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Conference: Moral Imaginaries – Emerging Normative Regimes in India, China and the West

The economic, political and cultural relations of domination on a world scale are in the process of radical transformation. In the last two decades we have witnessed the rise of a new economic middle class comprised of hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians, at least doubling its global size, the creation of new technological strongholds, new economic power relations, new international divisions of labour and consumption, and a growing political assertiveness and influence, especially on behalf of China and India. In earlier historical epochs such changes have been accompanied by vast changes in the imaginative and moral geographies of the world. We seem to be on cusp of a similar historical transformation today – which needs examination by the social scientific and humanistic disciplines.

With this background, it is timely to ask whether the global context of normativity is changing. 

Program

9.00–9.20:   Opening of the conference. Greetings from the Rectorate of University of Bergen.

9.20–9.50:   Thorvald Sirnes (SVT, University of Bergen): “Moral Imaginaries and  Emerging  Normative Regimes in India, China and the West. The idea behind the conference.”

9.50–10.00:  coffee

10.00–12.00:  Panel 1:
Sudipta Kaviraj (Columbia University, NY):
“Modernity. A Comparative Indian Perspective.”
Chen Yun (East China Normal University, Shanghai):
The Doctrine of the Mean and the Fundamental Values of Traditional China.”
Anne Norton (University of Pennsylvania):
“Death, deviance and democracy.”
Gunnar Skirbekk (SVT/University of Bergen):
"Multiple Modernities. A Tale of Scandinavian Experiences."

12.00–12.10: coffee

12.10–13.00: Discussion with panel and audience

13.00-14.00: lunch

14.00–16.00 :  Panel 2:
Qing Liu (East China Normal University, Shanghai):
“The transformation of Social Imaginaries and Emergence of Egalitarian Liberalism in Contemporary China”.
Surinder Jodhka (Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi):
“The future of caste in India”.
Johann Arnason (La Trobe University):
"Between axiality and history: Is the concept of axial civilization a key to understanding modern India and China?"
Shruti Kapila (University of Cambridge):
“Gandhi and Political Truth.”

16.00 – 16.10 : Coffee

16.10 – 17.00 : Discussion with panel and audience

General background and problematic

The economic, political and cultural relations of domination on a world scale are in the process of radical transformation. In the last two decades we have witnessed the rise of a new economic middle class comprised of hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians, at least doubling its global size, the creation of new technological strongholds, new economic power relations, new international divisions of labour and consumption, and a growing political assertiveness and influence, especially on behalf of China and India. In earlier historical epochs such changes have been accompanied by vast changes in the imaginative and moral geographies of the world. We seem to be on cusp of a similar historical transformation today – which needs examination by the social scientific and humanistic disciplines.

With this background, it is timely to ask whether the global context of normativity is changing.  To a considerable degree, in the last three hundred years specific European and North American historical experiences and lessons have functioned as both the explicit and implicit context within which the most important global normative questions have been defined. The Westphalia peace, the French Revolution and the Holocaust (to mention some of the most prominent) produce a frame of reference for normative critiques, constructions, deconstructions, debates and struggles. They have laid the foundations for global normative regimes such as Human Rights and the principle of national sovereignty, as well as the tensions between them, the first being interventionist and the second non-interventionist.

However, the global domination of this construction of normative issues may no longer be taken for granted. The new global positions of China and India may be the most important indicators of a shift, or even a rupture. Therefore, we have to ask: what kind of historical experiences and events define the normative questions and problematics within these emerging regimes? Clearly, European imaginaries and historical lessons are no longer paramount. To some degree, China and India earlier occupied a position within the European/North American discourse as exploited colonies and semi-colonies. However, as poles of emerging economic, political and cultural power they have for some time been in the process of transcending this frame. If these new global centres of domination are able to constitute new global, normative regimes, the very structure, logic and substance of normative and imaginary cultures of these societies should be explored. This is the principle goal of the conference.

