Dean’s Global Forum explores politics and the Global South

September 14, 2022
Distinguished historian, writer, and political theorist Prathama Banerjee examined the relationship between time, history, and politics and the ways they shape contemporary discourses about the notion of the Global South at Northwestern Qatar’s Dean’s Global Forum.
A professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, Banerjee discussed her intellectual trajectory and how it shaped her perspective of the notion of the Global South in a conversation with Northwestern Qatar Dean and CEO Marwan M. Kraidy.
Kraidy began the conversation by asking Banerjee about her upbringing and political activism and how they would later contribute to shaping her intellectual trajectory and work. “Growing up in the mid to late 1990s in India, we were all immersed in left politics, what we used to call at that time ‘the third left,’ to distinguish ourselves from the communist orthodoxy,” said Banerjee. “Doing left politics was a huge learning experience for us […], but we also were dissatisfied with our academic training.”
Banerjee explained how, early on in her career, when she was engaged in social sciences in local communities in India, she came to understand the intellectual importance of language and history. “We were told the actual language with which we talked politics and mobilized each other had little fit with the language of political analysis we were learning in the classroom,” said Banerjee. “That really took me towards taking language itself very seriously and to the question: ‘What in a language acquires conceptual status and what in a language remains at the level of the empirical word?’”
Building on her interest in politics and examining its conceptual manifestations, Banerjee told Kraidy that she focused on deconstructing and reconstructing the idea of ‘the political’ and what the political means pre- and post-colonialism in her book Elementary Aspects of the Political: Histories from the Global South. “The imagination that politics is a mass phenomenon rather than a matter of virtuous activity, a skill that is owned by the king or statesmen, that distinction collapsed into the context of colonialism, in South Asia, but clearly in other parts of the world,” noted Banerjee. “This imagination that everything is political, before and beyond everything, is very much part of the modern 20th-century and post-colonial imagination of what politics is.”
In explaining the effects of this shift, Banerjee said it gave political and economic meaning to the meaning of equality. “There is a difference between a critique of inequality and an imagination of equality,” said Banerjee. “There are multiple traditions, but when economic reason tries to describe what a state of equality looks like, it needs to borrow language, metaphors, imaginations, [and] utopias from spiritual traditions that exceed the economic.”
When asked how her upbringing, the idea of ‘the political,’ and focus on linguistics come together to inform her understanding of the Global South, Banerjee said it helps her think of the notion as a “non-place but a utopian imaginary” beyond the limitations of geographies and languages.
“The place I come from is actually a subcontinent, and in that subcontinent, my own history is actually a nexus of multiple traditions, a number of classical languages, and innumerable vernacular languages,” she added. “This is the extra-national mode of being that is way before globalization, and this is a mode of concepts, artifacts, and people, merchants, and poets traveling across oceans and long land routes to exchange ideas.”
She went on to emphasize the need to think of the Global South in a multiplicity of times, “not necessarily as a post-1970s coinage, but the fact that it might have longer and deeper histories of traveling ideas and people, both oceanic and territorial.” As the term matures and develops to articulate propensities and potentialities across cultures and languages, she said it would acquire the potential to facilitate unmediated South-to-South conversation.
The conversation with Banerjee was part of Northwestern Qatar's signature event, the Dean’s Global Forum, which features diverse leaders making an impact in the world in conversation with Marwan M. Kraidy. This semester’s event took place in collaboration with the Institute for Advanced Study in the Global South’s inaugural conference, What is the Global South? Histories, Epistemologies, and Solidarities.