Haji Mohamed Idris

Claude Alvares

Gustavo Esteva

Anwar Fazal

Ashis Nandy

Vinay Lal

Shilpa Jain

Website created by:
Vinay Lal, Associate Professor of History, UCLA, USA

All material on this site is coyrighted:
Vinay Lal, 2005.

Authors of individual pieces hold the copyrightto their own pieces. However, all material may be reproduced freely, without
permission, though it is requested
that proper acknowledgment be made to the author(s) of the pieces being



Modernity, Frameworks of Knowledge,
and the Ecological Survival of Plurality
An Introduction to the Multiversity Enterprise-
United States Chapter

Vinay Lal

The world as we know it today is understood almost entirely through categories that are largely the product of Western knowledge systems and the academic disciplines that have been charged with codifying, disciplining, organizing, institutionalizing and transmitting knowledge not only about the physical and material world, but about the various social, political, cultural, religious, and legal institutions and practices found among the diverse human communities that have inhabited the world over the last few thousand years. It is with this in mind -- and acting at the insistence of S. M. Mohamed Idris, founder of the Consumer Association of Penang (CAP), the Third World Network (TWN, also in Penang), and a host of other organizations, as well as Claude Alvares, a public intellectual, scholar, and activist based in Goa -- that about twenty people from India, Malaysia, the United States, New Zealand, and the Emirates convened in Penang over three days in February 2002 to discuss the contemporary politics of knowledge systems and the consequences of the imposition of the West upon the entire world. They were focussed as well on the various ways in which the decolonization of academic disciplines can be attempted and achieved, and the role that activists and intellectuals of the South, whether based in the South or the North, can play in harvesting theories of knowledge, livelihoods and lifestyles, and forms of political awareness that are calculated to create more genuine forms of equality, justice, and plurality.

The age of exploration and navigation, which commenced in Europe a little over 500 years old, eventually paved the way for the colonization of the Americas, South and Southeast Asia, the Near East, Polynesia, Africa, and other parts of the world. In some respects the effects of colonization were remarkably similar, but even marginally complex narratives of European colonization point to significant differences between, for example, the ideology of the British in India, the extraordinary swagger of the conquistadors who wove their way through central and South America, and the stern subjugation of African people by the Boers in the Transvaal and elsewhere in South Africa. In the Americas and Australia, the indigenous populations were decimated, and American Indians (or native Americans, in the multicultural and pious jargon of our times) and Australian aboriginals, to the extent that they survived the onslaught of the European presence, remain to this day among the most marginalized people. Though what might be described as holocaust demography is a contested terrain, it is reasonable to aver that in a few short decades 90% of Indians of some tribes had been wiped out. Disease, it is alleged by those eager to find something redemptive in the conduct of Europeans, killed most of them, as though disease were some unmediated and "natural" fact of human societies. In Tasmania, the Aboriginals were rendered entirely extinct; on the Australian mainland, when Aboriginals were not hunted and scalped, they were trafficked and exhibited. The children became, even as late as the twentieth century, part of the "lost generation". In Africa, on the other hand, there were lop-sided battles between Europeans and native populations fought in the late nineteenth century which resulted in thousands of fatalities on the African side and a handful on the European side; in the Congo, the same results, that is the extreme brutalization of the native people by the Europeans, were achieved in European-owned rubber plantations. While the word "genocide" cannot be used unequivocally in describing these phenomena that are diverse and yet are invariably grounded in histories of the European colonization of the world, there is no doubt that Europe's colonization of the world, when it did not lead to the decimation or extermination of native people, resulted in the extinction of lifestyles, cultural life forms, and the biological, cultural, and social inheritance of various societies.

The comparative study of colonialism points to numerous other ways in which the European impact was experienced differently across colonies. Historians have drawn distinctions between plantation colonies, settler colonies, and other colonies with varying degrees of direct and indirect rule. Some colonies, such as India, were large and critical to the enterprise of the Empire, and British imperialists, from Curzon to Churchill, were certain that without India Britain would eventually be reduced to a third-rate power, a premonition borne out by recent events. The large indentured labor force that worked on the plantations in Trinidad, Fiji, and Malaysia, to name only three British colonies, was drawn largely from India. It has often been remarked that the British in India out-Brahmined the Brahmins, refusing to consort or have social relations of any kind with the local populations. The French in their colonies, some have argued, displayed greater willingness to engage with the people that they colonized. The British in India, it has also been suggested, were comparatively mild-mannered, and one cliched observation that is unfailingly encountered in many comparative sweeps would have everyone believe that Mohandas ('Mahatma') Gandhi could flourish in India, but that in South Africa or Leopold's Congo he would have been ground to the dust. Indeed, one of the many idioms in which the great game of colonialism survives today is in those numerous discussions which seek to distinguish between "good" and "bad" colonialisms. It is striking that many contemporary British commentators on the British empire, some with impressive conventional academic credentials, are still predisposed towards weighing the "pros" and "cons" of empire. P. J. Marshall, Lawrence James, and Christopher Bayly readily come to mind.

