Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Pleasantly surprised; Essays on Orissa, Tagore, and Social Constructionism

I said I was willing to be pleasantly surprised: I am. It looks like the Tarapore Reactor is in business.

I'm actually a little surprised by all the pomp and finery of this visit -- the state dinner (only Bush's fifth, in his five years in office), the formal photographs, and so on. I wonder if there is some kind of geopolitical explanation, or whether the White House simply thinks the photos will come in handy in terms of drawing contributions from Indian American Republicans in the next go-round.

* * * *
Sunil Laxman has a very nice essay on his experiences as a tourist in Orissa up, which includes a funny story about being hijacked by a temple priest, who first blesses him and then curses him out when the requisite fee isn't forthcoming.

Sharleen Mondal has an essay on the status of women in Tagore's The Home and the World at a Livejournal site. It is a work in progress; she is looking for suggestions in preparation for an upcoming conference. The part that is most interesting to me is the question of Tagore's "nationalism." On the one hand, in the late 1910s he wrote a series of essays (in English) that are fiercely critical of nationalism. But earlier books (pre-Swadeshi movement) are enthusiastic about it, and even later I think Tagore is invested in an idea of the autonomy of Indian culture, if not political nationalism as it was practiced by his peers. The Home and the World (1915) is ambivalent about it, but he (via Nikhil) nevertheless recognizes the inevitability of this new (destructive) kind of politics.

A graduate student blogger (in social sciences?) named Genealogy Spice has a really interesting discussion of social constructionism up. (It's a couple of weeks old, but better late than never...) It's very thoughtful and carefully written.

I tend to be pretty critical of this approach to things, but not so much because it is somehow obviously or intrinsically wrong. Rather, I think it simply limits the kinds of questions you can ask. Most writers who adhere to social constructionism tend to write essays that simply prove it all over again, showing that a given social group or cultural concept is not as fixed as people seem to think it is.

It is possible to question social constructionism without being either a conservative or a Marxist (or a Marxist conservative! I know a couple of these...). In the social sciences at least, I tend to get much more interested in a scholar's work if she has some fresh empirical data (or in anthropology, field work) guiding her conclusions.


Timothy Burke said...

Michael Taussig of all people made an unusually lucid and pointed comment on this in the otherwise non-lucid Mimesis and Alterity, which was basically that an entire article or monograph devoted to proving that something was a social construction was pointless--that you could say that in the first paragraph and move on.

What's more important about this tendency is that it kind of gives the lie to the fall-back position that a social construction is no less "real", in multiple ways. When someone devotes an entire monograph to demonstrating that something which is commonly represented as "natural" is actually historical and "constructed", the entire argument (such as it is) clearly carries the force of an expose. "Ah-hah! I have found you out!" It's disingenuous for most scholars who write in this vein to claim that they have no critical intent: no one concludes a social constructionist monograph by enthusiastically endorsing or reinforcing the construction they've just exposed, save perhaps the ghastly intellectual move embedded in "strategic essentialism".

The silly riposte to social constructionism is becoming more common too, which is to insist that a particular social practice or identity is 100% natural, with the implication that it's also invariant. But the response to that isn't to simply talk about social construction: it's to offer an actual history full of telling detail and experience (rather than a detached history of inventions, constructions, discourses, representations).

11:12 AM  

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