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

Q & A with Author by SIKHCHIC.COM




Continued From Last Week ...



Q:    You talked about ‘operationalizing Sikh universals’ in our last session. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but if you want to operationalize Sikh concepts, why do you need to rely on Western theory? Why should a project concerned with challenging the hegemony of Western theory rely on the same Western theory as a tool? Why should one use Western models to theorize Sikh materials?

Won’t some scholars see your use of ‘postmodern’ Western philosophy as a sign of “weakness” - a weakness which suggests that Sikh or other Eastern traditions themselves lack something, that they are unable, by themselves, to provide meaningful universals. How would you respond to such a criticism?

A:  All your questions add up to a very broad and important question which constitutes one of the strands of research that I am currently working on.

So, your readers will get a more detailed and nuanced answer in a couple of years or so.

But for now, I will give a very simple answer as well as a more complicated answer.

Here is the simple answer: there is no avoiding Western theory when you work with Sikh (or any Asian) concepts in a Western language. These languages are totally permeated within frameworks of thinking and forms of logic that have been developed over many centuries.

Each European language is imbued with its own ‘common sense’ within which its concepts work. This ‘common sense’, which is always specific to a particular era, consists of the manner in which concepts constellate and relate to other concepts.

In other words there is no neutral space. You are always working within constellations of concepts that belong to the host or target language, the language into which we are forced to translate.

So, Sikh concepts cannot simply do their work in the Anglophone language because the concepts of the Anglophone language are historically constellated in a particular way. So something else has to happen.

And this something else is the forming of new relations to the concepts of the host/target language. This forming of new relations is nothing less than the birth of new concepts, the emergence of novel meanings, etc.

Let’s now complicate this a bit more. I’ll begin by addressing your point that some scholars consider use of the ‘postmodern’ ideas as a sign of weakness. It never fails to amuse me when this term is casually thrown around by scholars and students who are either unfamiliar or uncomfortable with theory as such.

For many such scholars and students “postmodern” has turned into a catch-all term of condescension, a metonym for debates and discourses that many find impenetrable, or nothing more than a fashion that has come to dominate the humanities and social sciences.

It’s usually the case, however, that those who complain most often have never even tried to engage with these discourses.

However, even a cursory reading of my book -- Religion & The Specter of The West -- should leave the reader in no doubt that:

a)  I do not subscribe to any such theory or philosophy called “postmodern”, and

b)  that I have spent an entire chapter (chapter 6) and significant portions of other chapters (1, 3, 4) strongly critiquing the relationship between the postmodern and the postsecular as an unfinished task of decolonization. Indeed, as I stated earlier, the postmodern and the postsecular are part of the problem of dialectical thought and are thus fettered to forms of agency grounded in an imperial disposition.

Turning to the more important question about the appropriateness of Western models for theorizing Sikh and other South Asian phenomena. First of all, I think the assumption that one can simply adopt South Asian models to theorize South Asian phenomena, and do this in English, is a non-starter!

As I explained very early on in the interview, card-carrying scholars of Asian studies (especially of non-theoretical variety) like to believe they are thinking in Punjabi (or any other Asian language) whilst they continue to write in English.

This belief is a fallacy that goes by the name of ‘Orientalism’.

The fallacy consists in the belief that the European language can adequately represent the concepts of another culture. The word ‘adequate’ is important here, which is why I stress it. That non-Western concepts can do their work unhindered in the European languages is perhaps the fundamental assumption of Orientalists who believe they have overcome this issue by ‘mastering’ the required languages, etc.

But language ‘mastery’ (if such a thing is even possible, because it assumes that language is nothing more than a mechanical vehicle for communicating meanings) tells us nothing about how concepts interact, relate to each other and form new or novel concepts.

Rather, as I explain in the book, language has a life of its own. This life consists in the animation of concepts. And this animation corresponds to the processes of lived experience that is marked by plurality and constant interaction of concepts.

Secondly, there is another assumption that lurks beneath the surface of the first one. It is that Asian and Western cultures are conceptually incommensurate, i.e. radically different; and that this radical difference can be bridged through the ‘heroic’ efforts of certain ‘specialists’ (aka Orientalists or Indologists, Sikhologists, etc).

