‘Episteme’ based on Experience: Review of "The Cracked Mirror" by Gopal Guru and Sundar Sarukkai

Bhawesh Pant

‘Lived experience’ is growing in popular appeal (Hoerger, 2016). The reasons for this upsurge are ‘emergence of the politics of identity’ (pg.1) and the theoretical failing of different disciplines, in grasping the essence of varied marginalities. The observation pertaining to lived experience is certainly not new, the celebrated traditions like Phenomenology and Feminist Stand Point theory deal with the element of ‘lived experiences’. But in these traditions, we try to validate and categorize the diverse experiences into a few ‘universal’ categories. And these categories are cognitive products, either curated or influenced by preeminent cultures and communities. Thus a thoughtful questioning has to be carried down on the whole ‘theory doing.’ Mere suspicion will not work, one should also strive to develop an ‘egalitarian theory doing.’

Pic cracked mirror

"The Cracked Mirror: An Indian Debate on Experience and Theory" by Gopal Guru and Sundar Sarukkai, New Delhi: Oxford University Press. 2012

‘The Cracked Mirror’ is the outcome of a dialogic conversation between a political scientist (Gopal Guru) and a philosopher (Sundar Sarukkai). This intellectual intervention envisions making ‘lived experience’ a foundation of social theory. Sheldon Pollock, a celebrated scholar of Indian Studies, considers this very work as an admirable example of “theory from the south.” The authors of this intellectual concern try to traverse a few important contours. This work starts with explicating the practices of Social Science in India, then they try to locate the main theme of the work i.e. ‘experience’ where multiple dimensions of ‘experience’ are touched upon. After this, they also engage with the ‘theorizing’ aspect. Later, they dealt excellently with a distinct way of sensing the perilous practice of ‘untouchability'

This work contains eight interrogating essays. In the very first essay titled “Egalitarianism and the Social Sciences in India” Guru tries to underscore the cultural hierarchy which exists in the sphere of Social Science in India. This hierarchy, according to Guru, creates an “inferior mass of academics who pursue empirical social science and the privileged few who are considered the theoretical pundits with reflective capacity that makes them intellectually superior to the former.” (pg. 1) Throughout this chapter, he highlights the lack of egalitarianism in practicing social science in India, in a biting manner. He divides the Indian academic space into a two-fold structure, for which he uses the phrase ‘theoretical Brahmins’ and ‘empirical Shudras.’ One can sense that this kind of dichotomy sounds in the same tenor as the formulation of “theoretical north” and “empirical south” famously used in the ‘de-colonizing’ literature. Guru, later in the chapter, argues that “for Dalits, theory comes as a double commitment both to scholarship and also to the social cause.” (pg. 28) He makes a fervent plea that “Dalits need theory as a social necessity” (pg. 24) & “Dalits need theory as an inner necessity” (pg. 27). The first chapter excellently sets the stage for further intellectual intervention by firstly scandalizing the hierarchical practices in Social Science in India and secondly, by making a conscious effort to guide Dalits' attention toward theorizing.

The philosophical intervention in the book comes when Sarukkai extensively discusses the nuances of ‘experience.’ He posits a basal inquiry for readers: “can experience really be materialized, commodified, and transferred without taking the subject of experience into account?” (pg. 34) Sarukkai and Guru are very different in their articulation, Sarukkai subtly propels a submission and calls for further deliberation. Whereas Guru is blunt in his expression. The reason for the difference can be becasuse of their different academic training. Sarukkai also valuably hints at the difference between ‘experience’ and ‘lived experience’, when he claims that “lived experience is not about freedom of experience but about the lack of freedom in an experience.” (pg. 36) Then Sarukkai tries to sense the two different vantage point of theorization, on one hand, and refers to Habermas who legitimizes theory for its “distance from experience”. At other end, readers will find Guru who advocates experience, or to be more correct ‘lived experience’, to be at the foundation of theory. This distinction calls for a critical engagement where what Sarukkai is forwarding as ‘theory’ has to be contested, and what role empirical insights will play in Guru’s conception of theorization has to be raised.

Another theme discussed in the book is the conception of ‘space’ and its intertwining with ‘experience’ and ‘justice’. Guru asserts that there exists a ‘logic of space’ which ‘objectively’ produces a ‘subjective experience.’ The tormentor configures these spaces in a manner that it remains ‘oppressive’. Guru ingeminates the need to strive for ‘ideological restructuring of spaces’ (pg. 72) to have ‘justice’ in actuality.

