The US Information Service and the Power of Air Conditioning

Shortly before my teen years commenced, my parents arranged a library membership for me at the American Library in New Delhi. (The library was administered by the United States Information Service; its membership rules only allowed adults as members, but my parents spoke to the librarians, signed up for two library cards, and handed them over to me). I was too callow to be anything more than an uncritical consumer of what I read and watched (the library featured an extensive video archive and it showed a weekly capsule of ABC news broadcasts). It was an ideal location for the concoction of elaborate fantasies about leaving India and heading straight for America’s shining shores. It all too quickly became another venue for learning another nation’s history, for processing its narratives about itself, all the while not noticing the absence of an Indian one.

The American library carried no cricket on its shelves, a fact that placed it one rank lower than the British Council Library in my mental peggings, but it did feature–among many other collections–elaborate histories of the Second World War and the American Revolution, tales of the American West (including, thankfully, many books on Native Americans), miles of American fiction and popular science, all of which I avidly consumed. I spent many summer afternoons there, reading books on American history and culture, watching videos—which provided little snippets of American life and thus made me privy to its details in glorious color—and looking through periodicals for a glimpse of the present-day US. The USIS could perhaps not have hoped for a more ideal purveyor of the information it hawked. During my reveries in the libraries’ spaces, it was all too easy to dream of a life elsewhere, perhaps on a sylvan campus, perhaps in a manicured suburb, away from India.

And nothing quite set you up for that indoctrination experience like walking into the American Library’s cool, air-conditioned interiors after a hot and sweaty ride through Delhi’s crowded buses; that change, as I walked in from Delhi’s loud bustle to the pristine silence of the library’s shelved spaces was a blessed relief; it hinted of the change that would presumably be introduced in my life once I left India and moved to the US. Outside was heat and noise, the bedlam of the street, the sounds of street vendors and honking traffic; and then, as you pushed open the glass doors, you felt the first blast of air-conditioned air, instantly settling on your perspiring skin, cooling and calming. You walked on, flashing your identification–the treasured library card–and then upstairs, up to the brightly lit main level, with its neatly arrayed shelves, its glass-top tables, its soothing tranquility. This didn’t feel antiseptic and colorless then; it felt like a balm to ease a soul made restless and agitated and eventually, inert in all the wrong ways, by the furnace outside.

Ideology promulgation takes many forms; sometimes it appears as a set of functioning air-conditioners, symbols of efficiency, power, and relief from the world’s troublesome afflictions.



Arendt, the Problem of ‘The Absolute’ and Revolutionary Fascination by Antiquity

There are many, many remarkable passages in Hannah Arendt‘s On Revolution, which forms part of my reading list for this fall semester’s Political Philosophy seminar. In particular, there is a profusion of them in Chapter 5, ‘Novus Ordo Saeclorum’. Here Arendt offers an analysis of the problem of legitimacy of post-revolutionary government i.e., the problem of ‘the absolute’, which confronts any system of power that dispenses with transcendent and transhumane sources of sanction (like those relied upon by the Church and monarchies) and concentrates on seeking foundations in the secular, the mundane, the profane, the earthly, the human. Arendt, in attempting to show how this problem might have been addressed by the American revolutionaries, goes on to note the inspiration that Roman antiquity provided to American and French revolutionaries alike, and provides an understanding of ‘revolution’ as ‘restoration’; it is a treatment remarkable both for its erudition and insight and should be required reading for any student of political theory. This chapter should be required reading, too, in any Philosophy of Law course for the keen understanding it displays of the natural and positive law debates. The relationship of law to political power, which is often missing in standard philosophical takes on these, is front and center in Arendt’s analysis.

I hope to write a more detailed analysis of this chapter sometime soon; for now, here is a tiny sampler, one which picks up on the perplexity that might be occasioned by noting the enthusiasm revolutionaries had for the ancients, and which, I think, is still relevant, as is most of Arendt’s analysis, for our day and age:

It has often been noticed that the actions of the men of the revolutions were inspired and guided to an extraordinary degree by the examples of Roman antiquity, and this is not only true for the French Revolution, whose agents had indeed an extraordinary flair for the theatrical; the Americans, perhaps, thought less of themselves in terms of ancient  greatness – though Thomas Paine was wont to think ‘what Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude’ – they certainly were conscious of emulating ancient virtue. When Saint-Just exclaimed, ‘The world has been empty since the Romans and is filled only with their memory, which is now our only prophecy of freedom’, he was echoing John Adams, to whom ‘the Roman constitution formed the noblest people and the greatest power that has ever existed’, just as Paine’s remark was preceded by James Wilson’s prediction that ‘the glory of America will rival- it will outshine the glory of Greece’. I have mentioned how strange this enthusiasm for the ancients actually was, how out of tune with the modern age, how unexpected that the men of the revolutions should turn to a distant past which had been so vehemently denounced by the scientists and the philosophers of the seventeenth century. And yet, when we recall with what  enthusiasm for ‘ancient prudence’ Cromwell’s short dictatorship had been greeted even in the seventeenth century by Harrington and. Milton, and with what unerring precision Montesquieu, in the first part of the eighteenth century,  turned his attention to the Romans again, we may well come to the conclusion that, without the classical example shining through the centuries, none of the men of the revolutions on either side of the Atlantic would have possessed the courage for what then. turned out to be unprecedented action. Historically speaking, it was as though the Renaissance’s revival of antiquity that had come to an abrupt end with the rise of the modern age should suddenly be granted another lease on life, as though the republican fervour of the short-lived Italian city-states – foredoomed, as Machiavelli ,knew so well, by the advent of the nation-state – had only lain dormant to give the nations of Europe the time to grow up, as it were, under the tutelage of absolute princes and enlightened despots.

