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Postnational Condition: Objections and Extensions

A detailed response to each of the articles published in the special section, "The Postnational Condition" (EPW, 7 March 2009).


Postnational Condition: Objections and Extensions

Sasheej Hegde

The German theorist and public intellectual Jurgen Habermas has thus periodised the “postnational constellation” as something following in the wake of what is termed the “short” 20th century (1914-89), and marked by the ambiguities and tensions of globalisation which have

A detailed response to each of the articles published in the special section, “The Postnational Condition” (EPW, 7 March 2009).

Sasheej Hegde ( is with the University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad.

Economic & Political Weekly

november 7, 2009

Doubt has its conditions too

– Wittgenstein

s scholars given over to theorising the contemporary condition, we cannot avoid the use of master c ategories. Such categories have the power of illuminating a complex issue with great efficiency. But at the same time they do so with a clarity that is blinding, with the effect that they obscure other demands and presences in the setting. My attempt in this note is to clarify this discursive space of blindness and insight, and I do so by responding to a special number of the EPW containing essays devoted to exploring what is termed as “The Postnational Condition” (7 March 2009, pp 35-77).1 Rather than respond to each contributor individually, I propose to address the collective circumstance named in and by their contribution, namely, the postnational condition. In problematising this space, one could engender new master categories, which in turn would have to be problematised, so that all this can make for an unsettling framework of appraisal. To be sure, such a framework of unsettlement cannot be an end in itself.

The ‘Time’ of the Postnational

Those living in the time of the present are eventually faced with the task of comprehending the relation of themselves (including the discursive frames they occupy) to time. In one regard, then, to constitute the “postnational condition” as an intellectual-historical configuration is a routine gesture; from another angle, though, it presents a challenging opportunity. The periodisation is routine when the postnational is recapitulated as part of an unfolding of history, with each h istorical period representing stages in the reconciliation of the tension between the material and intellectual dimensions of culture.

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rendered the relevance of the nation state as a continued political model suspect. Specifically, Habermas is concerned to theorise how the basis of legitimacy for democratic processes can be broadened in a postnational world beyond the partial (and in a sense conceptually incoherent) particularist bases that nation states have so far been able to generate. The “postnational” here, accordingly, becomes an idiom for expressing a “new constellation of border crossings”, while also attempting to yield, outside of “any naïve thrust in the rhetoric of a ‘third way’ beyond neoliberalism and social democracy”, a perspective on (what Habermas posits as) “a genuinely disturbing problem that we will all face in the coming century: can democracies based on the social welfare state survive national borders?”2 He is emphatic that if the democratic process is to secure a basis for legitimacy beyond the nation state, then neither state structures nor market mechanisms, but popular processes of collective will-formation alone will have to provide it. In other words, social solidarity, which like it or not can no longer coherently subsist within the particular perspective of nation states, will have to take a further “abstractive step” beyond the affective ties of nation, language, place and heritage.

Without doubt, Habermas is sensitive to the difficulty of shifting popular sentiments of inclusion, belonging, and shared interests to such a horizon; but insists that the difficulty is itself an empirical matter and not one of principle, and thus will have to be tested in the tumult of the postnational constellation rather than dismissed out of hand. This produces, it seems to me, a characteristically ambivalent moment in which political theory and public criticism is imbued with new social importance and insightfulness while simultaneously failing to fully comprehend and negate its own material determination,


the standard way (incidentally) of delimiting a period in dialectical histories of reason. Positioned in this way, as the lost opportunity to render its own history r eflexively transparent, theory and public criticism retreats into idealism, formalism and moral universalism, and Habermas advances to the prophetic cusp of a “postnational constellation”. Is the challenge of a different order in the essays represented in the special issue of the EPW that we are here discussing?

Doubtless, if there is a challenge and opportunity to be found in offering a historical account of the moment of the postnational, then this must lie in developing a mode of analysis that avoids the model of the dialectical history of reason which, as it turns out, remains a constituent of the moment of the “postnational” itself. I am afraid I cannot take up entirely, for reasons of space, the dimensions of this formulation. All the same, it would be a mode of appraisal that turns away from the big dialectical processes that are supposed to determine what we must become, and f ocuses instead on the historical contingencies that make us what we happen to be. Interestingly enough, it is this central move that underscores most of the essays in the EPW number we are discussing. As the contributors, in their collectively a uthored introductory note, state: “To us the postnational emerges as a distinct ethico-political horizon and a position of critique – from a serious ongoing interrogation of the history of nation states and the souring of its great dream of (abstract) citizenship to … [an] …attempt to rethink a feminist critique that resists received n otions of the political” (p 35).

