Thursday, December 11, 2008

Theory After Derrida: Essays in Critical Praxis - Editors: Kailash Baral and R. Radhakrishnan Theory After Derrida: Essays in Critical Praxis
Editors: Kailash Baral and R. Radhakrishnan, Routledge, New Delhi
Book Release function: 21 December 2008, 11.30 am
Forum on Contemporary Theory - 11th International Conference
Theme: "Democracy in Our Time: The Past and Future of the Enlightenment"
18 – 21 December, 2008: Venue: Diamond Hotel, Varanasi
The eleventh International Conference of the Forum on Contemporary Theory will be held in Varanasi from the 18th to 21st December, 2008 in collaboration with the Department of English, Banaras Hindu University.

To some extent, the hope is to take stock of our understanding of democracy as it has been theorized in the last many decades, but the larger aspiration of this conference is to go from there to address the subject of democracy from a number of angles that tend not to surface in any conspicuous way in routine discussions of the subject.

On the face of it, there is some reason to be skeptical about whether standard liberal democratic theory in the orthodox tradition of the Enlightenment has the resources to cope with the remarkable developments in politics and culture since the rise of identity politics, the pervasive and persistent impress of religion in politics, the unrestrained and unilateral actions of the only superpower remaining in the world, the manifestly undemocratic tendencies within polities around the world, and the rampant and rapacious sway of finance capital and corporate impunity which brooks no constraint upon itself. Liberal democratic doctrine has been salutary in stressing human rights and freedoms and democratic procedures but to a considerable extent these are formal rather than substantive claims and the question to investigate is the extent to which its theories have the conceptual ingredients to make these claims more substantive.

This conference seeks to diagnose these limitations and think towards deeper and more philosophical answers to the questions that liberal theory has hitherto addressed merely on the surface. We would like to ask what forms of disenchantment ordinary people have experienced, perhaps even from as long ago as the late seventeenth century when conceptions of nature and matter began to be conceived in terms that made a society geared to profit and private gain the central goals of human flourishing. How does such a diagnosis explain some of the rise of identity politics and the deeply felt conservative religiosity of recent times in many parts of the world? How and why does the liberal and progressive contempt towards such a politics and religiosity betray an undemocratic attitude? How can we find secular forms of enchantment for our own times and in doing so develop traditions of the more radical elements of the Enlightenment which were very early on thwarted by liberal orthodoxies?

How does that tradition of the radical Enlightenment grow historically out of remarkable antecedents in social thought and literature and philosophy ranging from the unorthodox philosophical and political ideas of seventeenth century radical sects as well as scientific dissenters in England, to Spinoza, to the Romanticism of Blake and Shelley and some of the German Idealists and work its way through one strand in the so-called early Marx (though we believe this was a strand in all of Marx's writing and the distinction between early and late Marx is an invention of Althusser's) as well as the various anarchist philosophies of Bakunin and others right down to the critical theories of the Frankfurt school and the libertarian humanism of a figure like Chomsky; and even more important for our seminar, what affinities does it have with bhakti and sufi traditions in India and, as has been suggested in some recent writing, what affinities does this tradition in the West going back to the seventeenth century radical sectaries in England have to the local forms of a rooted radical philosophical politics and political morality in Gandhi?

Quite apart from this intellectual history of the subject, one specific issue that we would like to fasten on in the context of this critical scrutiny and effort at expansion of Enlightenment ideas is this: liberal theory has functioned within a framework of the orthodox Enlightenment in which the values of liberty (autonomy) and equality find themselves in a tension that seems to have no end. That framework does not obviously seem to have the conceptual resources to bring the tension to any satisfying resolution. So, one large intellectual effort on the part of the conference will therefore be to try and identify the philosophical resources to say that there is no way to understand the value of equality without seeing it as essential to autonomy itself, that is to say essential to self-realization and therefore to an unalienated life, a life without the disenchantment we have lived with in our social lives for so long. Without these philosophical resources, for example, Isaiah Berlin's anxieties about the notion of 'positive liberty' seem both natural and justified leaving no plausible notion of liberty or freedom that is not negative, formal or procedural. But our question is: might we rethink the frameworks of the orthodox enlightenment's thinking about liberty towards a more substantial notion of democracy in which such anxieties as Berlin's do not emerge as natural and compulsory.

The conference should like to first formulate some of these large questions briefly raised in this short proposal in more detail and with more break down, and then make a preliminary honorable stab at answering them in some detail. We will proceed both historically and analytically towards these intellectual goals, inviting philosophers, historians, literary scholars and social scientists with broad interests in situating political themes in the theory of value, mind, and culture.

For further information any of the following may be contacted:
Prafulla C. Kar
Director, Centre for Contemporary Theory, Baroda
0265-6622512; 0265-2338067 Email:
Akeel Bilgrami
Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy
And Committee on Global Thought
And Director, Heyman Centre for the Humanities
Columbia University
2960 Broadway, Mail Code 5730
New York NY 10027; Tel: 212 854 1277, Fax: 212 662 7289
P. K. Pandeya
Professor and Head
Department of English
Banaras Hindu University
Varanasi 221005
Tel: (0542) 2410941

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