However that may be, the reason why the men of the revolutions turned to antiquity for inspiration and guidance was most emphatically not a romantic yearning for past and tradition. Romantic conservatism – and which conservatism worth its salt has not been romantic? – was a consequence of the revolutions, more specifically of the failure of revolution in Europe; and this conservatism turned to the Middles Ages, not to antiquity; it glorified those centuries when the secular realm of worldly politics received its light from the splendour of the Church, that is, when the public realm lived from borrowed light. The men of the revolutions prided themselves on their ‘enlightenment’, on their intellectual freedom from tradition, and since they had not yet discovered the spiritual perplexities of this situation, they were still untainted by the sentimentalities about the past and traditions in general which were to become so characteristic for the intellectual climate of the early nineteenth century. When they turned to the ancients, it was because they discovered in them a dimension which had not been handed down by tradition – neither by the traditions of customs and institutions nor by the great tradition of Western thought and concept. Hence, it was not tradition that bound them back to the beginnings of Western history but, on the contrary, their own experiences, for which they needed models and precedents. And the great model and precedent, all occasional rhetoric about the glory of Athens and Greece notwithstanding, was for them, as it had been for Machiavelli, the Roman republic and the grandeur of its history.

Note: The problem of the absolute is a familiar one: it appears in another form in discussions of the foundations of ethics, in the problem of finding an absolute authority to back up moral obligations when belief in divine commands is lacking; in The Brothers Karamazov it is what perplexed Dimitri when he heard Father Paissy recount Ivan’s argument that immorality follows without belief in immortality.

Studying Political Philosophy via Revolutions (Well, Three of Them)

Today, I’m going to think out loud about the syllabus I’m designing for the coming fall semester’s seminar on Political Philosophy. (I’m conducting this rumination in a public forum in the hope of helping me finalize this pesky business; please do chime in with suggestions, critiques, bouquets, brickbats etc.) My class will meet twice a week–two hundred-minute classroom sessions–count for four credits, and is roughly re-describable as ‘Classical and Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy.’ (This would clear things up considerably were it not for the fact that our department also offers Social Philosophy, which I’m told, is also redescribable as ‘Classical and Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy.’)

In the fall, I plan to center my class’ discussions and readings on political revolutions; to use the French, American and Haitian Revolutions to introduce and illustrate  many central questions of political philosophy: the nature of political power and the state, political resistance, the rights of citizens, the nature of citizenship, the legitimacy of legal regimes, the varieties of political unions, the nature of conservatism etc. The readings then, should be a mix of contemporary polemics and retrospective evaluation.

For the French Revolution, we’ll begin with SieyesWhat is the Third Estate, then read Edmund Burke‘s classic, Reflections on The Revolution in France, followed by some yet-to-settled-on excerpts from Michael Walzer‘s Regicide and Revolution and Tocqueville‘s Ancien Regime and the French Revolution, and close with Maistre‘s Considerations on France. I will probably include: some material by Robespierre and William Doyle’s A Very Short History (to start things off).

For the American Revolution, we will probably begin with excerpts from Trenchard and Gordon’s Cato’s Letters before reading Thomas Paine‘s The Rights of Man and Common Sense. (A new Verso edition that collects these two looks promising.) Then we’ll read some of The Federalist Papers. The current list includes 1-3, 9-10, 14-15; time permitting: 22-23, 26-27, 37, 39, 47-48; and then 84, 78, 70, 39, 51.

Having read a bit about the French and American Revolutions, we will read Hannah Arendt‘s On Revolution before moving on to the Haitian Revolution. As historical background, we’ll read CLR JamesBlack Jacobins. (I’m also considering Laurent Dubois’ Avengers of the New World.) For theoretical assessments, we’ll read excerpts from Nick Nesbitt’s Universal Emancipation (I’m inclined to think the Nesbitt’s writing is likely to present a challenge to many of my students) and Susan Buck-MorssHegel and Haiti. (I’ve just been pointed to Aristide’s edited collection of Toussaint L’ouverture‘s writings, collected in The Haitian Revolution (Verso) and will probably include selections from there.)

So: This isn’t a perfect syllabus by any means. There is possibly too much reading–but I had to leave so much out!–and too little balance. But I think it does well in providing a historically situated debate on most of the central questions of political philosophy. The writing is accessible; indeed, there are a few stylists in there (Burke,Paine, the Federalist Papers etc) so the reading assignments should be quite enjoyable. Most of the pieces are provocative with a few that have real polemical bite.

It should make for an entertaining fourteen weeks.