However, then, one might describe the difference between the British in India, the French in Algeria and Indochina, the Dutch in Indonesia, the Spanish in the New World and Philippines, and the Americans in the Philippines, it is imperative to recognize that everywhere the colonizers sought to impose upon the colonized their worldview. Until relatively recent times, the history of conquest was written primarily as a record of military triumphs, the territorial expansion of European powers, the exploitation of the land and its natural resources -- a history written through the categories derived from economics, politics, and the social sciences. Advocates of imperialism, or rather of the view that the actions of European powers were paved with good intentions, took the view that Europe energized and "developed" societies that had become, in nearly every sense of the word, stagnant; critics of colonialism, on the other hand, embraced the view that Europe underdeveloped its colonies, and that far from being set on the road to "development", colonized people were stripped of their material, intellectual, and cultural resources.

Important as are these debates, they should not obscure the fundamental fact of colonialism and the post-colonial era: every conquest is a conquest of knowledge. The epistemological imperatives of the colonial state have only in the last few decades begun to receive the critical scrutiny of scholars and commentators. The British in India, to take one well-known example, devoted themselves to an exhaustive study of India's social and intellectual traditions: grammars of Indian languages were created, translations of scriptural texts were authorized, the legal texts of Hindus and Muslims were codified, the land was mapped and its inhabitants counted, measured, and classified; "communities" were enumerated, marked, and named; and so on and so forth. The Botanical Survey, the Archaeological Survey, the Trigonometrical Survey, and such projects as the "People of India" survey or the voluminous enterprise of creating imperial and district gazetteers were as much a part of the institutional framework of colonial rule as the various pieces of legislation and administrative decisions which gave rise to colonial police and armed forces, the courts and a judicial apparatus, mechanisms of governance, and other well-known institutions of colonial policy-making. All this seems especially impressive to many contemporary observers who, keeping in mind the American occupation of Iraq, are prone to contrast the often intelligent proconsuls of the British empire with the nearly illiterate and abrasive Americans who have been charged with the governance of that unfortunate country. What is true of India is also, to a greater or lesser degree, characteristic of British, French, and Dutch colonies in other parts of the world. To many lay observers, the most transparent aspect of the "conquest of knowledge" is elucidated through other facts, such as the inheritance of the English language, the continuing legacy of British parliamentary traditions, or even, as in the case of India, the peculiar circumstance that though India's constitution framers consulted a large number of constitutions, the essential features of the Indian constitution were ultimately derived from that very colonial piece of policy-making known as the Government of India Act of 1935.

The "conquest of knowledge" entailed, however, a great deal more than what was wrought under colonial rule itself, and under conditions of globalization Western knowledge systems have sought, largely with success, to gain complete dominance across the globe in nearly all spheres of life. The economists' conceptions of growth, poverty, scarcity, and development, marketed by all the social sciences, have come to predominate everywhere, and the sum total of Western social science has not only been to mire the so-called developing world in ever more acute levels of poverty, but to forestall the possibility of worldviews and lifestyles that do not synchronize with the conception of the "good life" that prevails in the "developed" West. The entire theory of development, to pursue this one idea at somewhat greater length, is predicated on a time-lag: countries that are under-developed or part of the developing world seek to emulate the developed countries, but by the time they have seemingly caught up, the developed countries have gone well beyond to another plane of development. The native, to speak in a different tongue, always arrive late at the destination; indeed, the theory of development condemns the underdeveloped to live not their own lives, but rather to fulfill someone else's conception of life. Development doesn't merely assure us that the past of the native must be entirely jettisoned, but it also hijacks the native's future. If the native's present is the European's past, the native's future is the European's present.

In whatever domain of life one might care to look, the story is a similar one. American-style MBAs have become quite the rage everywhere in the South, as though successful businessmen are only a thing of the present. Generations of Gujarati businessmen ran a virtual thalassocracy over several centuries, and a Gujarati trader's credit was good enough thousands of miles away; and yet an American-style MBA is now the only proper credential for a businessman of repute. Even Forbes magazine has described the legendary tiffin lunch-box delivery system of Bombay as a business program with the least margin of error ever encountered in a business with tens of thousands of clients, but this fact has not been allowed to disturb the arrogant confidence of those who are habituated to thinking of corporate-style management with complex computer systems as the only way of conducting a modern business. The Polynesians were able to navigate the oceans across large distances without a compass or other navigational tools, but modern knowledge systems have little use for such indigenous forms of knowledge. Modern science cannot countenance any critiques from outside its own framework, since exponents of modern science take it as axiomatic that science is perforce modern; in other words, modern science does not allow for the notion of plurality of sciences. Thus, advocates of allopathic medicine feel perfectly entitled to critique homeopathy, acupuncture, or ayurveda, but they do not grant advocates of these other systems of medicine the same privilege. Indeed, modern Western science effortlessly describes all other scientific traditions as "ethnoscience", just as the oral histories of Aboriginals, Polynesian tribes, the Bushmen, Santals and numerous other communities become reduced to "ethnohistories". Strikingly, in universities across the United States, music departments are generally devoted to the study of the musical traditions of the West, from classical music down to American blues and jazz; the musical traditions from other parts of the globe are relegated to the "ethnomusicology" department.

