Swimming with the Turbot
Scholarship for a Global Public

Rohit Chopra, Visiting Assistant Professor, Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts

Response by Edna Bay, Associate Professor, ILA

The following two papers were presented at the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts Colloquium of October 4, 2006. Visiting Assistant Professor Rohit Chopra was the central presenter, raising questions of the universality of knowledge for a global public. Associate Professor Edna Bay responded. Both authors wish to thank Angelika Bammer and all participants in the discussion that followed for a lively and stimulating session. For information on future ILA Colloquium topics, contact the ILA at 727-7601 or email jwwynn@emory.edu.

Vol. 9 No. 3
December 2006/
January 2007

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Going Global
How in the world is Emory?

Global Scholarship for Informed Action

Around Campus, Around the World

"I think we want Emory people working in global health to have a kind of distinctive, humble, non-arrogant, cooperative ethos."

"Is this an imperialist culture, in which we are getting the Emory name brand out, or is it a genuinely inclusive, reciprocal partnership?"

Swimming with the Turbot
Scholarship for a Global Public

We May Be Using English, But That Doesn’t Mean We’re Speaking the Same Language
Universalizing global knowledge


When I was a master’s student in English at the University of Bombay, We had to read the essays of Addison and Steele (or read about them, at the very least) as part of the “background” study of eighteenth-century English literature. One of the essays referred to a turbot, which I learned later was a kind of fish. I cannot make a categorical empirical claim, but I think it is a fair guess that most people on that campus, including me, had never seen a turbot.

The turbot seemed to me a perfect symbol of a deep disconnect between classroom knowledge and reality, between the reasons why students in the classroom were enrolled in the degree program—for a better job, for subsidized hostel accommodation, for pursuing further studies in English, to name but a few—and what they were studying.

In this essay, I wish to offer some informal observations and speculations on the problems and possibilities of scholarship for a global public. The turbot points to the first of four very broad issues I wish to raise: how does knowledge produced in one academic context travel to another context, ”context” here being defined not just in the national but also the regional and local sense? And how might the construction of circuits of global exchange of knowledge or a global public sphere efface the participation of local actors, in Atlanta or the U.S. as much as in India?

We know that English literature was introduced in India as part of a colonial civilizing mission, and the syllabi of English degree courses in Indian universities still bear traces of that ideology. But it may be unfair to single out the English department syllabus or policies for criticism in this regard, and that is not my intent. My point rather is to note that there were other kinds of texts that rang more true to my experience as a student at the University of Bombay, such as the works of Raymond Williams. Also, there were other academic settings in Bombay where the turbot seemed less indigestible, not necessarily because students here were more cosmopolitan or well-informed about varieties of fish, but simply because, given their relatively greater degree of privilege, they could negotiate the purported universalism of such knowledge on their own terms. These resonances (or lack thereof) between the texts and academic contexts in India reflect the fact of different publics in the same national space and the different modes in which they are positioned to comprehend knowledge traveling from elsewhere.

Another, somewhat counter-intuitive, point is whether more seemingly egalitarian discourses—for example, a discourse of the globalization of knowledge—operate similarly to exclude voices even as they claim to be inclusive. Such discourses appear to me almost more dangerous than by now easily identifiable colonialist projects. The turbot that swam, in a manner of speaking, in the University of Bombay may be an easy target, one that displaces a more slippery and elusive one.

The second broad issue I want to highlight is how the normative practices of the American academy might translate into forms of symbolic violence in other academic or social contexts, say, in the University of Bombay or more broadly in the city of Bombay. And, relatedly, how might these practices dovetail with the similarly exclusionary normative practices of the social and academic life of Bombay? My argument here, very simply, is that if we understand the basis of participation in a global conversation or exchange of knowledge as a kind of global reason, that global reason is very categorically biased and skewed towards the demands of the American academy: ideas about academic productivity and efficiency, the mechanics of peer review and tenure, the dominant topical interests of the American academy at any point of time, and so forth. And, equally, that model of global reason converges in the Indian context with a model of postcolonial reason, to draw on Gayatri Spivak’s work, that excludes the voices of large numbers of Indians in its ambit.

