Can the Intellectual Speak ?

What is the task of an intellectual today? Karl Marx had told us that it is not enough to explain the world but it was necessary to change the world. Intellectual in that sense had a very important task to transform his or her society. This task of social emancipation has not changed. But given our changed condition, we may have to ask: how is it that our intellectual work contributes to bringing about an emancipative society? Moreover with digitization, knowledge and information have become omnipresent. Hence, what is the new task of the intellectuals in this new situation? The omnipresence of theory has led to its death. Today we have entered a post-theory world and all that we need are practical and applicative skills to handle the vast ocean of information unleased all around us.

Perhaps, we may have to pay heed to Michel Foucault who while discussing intellectuals and power with his friend Gilles Deleuze as early as 19 72 declared that masses do not need intellectuals to know. He said that the role of the intellectuals is no longer to provide a theory for enlightenment for the masses. The role of the intellectual is to undermine authority and power. He went on to describe theory not as pair of glasses that enable us to see better but as guns that enable us to fight better. He taught that the intellectuals are to lead the struggle against forms of power they are involved with Knowledge, Truth and Discourse. This does not mean the theory has to collapse into praxis as Antonio Gramsci, and young George Lukacs exhibit. Intellectual work is not reduceable to simply praxis but has to serve emancipative and practical ends.

The task of the intellectual in the Foucaultian sense is, therefore, to interrogate all ruling ideas. Marx has already told us the ruling ideas are the ideas of the rulers. Hence, the noble task of the intellectuals is not to work to produce consent to these ideas. Such manufacture of consent in the work of the propagandist. Noam Chomsky has clearly articulated to us the manner in which we are manipulated and our consent is constructed by the powers that be. Foucault, thus, seems to agree with the notion of Gramsci’s organic intellectual who although schooled within the system carries the acumen to contest the hegemonic power relations within the system. Rather than bringing light to the platonic cave, or finding the Archimedean point to transform our society, the intellectual has to interrogate the powers that be and open emancipative ways of being in the world. This means, Foucault teaches that the intellectual does not have the task of shaping the political will of the other but has to participate in the formation of a political will in which the citizens can participate in freedom.

The intellectuals have the task of interrogating of regimes of truth production. Foucault sees the congruency between knowledge and power. To him, it does not involve the task of emancipating truth from every system of power but consists in working hard to detach truth forms of hegemony, whether social, cultural, political or economic within which truth operates all the time. While keeping the goal of emancipation close to our hearts, maybe it is important to ask how we can live the role of an emancipative intellectual in our country. At a time when an intellectual who speaks truth to power is unwelcome, How is an intellectual to live his or her call in our society that is fast being anti-intellectual habitat? Intellectuals are infantilized and rendered impotent or voiceless. But an intellectual cannot infantilize others through voice appropriation by seeking to represent the people by usurping their voice. The intellectual has the task to interrogate regimes of truth and power where the people are enabled to participate.

Gayatri Spivak cautions us that given our present conditions, the subaltern cannot speak and hence has to be spoken for. There is an insight for the intellectual in our country in the work of Spivak on the subaltern. We may have to reformulate the notorious Spivak question. This time we may have to ask: can the intellectual speak? Like Spivak, we may have to answer this question in the negative. Given the condition that is prevailing today, we may have to grudgingly say that the intellectual cannot speak. But who then will speak for the intellectual? The intellectual himself or herself. How can the unspeaking intellectual speak? Since the intellectual cannot escape his or her home. The best option that is left for him or her is deconstruction. The intellectual can deconstruct or shift the narrative of the reigning discourse. Thus, the intellectual can still stay within and deconstruct and renegotiate the reigning truth regimes from within.

Deconstruction, therefore, can become the tool to engage with the reigning political discourses and the regimes of truth that produce them. The intellectual will return to Foucault’s task of interrogation of the regimes of truth and power via deconstruction. This is so because the reigning discourses in the country are channels of exercise of power that dictate the kind of space, status, and relations people have in our society. By interrogating the moment of representation, we are enabled to interrogate the logocentricity of our thinking and show how whatever we say do and be is far from the original. Jacques Derrida’s difference, then, becomes an important tool to show how there is a gap between the presentation and the original. Thus, in the Derridian sense, everything is in the coming. We do not have the original in any of the presentations of reality at least on this side of the grave. It is in this sense we still have to become patriotic Indian citizens all our life. None of us has arrived as Hindu supremacist might want Hindus to think. Everything, our histories, cultures, and religions are all in the making and are inching towards the original without ever reaching there. Thus, deconstruction of the logocentric blindness of our society might become an alternate way of finding our voice as intellectuals.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao