Ahistory, Part 2

You will recall my quote of Spengler in my article on ahistory, where he asserts that India had no history, and I clarify that it instead had a resistance network of stories which prevented the creation of history. I think this was a good thing with regards to Indian society. Now I have learned that there was a very interesting person who thought it was a bad thing:

Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies.

Indian society has no history at all, at least no known history. What we call its history, is but the history of the successive intruders who founded their empires on the passive basis of that unresisting and unchanging society. … England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying the material foundations of Western society in Asia.

Karl Marx, 1853.

What “grandeur” did Marx see in a potential India? What are the “historical energies” that he believed needed to be loosed on the country? Well, I guess I can answer that question from what I read of Marx. Still, it certainly points the political compass of the ahistorian in a new direction.

Posted: October 2nd, 2010 | Postcolonialism 1 Comment »


Ahistory: not the absence of history, but the recognition that history — the past as a meaningful narrative, as a story — never existed in the first place. It is wrong, having pierced the veil, to try to tell the history of this idea. I can only speak of my own recent ventures into the area: knocking down the “historical evolution of religion” in my undergraduate thesis and seeing the power of history textbooks in Texas, Japan, and China. History cannot be “politicized”, because it is at its heart a political endeavor; not just the facts, but an arrangement of the facts that imbues personal or collective power. It disguises one particular path among many as the single road to perfection. In its incarnation as “world history”, it seeks to universalize one of these paths as “humankind’s journey from childhood to adulthood”, but as Oswald Spengler put it, “‘Mankind’, however, has no aim, no idea, no plan, any more than the family of butterflies or orchids.” We are not climbing a mountain. The world is here, the same as always. Only the stupid things we’re doing on its surface have changed.

As Spengler points out, before the interruption of colonization, India existed in a state of ahistory. Oh, sure, India is a country full of stories. There are epic stories that can enlighten and entertain the reader for centuries on end, but in such a stubbornly diverse and divided continent, none of these stories were meant to identify the persons who told or heard them. A culture of friendly anonymity prevailed; there was no word for “India” in any Indian language, and indeed, stories like the Ramayana were told and revered as far east as Thailand and Vietnam. The historians of South Asia were not the brilliant philosophers, but the marginalized and cast-off Sri Lankans. Seeking to define themselves as a monocultural people, they manufactured a narrative, the Mahavamsa, which will be recognized today as a pioneering work of ethno-nationalism. Probably India did not understand the peace-making power of ahistory, for even in light of the ethnic strife in Sri Lanka, they have begun to define themselves, as Hindus, Muslims, or urban Indians, uniting their stories into a common ethnic narrative (i.e., a national history that would no longer be interesting to Thais or Vietnamese), or else casting them off and adopting the trendy Western narrative of economic development and globalization.

How can ahistory retake its rightful place on the world stage? There will always be critics around to deconstruct or uncover ideological histories, just like the resounding criticism of recent developments in Texas. But the interesting thing about criticism is that, by adding to that particular discourse, it reinforces that history’s authority as official, even if some people doubt that it may be true. The more people talk about it, the more that history becomes bumped up the ladder towards world-class ideology.

Perhaps the only way out is to promote the telling of stories. The more unruly and unregulated stories that get told, be they first hand experiences, second hand gossip, folklore, fables, or simply snippets of books from here and there, the more the approved histories get put in their place as just one brand of story among many. In a world full of wonderful stories, it will be difficult to identify oneself with any particular history. Then, perhaps, we can leave the past behind and turn our thoughts towards the present.

Posted: May 30th, 2010 | Postcolonialism 2 Comments »

How To Read Homi Bhabha

Homi Bhabha is a famously incomprehensible writer in the field of postcolonial studies. He is regarded as the second most unreadable academic in the world, after Judith Butler. In this article I’ll tell you how to interpret his work and make yourself look really smart in your postcolonial grad papers.

The 1980s-era theoretical writings of Homi Bhabha should not be read like a typical academic paper. There is no criticism, thesis, or conclusion. He is not attempting to make any political point or support any belief system. Instead, they are written as works of poetry. They are intended to make readers pay close attention to how he is playing with his subjects, and develop some insight from that which can be applied to their own works. Also, and importantly, he is completely unconcerned with agency. Many of his block-quoted examples seem confusing from a postcolonial perspective–they do not describe the colonized in “empowering” or flattering ways, and one might wonder whether he has any sympathy for them at all. In fact, Bhabha is unattached to any desire to assign blame or credit to anyone. He does not want to pat the natives on the back, but only to describe what is going on.