The challenge here consists in treating the “postnational” not as a modality undergoing dialectical development towards reflexivity, but as a term pointing to an array of tendencies and possibilities, each capable of being treated as historical phenomena by an empirically-oriented intellectual history. Of course, the contributors discussing are not all entirely responsive to this challenge, which would entail bringing intellectual history to bear on a recent (even co-present) intellectual past. And yet, as might be expected, the contributors in a variety of ways seem to have a sense of the issue – albeit at odds with each other (as indeed the larger aims of their prognosis) – but never quite without vivid engagement with the moment of the postnational itself in its several forms.

Refracting from the intensity of this e ngagement – and, without doubt, the terrain of the contributions is multifarious and extensive, ranging from S Akbar Z aidi’s reflections on the shift in Pakistan’s identity and associations, Satish Deshpande on the challenges of a contemporary politics of location and the practice of social theory, Mary E John’s attempt to r eframe globalisation form the vantage point of the women’s movement in India, Malathi de Alwis on the complexities and tensions of the Sinhala feminist movement and Pradeep Jeganathan’s preliminary description of postnational inhabitation from within an epistemologically mediated thought about the “work of melancholia” to outlining of the contours of a post national politics “over” and “under” the nation, each by Aditya Nigam, M S S Pandian and Nivedita Menon – there are questions to be asked about the specific ensemble of practices that foreground their prognosis, as indeed the condition they describe (even if peremptorily) as the “postnational condition”. The strange and unique doubleness of their discursive location – of being within the nation, while thinking its impossibility (metaphorically, a place here being a place elsewhere) – and the selfrepresentation of this “nonplace” as postnational would need to be commented upon, as well.

Problematising Location

Again, for reasons of space primarily, I shall refrain from recapitulating the detail of the discussion of the question of location presented in the various essays; instead, I will try to draw out its arguments and implications more broadly and even speculatively. The point is that, far from representing a novel and progressive transformation of moribund disciplines, the question of location (as posed, and the moment of the “postnational” that the question here institutes) is in fact indicative of a return of historical and social science scholarship to an aspect of modern intellectual culture given over to a mode of transforming the disciplines through the selftransformation of their practitioners. In

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fact, I take this return to be quite central to postcolonial studies as practised in the contemporary conjuncture – a thought, incidentally, that intimates (without necessarily configuring) our contributors here; specifically, their pointed annunciation that they “are a group of south Asian scholars, living in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India, and have been involved in exchanging ideas on the nature of politics and possibilities of knowledge production in the contemporary world, where the force of exhaustion of this potential (the emancipatory potential once embodied in the n ation state as a political community of citizens, that is) is profoundly felt by many” (p 35). Needless to say, this axis would need problematisation, for despite championing the postnational (as we stipulated above) as a kind of “nonplace” issuing from a strange and unique double l ocation of being simultaneously within the nation and thinking its impossibility, the contributions fail to ask a crucial question: in what historical or institutional c ircumstances do scholars become disdainful of practices of knowledge production and tend to become anxious about themselves and their “location”? Equally, one would need to face up to the larger i ntellectual question of how to think the practice of transforming the disciplines through the self-transformation of their practitioners. I take it that not asking these questions – or alternatively, asking them but answering them perfunctorily

– is a condition of a master category’s (in this instance, the postnational condition) intellectual and institutional e xistence.

In this regard, we social scientists and historians have much to learn from the problematisation of doubt offered in Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, the crux of which is given in his comment that “Doubt has its conditions too” – incidentally, the epigram framing our discussion as a whole – and constitutive of his effort to show “that a doubt is not necessary even where it is possible”.3 If this is so, then one can posit the question of location being posed – in and by the special number that we are here discussing – as having its conditions and as willed rather than necessary, although, to be sure, as the note introducing the essays, gently puts it “the question of

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location does not refer to some ‘more a uthentic’ point of epistemic access, but in fact, underlines the importance of a certain ‘density of arguments within a lived community’” in the business of knowledge production (p 35). Yet there are issues, less of a substantive kind than in terms of the heuristics of self-problematisation on offer here. Allow me an elaboration, wading through the formulations on offer, in the spirit of dialogue that is the discussion pages of EPW (of which I remain, incidentally, a frequent interlocutor).

