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Let Us Talk About Your Book:
Arvind Pal Singh Mandair - "Religion & The Specter of The West" Part XX

Q & A with Author by SIKHCHIC.COM




Continued From Last Week ...




   Now, let’s go back to my earlier question about the alleged ‘slippage’ in your position in regard to the question of ‘religion’. One critic of your book remarked that there was an ambivalence in your work, where on the one had you deconstruct Anglophone categories, and on the other hand continue to deploy them as well, albeit in a very qualified manner. Do you see this ambivalence as a weakness?

A    The reviewer Tim Fitzgerald said that I had a tendency to re-inscribe the very categories that were being subverted.

Yes, there does appear to be a ‘constant tension and ambiguity’ throughout my book between my practice of critically deconstructing Anglophone categories -- such as religion, the secular, the political, political theology and so on -- and my then re-inscribing them elsewhere.

Two further questions arise from this ambivalence: Does this ambivalence on my part imply a ‘surrender of principle and practice’? Does it not merely perpetuate the ‘linguistic prison of dominant Anglophone or Europhone ways of classifying despite the intended aims of challenging them?

Fitzgerald’s suggestion was that scholars should find ways of distancing or quarantining such terms as ‘religion’, ‘secular’, ‘politics’. And if I read him correctly, the ‘new discursive space’ that might be opened as a result of such quarantining / distancing, would permanently allow indigenous terms such as panth, quom, dharam and so on to circulate and contest the colonially loaded signification ‘religion’.

My answer in short: The ambivalence in the book is part of a broader intellection strategy which I see as a strength not a weakness.

Let me explain why.

As a matter of fact I have strong sympathy with what Fitzgerald is saying, insofar as I too seek an alternative discursive space. Nevertheless I find it necessary to stress certain differences between his approach of ‘quarantining’ Anglophone terms and categories and my own more ambivalent approach. The differences boil down largely to our respective intellectual strategies and lived contexts which are not the entirely shared.

For example, the difference in intellectual strategy can be attributed to the fact we each espouse a different form of logic. As I see it, Fitzgerald’s remedy of simply quarantining or distancing problematic categories such as religion and the secular, is uncomfortably close to the logic of non-contradiction (an either/or logic) that undergirds the philosophical logic of identity (A=A, A=/=B).

This particular logic has exerted hegemonic influence in the Western history of ideas in as much as it also constitutes the central law of the dominant symbolic order, or, what he calls the ‘linguistic prison of dominant Anglophone or Europhone ways of classifying’.

Terms such as religion, the secular, politics have set meanings which, if adopted, lead to certain social practices and consequences thereby perpetuating imperialistic frames of reference. Simply excising these terms from current practice may not be entirely practical because, as a result of colonization, Sikhs, like other social groups, have acquired a multiple consciousness.

A key part of this multiple consciousness consists of the modern imaginary which translates indigenous terms into the dominant (Anglophone) symbolic order.

Whether we like it or not, since the nineteenth century many Sikhs have come to imbibe and live with the category ‘religion’ because their existence became one in which they were required by the law of the dominant symbolic order -- without
which they could not become part of the modern social imaginary -- to enunciate in a manner that recognizes Anglophone categories and concepts such as ‘religion’ or ‘politics’, but not such indigenous categories as panth, quom, dharam and so on.

The other part of the bipolar consciousness is a pre-modern imaginary in which terms such as panth, quom and dharam have continued to retain meaning and signification albeit in the relatively privatized consciousness and discourses of the community. Although this pre-modern imaginary is alive and well, it works in subservience to the dominant symbolic order, since Sikhs cede their sovereignty to the law of the dominant language each time they enunciate in Anglophone categories, through what is effectively a ‘forced choice’.

As a result, Sikhs have come to equate ‘religion’ with panth, quom, dharam. It is this apparent ‘equivalence’ that I find problematic since it perpetuates the dialectic of lack (remember, I talked about this dialectic of lack in one of the earlier segments).

As I see it, the practice of quarantining by itself would do little more than create a prison within an existing prison for the simple reason that the operations of normative logic will not have changed. The critical practice of quarantining may be fine within the rarified atmosphere of academic scholarship but I am not sure how it would make any impact in the far more complicated and messy scenarios that most communities live and work in.

To give a quick example, in 2004 I became involved as an expert witness in two very different cases involving Sikhs.

On the one hand, in New York, I testified that Sikhs could justifiably claim that the turban worn by male and (in some cases) female Sikhs was a ‘religious’ item, which of course could only be derived from the presupposition that Sikhism was a religion, one of the many ‘world religions’.

On the other hand, and roughly at the same time, at the French embassy in New York, I was interviewed at length by a French policy-advising group nominated by the then French President Jacques Chirac in the wake of the political controversy surrounding the French government’s ban on wearing religious items in public.