Put another way, given this model of global scholarship, some Indians can enter it as potential equals—contributors at the level of theory, for instance—but large numbers of Indians can only take the position of native informants vis-à-vis that academic apparatus. The last time I visited India, nearly two years ago, more than one person commented to me about the irony that while Islam was suddenly receiving unprecedented academic attention in the U.S., that trend was accompanied by increased suspicion and hostility on the part of the American state towards Muslims. Similarly, several people I spoke with felt that it was hip all of a sudden to ”do India” in the American academy, what with Indian markets opening up to U.S. companies, the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, and so on, but it was only a matter of time before the academic flavor of the month would change.

The third broad issue is the specific challenges that academics associated with the American academy must face when engaging with publics and audiences outside the U.S., especially after the invasion of Iraq. One very damaging outcome of the invasion seems to be the negation of the very possibility of universalism—that is, of the very possibility of any project that might be genuinely inclusive and participatory of a wide range of voices—such as a project of global public scholarship. There is enormous suspicion of American research institutions, which are not necessarily seen as distinct from the American government and American state interests. At worst, this suspicion takes the form of prejudice, exposing researchers to accusations of being CIA agents or serving a Zionist agenda. At best, there is still a skepticism about the researcher’s motives, and the burden of proof is on the researcher to show that he or she does not speak for the U.S. state. Given this situation, when people outside the U.S.—say in India—talk to an America-based researcher, one wonders if their responses are not shaped by this skepticism. This raises a methodological challenge for researchers in the humanities and social sciences in particular, since their interventions occur in the sensitive and intimate domains of culture, social life, and family life. An additional defensiveness and skepticism of the part of research subjects may impact the substance of their responses in complex ways, confound the narratives offered, and compromise the reliability of the data.

Finally—and this brings me to the final issue—I am very interested in exploring what unique contributions a department like the ILA could make in the way of projects of global public scholarship, since its ethos seems especially germane to producing the intellectual heresies and initiatives needed to imagine and implement such an endeavor. One basic suggestion is that we could develop a number of websites and web resources as a means of reaching multiple publics across the globe—though that immediately raises questions of digital divides and differential access of communities to these technologies—given that the ILA has done a lot of innovative and pathbreaking work in digital scholarship. Another initiative that Emory as a university can undertake is to provide online journal subscriptions for academic institutions in various parts of the world.

While the questions I have raised here may paint a somewhat pessimistic picture, I should clarify that I believe that there are many positive and good-faith engagements between the American academy and publics and audiences all over the globe. But the differentials of power and resources are so overwhelming that one has to constantly enforce and renew the imperative to be egalitarian. The interesting challenge is to find a framework that continually provincializes one’s own knowledge, without getting trapped in either of two positions that in effect displace the issue: there is a risk that one can wind up seeking a utopia of a perfectly globalized and perfectly egalitarian world, and there is equally a risk that one can wind up producing nothing beyond an anthropology of discontent. I will conclude with a quote from Dipesh Chakrabarty in a conversation with Amitav Ghosh (“Reflections: A Correspondence on Provincializing Europe” Radical History Review 83), which speaks to the possibility of always keeping the incomprehensibility of one’s research proximate as an ethical-methodological principle.

You and I may not agree on everything. But I know that even when I disagree, the pressure of your thoughts will keep acting on me. And one day I may see some of the things you see, share your passion or be better able to see through your eyes. Something similar may happen to you. Even if I never get to that point, the knowledge that someone I respect disagrees will lace what I think and how I think it. There is a fragment of a sentence from Heidegger which continues to intrigue me: “to hear that which I do not already understand.” Often in listening to someone, I try to work out what this injunction may actually mean in practice. I am not absolutely clear but it kind of works as an ethical horizon for me.

If we attempt to follow this in good faith, we may perhaps learn to swim with the turbot.