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Social Text 18.3 (2000) 67-86

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Archaic Modernities:
Science, Secularism, And Religion In Modern India * - [PDF]

Banu Subramaniam

If people become what they think they are, what they think they are is exceedingly important.

--Linda Fedigan, Primate Paradigms: Sex Roles and Social Bonds

Dreams of an Insomniac

Science has transformed the visual schemes of an insomniac--the studious invocation of sheep, the procession of zoological icons hypnotically jumping a white picket fence on a soft green lawn. 1 Thanks to the cloning feat of Dr. Ian Wilmut, 2 all I see today is a stream of Dollys, identical in every manner, deftly clearing the barricade in quick succession. There is no comfort anymore, no soporific presence. A genetically engineered sheep is no longer innocent, naive. These icons that inhabited my nightly imagination, the last refuge of an insomniac, are suddenly pregnant with meaning, rich with symbolism. Life is not the same anymore.

The realm of the "natural," a world untainted by human interventions, has exploded into a kaleidoscope of technological wizardry. Science has taken over that last bastion of the personal and private, the world of one's dreams. And yet, just as science in all its quests for rationality has conquered another realm of the supposedly irrational, religion seems to be (re)appearing systematically and unmistakably. Religion has often been cast as the demon in the nightmares of modern science. What do we make of the appearance of these two supposed opposites in the same dreamscape? For some, it is just another chapter in an ongoing story in which the light of reason banishes the darkness of superstition. The appearance of superstition is seen as regression, signaling the need to remind the dreamer of the superiority of rationality. For others, the morality play, while also long-running, moves in the opposite direction. For them, the reappearance of religion may be a sign of return, but not of regression--a return to the time of beauty and light, the time before the outsiders and their degenerate, fluorescent version of enlightenment.

Having grown up secure in the warm halo of modern science in secular India, with Charles Darwin as my hero, the tumultuous turns of science and religion have been disorienting. My growing feminism has [End Page 67] forced me to interrogate the world around me, slowly pushing me away from the center of the very institutions I put my trust in. My naive faith and belief in the liberatory power of science--the science that was going to eradicate poverty, and class, caste, and gender discrimination--has gradually eroded. It is not that I think science cannot do those things, but that science has not fulfilled its promise. Eugenics, Nazi science and medicine, Tuskegee syphilis experiments are part of the history of science we must reckon with. I am a committed scientist and believe in the possibility and power of a liberatory science, but I think these promises can be fulfilled only when we learn to create, locate, and engage with a science that is also a political, social, and progressive institution. Mainstream science--with its claim to the apolitical, value-neutral, and objective--cannot fulfil this mission. Indeed, the social and feminist studies of science have demonstrated that science's claim to aperspectival objectivity is far from that "view from nowhere." 3 Instead it is a view from the pristine white castles of power and privilege. How should we imagine this progressive project for science? If science is an institution influenced by social, cultural, and economic factors as the social and feminist studies of science suggest, surely we must elaborate the relationship of science to another powerful cultural force, namely religion. What does this look like?

The always unsteady science of "the interpretation of dreams" is further complicated when the dreamscape and the dreamer inhabit the worlds between these two stories, sleeping, dreaming frantically between the binary oppositions of science and religion and religion and secularism. What can this yield but a jumble of dream fragments?

. . . I dream of the lush landscape of the hills of Assam. I can...


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pp. 67-86
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Archived 2005
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