The Thinking Person’s Guide to the New Millennium

by Fakrul Alam

The Future of Knowledge and Culture: A Dictionary for the 21 st Century. Edited by Vinay Lal and Ashis Nandy. New Delhi. Penguin Viking, 2005.

By the end of the twentieth century, projects of modernity were becoming increasingly discredited in the realm of ideas. Postmodern thinkers had undermined most grand narratives and dismantled quite a few of the structures erected by enlightenment thinkers. Nevertheless, habits of thoughts shaped by well entrenched disciplinary apparatuses, models of development promoted by organizations pushing globalizing schemes and models, media blitzes sponsored by multinational capitalism, and constant ideological interpellation had blunted the sensibilities of most people. Many had started to believe that it was enough to live in a world of conspicuous consumption and have their desires satisfied instantly, endlessly.

Faced with the obfuscations of the media and the ever-spreading tentacles of capital on the one hand and the skepticism engendered by the postmodernist turn on the other, the thinking person is bound to ask all or some of these questions: How, are we going to penetrate the miasmas created by totalitarian systems of thought and diffused by the media in the new millennium? How, indeed, are we to steer clear of the maze created by global networks of dominance? How is one to go through the twenty-first century with heightened sensitivity and a defogged vision and yet with some idealism intact and a commitment to not accept the world as it is but to do one’s best to alter it any which way one can?

Without a doubt, answering any of these questions is never going to be easy. Also, there will be no single key that will help us open our eyes and allow us to see through the many myths about progress now in circulation. But surely one way for people in our part of the world to penetrate the fogs created by domineering systems of thought and negotiate the obstacles created by the abrasive and aggressive operations of capital at this time will be The Future of Knowledge and Culture: A Dictionary for the 21 st Century. Edited by Vinay Lal and Ashis Nandy, this is a dictionary with a difference; indeed, a dictionary dedicated to differences, demystifications, and alternative visions.

Consider the contents of a continuously surprising work. The first entry is on “Apologies” and the last one is on “Yahoo”. In between, we have entries on not unconventional topics such as “Cancer” “Corruption” “Democracy” “Education” “Human Rights” “Literacy” “Marxism” and “Pollution”, but all treated almost always unconventionally. Who would, however, ever imagine that a book dedicated to the future of knowledge would have essays on “Bollywood” “Coca-Cola” “Damned H20“Ethnic Cuisine” “McDonald’s” “Sacred Groves” and “Spin Doctors”?

A look at the “Notes on Contributors” reinforces the feeling that the reader is about to go through a book where she or he can always expect the unexpected. Contributors include freelance writers, academics, people involved with NGOs, practicing physicians, and members of “think tanks”. They are from all over the world and the only continents not represented are Africa (a surprising and regrettable omission) and Antarctica ( Bangladesh, it is good to note, is represented by a thoughtful entry on refugees by the University of Dhaka’s Imtiaz Ahmed). In fact, some of the entries under the “Notes on Contributors” are positively intriguing: one contributor is identified as “a nomadic storyteller, a deprofessionalized activist and a grass-root activist”, another as a visual anthropologist, still another as” a poet, critic, and amateur gardener”.

But if the contributors come from unique backgrounds and all sorts of professions and locations, they share many common assumptions. One is that we need to reject the “cultivated mediagenic optimism” and images of “unending progress and ever-expanding consumer choices” that we are fed daily and come up with alternative visions of development. Another is that the time has come to leave behind nationalism, embrace a “new cosmopolitanism”, accept hybridity as “a cultural category”, and subscribe to “a self-reflexive and perhaps more self-doubting politics of knowledge”. Or to put it somewhat differently, the entries in The Future of Knowledge are dedicated to both opening our eyes to overwhelming and mind-numbing frameworks of knowledge and to sensitize us to truly humane options we can embrace in the new millennium.

The Future of Knowledge thus begins with “meaningless [official] apologies” that nations often make but suggests that it is never too late for states to regret past brutal actions (when, one keeps thinking, will Pakistan apologize for 1971?). The entry on architecture notes, pace Foucault, that “modern architecture is preoccupied with the management, distribution, utilization and surveillance” of space and proposes that the discipline should embrace “regeneration” as a goal and that “post-industrial culture” should build “vernacular homes” that have this quality incorporated in them.

The paper on consumerism almost ends up saying that Descartes’s “cogito ergo sum” has now a variant, “One is, because one consumes” and notes that advertisement and marketing have now found a willing subject in the lonely, consuming individual created by modern liberal capitalism. I found the few pages given to “Democracy” luminescent with insights, as when the author, C. Douglas Lummis, notes that democracy has to be redefined in our time as the system where the voter doesn’t have any power and merely helps “those who do, by voting for them”. Majid Rahnema’s lucid, thought-provoking entry on “Development” discusses the failures of the official discourse of development and points at “the unholy alliance between “corrupted ‘developmentalist’ regimes and interest groups in “so-called developed countries” and comment on the way the market economy has fuelled “the creation of scarcity and various injustices”. He declares with the conviction of experience (he was a minister in an Iranian government and has held major UN posts) that “true and deeper changes occur when the social actors constituting civil society are ready, first, to change themselves and, second, to use all their creative potential to finding new alternatives for better life” (he could, however, have come up with a few suggestions about how this could be done!) David Punter’s excellent pages on “Mystery’ make us aware that the ultimate mystery behind development, defence departments, dictators, and Disneyland is one ogre: the hydra-headed monster called multinational capitalism.

