Lata Mani’s new book analyses the cultural logic of neoliberalism and its divisive consequences.
The Integral Nature of Things: Critical Reflections on the Present is a collection of essays, poems and vignettes that attempts to rethink Enlightenment discourses, and how we understand the post-Industrial period. Lata Mani’s work is part of a broader critique of neoliberal globalisation that draws on political economy, but focuses more on its cultural logic. Her work addresses a range of questions, including how we tackle the massive ecological and social disruptions caused by globalisation through questions of culture, how we are being formed as subjects in the post-liberalisation era, and what language we use while criticising such developments.
This book is a crucial intervention at a time when critics of globalisation, and those in India who identify themselves as broadly left-leaning, are struggling with questions of how to approach the onslaught of this process, which has accelerated greatly since the nineties. This period also saw a peak in the power and influence of religious fundamentalism in India, a development that led to many progressive activists and intellectuals consciously distancing themselves from religious and spiritual traditions. More than twenty years down the line, there is an increasing openness to reclaiming these traditions in order to counter the influence of both religious extremism and the impact of globalisation.
The methodology used is a mixture of observation, speculation and argument, interweaving poetry, essay and review material – all enhancing the reader’s sensory experience through their varied textures. But what most informs Mani’s writing and methodology is personal experience. She explains that her subject only became tangible to her after she sustained a head injury in 1993. This injury has also determined the form of her writing: Turning away from a more formal academic style, she uses short stories, narratives and descriptions to unsettle grand discourses and received wisdom. Mani was part of the faculty of Women’s Studies at the University of California in 1990, and held this position until her injury inaugurated a new intellectual phase.
The central theme of The Integral Nature of Things is the recognition of interdependency as a root concern, our failure to recognise the webs of interrelations in which all things assume shape, texture, and form. As Mani describes it, this would involve us “… taking our place in the world, not merely staking our claim upon it”. This, in turn, involves us recognising the significance of collective modes of knowledge and the possibilities provided by reciprocal and non-hierarchical relationships that have gradually given way to a disaggregated and vertical system of relations. Mani’s juxtaposition of the term “interwovenness” with the oft-repeated need for “intersectionality” in politics adds an important dimension to our understanding of inclusive politics. Justice, then, is not only about law and politics, but interconnectedness, commonalities and addressing the alienation we feel from our bodies. It is about honouring the triadic fluidity of heart, mind and body, and most importantly, recognising diversity as an organising principle of life.
Intimately connected to the idea of interwovenness is the notion of wholeness. Mani urges us to move beyond secular politics to more holistic ways of thinking. She argues that left / feminist arguments can sometimes reify the same categories they have painstakingly demonstrated to be social constructions. All that particularises us through identity politics overwhelms all that we share. She urges the challenging of this reification of identity politics, by looking at what we have in common and not just how we are different, through a conception of wholeness.
Mani urges a progressive politics where suffering is not made definitive, and a politics that embraces not just misery and suffering but also joy, contentment, and dynamic creativity of each life and community. These things, she argues, will ensure the autonomy of dignity from suffering. Mani argues that suffering should be viewed as just one facet of human experience. This signals a shift from conceiving of suffering in abject terms, separating empathy from an exclusive association with suffering. Looking at suffering through this lens, she argues, will provide for a more subtle notion of attunement. This in turn can prove valuable for those engaged in battles for social justice.
Mani asks if the current rights discourse can adequately address questions associated with creating an ethical framework for society. She asks how progressives might engage with non-secular epistemologies, with “the life worlds of the majority in our Subcontinent that are sustained by an affective, expressive, religio-spiritual epistemology.” In her reflections, she draws upon Hindu and Buddhist concepts, including desire as a site of suffering, the need to understand and tame the ego, notions of dharma and adharma, meditation, the sentience of matter, the indivisibility of the physical and metaphysical, and the idea of interdependency.
For instance, the text looks closely at the notion of dharma as compared to that of law, asking whether the former can pose fresh questions to the latter. She describes dharma as being fundamentally affirmative, applying to an entire collectivity of forms of which humans are just a part. When compared to dharma, law is essentially negative, looking at humans as bundles of rights. While law penalises transgression, dharma holds out truth for consequences. Mani uses this discussion to raise the larger question of how secular politics has not engaged with the potentially emancipating seams of faith traditions, and the rich civilisational history of the Subcontinent.
The Southasian reader will find resonance in Mani’s critique of globalisation, as reflected in the disastrous development of Southasian cities, the prevailing notion of personal freedom as one of unrestrained choice and obstacle-free mobility. Residents of Southasian cities will immediately identify with Mani’s description of developments in Bengaluru, where she resides. She talks of the destruction of complex interdependencies, sacrificed overnight in the name of our skewed conception of the global city. City planners privilege cars over people, obsessed with the idea of connectivity, increasingly imagining a city teeming with people as a network of pipes, drains, power cables, traffic corridors, cellphone towers, metro stations, and ring roads. Mani describes this with mathematical precision: street life is in inverse proportion to road width. When roads are not conceived as streets, she says, they trespass, encroaching upon the variegated rhythms of life.
This book draws our attention to crucial problems faced in Southasia today: disaggregation, distraction, the valourisation of excess – all of which are linked intimately to the rapid technological and material changes that neoliberal globalisation has ushered in. While Southasian economies struggle to become integrated with one another because of political sensitivities, they are largely integrated as nation-states within the global economy. Mani’s intervention is a call that we as Southasians need to take seriously. Her reflections on the relationship between religion and progressive politics, the conflicted association between progressives and religion, and her meditation on the problems with identity politics are all situated within the Southasian milieu, but they also carry implications for large parts of the Global South.
Mani argues that our perception of the world is shaped by the increased pace and hyper-sensuality that characterises our world. She argues that – rather than allow our senses to function as raw material for the operation of pleasure driven by market logic – we should reclaim our senses through the practice of stillness, witnessing and being fully attentive to the world. The sensory realm is an important site of intervention, and these essays look at artists whose work is not just doing something to matter, but celebrating matter: enabling us to see, feel, hear and touch.
Mani’s engagement with the sensory realm is a reflection of the inherent tension between the transcendent and the tantric modes in Hindu and Buddhist thought. Her work clearly favours the latter. It derives from the feminist understanding that you cannot erase the body, and that the seam of learning is in the body. This comes across beautifully in her poem, ‘Morning Light’, included this book. Interestingly, one of the choices for the subtitle of this book was ‘Object Lessons from a Tantric Universe’.
Reading The Integral Nature of Things was an intensely moving experience. Mani offers up to us, with clarity of thought, a sensuous, descriptive style, and a meditative tenor, ways of seeing to which secular left-liberals and progressives are resistant. Through her emphasis on interdependency as a way of thinking, being, and living, she argues for the radical equality of all forms. This book opens the space for questioning neoliberalism, and searching for an ethical and truly inclusive politics, while challenging fundamental ideas that mediate our relationship with the world.
I will leave the reader with the last few lines of Mani’s poem titled ‘Like the Wind’:
All I know is that bereft of love for ‘don’t know’
The metaphysics of modernity
Has only suspicion and contempt
For the magical
For all that makes life richly engrossing
~ Siddharth Narrain is a lawyer and legal researcher with the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore. His work has focused on media laws, censorship, gender and sexuality rights. He has worked previously as a journalist with Frontline and The Hindu.