Wednesday, August 10, 2016

J. Barton Scott's "Spiritual Despots"

J. Barton Scott is assistant professor of historical studies and the study of religion at the University of Toronto.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Spiritual Despots: Modern Hinduism and the Genealogies of Self-Rule, and reported the following:
Spiritual Despots is a theory book set in nineteenth-century India. It argues that when Hindu intellectuals wrote against “priestcraft,” or allegedly despotic religious authority, they were reimagining the modern political ideal of the self-governing individual.

Does the “Page 99 Test” work for the book? Yes and no. It bypasses spiritual despotism, but highlights other aspects of the book’s argument. On p. 99, we find ourselves in the company of Bengali reformer Keshub Chunder Sen as he rails against the evils of alcohol in a lecture delivered to a London temperance society. By following Sen from Calcutta to London, I stress that nineteenth-century religious and social reform movements need to be studied contrapuntally: as scholars, we should between colony and metropole, just as Sen did.

After quoting Sen, I interpret his lecture as follows:
Here, Keshub drops the nation onto the family dinner table, inserting the mass of humanity between the man and his pint. No beer is “innocent” because no beer is private. To fail to recognize the public nature of the domestic sphere and its family circle is to ignore the centrality of behavioral “quotation” to the constitution of the political field. A man becomes a saint by his ability to set an example, entering the mass by iteration—something that anyone, Keshub implies, can do. Newly aware of this fact, the private man’s relationship to all of his actions becomes mediated by the mass, open to imitation and thus, by some categorical imperative, rendered impersonal, national, open to legislation. The reference to “statistics” completes this process. Overlaid with “facts and figures,” “self-conduct” becomes simultaneously personal, social, and political. Thus, where “every individual at the present age is trying, as it were, by his very civilization and intelligence to retire into his own family circle, and to close his eyes to the interests of those around him,” Keshub refuses the individual its retreat from collectivity by offering a theory of the subject that can be read contravening liberal individuality to the extent that the individual is detached from the quotable language of his behavior.
This passage illustrates the methodological orientation of Spiritual Despots. I read nineteenth-century texts for their implicit theoretical claims, interpreting them as part of the longer history of anticolonial and postcolonial thought. Here, for example, I put Sen into conversation with both M. K. Gandhi and Homi Bhabha by reading him as offering a theory of behavioral mimicry. No action, Sen implies, belongs to the individual alone. Just as Indians learned to drink by mimicking the British (as Sen alleges), any imbiber can inadvertently inspire vice in another mimic. Behavior spreads when one person “quote[s] the example” of another. Every time I act, then, I should be aware of the distance that separates me from my deed. My behaviors originated outside of me, and they will continue to circulate long after I am gone. I am just a node in this fundamentally impersonal circulation of deeds.

For a Gandhi or a Bhabha, this insight becomes a means of challenging and rethinking the integrated subject prized by certain forms of liberal political theory. Something similar, I think, holds for Sen. Nineteenth-century Hindu reformers used religion to challenge the boundaries of the self and, by extension, the shape of society, and they did so in ways that still resonate today.
Learn more about Spiritual Despots at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue