The Winter of Absolute Zero
Interview with Shaj Mohan
by Auwn Gurmani
The 20th century carried a silent consensus that philosophy was Western, which then was split into ‘continental’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’/analytical. In recent decades we have seen the assertive presence of non-White philosophers including Achilles Mbembe, Anthony Appiah, Divya Dwivedi, and Shaj Mohan. Shaj Mohan is the philosopher who has been “forsaken”[i] by philosophical traditions as his work is characterized by the irreverence towards both European and ‘Indic’ traditions. Instead, through what Robert Bernasconi called rigorous and radical interpretations, his work appropriates scientific, mathematical, technological and metaphysical resources to create new concepts for our time. Recently, Mohan has been participating in the now famous “Coronavirus and Philosophers”[ii] debate with Agamben, Nancy, and Esposito. In these interventions the same irreverence to philosophical traditions as well as a concern with rigour and formalism can be seen. Shaj Mohan has called for a world democracy on the basis of a radical thought of equality which he calls the obscure experience that is shared by everyone.
His recent book Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-politics, co-authored with Divya Dwivedi, is highly critical of Gandhi, and it has been called a breakthrough in philosophy. Gandhi is the most influential figure that we are forced to attend to when talking about the Subcontinent, its intellectual and ascetic traditions, colonial past and its politics regarded simply as a 'politics of nonviolence'. Gandhi and philosophy manifests as agents of thought that poses a significant threat to the intellectual, spiritual and philosophical decadence prevalent in our international theoretical praxis. For this reason, Jean-Luc Nancy said in his foreword that Gandhi and Philosophy shows the way beyond “hypophysics and metaphysics”.
Auwn Gurmani: What triggered your initial interest in M. K. Gandhi? How do you place your understanding of his concepts vis-a-vis the recent scholarship on Gandhi?
Shaj Mohan: M. K. Gandhi appeared as a non-philosophical object of special interest to philosophy, and that’s the “trigger warning”. As you know the research and publication on Gandhi was done with Divya Dwivedi. It began when we made a presentation on Gandhi’s “Indian Home Rule” in 2006 in St Stephen’s college when we were students. At that time I was interested in the meaning of “evaluation” in philosophy after Wittgenstein and Heidegger.
We discovered that the concept of “kinesis”, which Gandhi understood as “speed”, directed his critical evaluation of civilizations. Gandhi had borrowed his theory of speed and even examples from Thomas Taylor’s “Fallacy of Speed”. For Taylor and Gandhi, the analysis of speed, (to put it in a dangerously simplified form for this occasion) showed that the values of things and actions changed according to the speed of their systems. For example, a pilgrimage by foot loses its value when it is undertaken using modern transportation; the presumed piety is exchanged for touristic enjoyment.
We found that Gandhi had a desire for absolute values. As you know “absolute zero” in thermodynamics is that temperature at which all “kinesis” at the molecular level comes to an end, and it is theoretically impossible to obtain. Gandhi explicitly sought to reduce himself, and humanity, to the speed of zero; that is, he wanted to bring humanity to a voluntary self-sacrifice and declare “henceforth time shall no longer be”—a worldwide state of passive resisters creating “the absolute zero” of politics was Gandhi’s goal. The risk we face today is precisely the attempts at the creation of an absolute zero in politics.
In 2007, we published a research paper on Gandhi in the Economic and Political Weekly after we discovered another thinking at work in Gandhi, to which we gave the name 'hypophysics'. Hypophysics identifies “the good value” of a thing with its ‘natural state’, and deviation from nature is then evil. For Taylor and Gandhi, a man taking a walk across the field adheres to the nature of his limbs which was determined by “the Maker”, but a man on a motorcycle is fleeing from his nature. Hypophysics is older than M. K. Gandhi and it is at work even now in the Gandhians and his opponents.
It is impossible to find any such given ‘nature’, even in what we call the “natural world”. This problem is circumvented by most versions of hypophysics through the setting up of things like an 'idyllic a priori'. Idyllic a priori are the terms and values derived from the idylls, or the desired a posteriori of someone or some men. All kinds of idyllic a priori suppress the oppressive conditions in which those idylls were possible and all idylls are derived from the experiences of privileged groups of men. For example, Gandhi found his idyllic a priori in the Indian villages and it corresponded to the lives of the well to do upper caste men of the village, thus suppressing the horrors of the caste order that sustains Indian villages even today. The subcontinental versions of Post-colonial and Subaltern Studies think from the same upper caste idyllic a priori. Recently, in the context of the pandemic, Giorgio Agamben revealed his idyll[iii] as the small town in Europe where the churches determine man’s relation to his nature, from which his idyllic a priori follows. In this case, it suppresses the colonial and other exploitative conditions which sustained this very idyll. To return to the second part of your question, most of the scholarship on Gandhi, including the criticisms, share Gandhi’s idyllic a priori.
AG: As much as your work is critical of Gandhi and it decenters him from his usual position of a Mahatma and a political and spiritual hero of subcontinent, there is a cause of worry for some readers. As the political thinker J. Reghu in his review of Gandhi and Philosophy[iv], wrote that Gandhi has been elevated too much by this work? How would you reply to that?
Likewise, there is a body of criticism of Gandhi’s views on caste and his racial ideas. How do you view Gandhi on Caste and Race?
SM: J. Reghu is one of the most exciting political thinkers of India. Being uninterested in any consensus he is able to see the articulations of these very consensual structures which decide what can and cannot be said in public. However, I would like to think that J. Reghu had discussed some of the reasons why Gandhi became important within a philosophical project.
A philosophical interest in Gandhi is very different from the lobbying interests invested in him; the former gives us the possibility to think the absolute zero of politics while the latter has given us the “Mahatma Propagandhi”, the man suited to sell anything. Philosophical interests cannot be determined by lobbying activities even if they have the best intentions. If someone says that we should not study the theorems of Grigori Perelman because he is against society that would make little sense.
Gandhi had created the most systematic version of hypophysics, he had drawn the most extreme consequences of an analytic of speed, and using all that he proposed the terminus for all nihilistic political projects—the voluntary self-sacrifice of mankind, or the absolute zero of politics. It is dangerous to avoid these insights held within Gandhi, whether by yielding to the recent model of “don’t read X or Y because we don’t like their views”, or by silently passing over these insights to use the saintly icon.
Caste order is the oldest and the worst form of racist oppression in the world, and it is strange that it has endured into the 21st century after the end of apartheid! As you said, there have been several works critical of Gandhi’s approaches towards race and caste. It began at least with B. R. Ambedkar. Today “critical philosophy of race” is a complex discipline. The researches of Charles W. Mills, Emmanuel Eze, Robert Bernasconi and several others have deepened our understanding of the births and the speciation of racial theories; that is, there are many racisms.
Gandhi may have invented a new ground for racism, which is hypophysical. For him, there is something like ‘natural populations’; that is, the people of the world are distributed in a ‘natural environment’ which is most appropriate for each of them. As long as a population remains in their ‘natural state’—for example, the Dalits of the subcontinent under ritualized social oppression—there is good for him. Any inspiration to deviate from the ‘natural state’ would be evil. Gandhi read into Darwin a kind of moral biology according to which being moral was equal to being true to one’s given ‘natural’ environment.
The idyllic a priori which conditioned Gandhi’s early texts on race perfectly coincided with racialising theories of the colonial powers, especially the dominant “Aryan supremacy doctrines”, according to which, as an upper caste Indian, he was almost at the top of the racial hierarchy. Gandhi’s racism had a distinctly hypophysical origin, and in practice it coincided with the common place racisms of his time. Most racial theories, if not all, refer to a certain moment in history (they are always fantasies) to assert that the perfect blend between blood and soil existed at a certain time. From it they derive a ‘natural type’ for some men, such that miscegenation will be the deviation for their ‘own nature’; therefore, it can be said that racism is a species of hypophysics.
AG: Do you think that the crisis advancing in India today, starting with the rise of Hindutva, the ever increasing oppression and violence against minorities – all such instances, as has been said repeatedly – reflect the failure of the secular model of India? Ashish Nandy said in an interview, “I would like to believe that Gandhi has not been defeated. I am not sure about Nehru, who rejected Gandhi’s idea of a self-sufficient village economy as the romantic illusion of a defeated civilization.” Would you like to contribute to this debate?
SM: The terms of this false debate were set by the upper caste postcolonialist ethno-nationalists, and it is very difficult to distinguish between the positions of people like Nandy and the Hindu right. This false debate, which is characterized by what Simon Weil called “intellectual leprosy”, serves the function of distracting from the realities of caste oppression. Secularism never existed in India in any form because the Indian nation state was the product of the invention of ‘Hindu’ religion in the early 20th century. The idea that ‘Hindu’ is the religion of the majority of Indians was invented to mask the fact that 90% of India’s population are the oppressed caste people (Bahujan) and that the 10% upper castes control all of India’s institutions and enjoy all its resources. Indian constitution embraced this term ‘Hindu’, and it allowed the ‘Hindu’ fascist organization RSS (Rashtriya Svayam Sevak Sangh) to thrive despite the assassination of M. K. Gandhi and several instances of mass murders in which it was implicated. What is horrific about the pogroms against religious minorities—Christians, Muslims, Sikhs—is that the opposition of ‘Hindu’-versus-‘other religions’ has the singular purpose of preventing the Bahujan people from uniting against caste oppression. Whenever the Bahujan people rise up, pogroms against religious minorities begin.
AG: You had written recently that NRC and other oppressive measures and the protests against them should be understood as the beginning of an epochal transformation in the subcontinent[v], “There is a boredom with the past, which is creating space for the new in India”[vi]. You have also said in the context of the philosophical debates around the pandemic, “unless we, as everyone, everywhere, understand that this world is the cobelonging equally of everyone in sharing the mysterious but absolute certainty of its persistence, and create political concepts and new institutions, this ship might become either too small or too large to set sail ever again”[vii] while discussing your idea of “world democracy”[viii].
Are these two questions—the transformation of the subcontinent and the possibility of a world democracy—related? If yes, how is a world democracy going to be different from the other options being discussed at this time such as “return to communism”. Can world democracy not be hegemonic?
SM: Boredom is something which triggers a yawning, the opening of a space. It is happening in India and across the world. In the Indian context, the only effective political mobilizations against the Hindu right government came from Bahujan movements in recent years. For that very reason the intellectuals and the activists of the Bahujan people (which means the real majority as opposed to the false majority named by ‘Hindu) are under extreme attack from the Hindu right and the government, because the political unity of the oppressed caste people are kicking the doors of power. This is the sense of the “yawn” in India.
The same texts you have quoted, about the protests in India, say something about global technical and economic processes which are implemented in most nation states without any democratic consultation. For example, Goods and Services Taxes, internet protocols, privacy architectures of social media platforms, encryption standards, military robotics, automation programs which determine the way we live, think, talk to one another, organize, and learn; all these are being established outside of democracy. Meanwhile, the increasing regionalization of politics—be it ethno-nationalist or territorial or whatever—is turning the attention and involvement of the people across the world away from the development of a global techno-economic system. In India, these global processes adhere at the same time to the ancient caste order as the majority of the businesses are owned by the upper castes, particularly the Baniya (business caste).
There have been discussions about the “options” of global order in the past decade. This has been accompanied by a process of regionalization of all the people of the world into ghettos; and, the regionality of these regions is already being determined by the techno-economic “hegemon”. One can expect this model to be sold as the latest in the series of “minimum government” and “big society”, and it might be named “self-reliant regional enclosures”.
The most important question in what I had called “world democracy” is the meaning of the “demos”, or the obscure experience which makes us the “demos”. It is too complicated to go over quickly. But we can indicate something for now. The political arrangement which makes a “hegemon” possible is also liable to stasis; stasis is when several groups in a political arrangement strive to be the “hegemons” and as a result the very arrangement gets criticalised. We can see this battle right now—between America, China, technological corporations, ethno-nationalists, postcolonial nationalists—which is making our present stasis. In principle a world democracy will be the gathering of all the people of the world, without exception, in such a way that it comes over the present stasis. And for that reason, it must leave the “hegemons” behind. We can call it anastasis, for now. Without this anastasis we will soon experience the winter of absolute zero.
AG: You have been participating in the “Coronavirus and Philosophers”[vi] debate with Jean-Luc Nancy, Divya Dwivedi, and Roberto Esposito. It was stirred by Giorgio Agamben’s intervention against the state's responses to the Coronavirus pandemic. Not to mention Europe, but don’t you think that in states like India and other third world countries where the police possess extraordinary power in normal circumstances, the situation, however, is different and bears semblance to what Agamben feared – the normalization of state of exception.