The Western moral imaginary is constituted by a series of historical events: The peace of Westphalia, the struggle against the privileges of the old nobility, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the labour movement, the women’s movement, the Russian Revolution, colonialism, imperialism, the Moscow trials, the Nazi regime, the Second World War, the Holocaust and the Jewish question. These historical phenomena or processes do not only constitute the Western moral imaginary because of their effects and influences in past epochs. Additionally, they contain other aspects which are central in this regard: these historical events are able to function as contemporary, normative lessons. They represent historical examples, being able to highlight, place focus on or uncover fundamental normative dimensions of society and culture, thereby possessing a power of contemporary interpretation. The lessons are continuously educating us, both individually and collectively. They are not relegated to the past, as something which simply took place (however important), but rather function as complex normative criteria, by which we judge and evaluate present developments. They command a certain authority, if not moral sovereignty. Also, they are dominant producers of meaning, providing the rationale for political decisions, engagements, struggles and even wars (the “just and morally necessary” interventions). Historical lessons are discursive cornerstones in political systems, marking their inherent limitations and defining the location, content and importance of present lines of division and opposition, or “us” vs. “them” relations.

Given this very tentative definition, we will ask the following questions: which historical events, phenomena or processes function as moral lessons, constituting the contemporary Chinese and Indian moral imaginaries? Exactly what constitutes these historical events as lessons? Why these and not others? Exactly what are they telling and teaching the Chinese or Indian political system, public sphere or populace about central, contemporary, normative dilemmas? Which moral criteria of judgment are they highlighting?

What would the Indian candidates be? The struggle between Buddhism and Brahminical Hinduism, the arrival of Islam, the historical constitution of the caste system, British colonialism, the colonial reification of the caste system, the 1857 mutiny, the liberation movement, Gandhian nonviolence, religious nationalisms and militancy, or the partition and communal violence? Are there any new, up and coming candidates, related to the recent economic growth, social tensions and new place in the world order?

 Provisionally, we might suggest that there are two dominating discourses at the heart of Indian moral imaginaries: religion and caste. Historically there has been a great tension between religions in India, first between Vedic Hinduism and Buddhism, then between Brahminical Hinduism and Islam, and lately between Hinduism and Christianity. British colonialism and the deep disciplining power of the vast and extensive censuses is often considered as partly constitutive of the modern caste system. A competing imaginary is tracing the very fundations of the caste system, based upon the distinction between purity and impurity, in the old vedic scriptures and the Manu laws. For more than fifty years, the caste system has been directly challenged, especially by dalit intellectuals, following the tradition of Ambedkar, and there has been a call to “annihilate” caste.

What are the most central Chinese historical lessons dominating contemporary normative discourse? Historically, the revolution of 1911 and the end of the imperial dynasties, the Japanese invasion, the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the cultural revolution and the reform and opening politics (Gaige kaifang) which started in 1978 are some of the most central events in the recent history of China. The Japanese invasion, and what has come to be known as the Massacre of Nanjing, can stand as examples of what role history plays in the growing nationalistic moral imaginaries.

We can tentatively say that there are certain dominant discourses and moral imaginaries central to the Chinese experiential space and horizon of expectation which also relate to these historical events. In this context, Maoism, the revitalization of Confucianism and the concept of harmony are the most prominent. They also reflect the enormous economic growth China is experiencing. For example, the revitalization of Confucianism highlights aspects of their intense modernization and industrialization, such as the work ethic of migrant workers, while also representing the ideals of the traditional Chinese society, such as those expressed in the family structure. What are these discourses and imaginaries telling and teaching the Chinese political system, public sphere and populace about central, contemporary, normative dilemmas and are there any new, up and coming moral imaginaries related to the recent economic growth, social tension and the highly intensive processes of modernization and discipline in China?

How is it possible to compare the contemporary Indian, Chinese and Western moral imaginaries, and their constituting historical lessons? The denaturalizing effect may not really be necessary anymore, because of the growing awareness of the existence of different normative regimes on a global scale, partly due to the new balance in global economic power resulting from the rapidly decreasing Western dominance. Or would comparisons tell us anything about the very constitution and function of historical lessons? How different are the lessons in their content, meaning, interpretations and inherent judgments? How is it possible to translate the constituting lessons and their implications from one regime (Indian, Chinese, Western) to another? How much does any understanding depend upon unarticulated, implicit cultural and contextual presuppositions?