Category Archives: Skepticism
C. Derick Varn: You and I have both followed the careers and patterns of a few of the predominant members of the “Skeptical movement,” and in particular, the recent debates over Atheism Plus and New Atheism. What do you think the issues are in New Atheism?
David Poulter: I think the biggest issue in New Atheism is that they have attempted to create a “big tent” movement based entirely on a non-belief rather than on any sort of a belief. And I think that developments like Atheism Plus show how much of a failure this has been. Simple disbelief in a divine spaceman isn’t really a unifying concept, certainly not in the sense that desires for social justice, or class struggle or even racial/ethnic “identity” and “solidarity” can be and are.
In my view it’s almost like forming a social movement around being left handed. Perhaps if I grew up in a more religious-minded society I might see it differently and view a shared disbelief as something more significant than I do but that is not the case. At any rate I see myself as having far more in common with the likes of Baptist preacher Tommy Douglas and Archbishop Oscar Romero than I do with someone like Sam Harris or Penn Jillette despite a shared disbelief in the divine with the latter two.
Another significant issue, so far as I see it, includes a definite propensity to take on many of the characteristics of dogmatic religious belief systems while at the same time trying to wave the banner of “open-minded free thought”. Take the whole “elevatorgate” incident involving Rebecca Watson. As soon as she received criticism from Richard Dawkins to many that made her some manner of heretic and her response provoked further outrage. The wise man had spoken, she should have shut up seemed to be the feeling of many.
It’s amusing and sad that the New Atheist movement has chosen to ape many of the features of the religions it claims to reject. It has it’s holy figures in the form of Dawkins and Hitchens notably. Look at the outpouring of grief around Hitchens’ death, some of it taking the form of nigh-iconic drawings of him. Like this one.
That is a lovely halo effect going on there.
You also have the veneration of “impartial” science over all else with a rabid refusal to even contemplate that perhaps power does inform knowledge and that the likes of Foucault or Irigaray may be right when they discuss how it is the dominant power structure which dictates the sort of scientific knowledge is important or valid and thus impartiality is, to some degree, a myth. Only instead of using terms like “blasphemy” or “heresy” to rebuke contrary views the New Atheist movement and it’s true believers will chastise you for your “moral relativism”. Now I know this assessment will be denied by many Atheists given that I haven’t presented an empirical study in a proper journal and it’s only based on real life experiences dealing with New Atheists in a variety of arenas. And we all know actual real-life experience is worthless as it is mere “anecdotal evidence”…
C.D.V.: Why do you think New Atheism takes two forms of liberalism (center-left liberalism a la British Labour Party, or American style libertarianism) as the dominant political modes? Often the binary is posited as if these positions are the only viable positions and all others are either religious outright or crypto-religious (such as Hitchen’s writings on his early Trotskyism).
D.P.: I honestly have no idea. I find the libertarian position especially confusing given that there is actual statistical evidence that shows that state involvement in the economy is beneficial in terms of unemployment and overall standard of living. I guess it ties into how many in the New Atheist movement have developed their own articles of faith that can never be questioned despite the claims of making judgements based on empirical evidence.
I would guess that some of it stems from an entrenched adoration of the Enlightenment period and it’s heavily atomistic view of the individual. Whenever there is any discussion of philosophy amongst the New Atheists/ Skeptics I know it always seems to stall out at Hume, Mill, Paine, Locke etc. which makes sense given the aforementioned veneration of Science and the Scientific Method as the “one true path to knowledge”. So it would make sense that their political models would be similarly entrenched in the concepts of the primacy of the individual. To get all anecdotal again I know one person who started reading Heidegger and there was some trepidation expressed by her fellow New Atheists. It was felt that his philosophy was adequately “scientific”, although the links to Nazism were not really important. She defended her interest in non-Empiricist philosophy by stating “I do believe an objective universe exists out there, but I also get really frustrated with people in the skeptical community who seem to really not want to acknowledge how subjective personal experience/thought/memory/language/etc is.” which I see as being a great response. Although it is puzzling that a defense had to be proffered at all.Another factor that I think might play a role in this libertarian streak is the background of many in the New Atheist/ Skeptic camp in “geek” culture notably fanstasy and science fiction. These genres do tend to focus on the deeds of the “Great Man” and how important they are, again advocating the primacy of the individual. So I can see how that might lead to a similar outlook in life. There was a discussion I got into on a D&D board about 10 years ago about the inherent right-wing bias in most RPGs where issues of the actions of the exceptional individual were touched upon as well as the issue of non-relative/absolute morality as expressed in the alignment system. Comics also play into this in my opinion, especially with the rise of the heavily individualistic “gritty anti-hero” figure in the 80s and 90s. I can see how someone who grew up with the message that “great” individuals can and should set their own rules and act as agents of true morality and justice might lead someone into developing a quasi-Nietzschean/ Randian philosophical underpinning.
I can only assume in the case of the center-left liberalism that it’s because it’s a pretty easy position to maintain and doesn’t really rock the boat at all or call for wholesale and massive systemic changes, while still running contrary to the conservative philosophy of most religious people and displaying some basic laudable humanistic concerns. Again pointing to how poor a motivating or unifying force simple disbelief is. Expecting libertarians to co-exist with soft left liberals in some sort of big tent group solely because of a shared disbelief is nonsensical as developments with the Atheist Plus movement show us. And this is a split more inevitable than the numerous splits amongst the far Left and based far more on very real differences of belief. Obviously I’m pretty comfortable with this sort of position amongst New Atheists as it’s fairly close to my own wishy-washy Democratic-Socialist beliefs although I would like it better if they were a little more opposed to capitalism as a whole and not just its more egregious offenses.
C.D.V.: Why was a particularly mild form of feminism the launching point for the split?
D.P.: Again for that I would point to the background of many New Atheists in “geek” culture which is not and has never been particularly enlightened or egalitarian when it comes to women’s issues and is somewhat deservedly noted for a fair amount of social awkwardness. Making it worse is the self-image of enlightened thought that many have so as soon as the slightest criticism comes down it provokes a shit-storm response because it is seen as an attack on the very most central element of their self-concept. It’s being pointed out that they are not the enlightened noble intellectual who is above the base masses so when it gets pointed out that they are little better than the stereotypical construction worker shouting “Hey baby!” and that goes over poorly. Add to this a certain amount of that libertarian value system that feels “personal freedom” is somehow imperiled by any sort of feminism that seems to run in the NA community to this generally poor track record in dealing with women and let simmer.