It is easy to see that the contributors of The Future of Knowledge subscribe, on the whole, to postmodern assumptions about most subjects. The entry on economics thus posits indeterminacy as the essence of contemporary economics; according to its writer, Roby Rajan, “ Economics is best understood as [a] set of beliefs about…(non)-belief about others’ belief about economic reality.” Rajan stresses the need for the political to reassert itself globally “across the entire space of economy.” In another essay on “Imperial Economics” Rajan gives us a dystopian account of the new world economic order where “econopolice” institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO have enforced policies to direct “the movement of capital order” and declares that the task of the twenty-first century will be to reclaim economics from these “imperial economic formations.” However, postmodernism too is critiqued in a number of contributions to the book. For example, while writing about Islam, Ziauddin Sarkar, sees postmodernism itself as the last stop of the imperial world order and recommends ‘transmodernism” as a genuine alternative to the cynicism and nihilism of postmodernism. Sarkar assaults postmodernism frontally in the entry devoted to the subject: “Under postmodernism, distinctive cultures are hybridized, ethnicities are appropriated, sacred spiritual practices are turned into mass products, local cultures are arrogated by the global entertainment machine. ” Perhaps even more scathing is Frederique Apfell-Marglin’s comment that postmodern critiques are carried out by people who “sit in a mirrored closet imagined as an endlessly refracted world”.

The contributors of The Future of Knowledge seem to have come together in this volume with the brief to carry out cultural critiques. This is why the book has entries such as the one on the Jamaican reggae star Bob Marley. My first impression on encountering this essay was “Why him?” By the time I finished reading it though I realized that its author Charles Carnegie was upholding Marley’s music as an example of how “a transnational political consciousness” can be created and how culture can take us across barriers created by conceptual constraints such as communities, race, and nation. On the other hand, Raminder Kaur, the author of the essay on “Spin Doctors” deconstructs a cultural phenomenon that has come to dominate politics in the age of the simulacrum by molding politicians into media savvy people, wittily explaining en route how the success of Blair in nineties Britain is an example of the “soft shell, yet hard sell of New Labour.”

Not surprisingly, not all of the sixty-plus entries of the book are illuminating or worth reading. I found the entries on Bollywood and Calcutta, for instance, merely interesting, and I do intend to damn them with faint praise. Entries such as the one on “Coca Cola” and “McDonald’s” promise more than they deliver. None of these entries, it seems to me, contribute to the future of knowledge. As a Dhakaite, I don’t know whether I should react with incredulity or pride to Ashis Nandy’s claim in his pages on “Ethnic Cuisine” that “Kasturi in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, is arguably the best Bengali restaurant in the world”. Occasionally, a populist strain mars the tone of some of the writing as when Nandy claims in his entry on “Nuclearism” “it is the most depraved, shameless and costly pornography of our times.”

Nevertheless, The Future of Knowledge is a book well worth reading, almost always readable, and immensely stimulating. One can dip into the book at random and comes across amazing observations, amusing comments, and astonishing insights into consumerism, neo-capitalism, and mind-forged manacles. For a Bangladeshi reader in particular, there is much here to learn from. Thus though the editors somehow forgot to mention us in their roll call of South Asian countries while referring to our public sectors in the following line of their Foreword, shouldn’t have we got pride of place when they say that “the state sector and the public sphere are becoming arenas of increasing violence, intolerance and, sometimes blatant incitement to human slaughter”? After all, which other South Asian country can claim such flashy example of state terrorism as our RAB, complete with Zorro-like outfits, bandanas, hunt dogs, and tank-type vehicles? Don’t we daily see proof in the handiwork and oratory of our fundamentalists the truth of Ziauddin Sarkar’s observation that in the name of the creation of an Islamic state, “the integrated, holistic and God-centered world view of Islam is [being] transformed into a totalitarian, theocratic world order, and a persuasive moral God replaced by a coercive, political one”? Isn’t it easy for us to agree with C. Douglas Lummis, the author of the entry on “Military”, that that “the chief function of the military in most states is to establish and protect the government’s power over the people?”

The Future of Knowledge, then is a book that should equip us to navigate the new millennium with the right mindset. Quite reasonably priced, and available in Dhaka bookstores, this is a book to look out for the next time you are there!

October 13, 2005
Fakrul Alam is on leave from the University of Dhaka and now teaches English at East West University, Bangladesh.

One comment

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