Vale Satadru Sen (1969-2018)

It is with great sadness that I make note here of the sudden passing of my friend and CUNY colleague, Satadru Sen (of Queens College’s History department),  on October 8th, 2018–he would have turned fifty in January. The news of his death came as a shock; my family is united in grieving with his family, friends, students, and colleagues.

Satadru and I met because we had to: we taught at CUNY; we were Indian immigrants who moved to the US at similar ages (Satadru in high school, I moved after my first degree); we loved cricket (Satadru wrote a few guest posts on my old cricket blog, and reviewed my book Brave New Pitch); we had a taste for Indian military history (he reviewed my book on the air component of the 1971 war between India and Pakistan); we liked traveling in the American West (he went on long motorcycle rides across its vast expanses and came back with stunning photographs.) We exchanged notes on our backgrounds and inclinations; we cursed the descent into fascism of the US and India; we fretted and fumed at CUNY bureaucracy, at the stupidity and obduracy of many of its administrative decisions; we were perplexed and enthralled by our students; as we became fathers, we discussed the trials and tribulations of parenting. (Our wives were in law school when we first met, and soon, we were the fathers of young girls–thus allowing for points of resonance between our families.)

Satadru was a genuine scholar and intellectual. As his department made note:

His scholarship was his passion; through it he sought to expose the inequities and hypocrisies wrought by colonial regimes in South Asia and in the Indian Ocean World.  His research ranged from the institutionalization of discipline and punishment to the global celebrity of a cricketer-turned-politician and its implications for understanding the experiences of subjects in imperial contexts.

Satadru’s five single-authored monographs include Disciplining Punishment: Colonialism and Convict Society in the Andaman Islands(Oxford University Press, 2000), Migrant Races: Empire, Identity, and K.S. Ranjitsinhji (Manchester University Press, 2005), Colonial Childhoods: The Juvenile Periphery of India, 1860-1945 (Anthem Press, 2005), Savagery and Colonialism in the Indian Ocean: Power, Pleasure and the Andaman Islanders (Routledge, 2010), and Restoring the Nation to the World: Benoy Kumar Sarkar and Modern India (Routledge, 2015).  In addition to these are two collections of essays and one co-edited volume.

That publication list is one component of the claim I made above; far more germane was the quality of his writing and scholarship. His writing had flair and passion–visible quite clearly too, in his blog essays, marvelous long-form ventures of analysis and observation. (I reviewed his book on Ranjitsinhji for ESPN-cricinfo; in retrospect it might have been the best academic book on cricket I’ve ever read.)

Satadru and I met infrequently, but we exchanged mails and messages often; sometimes we met for drinks or coffee in our neighborhood; after we became fathers, we met with our families for teas and play-dates. On each occasion, we found time to retire to a  corner to trade our mordant little notes on academia, cricket, history, and the like. His observations were sharp and informed; I trust he enjoyed his interactions with me as well.

I’ll miss him; so will his family and friends and all those who learned from him and were enriched by his scholarship and companionship.

Nations, Nationalisms, And The Natal Crime

Patriots and nationalists of many stripes are often committed to the view that a certain kind of nation-building violence was inevitable, and written into the very idea of the nation, into the national fabric as it were; the sanguine acceptance of such violence is ostensibly worth taking on as the price to be paid for the ‘gift’ of the nation–perhaps a home for a perennially wandering people, or a linguistic and cultural and religious community of one kind or the other, perhaps identified with a distinctive geographic location. Such acceptance has always had the uncomfortable implication that an acute incoherence is built into the citizen’s cherished moral creed of the nation and its politics. Its foundation is wrapped up in a holocaust that is part of its national origin, the burden of which all in the nation seem willing to accept with varying degrees of self-awareness.

Nations and their nationalist defenders deploy, in their political rhetoric, tropes that speak to virtue, to the earthly realization via their nation, of otherwise unrealizable moral and mundane goods; this does not preclude their insisting that their citizen defend in their name, all manner of moral atrocities. This incoherence is built into the heart and soul of the nation–and thus its citizens–so that it can force a peculiar and and distinctive dissonance on the part of its subject, rendering them internally incoherent and divided–and reliant upon the psychic support provided by the now valorized and seemingly immortal and indispensable nation. (There are parents who send out their children so ill-equipped, morally and otherwise, to deal with this world and those in it, that the child is soon driven back into the arms of its parents.) The arch critics of nationalism  insist all nations have violence written into their fabric because the nation can only come to being through some act of a national will to power that necessarily involves crushing the ambitions of other aspirations like family life or religious observance or local association. Cults are said to ask their devotees to discard all previous ties; the nation requires that all other commitments take a secondary place in the hierarchy of alliances and duties; the nation must do violence to these other competing claims. The nation is the mother of all cults.

