Empiricism and the project of critical social sciences: The contribution of the CCA

By Prof Mohan Dutta Culture-centered projects of social change intervene in the elite world of theorizing by seeking to co-create spaces for subaltern theories. A key element of this intervention is the actual creation of material and symbolic spaces for subaltern articulations in conversations with subaltern communities. Subaltern theories emerge through conversations among subaltern communities, activists, and academics. Empiricism, attending to the expressions of materiality in everyday lived experiences, is integral to the formulation of theories within the meta-theoretical framework of the CCA. Emergent theories voiced through articulations of lived experiences by subaltern communities, are grounded in the everyday understandings, interpretations, and actions negotiated by community members. The CCA thus is a constitutive framework for method and theory. Culture-centered projects seek to contribute to subaltern struggles with material resources by creating material interventions. These material interventions first and foremost directly intervene into the inequities that constitute subalternity. Practice thus lies at the forefront of culture-centered interventions. CCA projects thus take variety of forms ranging from creating community clinics, to building community resources such as areas for community play and community interactions, to participating in solidarity with subaltern struggles to resist unhealthy policies/structures. Without this first order of intervening materially, any CCA project is somewhat pointless. The theorizing of social change must first hand struggle through the contingencies, constraints, and fragmented journeys of structural transformations. These first hand struggles form the bedrock of the theoretical frames that emerge from the CCA, having been tested empirically through fieldwork in solidarity. Journeying alongside subaltern communities and participating in the processes of social change offer entry points into solidarity, reflexivity, and humility. However, beyond the ground of social change that is created through partnerships with subaltern communities, culture-centered studies seek to intervene in the structures of material production of knowledge. Culture-centered theorization of processes and phenomena bring forth the agency of subaltern communities as theorists and as legitimate producers of knowledge, not as artifacts for generating second layer theories in the hands of academics, but as legitimate participants who participate in knowledge making. The inversion of the material layers of theorizing is a fundamental element of the CCA, arguing that the very elite structures and processes through which knowledge is produced need to be interrogated. Democratizing these elite structures calls for re-articulating the notion of theorizing, what it means to theorize, and who can legitimately participate in enunciating knowledge claims. Theorizing thus is not simply an act of reading the archives for erasures or deconstructing the erased subaltern agency in legal documents. Theorizing is not simply reading a literary text in inversion. Theorizing is also not traveling to a subaltern community for two days so one can write up his second order interpretation in dense language. Theorizing instead is an act of returning to the ground. Theorizing is first and foremost rejecting the notion of academe as a bourgeoisie public sphere. The self-congratulating and incestuously networks of academic theorizing, built on citations to each other, is actively rejected by fundamentally interrogating the “value” of academic theorizing rooted in the texts, libraries, and discussion circles of the ivory tower. Subaltern theories emerging from the margins form entry points to social change by fundamentally transforming the elite nature of theorizing, and by disrupting the elite club of bourgeoisie academics and theorists sitting in the ivory tower. The act of theorizing itself, limited to the elite club of bourgeoisie academics, who retain their Brahminical caste status by keeping to themselves the language, articulative games, and rituals of production is taken to task. That it is not surprising then that the Edwards, Robinsons, Chatterjees, Chakravartys, Guhas, Sens, Chens and Gohs of the world retain the elite positions of and as theorists, drawing their power from their turn away from journeys of solidarity with the poor and the under-classes forms the basis for active interventions in the ivory tower. The very notion of what makes up Subaltern Studies and the ways in which theories are produced is given close scrutiny through conversations with the subaltern classes that have been written out as erasures. That it is the Subaltern Studies scholars who must do the theorizing after the closed studying of the text as deconstruction emerges as an entry point to an imaginary of social science of social change that works through the muddled complexities and contingencies of the impossibilities of listening to subaltern voices (see Spivak’s “Can the subaltern speak?”).  Thus the social scientific basis of the CCA takes off from the question “Can the subaltern speak?” to explore the conditions that are necessary for listening and dialogue so subaltern voices might emerge into the discursive spaces of elite academic spheres. In its theoretical turn thus, the CCA challenges the elitism of academe. The Brahmins of academe stand challenged because their very legitimacy as voices of representation and conceptualization lay challenged. In Santali voices that foreground the everyday uses of representations of Santali identities in struggles with resources, the notion of strategic essentialism is a lived experience. It does not need second or third order reading of the archives. And these Santali representations of concepts, albeit in conversation with the scholar, are equally if not more valuable ways of looking at the world through their grounding in everyday lived experiences. The high priests of theory argue that the turn back toward the ivory tower, to the office space in New York, to the archives in Kolkata, to the libraries in Paris is seen as essential to the production of theory as a second order act. To produce theory, an academic must return to the elite club and participate in its language games. To the high priests of theory, Santali articulations of strategies of resistance that draw upon frames of Santali identity are not legitimate until they use the high language of “strategic elitism” that can now be attributed to the elite scholar in the metropole. The CCA inverts this elite game in its being. It looks at the scholar in the metropole (including its own researchers and scholars) with suspicion, questioning her/his motives and her/his legitimacy as a theorist. The CCA actively interrogates this elite position and its contingent claims to elitism that seek to keep intact the act of theorizing to its elite club through language games, rituals of publishing, and implicit rules of citation networks.

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