Words and their Worlds: A Conversation with Dilip M. Menon

In this Philological Conversation, Dilip M. Menon dwells on the questions of how to think concepts and theorize from the Global South and on writing history beyond the Eurocentric, colonial, nationalist, and terrestrial. We discuss the political and epistemic implications and consequences of such urgent tasks. Dilip M. Menon speaks about his affinities with Edward Said, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Walter Benjamin, among others, and refects on the themes of coloniality of knowledge, postcoloniality, decoloniality, oceanic history, and the idea of paracoloniality. He links his earlier works to his recent decolonial intellectual projects and discusses his intellectual formation and his practice as a historian and social theorist. Put together via e-mail exchanges, this conversation is a culmination of several in-person conversations that took place in Beirut, Delhi and Berlin. A preview of the conversation is below, and the full text can be read in the journal Philological Encounters, here.

Dilip M. Menon

Mahmoud Al-Zayed: Dear Dilip, thank you very much for graciously accepting to take part in this conversation. Allow me to begin with a question about beginning, a question you have been recently engaging with. What is it to begin? I would like to pose this question in two senses: first, how and where does one begin when one thinks about making a narrative out of one’s inventory of an intellectual history? This would give us a space to learn more about your intellectual formation, especially as connected to your discipline of history. For instance, what drew you to history as a discipline? Second, considering your latest projects of thinking with the ocean beyond the national and terrestrial historical narratives, and thinking concepts from the Global South, my question is, what is it to begin such enterprises? And to be more concrete, at what historical, intellectual and ideological conjunctures/contexts do you begin to think and write about such projects?

Dilip M. Menon: For me, the question of beginning implies the question of beginning again. To begin again is to stand apart from the idea of tradition and of continuity as much as to engage with what Benjamin has called jetztzeit—now-time. The exigencies and demands of the present require one to fabricate and invent new protocols and vocabularies, to make a break as it were. However, it also requires one to recognise that within the past with which one has an affinity, as Benjamin reminds us. It is to stand apart from one’s location in a perceived flow of homogeneous empty time, and to appropriate moments from the past that address the urgency of the present. As Edward Said points out in his brilliant monograph, Beginnings, Auerbach’s choice of the idea of the point of departure (“Ansatzpunkt”) as opposed to the idea of beginning, poses the dilemma at the heart of what you have asked: What is it to begin? 1

The narratives that we create about beginning possess a tendentious character that cannot be escaped. And there is not a little conceit attached to the idea of departure.

My current obsession with producing categories from the intellectual traditions of Asia and Africa stems from the need to recover as it were from the ‘colonial wound,’ as Maria Lugones puts it,2 and from the fact that we live ‘after amnesia,’ as Ganesh Devy argues.3 We, in the Global South, write our narratives through histories that come from elsewhere, as Tagore plangently observed in the first decades of the twentieth century. These invocations of wounds and amnesia are not merely inflammatory. One of the inheritances of colonialism is that we live with an abbreviated sense of time in which the category of the modern becomes the obscure object of our desire. Modernity has a temporality of a few hundred years, and our understanding of the geneaology of the present stretches back only to the violent disruption caused by the incursion of a Western/European modality of thinking. Thus, we understand ourselves in the distorting mirror that Europe presents to us in the fairground of modernity. To begin, to depart, entails an engagement with a deeper temporality and wider resources of knowledge in the project of the recovery of the self as Ashis Nandy put it.4 But here lies the rub. Colonialism was about a traducement of forms of intellection and inquiry in colonised societies, the experience of defeat was connected with an attachment to forms of outmoded knowledge. So there is no easy return possible, to begin again is not to return: there is no there, there.

So the conceit of departure entails two moves. One is the recognition of that inheritance of loss and amnesia, which does not allow for a mere waking up to the fact of it, as it were, and moving on. The second is to ask what does the recovery of self entail? For instance, in India, is it possible to simply return to the texts of classical philosophy and mine them for the recreation of an indigenous landscape of thought that existed prior to the colonial? To pose this question is at the same time to recognise that in the present, we have become unfamiliar with and uprooted from ways of reading (not just the knowledge of Sanskrit, for example) and interpretation that rested within traditions of conversation, commentary, and criticism. To begin again involves a going back and a process of remembering and learning to engage with what has become an alien landscape given the structures of pedagogy and history that have created the narrative of the modern and its geneaologies.

Another move might be to depart, to recognise one’s mixed intellectual inheritance—an awareness, as through a glass darkly, of multiple traditions of intellection that require an engagement with the question of language as well as conceptual frames that have become unfamiliar.

And that departure would entail not a search for continuity, but asking questions from the unequal, hierarchical present of the past as a possible resource. Most of what goes by the name of political theory in the Global South is a rendition of Euro-American thought and its trajectories (what Sudipto Kaviraj has called “Euronormality”).5 This leads to the peculiar predicament of perceiving politics in our spaces as inadequate versions of what happens elsewhere: failed states, lack of civil society, patronage over merit and so on. The question of how to think and theorize from the actual politics of our spaces is one that is not raised except in a mode of despair. However, given the exigencies of the present—which are global as in the rise of authoritarian populism in India, the USA and Europe—, we need to ask how to understand the landscape of the present through studying politics in the vernacular as it were. This would entail an engagement with practices, ideas, common sense, and categories of the political in the demotic register as well as an engagement with the idea of what the political may mean in our spaces. Does it exist as a distinct and separate realm apart from self, ethics and community, for example?