Defending the indefensible is one of the many burdens that nationalism forces us to take on. Perhaps that explains, at least partially, the intensity of wars fought in the national interest: they are continuations of the violence that preceded and heralded them, an expression of acute discomfort, of horror, at the secret that is to be kept; these wars enable the maintenance of an appropriate distance from the scene of the natal crime. They are disavowals of the national crime, made more plausible by accusatory screeds hurled at another–perhaps a kind of ‘reaction formation’ on a  national level.

An entity that sought, and received, the blood of many to water its foundations will not hesitate for it again and again. Our history bears adequate witness to these demands.

Space Exploration And The Invisible Women

Yesterday being a snow day in New York City–for school-going children and college professors alike–I spent it with my daughter at home. Diversion was necessary, and so I turned to an old friend–the growing stock of quite excellent documentaries on Netflix–for aid. My recent conversations with my daughter have touched on the topic of space exploration–itself prompted by a discussion of the Man on the Moon, which had led me to point out that actual men had been to the moon, by rocket, and indeed, had walked on it. A space exploration documentary it would be. We settled on the BBC’s ‘Rocket Men’ and off we went; I wanted to show my daughter the Apollo 11 mission in particular, as I have fond memories of watching a documentary on its flight with my parents when I was a five-year old myself.

As the documentary began, I experienced a familiar sinking feeling: my daughter and I were going to be watching something ‘notable,’ ‘historical,’ a human achievement of some repute, and yet again, we would find few women featured prominently. Indeed, as the title itself suggests, the documentary is about men: the astronauts, the rocket scientists, the mission control specialists. The only women visible are those watching rockets blast off or worrying about the fates of their family members in them. This used to happen in our watching of music videos too as I introduced my daughter to ‘guitar heroes’ as a spur to her guitar lessons. After a couple of weeks of watching the likes of Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page et al, my daughter asked me, “Don’t girls play the guitar?” Well, of course they do, and so off we went, to check out Joan Jett, Nancy Wilson, Lita Ford, Chrissie Hynde, the Deal sisters, and many others.

It had been an easy trap to fall into. In the case of music, I had a blind spot myself. In the case of space exploration the problem lay elsewhere: there were no women pilots qualified for the astronaut program as the initial selection of the astronaut corps came from the armed forces. Both instances though, were united by their embedding in a culture in which women were women were less visible, less recognized, less likely to be promoted to the relevant pantheon. After all, as in literature and art and philosophy, women have been present in numbers that speak to their ability to surmount the social barriers placed in their paths, and yet still rendered invisible because of the failure to see them and their contributions to their chosen field of artistic endeavor.

As I watched a video of the first seven American astronauts being introduced at a press conference, I felt I had to say something to my daughter, to explain to her why no women were to be seen in this cavalcade of handsome crew cut men wearing aviator sunglasses. So I launched into a brief digression, explaining the selection process and why women couldn’t have been selected. My daughter listened with some bemusement and asked if things were still that way now. I said, no, but there’s work to be done. And then we returned to watching the Gemini and Apollo missions. Afterwards, I walked over to my computer and pulled up the Wikipedia entries for Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride and Kalpana Chawla and showed them to my daughter, promising her that we would watch documentaries on them too. She seemed suitably enthused.

My Conception Story

As the month of March drew to a close in 1993, I traveled to India to spend some time with my terminally ill mother. I arrived ‘home’ on March 30th; my mother passed away on April 25. In those four weeks or so, all spent in the close proximity of my mother, I talked and listened a great deal; I sought to elicit stories and tales about the past that I knew would soon be lost with her passing. In particular, I urged my mother to tell me stories about my father, who had passed away fourteen years earlier; she had borne adequate witness to an important part of his life; she had been his friend and companion. I asked for a recounting of the years following their wedding, the years before I was born–my prehistory. Among the stories my mother told me was how I came to be.

In the 1960s, my father was a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, his life spent at various bases scattered all over the country. Before my parents’ wedding my father had served time in what were termed ‘non-family’ bases; no wives or children allowed. My mother had joined him on a ‘family base’ after their wedding; when the Air Force ordered him to move–hopefully to a ‘family base’–she moved too. The logic behind designating some bases ‘family’ and others ‘non-family’ is not immediately clear to me; you might imagine it had something to do with proximity to the border, or their use in combat missions. But amazingly enough, during the 1965 war with Pakistan, while my father flew combat missions out of an air base at Adampur in the Indian Punjab, my mother, along with her seven-month son (my elder brother) stayed at their normal family residence during operations. Indeed, she witnessed a raid by the Pakistan Air Force on the base, and spent time in a trench as bombs exploded not so far away. My mother might have imagined that with my father now married with children, the time was over for him to spend time on the dreaded ‘non-family’ base. But the ways of the military are indeed mysterious.