Again, this a fallacy. I do not subscribe either to the assumption of adequation or to the assumption of radical difference.

I make this plainly obvious in the Specter book. And I do so by changing the argument away from representation (which is the basic assumption of Orientalism – namely that the Europhone languages can adequately represent the radical difference between the Western and non-Western languages and cultures) and towards the lived experience of diasporic subjects.

Let me explain this point a little further, and if I fail to properly explain my point at this stage, or if it seems complex, then it is because an entire chapter, perhaps even a monograph, needs to be devoted to this question. Also, it will help the reader if s/he reconnects what I am about to say to what I have said earlier in the interview.

So, I am neither concerned to simply use South Asian models to theorize South Asian phenomena, nor am I concerned with debunking Western models in order to then replace them with South Asian ones.

Rather my aim is to alert the reader that there is something totally disingenuous about the very question, namely, the demand for the South Asian language or culture to equivocate with its own model or theoretical system.

It is disingenuous for several reasons. One reason is that from the outset this question already operates within the Platonic model of generalized adequation (equivalence) between the Western and non-Western. The idea being that you can simply and unproblematically bring them onto a neutral (hence adequate) horizon. But such equivalence or adequacy already presupposes that identity is the condition for difference.

As a framing logic the Platonic logic of adequation presupposes an intrinsic connection between the operations of thought and the language in which that thinking is carried out (here, Anglophone or global-Latinate languages). In other words, the question itself is silent about the logic of the framing structure within which such comparison between Western and non-Western models would be carried out.

The logic of this framing structure is based on the need to create the ‘unity’ of a system as an identity, which can then be used for grounding, legalizing, institutionalizing and thereby perpetuating itself, precisely by way of excluding, including or assimilating an oppositional counterpart (the non-Western concept).

The common assumption here is that this process of putting two entities onto a single plane of comparison is akin to allowing South Asian terms to ‘dialogue’ with Western categories. But far from ‘dialogue,’ what results is a coercive channeling of South Asian terms and concepts into the negative cycle of the dialectic, i.e., they are ascribed lack/desire which kick-starts the dialectical cycle.

Once it is brought into the dialectical relation, the oppositional other then becomes known as the ‘foreign’, the marginal, the unessential, etc. Paradoxically, the South Asian other obtains the status of a foreign body and is excluded precisely because it is seen to constitute the identity of a self through
generalized adequation.

The point here is that as long as we remain within the “charmed circle” of the Anglophone language, or at least, as long as we allow the framing logic of this language to go un-interrogated, the illusion will always be perpetuated that non-European language concepts can do their work unhindered (i.e. tolerated) in another medium.

The latter is of course a reference to the problem of translation – or rather its disavowal – with which this book is centrally concerned. Short of writing in Punjabi, for example, the most practical way out of this conundrum for me was to contest the universality of Western concepts and theoretical models in order to enable at least a degree of co-contamination in the target language which would enable South Asian terms or concepts to circulate and do their work without being forced to conform to the framing logic of the target language and culture (or what I referred to above as the dominant symbolic order).

Given that: (i) the framing logic of the Sikh text under consideration here, the Guru Granth Sahib, is poetic, lyrical and musical all at once, and (ii) that that its central teaching (gurmat) revolves around a critique of the ego as a primary frame of reference, a critique that it performs through music (gurbani kirtan), these two factors alone represent the Guru Granth’s strong internal resistance to the kinds of theory that force it into a dialectical relation with the West (i.e., a comparative relation based on the West/East binary that is in turn based on the assumed, and therefore spectral, identity of the West).

In order to avoid being coerced into a dialectical relation, I adopted the more pragmatic strategy of co-contaminating the dominant symbolic order of Anglo-Europhone categories.

To give an example of this strategy of co-contamination, throughout the book I reformulated interpretations of shabad-guru (chapters 3, 4, 5, 6), and two other terms, anhad-shabad (chapters 4 and 5), and nirgun-sargun (chapters 3, 4, 5).

I chose these terms from within the Sikh lexicon because they harbor the potential to unsettle the dominance of Anglo-Europhone conceptual space, by contesting the apparently settled meanings of terms such as ‘religion’, ‘secular’, ‘politics’, etc., precisely by competing with these terms as universals.

