Wanted: Moar Philosophers in Bollywood

A few days ago, a delightful oddity began making the rounds: a clip of Bertrand Russell in a Bollywood movie.  The background for this clip is straightforward even if improbable:

The year was 1967. Russell was by then a very frail 95-year-old man. Besides finishing work on his three-volume autobiography, Russell was devoting much of his remaining time to the struggle for peace and nuclear disarmament. To that end, he sometimes made himself available to people he thought could help the cause….So when he was asked to appear in a movie called Aman, about a young Indian man who has just received his medical degree in London and wants to go to Japan to help victims of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Russell said yes.

The actual conversation between Russell and Rajendra Kumar is quite stilted and staged but still worth a gander nevertheless. Having now witnessed such an encounter though, one’s mind turns quite naturally to the endless opportunities for philosophy-meets-Bollywood, not all of which require the philosophers concerned to just play themselves.

Here are a couple of tentative suggestions:

1. Foucault in Aakrosh: Here, Foucault plays the part of a French expat philosophy professor, now settled in India after originally travelling there as a hippie undergraduate. He has returned time and again to the strange land he has fallen in love with, and slowly come to empathize with the lot of the landless, brutalized, peasant oppressed by feudal landlords. He sees in that sphere of power politics, a visible demonstration of his writings. As Bhaskar Kulkarni the lawyer, struggles to understand why his client Lahanya Bhikhu is speechless, Foucault comes to his aid, helping Kulkarni to understand how the relentless application of power, exerted in multimodal forms upon the body and mind of Lahanya and his family have reached their logical summum bonum: the peasant, having reacted through and via the one visible outlet of power i.e., an act of ‘protective’ violence upon his wife, is now spent and unable to communicate meaningfully. Armed with this knowledge Kulkarni is able to modulate his relationship with Bhikhu, and more importantly, by distributing Foucauldian pamphlets among Bhikhu’s fellow peasants, spark an uprising. At the movie’s end, the peasants gather for a group shaving of their heads in honor of Foucault.

2. Martha Nussbaum in a yet to be made movie: Nussbaum is an American philosopher married to an Indian economist who has returned to his homeland to dabble in politics. Nussbaum plunges into Indian life, naturalizes, and joins in. Soon, this dabbling turns serious, and before she knows it, our heroine is running for parliament on a pro-woman, pro-flourishing platform. She comes under attack from Hindu nationalists, who dismiss her as a a rabble-rousing ignorant, Hinduism-hating foreigner. Nussbaum, however, meets them at their own game, learning Sanskrit, mastering Hindu scriptures and defusing her opponents via a series of brilliant written exegeses and public debates. Her marriage does not last, but Nussbaum does not return to the US, choosing instead to make India her new home, now a true daughter of the soil.

Ursula Le Guin and Philosophy of Feminism Reading Lists

Ursula Le Guin‘s appearance in a recent conversation I had with some friends about favorite science fiction novels brought back memories of the time I used The Left Hand of Darkness in a class.

In the fall semester of 2007, I asked to teach Philosophy of Feminism. I had long wanted to do so, and thanks to a flexible department chair, got the assignment. (I haven’t taught it again since, but hold out hope that I can do so sometime in the near future.) My students were a mix of philosophy, women’s studies, and sociology majors. (There were a couple of male students in there, which should not have been surprising but was.) My assigned readings were not excessively ambitious; I selected Feminist Philosophy: An Introductory AnthologyAnn Cudd and Robin Andreasen eds., Blackwell, 2005–as the primary text; it featured–among others–Mary  Wollstonecraft, Simone Beauvoir, Kate Millett, bell hooks, Louise Antony, Martha Nussbaum, Sandra Harding  et al.

While discussing my plans for the semester with Scott Dexter–a keen sci-fi and fantasy buff– he wondered if it might work to assign some feminist science fiction to illustrate the class’ theoretical concerns and themes. That sounded like a pretty damn good idea so I looked around a bit and settled on Le Guin’s classic. More than anything else, it was the book’s radical reworking of gender and sexuality that convinced me it belonged on my reading list.

I assigned TLHOD in the 11th week of the semester. (Interestingly enough, none of my students had read Le Guin prior to the class. That’s how I remember it, but I might be mistaken.) When TLHOD rolled around, we had read and discussed ten weeks worth of wall-to-wall feminist theory covering basic definitions, sexism, gender, epistemology and ethics. I asked my students to bring in a one-page written response to Le Guin, which would serve as the basis for the class discussion that week. In particular, I asked them to note how they thought the novel resonated with the feminist theses that we had been grappling with all semester long.

I was pleasantly surprised by how well the assignment turned out. Most of my students enjoyed TLHOD; I was gratified by the sophisticated and thoughtful responses they offered. I read these aloud in class, inviting the author to clarify and amplify their analysis, and asked other students to pitch in as well. The ensuing discussion was among the richest we had all semester. My students confirmed my intuition that theory would be dramatically and vividly brought to life by literature. (They also helped me enjoy an entirely new reading of TLHOD.)

While I immediately decided to put at least one week of fiction on my philosophy reading lists from then on, I have not followed up adequately. Since then, I’ve assigned fiction in a philosophy class on only one other occasion: Dostoyevsky‘s ‘The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor‘ from The Brothers Karamazov in Philosophy of Religion. Sometimes this has been due to a lack of imagination on my part, and sometimes laziness. I’m hoping similar indolence won’t hold me back in the future; if my experience with Le Guin’s classic was any indicator, literature should almost always work well to illustrate philosophical musings.

Note: I welcome feedback from others that have successfully incorporated literature into philosophy reading lists. (Come to think of it, it doesn’t have to be just philosophy lists.  Any non-literature list would be interesting.)