure of men’s professional and economic reason.” “The Shopkeeper’s Wife” goes to such lengths in stashing away her husband’s income that his business collapses. “The Clerk’s Wife” internalises her husband’s disempowerment in the workplace by turning herself into a compulsively obedient subject; “The Litterateur’s Wife” enacts the literary protagonists created by the writer-husband with so much realist allegiance as to render the task of writing unbearably burdensome.
Bandyopadhyay, like many Bengali communist artists, regarded literary laboiur as sram, to be sold like any other kind of labour on the marketplace. Yet, like many other communists of his own and later generations he later also regarded sram (labour) as sadhana (worship or spiritual self-cultivation). Female communist authors such as Sabitri Roy too saw in sram, especially domestic labour, “a way of owning up” the world, thereby rendering impersonal global forces intimate and material.
Value was often dislodged from the market and the state in the postcolonial world by creative artists. The full force of value could only be comprehended keeping the imagination open to the cohabitation of gods, women, laborers, artists, and intellectuals. Political theory, intellectual, and conceptual history have much to gain from a conversation with the aesthetic enterprises such as literature, art, theater, and film. Banerjee’s book illustrates the yields of opening up the archive of political thought to this expansive understanding of value.
A third point that Banerjee makes toward the end this rich book is about critiquing the discipline of history. I concur with her that historians, despite their acknowledgment of the coevality of different pasts and presents, demonstrate lingering fidelity to the idea of transitions – feudal to modern, absolutism to democracy, print to celluloid to digital. This is, perhaps, on account of the discipline’s commitment to thinking of change over time.
But there are also numerous exceptions. For example, media historians like Sudhir Mahadevan, inspired by early film histories by Tom Gunning, Charles Musser and others, forwarding a media-archeological approach to Indian cinema that makes obsolescence an inaccurate category for film history. At the same time there is no gainsaying the desire and aspiration to transition out of certain conditions. Poverty or extreme economic inequality, for example. How can history remain a meaningful and relevant discipline in today’s world and not consider such transitions? This brings me to a final thought about Elementary Aspects.
This has to do with the question of place. The “global South”, Banerjee writes, is a non-place. She uses it rather like a “placeholder” to get away from “narrow nationalist and area studies” cartographies of the mind. “There is nothing called the global South and indeed, there never was.”
Notwithstanding all criticisms of roots, culture, area – subjects of ongoing debate among academic and public intellectuals – can there really be thought without a place? And must place signify stifling enclosure of thought? There are global souths in every country of the global north, just as there are enclaves of the north in the south.
To reproduce histories of those sites and their people requires the scholar to not deny their emplaced character but read archival documents and texts as Saidiya Hartman suggests we do as, “fugitive text(s) of the wayward, marked by the errantry” they describe. Banerjee does so in her book by shaking up assumptions about the political. The book will be debated for years to come.
Rochona Majumdar is Associate Professor, South Asian Languages and Civilizations and Cinema and Media Studies, The University of Chicago.
The Elementary Aspects of the Political: Histories from the Global South, Prathama Banerjee, Duke University Press.
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