European and non-European Philosophers as public intellectuals

On the site of Al Jazeera an amazing and interesting exchange on the process of re-westernisation, de-westernisation and decoloniality in politics, economy, religions, aesthetics, knowledge and subjectivity and the role of thinkers and how they can respond to events in a productive manner.

Santiago Zabala provided the kick off by celebrating Slavov Zivek:

Slavoj Zizek and the role of the philosopher – Opinion – Al Jazeera English

[F]ew have managed to overcome its boundaries and become public intellectuals intensely engaged in our cultural and political life as did Hannah Arendt (with the Eichmann trial), Jean-Paul Sartre (in the protests of May 1968) and Michel Foucault (with the Iranian revolution).

These philosophers became public intellectuals not simply because of their original philosophical projects or the exceptional political events of their epochs, but rather because their thoughts were drawn by these events. But how can an intellectual respond to the events of his epoch in order to contribute in a productive manner?

In order to respond, as Edward Said once said, the intellectual has to be “an outsider, living in self-imposed exile, and on the margins of society”, that is, free from academic, religious and political establishments; otherwise, he or she will simply submit to the inevitability of events.

He exposes himself to criticism

If Slavoj Zizek perfectly fits Said’s description, it is not because he is unemployed, in exile, and at the margins of society, but rather because he writes as if he were. His theoretical books, political positions and public appearances are a disruption not only of the common academic style, but also of the idea of the philosopher or intellectual as someone to be idealised and deferred to.
Today, whether we like him or not, Zizek is, as the Observer points out, “what Jacques Derrida was to the 80s”, that is, the thinker of our age. While Derrida’s intellectual operation focused on “deconstructing” our linguistic frames of reference, Zizek instead “disrupts” our ideological structures, the underside of acceptable philosophical, religious and political discourses.

Although it’s impossible to cover all the Slovenian philosophers’ meditations, which span from Schelling’s idealism through Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis and John Milbank’s theology, it is worth venturing into the political disruptions he has created (which I will comment upon in a later post) in order to further understand how he has changed the role of the philosopher, a role, as he writes in his two latest books (Less Than Nothing and Mapping Ideology) that must “articulate the space for a revolt” independently because when a revolutionary movement is denounced as ideological, “one can be sure that its inversion is no less ideological”.

Hamid Dabashi responds to Zabala by asking the question ‘What happens with thinkers who operate outside the European philosophical ‘pedigree’?
Can non-Europeans think? – Opinion – Al Jazeera English

What immediately strikes the reader when seeing [Zabala’s] opening paragraph is the unabashedly European character and disposition of the thing the author calls “philosophy today” – thus laying a claim on both the subject and time that is peculiar and in fact an exclusive property of Europe.
What about other thinkers who operate outside this European philosophical pedigree, whether they practice their thinking in the European languages they have colonially inherited or else in their own mother tongues – in Asia, in Africa, in Latin America, thinkers that have actually earned the dignity of a name, and perhaps even the pedigree of a “public intellectual” not too dissimilar to Hannah Arendt, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Michel Foucault that in this piece on Al Jazeera are offered as predecessors of Zizek?

“Why is European philosophy ‘philosophy’, but African philosophy ‘ethnophilosophy’?”

What about thinkers outside the purview of these European philosophers; how are we to name and designate and honour and learn from them with the epithet of “public intellectual” in the age of globalised media?

Do the constellation of thinkers from South Asia, exemplified by leading figures like Ashis Nandy, Partha Chatterjee, Gayatri Spivak, Ranajit Guha, Sudipta Kaviraj, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Homi Bhabha, or Akeel Bilgrami, come together to form a nucleus of thinking that is conscious of itself? Would that constellation perhaps merit the word “thinking” in a manner that would qualify one of them – as a South Asian – to the term “philosopher” or “public intellectuals”?

Are they “South Asian thinkers” or “thinkers”, the way these European thinkers are? Why is it that if Mozart sneezes it is “music” (and I am quite sure the great genius even sneezed melodiously) but the most sophisticated Indian music ragas are the subject of “ethnomusicology”?

In a third contribution Walter D. Mignolo weighs in and argues that although Zizek may the most important contemporary European thinker, the work of people like Lewis R Gordon, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Wang Hui and Enrique Dussel is much more relevant for many people.
Yes, we can: Non-European thinkers and philosophers – Opinion – Al Jazeera English

Dabashi’s […] response is a sign among many that we, on the planet, are living a change of epoch rather than in an epoch of changes. The change of epoch is announced, in the sphere of knowledge, in the process of delinking from long lasting effects of epistemic colonial and imperial differences.

According to this frame, Native Americans have wisdom and Anglo-Americans science; Africans have experience and Europeans philosophy; the Third World has culture and the First World social sciences, including anthropology who study the cultures of the Third World; Chinese and Indians have traditions, Europeans modernity; Islam dwells in religion, Europeans in secularism.

Those beliefs in such hierarchies are gone among a growing number of non-European scholars, intellectuals, thinkers, activists. This is for me the implicit call made by Dabashi.
So the fact that Zizek, and other European intellectuals, are seriously rethinking communism means that they are engaging in one option (the reorientation of the Left) among many, today, marching toward the prospect of harmony overcoming the necessity of war; overcoming success and competition which engender corruption and selfishness, and promoting the plenitude of life over development and death.

Building harmonious future

In sum, the exchanges of ideas – in this publication – between Santiago Zabala and Hamid Dabashi, brings to the foreground a fundamental issue in building global and harmonious futures. There is a parallel between the growing convictions of the failure of neo-liberalism in the non-European world that parallels the growing conviction of limits (at the same time the value) of continental philosophy.

Sartre summarised it all in his prologue to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961), when he states, addressing a French and European audience, “listen, pay attention, Fanon is no longer talking to us”.

Of course you should (yes, you should!) read the whole articles. I don’t know if any new episode will appear, but if so I will update this page.

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