That’s a big part of why you see the same figures who were at one point lauded for their actions when they were proposing their “Boobquake” now being vilified for being “feminazis” because they expressed a desire to not be hit on in isolated places (like elevators at 3 in the morning) or because they would like to see the most rudimentary of harassment policies in place at conventions and the like. They’re heroines when it’s letting the boys see some skin but when it’s time to curb the neck-licking and crude come-ons suddenly they are evil incarnate. Again it ties into the lionizing of the individual, in this case it takes the form of “I want to act like a pig and those mean ol’ feminists are telling me not to so I’m a victim.” Let’s not forget this is a community where the fairly banal suggestion “don’t be a dick” was seen as an attack on the honest and free expression of thought and was actually controversial. Honestly I see more responsibility for actions taken by my 4 year old than I do from some New Atheists.
C.D.V.: This brings me to what I see as a failing of Atheism Plus, it does not actually articulate its ideology and instead tries to wrap left liberal politics in the guise of an identity: the atheist identity, which is posited as developing like that of religious minorities or homosexuals. Do you see any significant failings politically in this approach?
D.P.: Well I do think they will run into huge difficulties being taken seriously as an actual identity worthy of recognition. There’s obviously a world of difference between being gay or black and being an atheist. As for religious identities often there is a racial/ethnic component attached to them that is part and parcel of the identity and keep people in that identity regardless of their actual belief system. For example I was arguing with one Atheist (that is to say a part of the New Atheist community) about, well everything I’ve brought up so far. He was trying to argue that Islamophobia had no racist component to it at all if I recall correctly and claimed that one couldn’t experience anti-Semitism if one was not a practicing Jew. So I guess the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 never existed and no-one ever wound up in a death camp who was labeled as Jewish yet was not a practicing Jew. This same sort of religious identity existing outside of actual religious practice is also something I have also seen firsthand amongst the Catholic/ Protestant divides in the UK, well Northern Ireland anyways. Given that atheism lacks the sort of history that leads to these identities existing I cannot see the attempt to create an Atheist identity succeeding anymore than I can see an attempt to create a LaRouche Democrat identity that is viewed with any sort of validity. Not being seen as an atheist is a simple matter of saying “God? Yeah he’s cool”. Other groups don’t get that luxury even when their identity is supposedly a matter of belief.
C.D.V.: So what do you think the Atheism Plus movement is masking in response to divisions with the New Atheists? Furthermore, why do you think they are afraid of prior militant atheism even if they argue some of the same positions or even slightly more radical ones?
D.P.: If by “masking” you mean what are they trying to gloss over in order to set themselves apart from New Atheism the most notable factor would have to be the continued advocacy, or at least tolerance, of neo-conservative politics of hegemony and extant power structures found in Capitalism. As you pointed out Atheism Plus has by and large adopted the politics of the liberal left and can even be considered progressive in terms of their outlook in terms of social and domestic issues. When it comes to foreign policy politics or the political underpinnings of society as a whole though there is often no critique of neo-conservative policies or Capitalism as a system. Specific outrages, like Abu Ghraib or abuses by banks, might be condemned but the overall policies that lead to these situations go by and large ignored or accepted, if not endorsed. It’s not really that surprising mind you given that two of the idols of the liberal left are Clinton and Obama both of whom were and are staunch advocates of neo-con policies and certainly nothing close to being the “socialists” their foes have claimed them to be. Certainly with a quick perusal of the Atheism Plus forums you see scant attention paid to foreign policy or economic issues while social and lifestyle issues get considerably more mention. This in spite of the professed desire of the likes of PZ Meyers to apply “Skepticism and the scientific method… within even fields that are routinely disparaged by skeptics, like sociology and economics.”
I don’t know if the proponents of Atheism Plus really are afraid of the previous school of militant atheism so much as they have started to realize that they do have some major disagreements and differences with many in that group, notably seen in the fallout from both Plait’s “don’t be a dick” speech and from Watson’s “elevatorgate”. Such a split was, as I posited earlier, pretty much inevitable. I suppose it could be argued that they are merely a happy progressive face slapped on the same old Atheism. Certainly at times it seems like it is for the most part the assessment of simple identity/lifestyle politics from a liberal left position with an adding of non-belief and continue in the “objectivity and science shall set you free” mindset. But if Atheism Plus can lead people to focus more on issues beyond a non-belief in a god, get over their “empiricism or gtfo” attitude and possibly even start to apply their critical assessments to more than identity and lifestyle politics that would be great. Although I do love the arguments over whether the word “stupid” is “able-ist”. Riveting stuff that.
C.D.V.: Let’s shift out to a larger focus: The Skeptic’s Movement as a whole. Recently, I was listening to the Skeptoid podcast and the host listened Penn and Teller as the number one celebrity in science. This hit me given that I remembered Penn Juliette once saying at a skeptic’s conference: “No education is better than a government education.” But what hit me even more was the number of celebrities that claimed that “science” is the “only method of thinking that had any kind of check against bias” which is fundamentally false. What do you think is going with this rather a-scientific view of science itself?
D.P.: You mean why does there seem to always be a subtext to every discussion of science with Skeptics? A subtext that goes something like “Allow yourself to be engulfed by the Purifying Blue Flame of Science’s Great Bunsen Burner of Reason! For it shall burn away all your subjectivity and leave you Enlightened and seeing the Truth! Hallelujah!”? I know it’s a pretty flippant answer but I see Science as Skepticism’s holy of holies and any criticism or questioning of Science (as opposed to science) and it’s actual objectivity is essentially blasphemy. It’s ironic given the supposed value placed on critical thinking and assessment but Science and the belief in complete Scientific Objectivity is the religion of Skepticism and can never be assailed. It could be that it’s an over-reaction to writers like John Ralston Saul, Code, Foucault (again) and the like. Certainly books like Voltaire’s Bastards seems to get their metaphorical undies all bunched up as do the numerous post-modernist and feminist discussions on the role social forces play in shaping our perceptions and values about knowledge.
D.P.:The inability/unwillingness to define “reason” etc is pretty funny considering when pop criticisms of this “cult of reason” (like Voltaire’s Bastard, I’m Canadian and in my 40s, the book was a bit of a popular phenomenon here in the 90s) get criticized one of the common critiques takes forms like “one searches in vain — not only in the introductory chapter, but throughout the entire book — for an unambiguous explanation of the term defining his central thesis.” (as Pat Duffy Hutcheon said of Saul’s book). So if you are using “reason” in a positive sense you can be as vague as you want but if being critical you have to provide a painfully specific definition, otherwise you’re being obscurant. Funny, but not unexpected given the notable and documented human tendency to be more critical in their assessment of positions they already disagree with while not applying the same rigorous standards to positions they like.
As for where this hostility towards the humanities and philosophy come from I think it might have some of its origins in the all too common “hard vs soft” science divide found in academe but certainly it now seems very ideological. Going back to the friend who had her New Atheist/ Skeptic friends expressing surprise over her reading of Heidegger, at least one of them had an academic background in Philosophy. And a cursory look at the friends (and friends of friends) who are a part of this community shows the same sort of backgrounds. Many have no academic background in the “hard” sciences yet they readily join in this elevation of the concept of “objective science”, so obviously it has gone beyond simply the general academic rivalry and become an ideological tenet of this group that the sort of epistemology found in the “hard” sciences and mathematics is superior to that found in the “soft” sciences. And funnily enough it often seems like the ones who do have a definite “hard” science background are more willing to accept, or at least consider, criticisms of scientific objectivity beyond vulgar interpretations of Popper. Probably just a case of their being more notable though, I can think of a few who exemplify the “hard” science bias who do have a background in that area.