To the extent that “theory” informs the production of new knowledges, then the postnational theorist problematises the object by problematising his or her commitment to the positive knowledge in which the object resides. This applies to all the founding moments of the essays featured. For example, it is declared that “Clearly, geographical entities and regions are ideologically configured, as are national boundaries, and often both change with the times. This realisation does not lament the nation, but instead, celebrates the possibilities beyond, and outside, the nation and its state” (Akbar Zaidi, p 39).

Likewise it is stated that “If full spectrum intellectual activity becomes increasingly centralised and concentrated – as it seems to be becoming – then most of the world’s theory will be developed from a very small number of ‘universal’ locations. This provincialisation of thought cannot be good for our collective future, and would be specially damaging for these universal locations themselves. This is because the universal location will end up denying itself the heuristic advantage of an outside perspective. …It is crucially important that every location have an ‘outside’ because every location only offers a partial vision” (Satish Deshpande, p 45).

Equally, it is proclaimed from the perspective of the women’s movement that “My point is not to deny the depth of contemporary transformations, or indeed, the power of ‘global’ forces at different levels. Rather, I wish to draw attention to the political and methodological fallout of already presuming ‘globalisation’ to be the prime mover of the present in contrast to that of the nation before” (Mary John, p 46). Further, “A postnational location is a political p ractice. It is a response to the

Economic & Political Weekly

november 7, 2009

emancipatory promise of postcolonial n ationalism turned grotesque and postcolonial feminism gone awry. This brief article tries to trace the contours of this political practice through an interrogation of the very terms I mobilise and through a critique of practices in which I have been complicit” (Malathi de Alwis, p 51). And, again, the attempt at a preliminary description, in relation to the “melancholy inhabitants of postnational place” (Pradeep Jeganathan, p 57), of the double loss imposed by the impossibility of the nationalist project: “I write from a postnational location, the uncomfortable home of a nation that never was, and never will be. …If the project of anthropology is to make universal a particularity of some ‘moral elsewhere’ that by definition is ‘ other’, and therefore, outside the bounds of comprehension of the universal reason of the enlightenment, then the project of anti-colonial nationalism would to be work through the particularity of its content – its literature, music, or even its sports, such as cricket – and claim a universality of those particularities, practices, thoughts and knowledges and is as such also an epistemological orientation to the world” (ibid, pp 54-55).

As Aditya Nigam shows in his contribution, it also applies to the “framing binaries of empire and colony, espoused by postcolonial theorists”, which “fail to recognise other voices that are continuously, simultaneously at play – voices that do not fit into either term of the binary” (Nigam, p 59). The lesson that he draws is about the “persistence of notions of belonging that do not need the existence of the nation-form”, and which (for Nigam) “were not mere remnants of a past consciousness, a relic of some other era, but constitute a different view of the world in our ‘here and now’” (ibid, p 61).

The “perpetual anxiety and the consequent violence of the nation-form” finds further formulation in M S S Pandian, who, in rendering the nation-form “an utopia” – “Pursuing this utopia can only be an ever-elusive, never-realisable project of violence” (Pandian, p 65) – attempts to constitute the “ethical horizon of the deterritorialised post-national imagination”, as part of a seeking for “newer, pluralistic and enabling forms of politics beyond the

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nation-form” (ibid, p 68). The mode of this problematisation is finally carried through in the claim that “Our usage of the term ‘postnational’ would outline itself very differently…, not lining up with narratives of triumphant postnationalism rendering national borders obsolete, but at the same time, not retreating to a reconstituted national space in the face of this triumphalism” (Nivedita Menon, p 71). “Location” is here taken to “gesture towards the materiality of spatial and temporal coordinates that inevitably suffuse all theorising” (ibid, p 70), while also, in admitting to a politics of postnationalism as having “two dimensions – one, ‘over’ the nation, across national borders, and two, ‘under’ the nation, resisting inclusion into the ‘larger’ national identity, insisting on space/time trajectories that do not mesh with progressivist dominant narratives of nation and history” (ibid, p 76), concluding that “We have yet to test the imaginative horizons of the postnational as concept and as practice” (ibid, p 77).