Nearly every academic discipline is similarly compromised. Multiversity, then, is faced with a daunting task. In all of the voluminous literature on globalization that has emerged in recent years, there is scarcely the recognition that what has been most effectively globalized are the knowledge systems of the West. Despite the pretensions of the social sciences, nowhere more on display than in the bankrupt disciplines of political science and economics, their methodologies and findings are far from being universal; indeed, considering the widening economic disparities in the US itself, and the nakedly criminal and self-aggrandizing policies of one American administration after another, one might say that economists and political scientists have contributed not a little towards wrecking their own home. If freedom is indivisible, it is important to recognize not only that the South has to free itself from that albatross around its neck that goes by the name of the 'West', but that the so-called developed countries have to be liberated from themselves.

In more concrete terms, scholars, academics, activists, and public intellectuals who are joined together in the Multiversity enterprise are committed to several propositions and courses of action. They are prepared to offer a wholesale but rigorous and searching critique of the framework of modern knowledge, more precisely of the academic disciplines, and of the epistemological, moral, and political assumptions underlying these disciplines and the categories that they have generated. This perforce also entails a critique of schools and models of Western pedagogy, indeed of the entire culture of schooling which has become one of the fundamental dogmas of our times. The long history of colonization and neo-colonialism has not only led to the decimation, demise, and disappearance of diverse intellectual and cultural traditions, but has also eroded the self-confidence of people living under conditions of oppression and terror. Though we are loathe to state it in such terms, "the West", for all its known attractions, has also been a source of unmitigated terror to millions of people around the world. Still, since the West is not entirely monolithic either, the members of the Multiversity enterprise recognize that it is important to forge political and practical coalitions with those individuals who represent what might be called the other side of Europe -- in other words, Europe's own dissenters, representatives of its marginalized, recessive, and subjugated traditions. Before it colonized the world, Europe colonized its own people.

In the years to come, Multiversity activities will, as has already been hinted, take diverse forms. Intellectual ties between the countries of the South must be strengthened. Long before India and China interacted with Europe, they interacted with each other; indeed, the Indian Ocean was a global world, a crossroads, but part of the effect of colonialism has been to obscure these earlier histories. When scholars engage in comparative history, that almost invariably entails the comparison of Europe to India, or Europe to China, or Europe to Africa, or Europe to Latin America; but seldom does comparative history take us to comparisons across the South. The conception of what constitutes the "world" has narrowed so considerably that everywhere outside Europe it means a knowledge only of one's own country and of the Euro-American world. These, apparently, are the borders of our supposed cosmopolitanism.

Whether in anthropology, international law, or social theory, almost the entire body of knowledge is of Euro-American origins. These are not innocent enterprises, as the history of anthropology's bloody and shameless complicity with imperialism so amply demonstrates. Multiversity's advocates are keen on generating a set of accessible readers that furnish both a critical perspective on every academic discipline, besides showing the way to alternative conceptions of these disciplines. Europe has long interpreted the world, but it is also time to recognize that Europe's own self-representation cannot be accepted. Whatever the hazards of interpreting the other, Africans, Indians, Malays and others must systematically engage in the study of Europe, the United States, and the remaining paraphernalia of the West -- and they must do so not by way of merely reversing Orientalism, and creating a noxious Occidentalism, but by way of creating a body of knowledge about the West that would enable them to know both themselves and the West better than they have done so hitherto. There can be no intercultural dialogue or genuine exchange of ideas so long as the terms of the conversation are set exclusively by the West. As a final note, it is necessary to add that the "multi" in multiversity and multiworld ought to be distinguished from the "multi" in multiculturalism. Having ruthlessly homogenized itself, the United States, the leader of the West, has now had to embrace "multiculturalism", and relentlessly peddles its multiculturalism to the world as a sign of its openness and tolerance. Let us recall that in the Unites States, there is no field of inquiry designated as "White Studies", though in fact that is another name for the large body of social knowledge produced by the West. Multiculturalism of the American variety, which is synonymous with consumer choice and white domination (sometimes appearing in the relatively more "benign" form of primus inter pares), is now poised to become a template for societies where the ground reality has always been multicultural. Multiversity aims at resisting such insidious forms of resurgent colonialism.

Links: The principal website of Multiworld:

At a Glance:
Mulitversity Related

Recapturing Worlds:
The Original Multiversity

Penang 2002: The First Conference on the Deconstruction
of Knowledge

Dissenting Knowledges Pamphlet Series (ed. Vinay Lal)

Radical Essentials Pamphlet Series (ed. Yusef Progler)

Penang 2004: The Second Conference on Redesigning Social Science Curricula

Special issue of Humanscape on Multiversity (April 2005)

Special issue of Third World Resurgence (2005) on Multiversity

The Dissenter's Library
Essays, Articles, Papers
Kamirithu: The Newsletter of Multiversity
Readers in the Disciplines