In the summer of 1966, my father returned home from his flying duties one day and told my mother the bad news: the air force was assigning to him a ‘non-family’ base in the north-east for an indefinite time. It would hopefully be a short posting, a stop-gap measure, but he was needed. My mother could join him later, when accommodations had been arranged, but for the time being, the family would be separated. On hearing this, my mother flew into a rage. How dare the air force do this to her? She had a year-old son to take care of; she would now have to move back home with her parents or with her in-laws, neither of which seemed like palatable alternatives. (She was always a proud and independent woman.) My father for his part, grew increasingly defensive and irate: There was nothing he could do about this state of affairs; protests were futile; this was the military and he had to follow orders. My parents squabbled furiously for a while, a conversation that finally came to an end as my mother tearfully stormed off to her bedroom while my father retired to the living room to read and to calm down in his own way.

Then, as my mother told the story, she thought and thought for a while, and then finally, she strode into the living room, and said to my father, “If you’re going to go away and leave me alone, I want another baby.” As she told me this, my mother leaned over, squeezed my hand tightly and said, “Samir, that’s the night we made you.”

I was born nine months later in March 1967, at my grandfather’s residence in Central India.

Steven Pinker Should Read Some Nietzsche For Himself

Steven Pinker does not like Nietzsche. The following exchange–in an interview with the Times Literary Supplement makes this clear:

Question: Which author (living or dead) do you think is most overrated?

Pinker: Friedrich Nietzsche. It’s easy to see why his sociopathic ravings would have inspired so many repugnant movements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including fascism, Nazism, Bolshevism, the Ayn Randian fringe of libertarianism, and the American alt-Right and neo-Nazi movements today. Less easy to see is why he continues to be a darling of the academic humanities. True, he was a punchy stylist, and, as his apologists note, he extolled the individual superman rather than a master race. But as Bertrand Russell pointed out in A History of Western Philosophy, the intellectual content is slim: it “might be stated more simply and honestly in the one sentence: ‘I wish I had lived in the Athens of Pericles or the Florence of the Medici’.”

The answers that Pinker seeks–in response to his plaintive query–are staring him right in the face. To wit, ‘we’ study Nietzsche with great interest because:

1. If indeed it is true that Nietzsche’s ‘ravings…inspired so many repugnant movements’–and these ‘movements’ have not been without considerable import, then surely we owe it to ourselves to read him and find out why they did so. Pinker thinks it ‘It’s easy to see why’ but surely he would not begrudge students reading Nietzsche for themselves to find out why? Moreover, Nietzsche served as the inspiration for a great deal of twentieth-century literature too–Thomas Mann is but one of the many authors to be so influenced. These connections are worth exploring as well.

2. As Pinker notes with some understatement, Nietzsche was a ‘punchy stylist.’ (I mean, that is like saying Mohammad Ali was a decent boxer, but let’s let that pass for a second.) Well, folks in the humanities–in departments like philosophy, comparative literature, and others–often study things like style, rhetoric, and argumentation; they might be interested in seeing how these are employed to produce the ‘sociopathic ravings’ that have had such impact on our times. Moreover, Nietzsche’s writings employ many different literary styles; the study of those is also of interest.

3. Again, as Pinker notes, Nietzsche ‘extolled the individual superman rather than a master race,’ which then prompts the question of why the Nazis were able to co-opt him in some measure. This is a question of historical, philosophical, and cultural interest; the kinds of things folks in humanities departments like to study. And if Nietzsche did develop some theory of the “individual superman,” what was it? The humanities are surely interested in this topic too.

4. Lastly, for Pinker’s credibility, he should find a more serious history of philosophy than Bertrand Russell‘s A History of Western Philosophy, which is good as a light read–it was written very quickly as a popular work for purely commercial purposes and widely reviled in its time for its sloppy history. There is some good entertainment in there; but a serious introduction to the philosophers noted in there can only begin with their own texts. If Pinker wants to concentrate on secondary texts, he can read Frederick Copleston‘s Friedrich Nietzsche: Philosopher of Culture; this work, written by a man largely unsympathetic to Nietzsche’s views and who indeed finds him morally repugnant, still finds them worthy of serious consideration and analysis. So much so that Copleston thought it worthwhile to write a book about them. Maybe Pinker should confront some primary texts himself. He might understand the twentieth century better.

