Kids Corner

Three of the stalwarts from the Singh Sabha Movement: Tarlochan Singh, Bhai Vir Singh and Sundar Singh Majithia.


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

Q & A with Author by SIKHCHIC.COM




Continued ...




  You appear to be somewhat ambivalent about the ‘reform’ carried out by the Singh Sabha leaders … how does that play out in the book?

  By entering into the project of “reform’, the elites brought about fundamental changes in the Sikh psyche and ontology.

That is to say, a different way in which Sikhs (i) imagined themselves to exist in the world and structured relations with others, (ii) the way they enacted their being in the world and with others, or, what I have referred to as repetition/agency/subjectivity.

Objectively, therefore, the structure of Religion and the Specter of the West can be seen as the development of a dialectical relationship between the macropolitical (Part 1), and the micropolitical (part 2) domains.

Part 1 (Indian ‘Religions’ and Western Thought) looks at the macropolitical domain, specifically the invisible structures of power associated with Empire – such as law, language and metaphysics (or ontotheology) - that helped the colonizer to fix and consolidate power by reproducing identity frameworks into regulating hierarchies of dominance and subordination, especially the creation of a public versus private sphere.

Part 2 (Theology as Cultural Translation) looks at the micropolitical aspect of colonialism through the lens of reform movements. Because it operates at the level of the particular, micropolitics is a politics of movement, of resistance to privatization by the creation of voluntary bodies that sought to enter the public sphere, the juxtaposition of difference and the creation of new identities through shifting political relations between selves.

  But your argument seems to go much further than simply presenting an objective analysis. Doesn’t your analysis include the subjective aspect of Sikh lived existence? In fact, doesn’t it make that lived experience central?

A   Yes, you’re right. The book goes much further than simply presenting objective historico-phenomenological analyses of the modern reconstruction of Sikh tradition.

What complicates this scenario quite severely (and what scholars either forget or repress) is that this scenario of power relations didn’t just happen in a historical moment. Rather, it continues to be repeated in the way that Sikhs today continue to retrieve the narrative of ‘reform’ within the parameters of the modern social imaginary.

For many people ‘reform’ simply equates with the retrieval of a purely ‘religious’ identity, without realizing that this equation between ‘reform’ and ‘religion’ is actually a translation of sorts.

But it’s a translation in which the negative work of the dialectic remains invisible. And its invisible because it is internalized into the psyche. This is why the subjective aspect of the book, which I tackle through the question of repetition, and the attempts to re-enact repetition otherwise than the politics of religion-making (or identity politics), is so central to the book and why a purely objective, historical framing cannot properly articulate the problem or the desire to rethink it.

Q   What, then, is it about the project of ‘reform’ that links the colonial, neo-colonial and postcolonial domains, and thus holds together the various parts of the book?

A   The simple answer to this is the movement of the dialectic. Indeed, the question of reform is inseparable from the work of the dialectic.

The reformist project as such manifests in the desire of Sikh and other elites (Hindu, Muslim, etc.) to improve, that is, to elevate themselves above their present condition which, from the outset, was assumed to be a condition of lack.

The native elites were perceived by the colonizer - and through mutual interaction began to perceive themselves - as lacking proper religion, language, civilization.

They believed they had lost it and therefore needed to retrieve it from some original source. In other words, the generative force of the ontology that shapes the agency of the colonized is motivated by loss or lack. Its cause is a negativity that stems from a problematic notion of difference - one where the colonizer’s own identity as European-Christian is assumed as the basis for defining difference.

The native elites’ notion of identity (and therefore difference) results from a comparative relation to the colonial (specifically the West/East binary). Although the colonized may desire to overcome this, the association with the colonizer results in a representation of difference in essentially negative terms, as lack or opposition, and by a desire to negate this difference through the movement towards a unified presence that is granted recognition by the colonizer.

Hence the agency of the native elites (e.g. the Singh Sabha), based on dialectical movement, continues to be shaped by an imperial or possessive inclination of self to other.

Shaped by a form of difference grounded in causal negativity, the reform movements were driven by a politics of negation (‘I am Sikh because I am not so and so …”,  etc.) which consistently positioned bearers of difference (Sikh, Hindu, Muslim) as active agents of change, but simultaneously as bearers of the problematic negativity that desire seeks to eliminate or transform.

Now, when the responsibility for transformative action (reforming agency) rests with the negating class (Sikhs / Hindu reformists, etc.) the active critical potential and accountability of the dominant class is elided, with the result that the apathy of the privileged (British / European) is excused.

There is therefore little or no motivation for the colonizing class to engage in any postcolonial transformation “when this is not presented as a common task responsibly shared by all within the postcolony”.

Related to the ontological negativity of the dialectical process is another process that informs the dominant Western view of progressive history-making and is in turn absorbed by the reformist scholars in their various constructions of national histories. When history itself is understood to be driven by the causal negativity of difference and desire, each conceptualized in relation to the transcendent ideal of mutual recognition, the process remains tied to a form of agency grounded in an imperial disposition.

This in turn generates social forms (Singh Sabha, Arya Samaj, etc) that reproduce relations of power structured by the impulse of self-mastery and self-possession, and by relations of desire aimed at appropriating the lacking object (the Tat Khalsa, the Arya, etc.).

Any break with this neo-colonial sociability requires us to introduce a genuine historical (and therefore dialectical) discontinuity rather than continue with the progressive process of continuous reconciliation (Singh Sabha history, theology etc. as reconciled with the master narratives and codes of imperial discourse). Only such a discontinuity can inaugurate new kinds of difference and a qualitative change in the kind of sociability that is practiced.

The organizing structure of Religion and the Specter of the West therefore reflects my desire to bring into view the operations of the dialectic not only in past historical moments (imperialism, reform movements etc) but also right here, right now in the very institutions and practices that comprise the symbolic order of our late modern social imaginary.

My broad argument is that the structure of the dialectic frames not only the colonial and neo-colonial but also the post-colonial / post-modern. As I see it there is a continuity between the colonial and the post-colonial / post-modern, despite the latter’s loud claim of having broken with the past. The continuity consists in the perpetuation of the religion-secular binary and the perpetuation of an opposition between:

i   contemporary secularism which defines the nature of the public sphere in terms of belief in ontological fullness derived from Christian-European metaphysics or Christianity as the standard Religion, and

ii  the construction of religions saddled with a lack that is reincarnated in the postmodern, postcolonial era through the interlinked apparatus of state, media and academia.

To bring this continuity into sharper focus was the purpose of the first part of the book. It was designed to show that the dominant symbolic order of the colonial period is not qualitatively different from the dominant symbolic order that is operative today - what Charles Taylor calls the modern social imaginary.

Only its form has changed. Non-Western discourses are still faced with the burden of translating into a dominant Western conceptuality.

And from this bind stem the basic problems that the book tries to address.


Continued next week ...

February 17, 2014

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Part V"

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