As an aside in some cases I do wonder how much of the humanities backgrounds, along the lines of Harris’ in Philosophy, are dilettantish endeavors undertaken in order to become the sort of “well-rounded” expert figure that Voltaire lionized. Certainly many seem to like to restrict their philosophical reading to Empiricists and Logical Postivists, seldom straying far from those who might question scientific objectivity. Nothing against dilettantes mind you, I generally consider myself to be one. It’s just when that confuses some basic knowledge with expertise you run the risk of developing the sort of “arrogance and ignorance” that Popper saw in some of the Atheist community.
There’s no question as to how much of the “I fucking love Science” mentality is down to dilettantish dabbling though. A lot of it.
C.D.V.: What do you think socialists should do when interacting with the skeptic’s community? We superficially share some values. What do you think socialists should do when interacting with the skeptic’s community? We superficially share some values.
D.P.I think that basically Socialists can’t view someone’s status as a “Skeptic” as at all relevant in determining what form any interaction takes. I think that’s an all too common error made by some in cases where they decide there must be some sort of kinship based on not believing in a god or a professed desire for critical analyses. To me there needs to be more than that. To me it’s more important where they stand politically and doing an inventory on areas of agreement vs areas of difference and evaluating whether those differences outweigh the areas of agreement.
Take Penn Jillette, are Socialists to see themselves in solidarity with someone who is an unabashed advocate for unbridled Capitalism who is just as home on the Glenn Beck show as anywhere else? Or in the case of Hitchens, while he may have claimed to still be a Socialist the fact is that he became an apologist for neo-Conservative politics and acted as a mouthpiece for the Bush administration’s policies in both the Middle East and domestically (when he proclaimed bin Laden to be a greater threat to freedom in America than then AG John Ashcroft). Or Harris with his supporting the concept of “preemptive retaliatory strikes” against Iran should that nation ever acquire nuclear weapons. It’s great that they don’t believe in a god and what have you but those differences are far too great in my opinion to overcome. It’s like expecting Socialists to work with the Far Right anti-Capitalists and not take into account the issue that many of them are, for want of a better way to phrase it, Nazis or at least pretty racist and/or Fascistic. Or expecting Anarchists from the Bakunin/ Kropotkin school to align themselves with “An-Caps” because both don’t like hierarchical power structures. I suppose the more Libertarian Skeptics could be worked with on an issue by issue basis but to expect them to ever be in any sort of real accord with Socialists because of a shared disbelief is unrealistic.
The same holds true for the more left-liberal Skeptics as well, although there are probably more issues there that I can see co-operation on. Even so they tend to get bogged down in issues of identity politics and semantics from a fairly mainstream liberal position, at the expense of considering issues of dismantling Capitalism, to ever really be in accord with Socialists. Particularly in terms of dealing with the more Marxist elements of Socialism. I think the adage of “morality has no place in politics” might strike them as being too close to the “Empiricism or gtfo” attitude (as one friend who leans towards the Atheism Plus school describes it) that they take issue with from their fellow Skeptics and that their focus on things like combating ableism would probably drive many Marxists bat-shit crazy.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
D.P.: Nothing much really, we’ve covered most of the bases as to how I feel about the New Atheist/ Skeptic community. In general I had and have high hopes for it and think it’s great if we can see the influence of religion and superstition lessened in the world. I just think that it tries to tie too many disparate points of view and outlooks to ever succeed as a movement in it’s own right. And I also find that in spite of the professed desire for critical analysis and constant questioning the NA/ Skeptic community tends to refuse to apply those same standards to itself as we saw with the veritable shit-storm that arose when the most mild of criticisms was made from within. In that regard it mirrors the worst quality of many movements, including ones on the Left, that being a tendency to cleave too strongly to a set core of beliefs with nigh-religious zeal and not allow any questioning of those beliefs. It’s just that with the professed advocacy of free thought in the NA/ Skeptic movement such dogmatic adherence to beliefs comes off as disappointingly hypocritical.
The quest to protect nature from wanton abuse, degradation and irreversible ecological crises bears in its integral moment an affinity with the structure of religion. Freud has shown us that man is capable of religion only inasmuch as he is capable of neurosis, and, now, it only remains to be seen how far the environmental escathon distinguishes itself from the daedal ceremonies and archaisms of neurosis to pronounce it a faithful servant to human necessity. The difference between neuroses and religion, for Freud, lies in a specific quality of the response that the subject enunciates in his experience of reality. For Freud, this reality can be extricated from its oedipal constitution only under the aegis of the god Logos, or science, “…not an altogether mighty…” god, who the man without illusions must still listen to, resigning himself to the service of necessity, or the goddess Ananke. In the standoff between environmentalism as neurosis and environmentalism as religion a certain definition of reality shorn of its illusionary potential is the threshold of coherence for the analyst.
On the side of reality, in the Freudian topography, are Logos and Ananke the go[a]ds of the disillusioned and on the side of the neurosis are the archaisms of Eros and Thanatos marked by the tendency for a pleasure-seeking-unto-death; although it is Eros that impels men to action it is only under the gaze of Thanatos that these actions come to bear their allegiance to Ananke, overcoming the ruses of infantile desire. The triangulation between the desire for survival, the stratagems of this desire for survival and the more realistic optimism which emerges in response to the renewed understanding of reality become the definitional criteria which situate environmentalism in the field of human desire as understood by the psychoanalyst. After enumerating the facts of discourse that constitute the sphere of environmental activism under these three criteria we must analyse them by reading them against the state of scientific understanding, the relation of their strategies in response to this understanding and the degree of their optimism in light of their strategy. It is evident that this reading will only serve to guide the analytical reconstruction of the environmentalist’s psychisms or, an archaeology of the desire for conservation if you will, and a synthetic, or prescriptive, teleology is beyond the scope of a psychoanalytical reading.