Bhabha, of course, operates in the tradition of Jacques Derrida, and many of his artistic gimmicks, like repeating the same statements over and over in different contexts, come from Derrida. Operating fully within the tradition of deconstruction, he views the individuals he’s quoting as fellow observers, who had equal rational capacity, rather than objects of criticism. He is not trying to discover some fault in their analysis, but to discover the processes that gave rise to their mode of thinking. In short, Bhabha does not assume the preexistence of a colonizer and colonized. His primary interest is in understanding the complex ways of speaking, writing, and thinking that arose out of the mere act of establishing a colony. Questions like “What is Indian?” or “What is English?” can only be answered by a discourse that separates them. Here we can see why a colonial discourse is different from discussions about the internal problems of a country. Everyone in England is English, but the natives of colonial India cannot be fully British, even though they are subjects of the Queen!

This colonial discourse, in Bhabha’s writing, has several important characteristics. First, colonialism is anti-Enlightenment, because it denies egalitarianism. The colonized as a constructed group are asked to achieve a certain standard of civilization, but they cannot actually achieve it, or else they would cease to be a colony of a mother nation. This gives rise to hybridity, a process where the discourse of the colonists becomes a discourse of the colonized via their responses of acceptance, rejection, or misunderstanding (the last of these three categories is particularly important to Bhabha, since he considers it influential and unacknowledged). Whether they intend it to or not, the natives’ hybridity undermines the colonial discourse and confuses or angers the colonists. Thus, the colonists’ message must be proclaimed again and again, as long as they care about their civilizing project.

Bhabha acknowledges that some natives inevitably feel comfortable being in a colony, an imagined world with a secure leadership. But as above, hybridity is a force that upsets, whether people want it to or not. In the form of mimicry, the futile if well-meaning attempt to achieve full citizenship or humanity within the discursive borders of the colony, the native response becomes “civil disobedience within the discipline of civility”. Their actions upset colonial power, since a colony ruled by its native inhabitants without interference is not really a colony at all, nor are the natives really colonized. Mimicry is therefore “the sign of the inappropriate”, meaning that it is undesirable to the colonist rulers as well as demonstrating the impossibility of fully appropriating the colonists’ power. (This is an obnoxious Derridean pun.)

It appears to me that hybridity includes any disavowal of colonial domination, including resistance, misunderstanding, and an acceptance of rule that denies the negative effects of that rule. Mimicry is more specifically a misreading of the meanings given to institutions by the colonists, and an embrace of those misreadings. It appears in Bhabha’s block-quoted examples as an accident which neither illiterates nor intelligentsia really understand the origin of. But this does not mean that conscious resistance is better for the world than mimicry, because that assumes that the colonist reading is in fact the correct reading. Mimicry, too, is a legitimate, creative act which disrupts the colonists’ intentions. Perhaps the name “mimicry” marginalizes that important process.

This is as far as I’ve got so far. I think that if you take this cheat sheet with you, then you may be able to make some sense out of Homi Bhabha’s gobbledy-gook. Whether his theory has useful application to real-world disputes is a subject for another day entirely.

Posted: April 7th, 2010 | Postcolonialism 1 Comment »

“Religious Studies”: The Future of an Illusion

On a shrine's wish board: "Chihiro and Tomoko, together forever!" Is this religion? Does it even matter? (Peter Held)

A century ago Sigmund Freud proclaimed the end of religion as an influence on humanity. He defined an illusion as something which people want to believe but can be neither proved nor disproved, and combined it with the concept of religion, which he either perceived or defined as a collection of childish ideas people used to hold about the world. The real illusion, invisible to Freud’s eyes, was his imposition of that idea onto the entire world. He claimed without proof to perceive a single concept which has existed in all times and places, but religion is a Western word, developed in a Christian society. As religious scholars, we hasten to equate it to concepts in other language: dharma, tao, bhakti, or even islam. We draw our anthropology from The Golden Bough, assuming in some way or another that the coincidental practices of strange or incompletely developed peoples echo pan-human themes. Although we in fact find that the language worlds of other cultures have created quite different societies, we insist that they are expressing a form of our permanent entity, “religion”. This is unacceptable.