One might, in the broad sweep of these formulations, say that the mode of problematisation here represents a kind of abstention from the one advocated above in our allusion to Wittgenstein: not from the problematisation of a domain of knowledge that one seeks to describe, but from the ‘doubt’ that one seeks to problematise. One way of capturing the logic of this abstention is through Foucault, but his stipulations in terms of techniques of selfproblematisation and the larger “regimes of truth” and “arts of living” to which they belong invoke a whole new range of concerns.4 The problem, at our end, concerns the problematisation of knowledges in the domain of theory: what are the conditions that allow us to declare that the possibilities of knowledge production in the contemporary world are not what they seem, when one opens up to what the essays are alluding as the “postnational condition”? What is it we do to ourselves when we suspend given ideas as a prior theoreticalpolitical horizon and constitute new frames of intelligibility and understanding? Doubtless, to describe (as the contributors seem to be doing) the question of


“location” as an exercise in self-problematisation is a key step in transforming the moment of the production of new p ostnational knowledges into an object of historical contextualisation. And yet, I am not too sure whether “location” can properly constitute (or even facilitate) the basis of this alteration. Note I am far from claiming that the question of the “postnational condition” cannot admit of being put, or even answered, without some precise methodological calculus. Rather, that in seeking after a stronger recasting of the problem of the postnational the question of the justification of what we come to count as an authoritative explanation of a given state of affairs or as an evaluation of normative schemas is not to be confused with a historical narrative account of how it is that we have come to regard the world the way we do and why we employ the specific evaluative criteria that we do. One recognises, of course, that there is a r iposte to this. But it is also the point where, maybe, a truer engagement could begin.

Exactly what it comes to – just what line is being drawn between the logical constraints of what is required for the production of new postnational knowledges and the historical-sociological suggestion that this involve a scaffolding of facts and frameworks – is clearly sensitive to details of one’s cognition and history and the individuation of their contents. The challenge concerns its generalisation, however. Trying to think about this raises the key issue of the extent to which any “location” – even one grounded in a capacious discursive capacity – could envisage such alternative perspectives, which by definition we cannot occupy. Notice that this is not a bar in principle: we cannot occupy temporal points of view in the distant past, but we can say perfectly well what they are like and work with them. But my point is different, what is another variation on a theme that is familiar through the works of Indian and western philosophers: of how to dispel the air of paradox surrounding positionality. Positional objectivity can be made to seem paradoxical, because, in order to be aware that its conception of the world is from a specified “somewhere”, the subject must already have stepped outside it and occupied a “higher” (transcendental?) vantage point outside the boundaries of that positionality.

The issue warrants considerable historical and conceptual treatment, something that I have not been able to come across in the literature. The economist and philosopher Amartya Sen has poignantly remarked that “(t)he objectivity of a particular perspective does not, by itself, establish its epistemic status beyond that positional contingency”; but I am afraid this does not take care of the calculus I am d emanding here.5 Let me, in a final foray, get on to another space of objections and extensions.

Agency and/of Globalisation

There is yet something compelling, it could be claimed, in deploying a master category like the “postnational”. Not only does the category help in transforming the moment of the production of new knowledges into an object of historical contextualisation, it also translates into a way of illuminating an important aspect of the contemporary condition, namely, “globalisation”. But master categories always produce a vast penumbra around that centre of light, a penumbra that I shall quickly explore while augmenting the thoughts forwarded in the preceding two sections.

Following the work of the sociologist Saskia Sassen, it is imperative to keep asking the question: what is it we are trying


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to name with the term “globalisation”? For Sassen, it is actually two distinct sets of dynamics – one having to do with the formation of explicitly global institutions and processes, such as the WTO, global financial markets, war crimes tribunals, the new cosmopolitanism, and so on, and whose practices and organisational forms operate through a dynamic which could be typically thought of as global scales, and the second having to do with processes that do not necessarily scale at the global level as such, but are still part of globalisation. Importantly, for her, these latter processes are embedded inside territories and institutional domains that have largely been constructed in national terms in large parts of the world. What makes these processes part of globalisation, Sassen proclaims, even though localised in national (indeed subnational) settings is that they involve transboundary networks and formations connecting or articulating multiple local or “national” processes and actors.6 For Sassen, clearly, the subnational is an important site for globalisation, and consequently reiterates that a focus on such subnationally based processes and dynamics of globalisation requires methodologies and theorisations that engage not only global scalings but also subnational scalings as components of global processes (thereby destabilising older h ierarchies of scale and conceptions of nested scalings).

Now, of course, I am not implying that this understanding of the global is not available to the contributors, and even u nderlies some of their forays across the space of the postnational condition. My problem is in determining what this i mplies for their idea that “We believe the postnational can be instantiated only by suspending the idea of the nation as a p rior theoretical-political horizon, and thinking through its impossibility, even while located uncomfortably within its bounds” (p 35). In fact, in our preceding two sections, I offered a problematisation of this strange and unique double location – of being simultaneously within the n ation and thinking its impossibility (metaphorically, a place here being a place elsewhere) – and the self-representation of this “nonplace” as postnational. Let me press a further consideration issuing off

Economic & Political Weekly

november 7, 2009

the thoughts I have just foregrounded here about the subnational as the site for g lobalisation.