Mauryan Environmentalism: Forest Conservation and Divine Edict
Man’s attitude towards nature has been through a long historical evolution, and different epochs can be seen to manifest peculiar psychisms in their artefacts and the historical records that they have left. The Mauryan Empire of ancient India, for instance, is marked for its geopolitical administrative policy of considering forest dwellers bestial opponents to be fought off their borders. This fact however gains more than a political temper when we consider that forests as such were necessary to the survival of the Mauryan economy: forest produce was vital to the livelihood of the Mauryans and they developed elaborate criteria of categorisation for types of forest in relation to what might be obtained from them. Accordingly, the need for a class of forest dwellers who would safeguard the interests of the Janapada, an administrative unit of the Mauryan Empire, becomes apparent: the difference between these dwellers and the natives was that the former were legitimised by the crown to dispossess the latter. The attitude of conserving the forests was equivalent with extrication of the bestial natives dwelling in it; economy and politics became entwined in a categorical response to the desire for exclusive rights over forest produce. In this way, in the 3rd Century pastoralists came to become a caste divorced from their beginning in a class that served the needs of empire. The installation of a legitimate caste however did not happen removed from a process of making outcastes of those who resisted the power of empire: violence remained political while also becoming eschatological, in the conflict between good and bad, caste and outcaste. The horror of the violence at Kalinga famously moved Emperor Aśoka to renounce warfare on the condition that his writ would hold even on those traditionally excluded from the caste of pastoralists.
“Even when he is wronged, the Beloved of the Gods believes one must exercise patience as far as it is possible to exercise. As far as the Forest (tribes) which are in his Empire are concerned, the Beloved of the God conciliates them too and preaches them. They are even told that they repent and do not kill anymore”.
-Emperor Aśoka’s Rock Edict XIII, (Kapur, Nandini, S. 2011).
Inasmuch as political power and economic necessity colluded in the creation of the Aśokan notion of those beloved of the Gods under his aegis his edict is both scientific in its objective scope for limiting the possibilities of life for his subjects and eschatological in alluding to a peace sustained by obedience to necessity. Aśoka, here, becomes the Oedipalising axis of the response to reality which the Mauryan Empire institutes backwards into the historical necessity written over their current predicament—the desire to maintain a peaceful mutuality with bestial natives. This compromise allows Aśokan sovereignty to become both a promise of mature genitality with respect to the power of those chosen by the Gods to be pastoralists, to enjoy their god given right over the forest, and a reassurance against the hostility of the forest dwellers who can also look for conciliation in surrender to his power and that of his higher caste subjects.
The father accepts the hostility of the children who rival their stronger, god-chosen, pastoralist brothers only so long as it is sublimated under the threat of his vengeance; the flow of power through the pastoralists’ militias is also the flow of benediction that attaches itself to restraint shown in consuming forest produce. The orality of the pastoralists’ caste derives from an introjection of Aśoka’s edict, a cannibalistic ingestion of power which runs down among the brotherhood of the sovereign’s subjects. Possessed of this power they in turn can subordinate the forest dwellers in a sweeping gesture of kindness, buttressed by the kindness of the sundering sword of Law. This situation of the sovereign’s subjects however necessitates the preservation of forests for two strategic purposes: maintaining peace with the tribals, but also maintaining a source of revenue for themselves and their Emperor. A double benediction of eschatologically inscribed peace and strategically sustained revenue become, here, the poles of Eros and Logos as they regulate the actions of subjects under the sign of death—in resistance to the sovereign, or Thanatos. The right to violence is maintained in the Emperor’s edict—this is the figure of Ananke.
Reality is the response of desire to necessity; environmentalism in the Aśokan Empire is a neurotic ceremonial sustained by the fear of violence, but for its neuroticism it is still a profitable identification with the legitimate figure of violence in that it allows the pastoralists and their militias to perpetrate violence top-down while upholding the conditions for peace which the edict has now enshrined as a guarantee against excess and arbitrary violence. They can plunder the forests so long as they are chosen of the gods to conciliate with the bestial tribes under the threat of divine retribution. Without this possibility for extending violence unto bestial populations destitute of the gods’ choice, the vestigial tribals, the preservation of forests becomes tied to a merely functional need for revenue. So, this was not necessarily an irreversible or self sufficient attitude towards conservation of forests and soon enough the expansion of agriculture had lessened the need for forests as a source of revenue. This would go on to show the libidinal compromise in conserving forests on part of the Mauryan Empire rested precariously on the need for regulated consumption against the risk of violent clashes with natives for which the Emperor had developed a distaste.
The squeamishness of the Emperor is the only thing that kept forests from being appropriated without the invocation of a higher sanction, an axis of alterity that legitimated the monopoly of violence retained in the Emperor, who now stood sobered by his own capacity for violence. Accordingly, he prohibited the burning of forests for a purpose other than strictly economic. The gap between the explicit policy of peace and the implicit need for violence to maintain the conditions of peace expose the restraint shown in the appropriation of forests to be a ritual of sublimation running in both directions. From the Emperor towards the pastoral caste under condition of not harassing the tribals without provocation and from the tribals towards the Emperor in not engendering the need for violence enshrined and adequately distanced from immediate reflection in the edict and its supernal invocation of the will of the gods. In this analysis the environmental attitude of the Mauryan Empire stands revealed as a neurotic ritual that allows necessity to be interpreted in accordance with desire [Eros]; this reinterpretation [Logos] however places demands on reality itself [Ananke], whereby the original intention of the Emperor is modified and tempered to suit the newly emergent reality of a sublimated, regressed demand for moderation in consumption.
To Be Continued…
 Ricoeur, Paul. Trans. Savage, Denis. “Book II. Analytic. What is Reality?” Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd. 2008.
Print. P. 324- 38.
 Ibid. P. 326-7.
 Parasher-Sen, Aloka. Kapur, Nandini, S. Ed. “Of Tribes, Hunters and Barbarians”. Environmental History of Early India: A Reader. New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print. P.
Reproduced from a Print Copy, and Posted by Cain Pinto
*This excerpt is taken in entirety from Paul Ricoeur’s magisterial Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (1970).
…what advantages can the hermeneutician adduce when faced with formal logic? To the artificiality of logical symbols, which can be written and read but not spoken he will oppose an essentially oral symbolism, in each instance received and accepted as a heritage. The man who speaks in symbols is first of all a narrator; he transmits an abundance of meaning over which he has little command. This abundance, this density of manifold meaning, is what gives him food for thought and solicits his understanding; interpretation consists less is suppressing ambiguity than in understanding it and explicating its richness. It may also be said that logical symbolism is empty, whereas symbolism in hermeneutics is full; it renders manifest the double meaning of worldly or psychical reality…[S]ymbols are bound: the sensible sign is bound by the symbolic meaning that dwells in it and gives it transparency and lightness; the symbolic meaning is in turn bound to its sensible vehicle, which gives it weight and opacity. One might add that this is also the way symbols bind us, viz. by giving thought a content, a flesh, a density.
These distinctions and oppositions are not false; they are merely unfounded. A confrontation which restricts itself to the symbolic texture of symbols and does not face up to the question of their foundation in reflection will soon prove embarrassing to the advocate of hermeneutics. For the artificiality and emptiness of logical symbolism are simply the counterpart and condition of the true aim of this logic, viz. to guarantee the nonambiguity of arguments; what the hermeneutician calls double meaning is, in logical terms, ambiguity, i.e. equivocity of words and amphiboly of statements. A peaceful juxtaposition of hermeneutics and symbolic logic is therefore impossible; symbolic logic quickly makes any lazy compromise untenable. Its very “intolerance” forces hermeneutics to radically justify its own language.