So we need a beginning that is a beginning, an engagement with the landscape of concepts and practices at hand. And we would need a beginning that is a departure, a delinking (to use Samir Amin’s terminology) from a dependence on Euro-American theory to understand our present.6

As for my own practice as a historian, it was precisely some of the positions stated above that led me to the discipline governed as it is by particular ideas of space (nation states) and time (the periodization principle). These two ideas come together in the creation of that ideal space-time—that of the nation-state—which underlies all history writing. Writing modern history in our spaces has meant a retelling of the story of colonialism, nationalism and the triumph of the liberatory forces. All other narratives get subordinated to this meta-narrative, and regions as much as people who may have had their reservations about a majoritarian nationalism find no place in the hagiography of nationalist endeavour. I come from Kerala, the southwestern state of India, where the resolution of caste inequality was seen as the central faultline. Indian Nationalism was characterised by a conservative politics, as in the case of Gandhi, that swept internal hierarchies and violence under the carpet in the interest of a greater unity. Ten years after India became independent in 1947, Kerala became the first region to elect a communist government to power. In the mainstream syllabi of schools and colleges, the histories of spaces like Kerala were never taught when I was young; largely because they could not be fitted into the story of an insurgent nationalism. Becoming a historian was a way of entering the question of the absence of Kerala from the master narrative of Indian history.

The emergence of the Subaltern Studies School in the 1980s allowed for a conceptualization of the excluded and the subordinate, whether classes of people or entire regions. However, like most postcolonial theory, there was little attempt to address a landscape of either concepts or histories at hand. Subaltern intellection, theorizing from indigenous knowledge, all of these were subordinated to manoeuvring for a space within the Euro-American episteme. Subaltern Studies was a coming together of German Idealism, British Marxism and French Poststructuralism, as a wag observed. This was a project that thought less with the question of beginnings, and was more about putting new histories within old trajectories as it were. If there had been a triumphant nationalist narrative earlier, now it became a narrative of a bourgeoisie that had failed to come into its own. The casting in explicitly Marxist terms (inflected by Gramsci) meant that caste and indigenous notions of politics were given short shrift. So, for me, to begin necessitated a set of departures not the least of which was to engage with local hierarchies and subaltern intellection about how to resolve inequality.

What became clear to me as I researched was the shadow of Euronormality writ large even over radical history writing. The concentration on the emergence of the state (and challenges to the colonial state, this time by subalterns rather than elites) meant that the terrestrial and the agrarian were the dominant themes. It became clear to me that an engagement with the ocean and the maritime allowed one to transcend a short temporality. One could think with millenia of trade, migration, and flows of religion allowing the disruption of the space-time of conventional history writing (in which even radical enterprises like Subaltern Studies participated).

The space of the ocean summoned up geographies and histories that resisted the lure of state formation and forced one to think transnationally about the miscegenated spaces of the maritime. That Kerala had been connected to the Roman Empire in the early centuries of the Christian Era through the trade in pepper, and to China through oceanic and coastal trade in rice meant a rethinking of the myopia of a nation-state geography. Apart from this was the fact that the ocean provided for many groups an escape from the hierarchies on land and social mobility through the proceeds of labour and trade. It broadened the history of the subaltern beyond the national and the well-worn trope of the struggle between colonialism and nationalism. There were other histories, and other geographies, far vaster and more emancipatory, that one needed to engage with.

All of this is related to historical conjunctures, because to go back to Benjamin, one reaches back to memories in the past in a moment of present danger. As Hindu fundamentalism seeks to fashion India as a Hindu state, there is an increasing obsession with national glory and hard borders; an ideology that fears the possibilities of the ocean. At the same time, there is an attempt to jettison the idea of influence and imagine a hermetic space of indigenous thought which was always already conceptually mature. There is little reflection on the fundamental hierarchies and exclusions that undergird traditional civilizational modes of thinking. This necessitates a rethinking of space as much as knowledge and of generating categories to address the urgencies of the present. There can be no return to the tired tropes of Euro-American thought nor an appeal to some pristine national ideology. One has to depart to begin again.

You can continue reading this conversation in Philological Encounters, where it was originally published.


1 Edward W. Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (London: Granta Books, 2012), 68–69.

2 María Lugones, ‘Toward a Decolonial Feminism,’ Hypatia 25, no. 4 (2010): 750.

3 G. N. Devy, After Amnesia: Tradition and Change in Indian Literary Criticism (Bombay: Orient Longman, 1995).

4 Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism, 2nd ed., 4th impr. Oxford India Paperbacks (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010).

5 Sudipta Kaviraj, “Marxism in Translation: Critical Reflections on Indian Radical Thought,” in Political Judgement, ed. Richard Bourke and Raymond Geuss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 172–200.

6 Samir Amin, Delinking: Towards a Polycentric World (London: Zed Books, 1990).

Dilip M. Menon works on the intellectual and social history of South Asia, particularly on questions of caste and inequality. Over the past decade, his work has broadened to think with the question of generating theory from the Global South and engaging with oceanic histories. He is currently a Professor of History and International Relations at the University of Witwatersrand and has a forthcoming edited volume titled Cinemas of the Global South: Towards a Southern Aesthetics (2024).

Mahmoud Al-Zayed is a literary scholar of comparative literature working across different theoretical and literary traditions of South Asia, Africa, and the Islamicate World. Engaging with postcolonial and decolonial traditions of thought and practice, he writes on aesthetics, decolonisation, philosophies of liberation, intellectual history, and social theory from contemporary Arab and Muslim thought. He is a postdoctoral research associate and an Einstein Researcher at the Institute of Islamic Studies, Freie Universität Berlin.

Citation: Mahmoud Al-Zayed, Words and their Worlds: A Conversation with Dilip M. Menon, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.01.2024, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/50168

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 16. Januar). Words and their Worlds: A Conversation with Dilip M. Menon. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 29. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/vlr2

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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