Central to this effort are the extraordinarily significant terms shabad and guru, which are conjoined in the Sikh tradition as the concept shabad-guru (the word-as-guru).

In its literal sense, shabad-guru means that the Guru (as the locus of sovereign power and authority) exists as word ( i.e., not the Word of a deity but language-in-general) and that this identification between a human Guru and language-in-general occurs through the event of sacrifice or self-surrender in lieu of the emergence of a form of speech that is free from the traces of ego-formation.

The potential of this concept resides in its complete ambivalence to interpretation and translation. On the one hand, it can be interpreted conservatively, i.e., as a key concept of a doctrinal belief system that is central to the modern Sikh imaginary (and Sikh nationalism).

On the other hand, it can be interpreted as a radically subversive concept insofar as it ruptures the very horizon of time and language. Thus, in the discourse of modern Sikh apologetics, shabad-guru is made into a transcendent entity such that it became a boundary marker of nationalist sovereignty and was used to remove associations with ‘Hindu’ signification (“We are Sikhs, because we are not Hindus”, etc).

But it could also be used – in a manner that would be far more ‘authentic’ – as an empty signifier, an “absent center of political ontology” to use Žižek’s term. The emptiness of shabad-guru comes from its association with self-surrender, ego-loss, and most importantly the experience of a ‘divine’ that is simultaneous absent and present, existent and non-existent in this very moment.

This paradoxical property of the concept shabad-guru – radically conservative yet radically subversive, the very element of what eventually became ‘religion’, yet at the same time the very element of disenchantment or secularization (without there being a separation between religion and the secular) - this aporetic quality of shabad-guru enables it to be translated, to circulate and eventually compete within the dominant symbolic order of public space.

It therefore possesses the very qualities that proponents on the global Left and Right of Euro-American political discourse claim can only come from Christian or Western sources.

Hence why it cannot be ignored (easily) either by scholars who continue to have a proclivity towards ‘religion’ and religiosity, or, by scholars of the atheistic variety.

At the very least, my reformulation and deployment of indigenous Sikh concepts such as shabad-guru throughout the book renders somewhat moot the suggestion by some that Western theory and concepts are doing the real hard graft in my book.

Now, there is a second reason why the very question of replacing Western with non-Western theoretical models is disingenuous: it imputes to the other (i.e., to Asians) an essentiality (a non-Western being and thinking) which the Asian may neither desire nor choose to identify with.

This imputing of non-Western essence and desire merely reinforces the very structure of polarity that my book is trying to dismantle.

Indeed, when the West/non-West polarity manifests at the level of conceptual thought, it reveals a barely veiled ethnocentrism that grants belonging to one form of knowledge and non-belonging to others.

In contradistinction, the critical standpoint that I have adopted within this book can be seen as a hybrid or plural conceptuality in which European and Asian terms mutually affect and transform each other, as they do in the actual lived existences of multilingual diasporic communities (and beyond diasporic communities).

So perhaps what I am pointing towards with this book is a form of thinking/existing that is first and foremost a thinking / existing-between cultures which would be nothing more than a sharing of concepts and categories.

According to this logic that I call thinking-between, which I believe was the form of thinking that prevailed in pre-colonial India, terms, concepts and categories no longer belong to a particular culture. They constantly and fluently move between cultures and languages creating zones of heterogeneity.

This thinking/existing-between – which also effects a form of repetition which I believe is symptomatic of multi-lingual diasporic communities -- simultaneously disorients and reorients the dialectic of lack/desire that drives the colonial and neo-colonial treadmill by pointing to the enactment of a repetition very different from the kind that regenerates the nationalist subject.

And this is precisely where some aspects of Western theory proved useful for me. For as much as Western theory derives from and is imbricated in the generative movement of negativity which is the engine of the dialectical process, certain strands of it also provide sensitive tools for tracing the location of this desire in theoretical discourses of religion and within indigenous/nationalist politics of religion-making which tap into the force of the dialectical process, whether directly through Hegel or otherwise.

By adapting certain Western concepts and juxtaposing them with terms and concepts from Sikh sources, it was possible to shed light on the conceptual linkages between dialectical negativity and the articulation of difference that lent itself to processes that remain imperious in character.