We must therefore understand this intolerance in order to arrive a contrario at the foundation of hermeneutics.
If the rigour of symbolic logic seems more exclusive than that of traditional formal logic, the reason is that symbolic logic is not a simple prolongation of the earlier logic. It does not represent a higher degree of formalization; it proceeds from a global decision concerning ordinary language, the amphibolous character of its construction, the confusion inherent in metaphor and idiomatic expressions, the emotional resonance of highly descriptive language. Symbolic logic despairs of natural language precisely at the point where hermeneutics believes in its implicit “wisdom”.
This struggle begins with the exclusion from the properly cognitive sphere of all language that does not give factual information. The rest of discourse is classified under the heading of emotive and horatory functions of language; that which does not give factual information expresses emotions, feelings or attitudes, or urges others to behave in some particular way.
Reduced thus to the informative function, language still has to be divested of the equivocity of words and the amphiboly of grammatical constructions; verbal ambiguity must be unmasked so as to eliminate it from arguments and to employ coherently the same words in the same sense within the same argument. The function of definitions that succeed in doing this are scientific ones. These are not content with pointing out the meaning of words already have in usage, independently of their definition; instead they very strictly characterise an object in light of a scientific theory (for example, the definition of force as the product of mass and acceleration in the context of Newtonian theory).
But symbolic logic goes further. For it, the price of univocity is the creation of a symbolism with no ties to natural to language. This notion of a symbol excludes the other notion of symbol. The recourse to a completely artificial symbolism introduces in a logic a difference not only of degree but also of nature; the symbols of the logician intervene precisely at the point where arguments of classical logic, formulated in ordinary language, run into an invincible and, in a way, residual ambiguity. Thus the logical disjunction sign ∨ eliminates the ambiguity of words that express disjunction in ordinary language (Eng., or; Ger., oder; Fr., ou); ∨ expresses only the particular meaning common to the inclusive disjunction (the sense of the Latin vel) according to which at least one is false; ∨ resolves the ambiguity by formulating the inclusive disjunction as the part common to the two modes of disjunction. Likewise the symbol ⊃ resolves the ambiguity inherent in the notion of implication (which may denote formal implication, either logical, definitional, or causal); the symbol ⊃ formulates the common partial meaning, namely, that any hypothetical statement with a true antecedent and a false consequent must be false; the symbol is thus an abbreviation of a longer symbolism which expresses the negation of the conjunction of the truth value of the antecedent and the falsity of the consequent: ∼ (p. ∼ q).
Thus the artificial language of logical symbolism enables one to determine the validity of arguments in all cases where a residual ambiguity can be ascribed to the structure of ordinary language. The precise point where symbolic logic cuts across and contests hermeneutics, therefore, is this: verbal equivocity and syntactical amphiboly—in short, the ambiguity of ordinary language—can be overcome only at the level of a language whose symbols have a meaning completely determined by the truth table whose construction they allow. Thus the sense of the symbol ∨ is completely determined by its truth function, inasmuch as it serves to safeguard the validity of the disjunctive syllogism; likewise the sense of the symbol ⊃ completely exhausts its meaning in the construction of the truth table of the hypothetical syllogism. These constructions guarantee that the symbols are completely unambiguous, while the nonambiguity of the symbols assures the universal validity of arguments.
As long as the logic of multiple meaning is not guaranteed in this reflective function, it necessarily falls under the blows of formal and symbolic logic. In the eyes of the logician, hermeneutics will always be suspected of fostering a culpable complacency toward equivocal meanings, of surreptitiously giving an informative function to expressions that have merely an emotive or horatory function. Hermeneutics thus falls under the fallacies of relevance which a sound logic denounces.
The only thing that can come to the aid of equivocal expressions and truly ground a logic of double meaning is the problematic of reflection. The only thing that can justify equivocal expressions is their a priori role in the movement of self-appropriation by self which constitutes reflective activity. This a priori function pertains not to a formal but to a transcendental logic, if by transcendental logic is meant the establishing of the conditions of possibility of a domain of objectivity in general. The task of such a logic is to extricate by a regressive method the notions presupposed in the constitution of a type of experience and a corresponding type of reality. Transcendental logic is not exhausted in the Kantian a priori. The connection we have established between reflection upon the I think, I am qua act, and the signs scattered in the various cultures of that act of existing, opens up a new field of experience, objectivity, and reality. This is the field to which the logic of double meaning pertains—a logic we have qualified above as complex but not arbitrary, and rigorous in its articulations. The principle of limitation to the demands of symbolic logic lies in the structure of reflection itself. If there is no such thing as the transcendental, there is no reply to the intolerance of symbolic logic; but if the transcendental is an authentic dimension of discourse, then new force is found in the reasons that can be opposed to the requirement of logicism that all discourse be measured by its treatise of arguments. These reasons, which seemed to us to be left hanging in the air for want of a foundation, are as follows:
- The requirement of univocity holds only for discourse that presents itself as argument: but reflection does not argue, it draws no conclusion, it neither deduces or induces; it states the conditions of possibility whereby empirical consciousness can be made equal to thetic consciousness. Hence, “equivocal” applies only to those expressions that ought to be univocal in the course of a single “argument” but are not; in the reflective use of multiple-meaning symbols there is no fallacy of ambiguity: to reflect upon these symbols and to interpret them is one and the same act.
- The understanding developed by reflection upon symbols is not a weak substitute for definition, for reflection is not a type of thinking that defines and thinks according to “classes.” This brings us back to the Aristotelian problem of the “many meanings of being.” Aristotle was the first to see clearly that philosophical discourse is not subject to the logical alternative of univocal-equivocal, for being is not a “genus”
; and yet, being is said; but it “is said in many ways”.
- Let us go back to the very first alternative considered above: a statement that does not give factual information, we said, expresses only the emotions or attitudes of a subject. Reflection, however, falls outside this alternative; that which makes possible the appropriation of the I think, I am is neither the empirical statement not the emotive statement, but something other than either of these.
This case for interpretation rests entirely on the reflective function of interpretative thought. If the double movement of symbols towards reflection and of reflection towards symbols is valid, interpretative thought is well grounded. Hence it may be said, at least, negatively, that such thought is not measured by a logic of arguments; the validity of philosophical statements cannot be arbitrated by a theory of language conceived as syntax; the semantics of philosophy is not swallowed up by a symbolic logic.
These propositions concerning philosophic discourse do not enable us, however, to say positively what a philosophical statement is; such an affirmation could be fully justified only by its actually being said. At least we can affirm that the indirect, symbolic language of reflection can be valid, not because it is equivocal, but in spite of its being equivocal”.