Part of the purpose of this advisory group was to compare the forms of secularism in France and America, and on the basis of this to develop concrete proposals that might be used to help immigrants integrate into French public life.

Now, part of my conversation with this group inevitably revolved around the argument that the turban need not be seen as a religious item, it was no more religious than it was a secular item, and that Sikhi(sm) was not a ‘religion’, although it had come to identify with the signifier ‘religion’ through its encounter with colonial modernity.

In both cases, American and French, the claim was perfectly correct, only the context was different.

In the context of American culture it was more expedient to speak about the Sikh tradition’s ‘religious’ characteristics.

In the French context it was expedient and but equally legitimate to claim precisely the opposite.

The problem was therefore not the turban, or Sikhs, or Muslims, but the artificial role played by the religion-secular distinction in different Western contexts.

In other words, even in the West, there is no real consistency about how the religion-secular distinction gets applied to non-Western groups.

I cite this example to show that what may appear to some as a kind of ‘double speak’ or ‘ambiguity’ or ambivalence on my part, is in fact a pointer to the complexity of performing intellectual strategies. And this complexity of performance is itself indicative of my desire to implement a very different logic to the dominant logic of non-contradiction.

This alternative logic is the aporia which I talk about in various places in my book (for example pages 7-8 and 220).

Stated simply, an aporia is an irresolvable contradiction, an impossible inheritance.

The logic of aporia might be stated in the following way: the same attribute can at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject. The same subject can have contradictory attributes at the same time, thereby prescribing a form of life or existence in the world that may not be identical to itself.

Aporetic logic derives from the paradoxical structure of time -- the fact that each moment must disappear in the very event of its appearing. The challenge presented by aporia is that it refuses the move that subsumes time under a non-temporal present in order to secure the philosophical logic of identity that in turn is responsible for the continuity of a certain name or thing, for example, ‘religion, or ‘secular’, and so on.

The challenge of aporia is not a simple refusal to inherit this legacy (e.g.,  quarantining or distancing the term ‘religion’), but involves an active decision to un-inherit it.

The term to ‘un-inherit’ denotes the inability to fit comfortably into either of the two poles of a binary opposition. To un-inherit designates a necessary opening towards the future (as the aspect of time that cannot be controlled by or unified into a present identity). It signifies a constant displacement that unsettles definitive assurances or given meanings associated with the notion of belonging to a given heritage, for example, religion, secularism, or the opposition between these terms.

For postcolonial peoples this mode of un-inheriting and its aporetic logic cannot be reduced to a scholarly exercise. It corresponds to a way of life, a frame of mind that exists within the dominant Anglophone order, but constantly resists the latter’s authority by seeking out an alternative discursive space which is attained not simply by jettisoning the terms it is contesting, but by un-inheriting them, that is, by cultivating a ‘double-speak’, an ambivalent way of speaking, a way of living, working, thinking within and outside of them.

For Sikhs, such a ‘doublespeak’ does not just derive from their entry into the colonial symbolic order.

It derives from certain principles internal to Sikh practice and thought, in this case the principle of shabad-guru, or miri-piri, which can be regarded as both equally religious and secular, and neither religious nor secular.

In fact it points to something else entirely. My point is that postcolonial Sikhs, and postcolonials generally, cannot afford either to disown the terms ‘religion’ / ‘secular’, or to own them completely as has become commonplace in the neo-colonial reformist / modernist tradition.

Rather, they must deploy the logic of aporia which allows them to belong and not-belong at the same time. It is a practice that conforms to their existential situation in which the ‘I am’ and ‘I am not’ become equal possibilities.

The exercise of quarantining alone would amount to little more than an exercise of ‘muscular liberalism’ (to use the name of British PM David Cameron’s remedy for the ‘failure’ of multiculturalism) that represses the plural and paradoxical nature of our inter-cultural existence.

The search for a ‘new discursive place’, I would suggest, will be better served not by quarantining but by infecting the normative dominant symbolic order with a different logic, thereby also empowering a mode of critical practice that can resist assimilation by Christian-Secular and Hindutva or Indian secular universals …

To Be Continued Next Week …

June 5, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: Aryeh Leib (Israel), June 10, 2014, 2:10 AM.

It appears to me that this term, aporia, applies to parts of the Guru Granth as well - where the same word is given multiple meanings, depending on context, i.e. Ram can be either a name for Waheguru or refer to the mythological Hindu deity. This, as we see, gives rise to much confusion and all sorts of specious claims by various individuals and groups. A new way of thinking about and articulating these concepts - based on a true collaboration of Eastern and Western thought - is what Prof. Arvind Pal Singh Mandair is calling for, if I understand his words correctly.

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