Notions of resistance

The term ‘resistance’ has been given different meanings by different scholars. To a large extent, these have hinged on the ways in which forms of dominance and coercion have been identified and contested by different groups. According to Webster’s College Dictionary, ‘resistance’ literally means "the power or capacity to fight against or oppose." In the following, I will describe how ‘resistance’ can be understood in ways more pertinent to the challenges facing the contemporary world. For those engaged in challenging the mainstream education system, conceptualizing resistance in new ways can facilitate deeper understandings of the larger systems of oppression to which schooling is linked. It can also help to identify various allies who oppose schooling and other systems of dehumanization and exploitation. Most importantly, it can open up theoretical possibilities and practical strategies for engaging in constructive new action.

Historically, one of the most powerful forms of resistance was anti-colonialism. Here, resistance refers to the political struggle of colonized peoples against both the practices and ideologies of colonialism. In its most simplistic sense, anti-colonialism emphasizes the need to reject colonial rule, and to replace it with national regimes. But in the second half of the 20th century, the writings of C.L.R James, Amilcar Cabral, and Frantz Fanon for instance, started targeting an English-educated intelligentsia for supporting colonial rule, and celebrated the role of peasant/proletarian revolutionaries. A more nuanced variation of this argument is that although the English-educated elite had successfully challenged colonial authority by leading national movements, they had failed to resist the domination of ‘colonial forms of knowledge’. Post-colonial critics argue that colonialism did not really end with the departure of the British from India in 1947, because the coercive institutions of foreign rule remain in place — now under the control of a western-educated Indian middle-class.

The concept of hegemony is particularly useful for understanding what has happened (and is happening) in India. ‘Hegemony’ represents a framework of internalized manipulation or indoctrination that is used to legitimize domination. It explains how an imperial power can control colonized people who outnumber them: if an oppressor can make the oppressed desire ‘the greater good’ — social order, progress, and economic advancement (as defined by the imperial power) — then the oppressed will consent to their oppression. In India, ‘disciplining’ the masses and ‘modernizing’ their knowledge so that they agreed with the ‘greater good’ was the goal of the British government’s Charter Act of 1813. The educational institutions that emerged from this imperial policy have effectively served to shape India’s conceptions of its own Progress and Development in the intellectual image of the West. Contemporary India still lives with this legacy, as the Indian Nation State still does not resist the colonial foundations of modern education.

The goals of ‘resistance’ for subaltern groups (peasants, workers and women), however, were not just against colonialism, but against more complex forms of dominance, based in elitism. Their ‘struggle’ is to regain freedom from those institutions and frameworks of knowledge that lie at the root of oppression for all subordinate groups.

How do people resist? Early works on resistance had defined four criteria for ‘genuine resistance’: 1) it must be collective and organized, not private and spontaneous; 2) it must be principled and selfless, rather than opportunistic and selfish; 3) it must have revolutionary consequences; and 4) it must negate, not accept, the basis of domination.

However, recent work demonstrates that these requirements are too rigid and, on occasion, a-historical. James Scott distinguishes between forms of public declared resistance (petitions, demonstrations, strikes ) vs. forms of disguised, low-profile undeclared resistance. He describes that in the constant struggle between the peasantry and those who take labor, food, taxes, rents, and interest from them, ‘everyday forms of peasant resistance’ take place through "ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups: foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so forth."1 For such oppressed groups, their conformity is calculated, not a blind acceptance of the status quo. By locating resistance in everyday material practices that are culture-specific, Scott opens up new spaces for human agency and action.

Scott also makes a very important point on the limits of hegemonic power, and argues that elite intellectual values do not necessarily penetrate into the lower classes. Because hegemonic ideas are always the subject of conflict and are continually being reconstructed, "relations of domination are, at the same time, relations of resistance." The indignities experienced by the peasantry "are the seed bed of the anger, indignation, frustration that nurture the hidden transcript (of resistance)."2 These also give birth to other forms of resistance which involve the cultural production of new artifacts such as art, music, and dance.

Another form of resistance involves the concept of ‘counter-discourse’.3 This describes the complex ways in which challenges to the specific viewpoints that create, stabilize, and perpetuate dominant structures of power might be mounted from the periphery. Counter-discursive practices are particularly effective against hegemonic institutions, like education systems, which use certain texts to legitimize the dominance of larger political, legal, economic, social and literary structures. For example, English literature used texts that upheld the virtues of the Englishman while, at the same time, erased the histories of racial oppression and material exploitation that came with British rule (this curriculum remained unchanged in Indian universities until very recently). A counter-discursive critique would attack not just the textbooks in the curriculum, but also the assumptions that underlie the larger institutional apparatus. It would challenge the very idea of organizing knowledge in textbooks, and what it means to get a modern education — even if this means using textbooks as tools of the critique!

Thus, resistance does and must operate on a number of levels. Along with active mobilization and social organization, learning activists must recognize and engage with hidden spaces and processes (historically-and culturally-specific) of resistance. They must also engage in counter-discursive practices that challenge the foundations of hegemonic or ‘colonial forms of knowledge’. All of these diverse practices of resistance serve to create spaces to facilitate transformation of structures and society by hitherto disempowered groups.

1. J. Scott, Weapons of the Weak, Yale, 1985.

2. J. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, Yale, 1990.

3. R. Terdiman, Discourse/Counter-Discourse, Cornell, 1985.

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