Paul Ricoeur. Trans. Denis Savage. “Book I. Problematic: Reflection and Equivocal Language”. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 1970. P. 47- 54
Yesterday was Adorno’s birthday [peace be upon him!]. And, while it remains enduringly fashionable among left-wing types to dismiss Adorno, and no less The Frankfurt School, in a single remonstrating gesture, it also remains a verifiable fact that few bother to engage him from beyond the miasma of elitism, essentialism and arrogance which our spectacular age has mounted on his diagnoses of culture. The general response to his work bespeaks a fear of raising the patina of intellectualism over praxis, of alienating popular culture, of subverting reasoned criticism to shirk the unconscionable biddings of political immediatisms where art has lost its frame of coherence and has become yet another product for popular consumption- a respite with sound and fury but no signification- yet such was never Adorno’s own project.
Among his copious folios of work there is one particular stream in which his thought permeated the very heart of the matter, and though he may have fallen off his hobby horse now and then into the pits of assumption and error, his reconnoitering remains exemplary in its scope, perspicacity and endurance. His critique of the nexus between artistic expression and the cultural trends that it capitulates to is damning and remains all too painfully pertinent; when we admit to ourselves and others that music means no more than entertainment, which may be as it may, do we really escape the indictment of abandoning the task of our own escape from the strictures of oppressive culture? It is highly suspect. Among the basic axioms of his procedure, Adorno gave special place to the unique recursive structure of thought applied to thought, one expects no less from a dialectician: he posited that a deep dissatisfaction with one’s culture presumed an immersion worth the name into its substance. Only those who partake of its products, paradoxically, are allowed the luxury to see in it the detritus of their conscience, the dregs of their resistance waylaid by the trite melodies of popular dance music and as they are struck petrific by the entrancing thaumaturgy of film. Today, were he around, he would most probably be goaded into citing himself- Simon Critchley calls self-citation an act of narcissism, but I digress- and pronounce upon us our dishonest evasion of our predicament. It is not that merely our desires are stifled by the culture that enables us our habituated libertinage but even their symptoms are effaced by the apparatus of “…a lavish display of light air and hygiene…[produced] by the gleaming transparency of rationalised big business…” (Adorno 2005, p. 58).
Our complicity with contemporaneous conditions makes us culpable for its failings, for the slippages of desire and damage incurred by acceding to the despots’ machinery of causeless effects. If indeed art were produced in vacua there would be no need for its justification but only since we are swarmed by it in a reciprocal configuration of desire versus desire we owe more than wrung hands to its integral form. It behooves us to draw strength from this involvement “…to dismiss it” in so far as it fails to arouse our sympathetic epiphany, our rising beyond the material conditions of the commoditised world to reclaim the tenacity of despoiled, alienated and thereby mystified desire. “What is true of the instinctual life is no less true of the intellectual: the painter or composer forbidding himself as trite this or that combination of colours or chords, the writer wincing at banal or pedantic verbal configurations, reacts so violently because layers of himself are drawn to them. Repudiation of the present cultural morass presupposes sufficient involvement in it to feel it itching in one’s finger-tips…” (Adorno 2005, § 8. p. 29).
The import of his critical project would not have us wash our hands off art’s lifeblood at the scarce font of immediatisms accommodating the brutality of indifferent social systems. The mystical and poetical flourishes most contemporary artists employ to exonerate themselves from the duty of explaining their motivation only serves as a foil for the abject regression of the artistic self, which has miscarried all artistic intent before it can strive to redeem itself by its own toil. The artistic subject removed from ipseity at home in his milieu, thrown into the being of the market system which homogenises all in the currency of its one-all, has become a blight to the possibility of a conscience that has power to elevate art above human conditions and, so in due inversion, the possibility of also man’s elevation above the artefacts of [a]historical conditioning. “… [Herein] lies music’s [indeed, all arts’?] theological aspect. What music [art] says is a proposition at once distinct and concealed. Its idea is the form (Gestalt) of the name of God. It is demythologised prayer, freed from the magic of making anything happen, the human attempt, futile, as always, to name the name itself, not to communicate meanings” (Adorno 2002, p. 114).
The logic of the day, which makes so much of its clarity, has naively adopted this perverted notion of everyday speech. Vague expression permits the hearer to imagine whatever suits him and what he already thinks in any case. Rigorous formulation demands unequivocal comprehension, conceptual effort, to which people are deliberately disencouraged, and imposes on them in advance of any content a suspension of all received opinions, and thus an isolation that they violently resist (Adorno § 64, p. 101).
So, briefly, why read Adorno today? Because, it is imperative to act against the reactionaries, though they be ourselves. If we say too much has happened that has incontestably altered the course of art and its equation with consumption, thought and its relation to things are we not merely begging more reasons for surrendering to the beast that is already astride us? Read Adorno because, precisely because, he angers you with his obstinacy, his clinging to a hopeful differentiation from the abject form of alterity imposed upon popular consciousness. To fight the abstractions which generalise the self, artistic and otherwise, Adorno’s critical apparatus remains a worthy weapon, -though it sometimes is a knife all blade- what hurt is spared the self which cannot define art but can seek out a hadron’s theotechny? Wherein rests the aura of artistic inspiration; wherein the magic of its immaculate conception; wherein the titanic moment of its articulation and production through the very engines from which we derive our existence, let us inquire therein of the precise psychical automatisms that move us thusly to procure for its occult, atemporal archaeology the produce of our bodily culture, our arts. If our art is all sensuousness and corporeality what then is the mystery of its immaculate inspiration, how can we rest assured in the rejection of all inquiry and criticism of its material epigenesis? To do so is dishonesty shown home, in ourselves, in a world where selcouth artistic essences threaten the very existence of the thing itself; the world where art is two birds in a bush and we are left with age-old platitudes in our hand, kneeling before the disembodied flash which animates it with a cataclysm. In the end, to mystify the moment of our deepest impulses with the rhetoric of romance or respectable forgetfulness is to disavow the pompous claim history lays upon our culture: justify yourself despite your existence. Why must rational consciousness coil itself like an illusion, effacing its discernable origins, if it comes ascendant on Dickinson’s nimble winged hope? The emancipatory potential of art lies in the understanding of its brutal prehistory and natal experience, which must be unearthed and come to terms with on its own terms; thought, in order to be made intelligible and not mystical or sophistically narcissistic, must break free its jaw from its own tail. Adorno invites us, despite the neutralising haze of our critical conscience that settles itself on his work, to recreate the topology of desire and study the imbrications and scarifications lathed upon it as so many warts only so we may excise them now, though it is too late. For, we are moving in the circle of unreason so long as we attribute to some divine preordainment the subordination of art to both commerce and magic, the repression of self to the bad infinity of the body which speculates about the end of history. The end of history situates itself in our aeon, and we must resist becoming anachronisms in this inauthentic becoming. Else, why art at all?