We have witnessed instances in which the police were seen whipping the general population in order to impose the lockdown, massive arrests, thousands of daily wage laborers abandoned as a result of lockdown and those who were forced to walk on foot in order to get back to their hometowns.
SM: In a way the question already contains the answer: what could be considered “exception” has been the norm in most parts of the world. In India, the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 and the pogrom against Muslims happened under what most commentators would call a ‘liberal state’; and the mass murder of Muslims under Modi’s rule in 2002 did not require the invocation of emergency powers. You mentioned the plight of migrant workers under the lockdown. But hundreds of thousands of farmers from the oppressed castes have been committing suicide since 1995, which is a genocide, and it didn’t need emergency powers. So, the liberals, postcolonialists, and subalternists in the subcontinent find the theories of Agamben appealing because it lets them evade the realities of millennia old caste oppression and lead a Bollywood-like theoretical fantasy in the academies.
But, one can understand the appealing simplicity of Agamben’s theories, which have their roots in the political projects of national socialist Germany, and those references we should avoid because it is not worth it. These kinds of appealing and amusing theorems are created by hiding the fallacies or the gaps in reasoning, and they are not new in philosophy. It can be found in something clever and ancient which says: You cannot lose that which you don’t have. You don’t have horns. Since you haven’t lost your horns you have still got horns. The “state” which is used as the premise in these theories of ‘exception’ never existed, whether in the subcontinent or elsewhere. It is a theory which has set up definitions which are not even sufficiently nominal. It is, as Leibniz would say, a “regulae tropicae” of the ‘state’ which desires exceptions, or as it comes to the same thing, broken easily by exceptions. However, the pretense to a “state” is necessary to conduct the affairs of economics, primarily. As Derrida said, in these situations one must not pretend, but pretend to pretend, which is a distinction that Agamben missed in his readings of Derrida. Further, what we are told to consider as ‘exceptions’ or the acts of will of some men are not really “willing” in the Nietzschean sense. Nietzsche had warned that the state of tension which makes a thing discharge force must not be mistaken for its “willing”. What we experience as exceptions are the world’s political order in stasis, discharging forces.
The challenge today for a philosophical investigation into the future of politics is to find concepts which have a certain degree of reality, concepts which can explain the diverse phenomena without collapsing them into lazy analogies. We do not yet know the components which make up the world wide political order, and much less the level which comprehends these components. We do not yet know which homological powers are being exchanged by which ones at the level of individual lives. We are still unable to determine the functions and regularities appearing through our techno-socio transactions. We can begin in this direction by moving Away from the ‘epoch of historicisation’ and by listening to Ibn Khaldun who said that history deserves to be a branch of philosophy.
[i] “Community of the Forsaken”, Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan, https://antinomie.it/index.php/2020/03/12/la-comunita-degli-abbandonati/
[iii] What Carries Us On, http://positionswebsite.org/shaj-mohan-what-carries-us-on/
[iv] J. Reghu, Gandhi as Chrysalis for a New Philosophy, https://thewire.in/books/gandhi-and-philosophy-book-review
[v] “Beyond Resistance : What India Needs Now Is A Revolution”, https://worldcrunch.com/opinion-analysis/beyond-resistance-what-india-needs-now-is-a-revolution
[vi] “The Current Protests in India are a Training Ground for a Break With the Past”, https://thewire.in/rights/debate-caa-protests-training-ground
[vii] “Our Mysterious Being”, Jean-Luc Nancy and Shaj Mohan, https://thephilosophicalsalon.com/our-mysterious-being/ and “La Corona della “Stasis” https://antinomie.it/index.php/2020/05/09/la-corona-della-stasis/
[viii] “The Crown of the Stasis”, a short lecture https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-r6YjXNvwg and “We Are In A State of Stasis”, https://www.franceculture.fr/societe/shaj-mohan-nous-sommes-en-etat-de-stase
[ix] “Coronavirus and Philosophers”, https://www.journal-psychoanalysis.eu/coronavirus-and-philosophers/
Portrait Drawing of Shaj Mohan by Aqsa Fazli
Shaj Mohan is a philosopher based in the subcontinent. He is the co-author with Divya Dwivedi of Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics (Bloomsbury UK, 2019), foreworded by Jean-Luc Nancy. Tweets @shajmohan
Auwn Gurmani is a researcher based in Lahore, Pakistan. Tweets @auwn_