Notes of a Novice Student of India

India-map1Justin E. H. Smith in Berfrois:

Any specialist on anything will have had that peculiar experience of coming across some casual comment from a total non-specialist about the very thing to which one has devoted one’s life, a comment made as if there were no such thing as specialist knowledge, as if what we know in any domain at all were just so much hearsay and vulgarisation. Lord knows I’ve seen plenty of people denouncing Descartes, for example, or praising Spinoza (seldom the reverse), who know nothing, but nothing, about Descartes or Spinoza. This is easy and costless to do (and we all do it, including those of us who pride ourselves on being specialists and who really care about getting things right in our special domains), so long as one doesn’t mingle with the specialists in the domain about which one holds forth.

I’ve been thinking about how this works, about this seldom-discussed aspect of the sociology of knowledge, quite a bit recently, as I go deeper in my mid-career shift to what used to be called ‘Indology’ (more on this telling term soon). I am still a near-absolute beginner, yet I am now reaching the point where I can no longer say whatever I want to say on the grounds that I don’t know anything anyway, and that the people with whom I’m speaking don’t know anything either. I am now interacting with people who do not find it at all peculiar to care about Pāṇinian syntax theory, or about the rules of proper inference in Navya-Nyāya logic. The days are over when I could make sweeping claims about civilizational differences (the sort of sweeping claims my colleagues in philosophy often make) as regards rationality, for example. So in short I’m learning to be careful about what I say, which is really nothing other than entering a community of specialists. I expect anything I say now will appear naive to me when I look back on it in a few years, which is only to say that I will have entered more fully into that community. But one has to start somewhere.

What used to be called ‘Indology’ is now referred to more obliquely by phrases such as ‘South Asian Studies’, ‘Religions- und Kulturgeschichte Südasiens’, and so on. To some extent this shift can be explained as part of the broader changes that turned geology into ‘earth science’, and so on. Here, it’s just a matter of rebranding, and has nothing to do with respecting the sensibilities of the subjects themselves that are being studied (rocks and sediment don’t have sensibilities). In addition, there is the broad impact of Saïd’s critique of Orientalism, and the bizarre presumption that if we redescribe ourselves as doing ‘studies’ of something rather than the ‘-logy’ of it, then we are somehow immune to that critique. But unlike the transformation of Sinology into East-Asian Studies (it’s gone translinguistic now, too: in Montreal you can major in ‘Études est-asiatiques’), Indology is weighted down by other historical legacies than just the one Saïd picked out, since the gaze upon India has often been one that did not treat it as exotically other, but also, for often less than liberal reasons, treated it as fundamentally, autochthonously, the same.