To draw a stark difference between ‘experience’ and ‘lived experience’, Guru builds a creative bulwark when he brings in the articulation of both Ambedkar and Gandhi into the scene. He claims that Ambedkar was ‘epistemologically’ and ‘ontologically’ well equipped due to his ‘lived experience’ of being from a particular caste location, which overarches Gandhi’s imagination which lacks ‘lived experience.’ Guru understands the village based on ‘caste’ as a ‘dark hole’ and speculates in the same vein as Ambedkar also advocated that ‘urbanization’ will destroy the face to face interaction, and thus the nefarious practice of ‘untouchability’ will be cease. Untouchability never ceased, it manifests itself in a ‘new avatar.’

Guru and Sarukkai by initially arguing for the necessity to have a theory based on ‘experience’ then they move to deliberate on ‘theory doing’, ethically. The basic premises on which Guru develops his thesis reads that mere reacting on ‘experience’ will not work, instead one has to necessarily reflect on it. “The recipient of experience carries a special responsibility to reflect on the experience for larger theorization.” (pg. 113) He calls for clearing of ‘ideological layers’ by a theorist who invests them in the theorization of ‘experiences.’ Though Guru is not writing flagrantly; one can sense that he situates his stand that ‘it is ethically inappropriate to become an author of somebody else’s experience.’

In his turn, Sarukkai very swiftly problematizes the whole conception of ‘theorization’ per se. He makes a very thought-provoking statement, when he states that “in the act of theorizing, there seems to be no place for ethics” (pg. 128) He stresses that in theorizing the ‘ethics of choice is important and not of method’ (pg. 132). What he is trying to convey is ethical decisions have to be taken into consideration when one is choosing a research problem. Sarukkai also warns about excessive dependence on epistemological vocabularies created in the west. He urges to formulate concepts after ‘creative & deconstructive’ exploration of varied cultures, which can reciprocate with the nuances of lived-local reality.

The last two essays solely talk about untouchability but with newness. Their titles are attractive, especially for those hailing from Sociological or Philosophical traditions. Sarukkai, in his essay, “Phenomenology of Untouchability”, explores the concept of Untouchability through the phenomenology of touch. He shapes a ‘never thought before’ understanding of untouchability when he states that “practicing untouchability is morally wrong, because the person is denying himself a part of his ability, his capacity to engage with his own sense”. Here one can sense the excellence of the philosophical mind, where he is moving away from ‘purity-pollution’ dichotomy, instead he questions the capability of an individual who practices untouchability. Then in “Archaeology of Untouchability”, Guru demands that “untouchability needs archaeology, mere sociological and anthropological study will not work.” He tries to explore the whole journey of how the bodily untouchable came into being; prior to that, the notion of untouchability was attached to soil, water, air, and sounds. The comprehensive understanding of these phases will assist us in understanding the present manifestation of untouchability more fittingly; for this one has to adopt archaeology as a tool of intellectual inquiry.

Through skim reading, this work seems to be a conversation between two scholars; on squinting it was revealed that the structure of the book has an inherent plan, the sequence of essays is done after a thoughtful exercise. Gopal Guru initiates or invokes a query at length, then Sarukkai with his philosophical wit problematizes it and refines it. This book, though it keeps Dalit experience at its core, the authors are always aware that this creation is developing a ‘vocabulary’ and ‘methodology’ not only for Dalits per se. This work is of concern for many marginalized communities, thus they were judicious in their approach. One should not limit usages of this cognitive creation only to Dalits or other subordinates for theorization. Instead, it is the potent ‘mirror’ for those who consider subordinates as ‘data-rich fields’ where they can feed on. This work has every potential to be included, as an Indian contribution to the global project of ‘decolonizing’ theory, or to be considered as a humble ‘theoretical’ submission from the ‘global south.’



1. Hoerger, J. (2016). Lived Experience vs. Experience. Retrieved 13 March 2020, from  https://medium.com/@jacobhoerger/lived-experience-vs-experience-2e467b6c2229



Bhawesh Pant is pursuing his M.Phil at Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies, TISS, Mumbai.


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