To Be Continued Next Week …

June 27, 2014


Conversation about this article

1: Jasbir Kaur (London, United Kingdom), June 27, 2014, 9:46 AM.

I've enjoyed your Q & A sessions with and learnt so much from them. Have been looking forward to them eagerly each week. But I have to say that this week, Dr Arvind Pal Singh ji, it's a disaster. It makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. I'm sure you know what you're talking about, but you lost me this time. I wish the interviewer had tripped you and told you that what you're saying today is so dense that no one could possible make head or tail from it. Please, please, you need to come down to earth again ... and talk to us like normal human beings do. If you won't, what's the point? Sorry, but I like what you do so much that I had to say this.

2: Ari Singh (Burgas, Bulgaria), June 28, 2014, 2:59 PM.

Prof. Arvind Pal Singh ji has made the reading so complicated that I am afraid his important message will not reach the masses.

3: Sarabjeet Kaur (New York, USA), June 28, 2014, 4:35 PM.

Thank you for another great installment in this interview. I have to say, I didn't find this segment to be more difficult to decipher than the previous segments. On a more general note (and this is not directed at Jasbir Kaur), I am concerned that Sikhs in general are so quick to take an anti-intellectual stance when it comes to theoretically complicated and nuanced ideas. Rather than being suspicious of such work, we should take it up as a challenge to expand our understanding and way of thinking. I am sad to see that there is such a relative dearth of critical, incisive, nuanced discourse among Sikhs. Professor Arvind Pal Singh is really paving the way in this regard.

4: G Singh (United Kingdom), June 28, 2014, 6:12 PM.

Yes, but Guru Nanak kept it simple, didn't he? I like Arvind's writings but I can only suggest that he summarise it simple first before sending out a more sophisticated version. It's good to have a challenge, Sarabjeet, but this could take years and many of us don't have the means or access to education.

5: Inder Kaur (United Kingdom), June 28, 2014, 8:16 PM.

It is always a marvel to see how may of us turn to a knee-jerk response by self-flagellating ourselves and blaming Sikhs for not being 'intellectual'. Pure balderdash! Ever spoken to members of the Christian or the Jewish or the Muslim or the Hindu or the Buddhist masses? They mostly exist and live their daily lives, in spiritual matters, at the proverbial Trailer Park or Duck Dynasty level. If anything, the average Sikh is way ahead in spiritual matters -- and sans vacuous ritual and superstition -- than the average adherent of any other religious group. Add to that, the daily dose of poetry and music that the average Sikh is steeped in ... For heaven's sake, please do not blame academia's failure to come down to earth, on the Sikh masses. That argument doesn't hold any water. As one of the readers has already suggested, next thing you'll be calling Guru Nanak and Guru Arjan anti-intellectual because they were able to speak to the ordinary man and, at the same time, to the high-falutin' intellectual!

6: Samantha Kaur (Cape Town, South Africa), June 28, 2014, 8:27 PM.

The plight that Sikhs are facing is indeed complex. So, it's worth remembering that a strong engagement with the Sikh predicament will not fall into our laps. Rather, we may have to strive to develop a way of thinking through the complex issues that Dr. Arvind Pal Singh has shared with us. This means that we cannot be satisfied with easy answers or cute sound-bites. So, instead of simply registering that one 'doesn't get it', we need to be more constructive so that we can better understand what the relevant issues are. I'll take a jab at reiterating one of the main things that I think he is stressing: translation. Part of what I take him to be drawing our attention towards is that the English (and indeed European) language is loaded. It only allows some thoughts to be articulated, and it immediately prohibits other thoughts from taking shape. Anglophone language is particularly adept at translating colonized people into a religion/secular binary, which is problematic, as he has stressed throughout this interview. However, this can also lead to the mistaken view that the West and its others are radically different such that no translation can ever occur. This tends to exoticize and keep at a distance the Sikh. So here's the puzzle: How do you translate across the Sikh life-world and the Western-Euroepan life-world while at the same time resisting the very frameworks that the European language imposes? That's a challenge indeed. What Arvind seems to be suggesting is that concepts found in the Sikh life-world can be exported into English, in doing so transforming the host language itself. What's important for him, then, is that one really engage both European thought and tradition at the same time that one is totally steeped into the Sikh tradition as well. Now, I take it that we do this all the time! Whenever Sikhs live in the world, they don't always separate the Sikh 'stuff' from the 'European' stuff. Rather, they are simply living their lives without much drawing boundaries as to where their Sikh existence begins and ends. So, translation seems to be happening all the time and Arvind suggests that we re-conceptualize what the work of translation might really be. What's really fascinating is the prospect of translating Shabad-Guru into the Western world and the radical potentials it can hold.

