A development that could have derailed Leela Gandhi’s research after graduate school instead inspired her to take a new path.
Returning home to her native India after completing her doctorate at Oxford University, Gandhi was set to teach at the University of Delhi, her undergraduate institution — a plan she made at the urging of her parents, both philosophers.
“With any course of study you become a living archive, and my parents told me it’s very important that you teach others while it’s still fresh in your mind,” Gandhi said.
She was also going to continue work on Shakespeare and other 16th- and 17th-century literature. But that part of the plan soon ground to a halt: The archive of research she had created in Delhi before leaving for England was gone.
“There are no library systems in India like those available at Western universities. I just panicked.”
But instead of shying away from academia after such a setback, Gandhi began a quest to find new areas of interest.
Intrigued by her own country’s history of colonialism, Gandhi read Edward Said’s Orientalism, and found that his ideas regarding knowledge having its own history spoke to her.
“I concluded that you have to take seriously just what is before you and create an epistemology out of your present circumstances, out of where you live. And also be constantly aware that any form of knowledge, pedagogy, or research is profoundly historically situated. And to be attentive to those things.”
Gandhi’s main focus since that discovery years ago has been on 19th- and 20th-century intellectual histories of the colonial encounter between Europe and the rest of the world, with a particular emphasis on what she calls “transnational traditions of anti-imperial ethics.”
Gandhi explains: “There’s been a lot of interest in the last few years in trying to find alternative traditions of globalization and internationalism and transnationalism that don’t have to do with histories of capitalism or empire or war. I’ve found that there are many forms of being global that are very intimate and minor and small and interpersonal and poetic and it’s these traditions, these small traditions of making connection in the face of global traditions of divisiveness that I take to be the heart of anti-imperial ethics.”
The idea of globalism first piqued Gandhi’s interest while reading Henry Salt’s A Plea for Vegetarianism (1886) while in Delhi. A poem at the end — in praise of M. K. Gandhi, whom Salt first met as a young man from India, rediscovering vegetarianism and his beliefs in nonviolence in the company of social eccentrics in England — got her thinking about the revolutionary exchange of ideas throughout the world.
Her book, Affective Communities (1998), which examines the role that exchange between Western and non-Western dissidents played in anticolonial politics, was born out of those ideas.
Gandhi is also the author of an earlier book, Postcolonial Theory (1998), which maps shifts in critical theory and philosophy produced by the encounter between the West and non-West.
More recently, Gandhi has completed a third book, The Common Cause: Postcolonial Ethics and the Practice of Democracy (1900-1955). Published this year, the book examines the concept of imperfection that lies behind many transnational and countercultural traditions of democracy.
“It’s about the belief that in order to be truly democratic you have to make yourself imperfect so that you resist the desire to be a leader, hero, champion, warrior. It’s the art of making yourself small and creating conditions of democracy through styles of self-reduction.”
The book also looks at the history of perfectionism that spurred 20th-century fascism and imperialism.
Gandhi also recently co-edited a special issue of the journal Critical Inquiry called “Around 1948.” The project, which chronicles the global history of that year from multiple perspectives, became one of Gandhi’s first introductions to Brown, as two members of the faculty — Amanda Anderson and Ariella Azoulay — were contributors.
Gandhi, who was hired as a professor of English under the Humanities Initiative and has roots in several areas of study, including history, philosophy, and English, declines to limit herself to one label. She cites this multidisciplinary perspective as one of the primary reasons she came to Brown.
“This is the kind of the position I’ve been seeking since I left Oxford as a purely English literature person. It allows me to pursue history and philosophy and keep one foot in English as well.”
Gandhi will teach an undergraduate course on “India in English” in the fall and a graduate course on postcolonial theory in the spring. Through the Cogut Center, Gandhi is also organizing a spring semester seminar she’s calling “Positivist Humanities and the Humanistic Social Sciences,” that will bring in faculty from across the University to discuss how they blend the social sciences and humanities in their work.
As for her own work, Gandhi sees a commonality between the factors that influence her and others at Brown.
“Much of my work is informed by the belief that questions about direct social action and transformation belong as much to the humanities as to the social sciences. And at Brown this seems very important. There seems to be a tradition of combining academic work with direct social action and a strong interdisciplinary culture backing that as well.”