There is a difference between studying global processes and conditions that get constituted subnationally and studies of globally constituted dynamics. I am not so sure the essays comprising the postnational condition are sensitive to this difference, but I know for sure that a good deal of globalisation studies is not.7 All the same

– and specifically for those like our contributors here who are given to articulating their discursive location as being within the nation, while thinking its impossibility – a central task that one faces for developing critical globalisation studies is to decode particular aspects of what is still represented or experienced as “national” that may in fact have shifted away from what had historically been considered or constituted as national. I am inclined to think that this is the critical premise underlying parts of Arjun Appadurai’s

Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalisation, although in the discussion that the work spawned this foundation has been hardly commented on.8 Indeed, none of the contributors allude to the problem, even as they (at least, some of them) are concerned to remark off both Appadurai and his critics. After all, as I mentioned earlier, master categories also produce a vast penumbra around a centre of light.

In fine, then, as I have remarked e lsewhere, our cognitive and historical e ngagements would consist as much in taking the correctness of conceptual and historical contents as their subject matter as in committing oneself to a normative stance about (if one will) epistemic responsibility and context relativity. Intellectual work in the present demands that we strive to forestall the dangers of both c onceptual reification through master cate gories and theoretical and ideological ethnocentricity.

Notes and References

1 The contributors include a collection of south Asian scholars, living in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India: S Akbar Zaidi, Satish Deshpande, Mary E John, Malathi de Alwis, Pradeep Jeganathan, Aditya Nigam, M S S Pandian and Nivedita M enon. All paginations in the text, unless otherwise specified, refer to these contributions.

2 These ideas find fuller articulation – and, one might say, passionate advocacy – in Jurgen Habermas,

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The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays

(Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001). The lines cited are in the brief foreword offered by Habermas, p xviii.

3 To be sure, Wittgenstein is here responding to an aspect of modern intellectual culture that is predispositionally suspicious and sceptical (in the sense that nothing is ever as it seems). The lines cited are from his On Certainty (Oxford: Blackwell, 1969, p 50e).

4 I am afraid I cannot get into them here, but for the terms of Foucault’s framing, see his The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality, Vol 2 (New York: Random House, 1985) and The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the College de France 1981-1982 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). In these works, Foucault provides a way of escaping the automatic or “structural” conception of problematisation found in his earlier archaeological studies. To be sure, Foucault looms large as a background condition for the various contributors that we are here discussing, but is restricted to the former’s attempt to think power beyond sovereignty.

5 Sen also reiterates the “importance of practical reason (and decisions about actions and rules) in judging alternative perspectives and their respective claims to our attention” (“Our Past and Our Present”, Economic & Political Weekly, 25 November 2006, p 4879). The lines quoted in our main text are also from this piece (ibid). I have responded to this essay and developed further on these facets in a short note entitled “The Cognitive and the Historical: Responding to Sen” (Economic & Political Weekly, 14 April 2007, pp 1387-90).

6 Among these processes, Sassen includes: crossborder networks of activists engaged in specific localised struggles with an explicit or implicit global agenda (as is the case with many human rights and environmental organisations); particular aspects of the work of states (for instance, certain monetary and fiscal policies critical to the constitution of global markets that are consequently b eing implemented in a growing number of countries); the use of international human rights i nstruments in national courts; noncosmopolitan forms of global politics and imaginaries that r emain deeply attached or focused on localised i ssues and struggles, yet are part of global lateral networks containing multiple other such localised efforts. Note, the two distinct sets of dynamics of contemporary globalisation have been explored by Sassen in three books: The Mobility of Labour and Capital (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), The Global City (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991; updated 2nd edition, 2001) and Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).

7 Sassen and others have argued that both types of studies are important, involving the use of qualitative and quantitative research techniques and national and subnational data sets as well as specialised domains such as area studies; but cautions that they need to be situated in conceptual architectures that are not quite those held by the researchers who generated these research techniques and data sets as their efforts mostly had little to do with globalisation. See the in-depth interviews with several contemporary sociologists, including Saskia Sassen, in N Gane, The Future of Social Theory (London: Continuum, 2004).

8 I have in mind here the critical response of Partha Chatterjee, framed in his “Beyond the Nation? Or Within” (Economic & Political Weekly, 4 January 1997, pp 30-34). Appadurai’s work mentioned in the text was published in 1997 by Oxford University Press, Delhi. I learn that he has an edited book, Globalisation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), but I have not been able to access it, so as to augment my point.

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