Academic Focus: Metamorphoses of the Political

The M.S. Merian – R. Tagore International Centre of Advanced Studies: ‘Metamorphoses of the Political: Comparative Perspectives on the Long Twentieth Century’ (ICAS:MP) in New Delhi is an open, interdisciplinary forum for intellectual exchange. Located in India it critically intervenes in global debates in the social sciences and humanities.

Scholars associated with ICAS:MP will have the opportunity to examine and compare, from a wide array of disciplinary and methodological approaches, how ‘the political’ has been conceptualized, articulated and performed in specific arenas of contestation during what we call the ‘long twentieth century.’ This temporal demarcation is a heuristic tool that allows us to take into account longer historical trajectories, ranging from the ‘age of empire’ to the transformative phase following the end of the cold war in which ‘the political’ emerged as a realm transcending the boundaries of institutional politics.

ICAS:MP researchers will ask: What comes to count as ‘the political’ in distinct locales? What are the historical dynamics of depoliticization and repoliticization: how has the boundary between the political and the non-political shifted over time? What are the material and normative stakes of claiming, redefining or rejecting, the political? How do these dynamics unfold beyond, and unsettle, the West/non-West divide?

These questions about the shifting nature of the political will be addressed through sustained empirical focus on six paradigmatic arenas (Thematic Modules) in which contestation over delimiting the political has been particularly intense:

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ICAS:MP Modular Structure

Deeply contradictory and conflicting tendencies have shaped ‘the political’ over much of the twentieth century. In its early decades, unprecedented levels of political participation, the politicization of ‘social questions’ and a new abundance of social movements were countered by apprehensions over the supposedly dangerous effects of mass political agency. While colonialism and empire seemed untenable by the second half of the century and ideals of democracy came to enjoy virtually unchallenged legitimacy, fierce contestations over the substance of democratic politics reflected and fuelled a protracted cold war, and the exercise of political violence by both state and non-state actors. In academic scholarship these conflicts generated an intensive and interdisciplinary debate on the contours and content of ‘the political’.

By century’s end the distinction between ‘politics,’ i.e. formal political institutions and their practices, and ‘the political’ as the realm of conflicting views and controversial negotiations about the shaping of modern society, became a key concern of modern political and social science, theory, philosophy, and cultural history.

Referencing discussions from earlier decades of global tumult (Schmitt 1932, Arendt 1958), some scholars from both left and right argued that ‘the political’ has all but exhausted itself in a ‘neoliberal’ technocratic present (Fukuyama 1992, Zizek 1999). It is evident, however, that ‘the political’ has not simply receded. Rather, it is in a state of perpetual metamorphosis, encompassing new fields of social practice as it withdraws from others, occasionally challenging the stability of entrenched political systems,  and frequently appearing as ‘antipolitics’.