Theodor Adorno. Trans. Gillespie, S. Ed. Leppert, R. “Music, Language and Composition (1956)”. Essays on Music: Theodore W. Adorno. USA: University of California, 2002. Print.
Theodor Adorno. Trans. Jephcott, E., F., N. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life. UK: Verso, 2005. Print.
Indian Naturalism: An Emic View
The naturalistic bent of contemporary Indian thought is a product of the materialistic philosophy of Lokāyatas or Carvākas from the Nāstika School, and, it is also, as is claimed by the movement, in contiguity with the ethos of European Enlightenment (Quack, J., 2011, p. 9). The Lokāyata is described, traditionally, with its origins being in heretical opposition to Vedic thought, as a technique of critique which did not propose a negation as logical refutation; its modus operandi, being the generation of inevitable absurdities [nigraha-sthāna] in an “…argument by adopting false and puzzling analogies [jāti]…”, is vitandā which can be translated into an oxymoronic appellation, in its substantive form, as illogical logic (Dasgupta, S., 2007, p.512).
There is here an ambivalence lieu of the oppositional tendency of the epistemic systems between the Hindus and the Buddhists as it can aid a more holistic comprehension of the metaphysical chasm between the two religions, as for the latter there is no distinction between tricky argumentation and correct argumentation. Although Buddhists do not accept distinction between modes of argumentation the do distinguish between arguments that provoke virtue and those that abet vice, yet what is illogical logic for rationalistic Hindus [upholders of Lokāyata, in terms of soteriological historiography] may be called logical in the Buddhist view (Ibid 2007). May one not say, then in the heretical and solemn timbre of the Lokāyata, an argument is an argument is an argument?
“All is impure; all is not impure; the crow is white, the crane is black; and for this reason or for that” says the Lokāyata, or the book of unbelievers (Ibid 2007, p. 515).
The popularity of this vein of sophistry was associated in public consciousness with science, and there was an entire discipline which concerned itself with the study of this modality of argumentation (Ibid 2007). This, contrarianism at the heart of Hindu hermeneutics, is sometimes taken as reason to propose that the truth of idealist Hindu philosophy can be attained sola scriptura (Ibid 2007) — by definition, cutting off the role of the hermeneutic subject, or interpreting authority as extraneous and even a priori nihilistic. The distinction “…between the natural and the supernatural…”, says Quack (2011), “is…extremely complex and treacherous” (p. 10); contemporary Hinduism would, however, by and large, treat of the naturalistic materialist position as atheism (Ibid 2011). This blanket term of atheist would also be used to describe rationalists who try to broach the question by adopting a syncretic view, inclusive of humanism, scepticism, ethical attitudes (Ibid 2011).
This blog-post is a continuation of an ongoing series on Indian Aesthetics…
Dasgupta, Surendranath (2007) A History of Indian Philosophy: Volume III. India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Quack, Johannes (2011) Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India. USA: Oxford University Press.
By Cain Pinto
TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information(1998) by Erik Davis is a level headed exploration of the collective fetishes and taboos of our technocratic agon. Let not the book’s breezy tone and tongue in cheek yet pyrotechnic proclivity for floating self-conscious portmanteaux like ‘eschatechnology’ and ‘datapocalypse’ among its serious enumerations be an impediment to the receipt of delightful, well considered and erudite insights that are packed in for good measure.
The thesis of the book is not original but is fleshed out in a highly persuasive way and is wide in its reach of resources and analytical framework: that the project of the Enlightenment, seeking to dethrone religiomystical ways of understanding the world, by the use of instrumental reason, perpetuated magical ways of thinking while occulting them into the deeper ordering, unconscious structures of technological rationality is a proposition we have been made by theorists before. All in all, the dispassionate eye of Davis is an excellent vantage for the uninitiated and a succinct recapitulation to the blasé psychonaut and acquisitive dabbler.
The profusion of cults, the rash like irruption of mass entertainment products that gather attention across the globe among diverse audiences, the giddy ecstasy of communication and the tenacious optimism of cutting edge science which rivals the mystical pull of the numinous hearken back to a tribalism that never really ceased to breathe animating pneuma into the erstwhile deus ex machina of bellow-and-cudgel positivism. This book, though several years old in a world that ages by the minute, in sync with sound bites and giga, has aged remarkably well, and I suspect it will remain relevant until man’s elusive pursuit of the apocalypse will meet its resolution by coinciding with some trite prophecy.
Davis’ work is a fine piece of writing, capable of entertaining D & D nerds and tree-hugging ecofeminists alike, while cozying up with oddball, well read history buffs and pop culture connoisseurs. It is must read for the terminally optimistic empiricists of today, as a word of caution, a grain of salt, an obsidian mirror, a quick read in fast times.
My Rating: *** ½
Davis, Erik. (2004). TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information. New York, NY: Harmony Books.
The Role of Cultural Logics in the Formation of the Psychoanalytic Subject
How is one to know what one desires? The psychoanalytic subject is constituted in the language, culture and symbolic codes of self-consciousness, and responsibilities, that are yielded to, or repressed, in a relation of dialectical movements between the subjects’ self versus the socius’ automata of cultural theatres of archetypal images.
The Western predilection for individuation cannot be said to apply as universal condition of the psychoanalytic; subjects across alien civilizations, their exotic cultures taken for monolithic gestalts owing to an unengaged dismissal of immanent conditions marking the accretions of histories and philosophies of the land, the processes of individuation in strange cultures are often dismissed into a comfortable- ideal- master sock. Of the linguistic, cultural and symbolic systems, which constitute repertories of acceptable pleasures and repressions in larger society, their formative influence on individuation, by way of more or less enduring constellations of cultural memories of it’s peoples that serve as a foil for the subject’s psyche not much is theorised by influential psychoanalytical cliques. By treating of these symbolic repertories as causative indications that mark people’s individuation one can understand the peculiar, eccentric, elusive character of the various roles that a person may play unconsciously. These formative influences mold the psychoanalytic subject, by a pattern which takes history for its witness, by exerting influence right into the present life of the subject. A historicism that synchronizes itself with the preservation instinct of a culture, its religion and myth, comes to become dense with local meanings. Theories of knowledge, ways of being in the world that suture the clans and institutions that work actively, or passively, in determining the experiential self of the culturally alien subject ought to be treated of as formative predispositions that govern the alien logic of individual psychoanalytical subjects from exotic, ancient cultures.
To speak of a culturally mediated subject, then, requires that the psycho-analytical map be plotted along contours of individual psyches as they relate to a field of social inherence; where their repressions and pleasures become coherent and insinuate themselves into a referential bond with the subjects’ desire. So, to know what one really desires, psychoanalytically, cannot be a task that is separate from a knowledge of what constitutes one’s idea of self in the said culture.