The field of religious studies has spent over a century building up scholarship based on this falsely presumed universality. What is the benefit of a comparison between medieval Japanese and Arab mystics, when you don’t understand either language? Such pursuits do not lead us closer to an understanding of either Japan or the Islamic caliphate, but are in fact an exercise in finding new meanings for tired English words such as “insight”, “ecstasy”, or “ineffable”. This is not a work of cultural exchange, but of ecumenical theology. Historical examples from faraway places are transformed through our work into precedents for our more complete understanding, mere ingredients to enrich these Western categories. One would think, after decades of this work, that we would have developed sufficiently rich language to enlighten the entire world.

Instead, by attributing a wealth of practices to the Western construct which was already enraging intellectuals like Freud a century ago, we have succeeded in alienating ourselves from our human siblings in the global south, and undoing the careful work of anthropologists and sociologists. Today, “religion” is a bogeyman: popular speakers or bloggers will frighten audiences with the specter of Islamic extremism, or “religious delusion” in general, as a worldwide phenomenon responsible for keeping faraway cultures in the Dark Ages or threatening the very basis of civilization. We must ask ourselves: what has the importance given to the Western religious category added to our discourse on Middle Eastern politics, if not to mystify discussions of the subcontinent with claims of widespread brainwashing by some vaguely imagined, church-like institution, the pan-regional “Religion”? If we dropped our pretenses of “sacredness” and the “transcendent” and moved to interpret lowercase-I islam as just one pattern of life among many in the diverse cultures of the Middle East, wouldn’t Western readers be less guarded and more open to understanding these different but altogether human conceptions?

Meanwhile, those communities whose cultural property we have appropriated and transformed for our own theological quests are not always happy with their exploitation, as we have seen from the backlash by Indians against the Wendy Doniger school of “Hindu studies”. When these groups deny the validity of Western analysis, the academic response has been to fall back on mean-spirited Orientalist rhetoric, and what seemed like a friendly, inclusive ecumenicism quickly becomes a harsh verbal battle. Consider the response of Morris J. Augustine to Timothy Fitzgerald’s point that most Japanese people do not self-identify as religious:

It is not surprising to me that Japanese students and/or professors never really think about what they are doing [during family ceremonies] … this is a typical example of the “nihonjinron” or conscious or unconscious feeling that their own race and culture is in a class by itself and cannot simply be compared to others.

We see here the dark side of religious studies: if the subject people does not want to be included in our peculiar Weltgeist, they’re either too ignorant to understand their own culture, or they think they’re better than us! Both these claims are clearly based directly on a belief in “religion” as an immutable, universal, and sacred category. Augustine is not the first religious scholar to make condescending generalizations about Japanese self-identity; D.C. Holtom shrugged off Japanese complaints in a similar way in the 1930s, leading to the invention of the term “State Shinto” to describe Japanese fascism religiously and the pronouncement of a “Shinto Directive” during the Allied Occupation which imposed Western secularism by force.

One could argue that interfaith dialogue, drawing distinctions between religions and explaining them, has deepened understanding between Christians and Jews as well as other “faith communities”, but has “religion” really done any work here that “culture” could not? In fact, is it even proper to describe Judaism as “religion” when it is practiced culturally by a large number of atheists? Meanwhile, the sanctity of the religious category has served to create a perception in India of an irreconcilable divide between Hindus and Muslims. To claim despite all this that religious studies is a net benefactor on our perception of current events, you must first confess your faith in its theological tenets—for example, Augustine’s belief “that the mysterious Source-Ground from which all religions have emerged has fired the inspiration of very different charismatic leaders in hundreds of different societies in every age”. (No wonder he so vehemently denies Japanese non-religiosity.)

For the rest of us, it is well past time to open up the discourse. Not only questions of “religious” and “secular”, but also constantly changing categories like “state”, “politics”, “civility”, “barbarity”, and so forth, must be examined in a way that does not hold any of these words to be endowed with any permanent and unchanging meaning throughout the centuries. If this approach is bad-mouthed as postmodernism, I deny the accusation: this is Buddhism, and the philosophy I here employ is emptiness. If critics insist on relying on some particular definition for any of these words, that will allow them to examine Japanese society from the perspective of the Religion and the Church, then they are relying on a different perspective in which some concepts are written in the sky, unchanging now and forever. To those people, I leave the job of repairing religious studies. They can write whatever they like—just don’t assume that anyone will automatically consider it relevant.

There is much work to be done, to present the worlds of non-Western societies in a comprehensible way that does not diminish the value they give to insiders. To the prospective scholar, I ask: are you willing to take on the challenge?

Posted: March 11th, 2010 | Japan, Postcolonialism, Secular-Religious