Gide’s Immoralist And The Existential Necessity Of The Colony

The immoralist at the heart of André Gide‘s The Immoralist, Michel, does not travel just anywhere; he travels to French colonies like Algeria and Tunisia; the boys who he meets, is attracted to, and falls in love with, are not just any boys; they are Muslim Arab boys. He is old; they are young. He is white; they are brown. He is sick and tubercular; they are young and exuberant, bursting to the seams with health and vitality. Their blood is redder, and flows more freely; Michel’s blood is black, and hideous, and disgusting. He is diseased, but as he spends time among his new companions, whose bodies and nakedness underneath their clothes he cannot take his eyes off of, his health improves and he begins to describe the arc of a journey to greater health and well-being, away from disease; he begins a journey from flirting with death to welcoming life in all its fullness. The language that Gide uses to describe Michel’s journey or passage is richly symbolic and metaphorical, and invites multiple interpretations, mingling as it does, these descriptions of the physical with those of the mental, so that we are tempted to see Michel’s journey from bad to good health as his journey from being ‘a lost soul’ to being ‘a found self’; that much is straightforward.

But why place this journey in colonized lands, why make the vehicles of Michel’s transformation and self-discovery be the colonized, the subjugated, the colonial subject? For one, we can see the colonizer use both the land and the peoples of the colony as his experiential space for self-discovery; it becomes one more of the services or functions that the colonized provides; besides markets, it provides an avenue and domain for self-construction; it becomes one more of the means by which the colonizer comes to realize himself. Because the colonized inhabits a world in which the colonizer has been, as it were, ‘marketed’, Michel finds in the colonies and in the gaze of the colonial subject, one component of his identity: how a Frenchman is understood by those he has colonized. If the colonial identity is an indissoluble part of what it meant to be a Frenchman in the twentieth century then Michel has done the right thing by traveling to a French colony; it is there that he will find out what a Frenchman truly is.

But this salvation need not be individual; all of French culture and Western civilization may be redeemed in the colonies; it is where a decadent, dying civilization looks to being revitalized; to literally being brought back to life. French and Western civilization has become old and tubercular, its blood is polluted. But the Muslim Arab world is younger, even if immature, it promises a new vision of life to a culture on its death-bed and drags it back from its flirtation with death.

The colony is a material and spiritual and existential necessity; it extends the life of the colonizer; the journey to a new form of life for the colonizer begins there.

Studying Ancient Law In Philosophy Of Law

This semester in my philosophy of law class, I’ve begun the semester with a pair of class sessions devoted to ancient law: Mesopotamian, Biblical, and Roman. (My class is reading excerpts from a standard law school textbook: Jurisprudence Cases and Materials: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Law and Its Applications by Stephen E. Gottlieb,  Brian H. Bix, Timothy D. Lytton, & Robin L. West.) I chose these sections for class reading and discussion because as the authors put it, “First, it is useful to know about the origins of law….Second, the legal documents from the Ancient Near East offer you a comparative perspective…you will find illuminating points of similarity and difference with our own system of laws, and that will help you to identify seemingly universal features of law and to spot particular characteristics that distinguish our own legal system, characteristics that you may have assumed were universal. Third…studying the earliest attempts to impose law gives us an opportunity to examine the reasons for using law as a means of governing….we will find…hints about the original reasons for choosing law, as opposed to other methods of ruling.” Moreover, these excerpts offer us some of the “earliest attempts to reflect on the rule of law…[they] pose a set of questions that have defined the field of jurisprudence ever since….In contrast to contemporary jurisprudence these ancient writings offer clear distinctions between the different approaches: they present arguments about positivism and natural law in purer form.”

These considerations offer a series of compelling arguments for why the study of ancient law should be included in a philosophy of law course; the description of law as a historically evolving and contingent technology of governance is one that every student of law–philosophical or otherwise–should be familiar with. (I regret never having including these sorts of materials in my previous iterations of this class; philosophy of law anthologies for their part, do not include material on ancient law.) If today’s vigorous class discussion–on a preliminary reading of the laws of Ur-Namma, Lipit-Ishtar, Hammurabi, and Yahdun-Lim was any indication, this syllabus selection has been a hit with my students as well. My students were particularly enthused by an introductory exercise that asked them to write a prologue, a few laws, and a conclusion in the style of these legislators; we then discussed why they picked the prologue and the laws that they did; this discussion allowed me to introduce the concept of the ‘expressive impact of law’ and also the so-called four-fold model of behavioral modification, which shows that law is but one modality by which behavior can be modified (the others are social norms, market pressures, and architectural constraints.) Moreover, these legislative excerpts are written in a very distinctive style, which permitted a preliminary discussion of legal rhetoric as well.

I often get syllabi wrong; and much remains to be done in this semester, but for the time being I’m reasonably pleased that this class–which sputtered so spectacularly last year–is off to a bright start in this new year. Hope springs eternal.