7: Rup Singh (Canada), June 28, 2014, 9:17 PM.

If one wants their message to be understood by the masses one has to use simple vocabulary. Too many big words seem jargon to a person like me. If I want an intellectual to explain something to me in every-day terms, how is that anti-intellectual? Not all of us have or can attain PhD's. Nor should we need to.

8: M. Singh (United Kingdom), July 01, 2014, 5:13 AM.

Wow! I spent some time reading this over and it has absolutely clarified so many things for me. I understand now why it has been so frustrating growing up speaking English and trying to explain Sikhi to my English friends all the while feeling that I was failing to get across the subtle differences between Sikh and Western thought. But equally, I have found English translations of Gurbani difficult to understand because I always felt that they were missing something important with regards to the concepts that the Sikh Gurus were communicating. I love these posts by Arvind Pal Singh and I look forward to reading more of them. I enjoy the challenge of learning new ideas and even though it's not always easy, I feel that I'm deepening my knowledge of how language works.

9: Harsimran Singh (Berkeley, California, USA), July 03, 2014, 1:24 AM.

Some of these comments are pretty unreal. We wouldn't tell a physicist to dumb down his work because we as a society realize the contribution to science. However, we feel that a scholar should dumb down his or her work to an elementary level because we believe things like religion / spirituality are the territory of the ordinary man and woman. Even though we claim to be pious, we don't give due respect to thought and practice. We take it to be a simple matter and demand it to be explained in simple terms. Please raise your own level of understanding. Attempting to diminish a scholar's work only shows our own lack of knowledge.

10: Lal Singh (USA), July 03, 2014, 3:26 AM.

These demands for simplification are ridiculous. I'm no PhD. If you're having trouble understanding, do what I did and slow down, open up a google tab next to this one on your browser, and actually READ it. We have submitted to materialism, accepting the secular and scientific realms as supreme. So while we don't think twice about all the scientific and technical terms we come across daily, we are somehow incapacitated when faced with critical philosophical work such as Professor Arvind Pal Singh's. Let's not be dismissive of the Professor's extremely intelligent and critical insight because of our refusal to challenge ourselves at a level deeper than our passive exteriors. He actually explains why it is necessary to communicate the way he does, using the ideas he does, in this very insightful interview.

11: Rup Singh (Canada), July 03, 2014, 3:45 PM.

@ #s 9 & 10: I get the sense my comment has somehow offended you ... so I humbly apologize. Thanks.

12: Hardev Singh (Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States), July 04, 2014, 12:26 PM.

It is somewhat misleading for any one to suggest that the Sikh intellectual's sole goal has been to communicate to the masses. Our Gurus used an assortment of concepts from numerous languages that were current during their time. One only need to read gurbani and the writings of Guru Gobind Singh ji to see this. They also engaged with an assortment of like-minded people who wrote in languages different than those used by the Gurus - amply seen in the Bhagat bani of Guru Granth Sahib. This linguistic and conceptual depth continued to evolve as Sikh intellectuals were given broad training - people like Giani Mann Singh Jhor are still remembered for a linguistic and conceptual grasp going well beyond the limits of Punjabi. The same goes for kirtaniyyas whose knowledge of gurmat sangeet was admired across much of South Asia. The expansive scope of the Sikh intellectual world slowly began to wane during the 20th Century and occurred precisely due to the pressures Prof Arvind Pal Singh is describing. While communicating to a large number of Sikhs is a worthy goal, it should not be seen as the only reason one engages in intellectual work. The development of Sikhi can not occur without sustained probing and complicated intellectual effort such as Arvind's.

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Arvind Pal Singh Mandair - "Religion & The Specter of The West"

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