“…if a man comes to think about the symbolic order, it is because he is first caught in it in his being. The illusion that he has formed this order through his consciousness stems from the fact that it is through the pathway of a specific gap in his imaginary relationship with his semblable the he has been able to enter into his order as a subject. But he has only been able to make this entrance by passing through the radical defile of speech, a genetic moment of which we have seen in the child’s game, but which, in its complete form, is reproduced each time the subject addresses the Other as absolute, that is, as the Other who can annul him himself, just as he can act accordingly with the Other, that is, by making himself an object in order to deceive the Other” (Lacan § 53, par. 7, 40).
Lacan locates in the psychoanalytic subjects’ mode of self-identification a fundamental flaw, which reifying the analysand as an experiential and intuitive subject of his psychic world. Being objectively present in that world in the shape of others who contain a ground-plan of his psyche thus subject is subordinate to laws of understanding and sense that are independent of himself, and society insofar as it is constituted in his self-identity. I.e., the very impossibility of any real, integrally coherent identity formation, which is amenable to the experiential subject’s life within the social field he populates, is a pathological wish in the subject who submits, admits, to his identity in the world. All instances of identity in a subject, for Lacan, in the subjects’ rational view of the world, are “veridical hallucinations” occasioned by the empathic compulsion of a credo of logics that render him a subject with a place in that world, where his fragile narcisstic self, [culturally constituted and only identity], is at one with the mother lode of self-understanding and self-realisation, i.e. when he is convinced he has made out the senses in which he can overcome his ambivalence towards the indifferent or malevolent world of socially imposed life experience, or developed a confirmed identity in relation to others in his society, even as states of identity that are realised fluidly for each social clique he is privy to. Then, an Indian subject who is forced to presume that, his situation is prefigured for self consummation only in socially determined ways, symbolically and logically, any mode of identifying an authentic self in his world is denied as a priori impossible, and in fact by his very need to know the content of his beliefs. In the Hindu world, only in deference to the religiously-sanctioned wishes of his mother, wishes that are legitimated by the culture of our Indian society through lore, legend and sacraments, can the son attain his sense of self— more accurately, when he is forced to break away from his mother in ritual adolescence he faces for the first time the world which is indifferent or malevolent to his wishes and sense of security.
As the Indian adage goes, sons are to be raised as rajahs in their first five years, treated as slaves for the next fifteen, and thought of as friends thereafter. When the son is thrust away from his mother into the world at this stage of initiation, he experiences the first substantive test of his selfhood in relation to a world indifferent to his symbiosis with the mother. The resultant narcissistic self injury, custom-made by prevalent cultural modes of being, shape the individuating subject of psychoanalysis.
To be sure, then, Lacan’s invocation of Goya’s pithy formulation,- that “…the sleep of reason is sustained by the monsters it produces”-, is not applicable to the veridical independence of social institutions created in India by Hindu cultural memory, insofar, as the reason of its presence in the Indian unconscious is proliferate, living and relevant outside the contours of a Eurocentric attitude towards empirical reality. According to the symbolic order of roles given subjects in Hindu soteriology, the traumatic return of early, childish, modes of reasoning when faced with anxiety, which was first occasioned by separation from the mother, are neutralised. Since this monster is assuredly kept at bay in every contingent instance of svadharama realised, the pronouncement that its mastery over enduring senses of reason are sleepy is not sustainable. The individual’s ambition to achieve cultural selfhood are most properly realised in the service of symbolic orders of tradition: cultural prescriptions for fulfillment of a personal and “particular life-task” dominate the emergent occasions that initiate the creation of the selfhood of Indian subjects (Kakar 1978, 37).
Then, to know what one, as an Indian, desires, in the most general and oversimplified instance, necessitates an understanding of what is the one that desires. This idea of the subject determines the arc of desire vis-à-vis cultural mores that define their ideal realisation in collective rituals and traditions that find their place in society: what one wants is determined by what one thinks one is. What one is is determined by what Others are. Others are, most generally speaking, the culture which is the light that makes visible the shape of the world; and, to know what one is, psychoanalytically, demands that one know what this culture is, i.e. what its symbolic world is, what it’s governing logics are.
The idea that desire is directly contained in the mending of unconscious attitudes by adopting a licit value based orderings of resistance and ordained ab-negations, as in the Western ideal of individuation against the grain of society’s demands, is unsustainable without an idea of what this society’s demands really are. These demands are best formulated in local religious traditions and cultural artefacts from the subject’s social field; to ignore the particular logics of sense dominant in a particular culture is to doom the project of understanding individual desire to misrecognitions, to veridical hallucinations of contemporary hegemons.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Resistances to Psychoanalysis”. Historical and
Expository Works on Psychoanalysis: On the History of the
Psychoanalytic Movements, An Autobiographical Study, An Outline of
Psychoanalysis and Other Works, Vol. 15. New Delhi: Shrijee’s Book
International, 2003. Print. P. 299- 318. p. 310- 11.
Kakar, Sudhir. The Inner World: A Psychoanalytic Study of Childhood and
Society in India, Third Edition. New Delhi: Oxford University Press,
Kakar, Sudhir. India Identity. New Delhi: Penguin, 1996. Print.
Kakar, Sudhir & Kakar, Katharina. The Indians: Portrait of a People. New Delhi:
Penguin, 2007. Print.
Lacan, Jacques. Trans. Fink, Bruce. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in
English. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2006. Print.
Lacan, Jacques. Trans. Fink, Bruce. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2006. Print.
The general suspicion carried by identity semblables as they exist in cultural norms, analogous to the repressive force that demands satisfaction, work to eliminate the need for an individuals’ dismantling of the suggestion that his personal understanding and compliance with the normative proscription cannot create a safer alternative; society is apt to repress latent desires that could carry the threat of injury for the community- Freud has maintained that such is not the desirable end of psychoanalytical praxis (see Freud, Sigmund. “The Resistances to Psychoanalysis”. Historical and Expository Works on Psychoanalysis: On the History of the Psychoanalytic Movements, An Autobiographical Study, An Outline of Psychoanalysis and Other Works, Vol. 15. New Delhi: Shrijee’s Book International, 2003. Print).
Ibid. § 46, par. 4, p. 34.
Ibid. (Kakar 1978).
Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: Interview with Steven Gibson on the limitations of skepticism as a movement
He is a small-town entrepreneur who is by nature at odds with “the man.” The man says he is unemployable, and he is increasingly comfortable with that reality. He has been self-employed in video production and multimedia for the last decade. It was there that he wrote the well-reviewed novel of big and skeptical ideas “A Secret of the Universe: a Story of Love, Loss, and the Discovery of an Eternal Truth.” Before that he ran a small office products dealership for a decade. Now he has started what will hopefully be the occupation for his next decade–a boutique car and driver service for independent seniors and busy professionals. Between all of that he questions everything and enjoy time with friends, his significant other, and his kids. I first came across him five years ago on his old podcast, Truth-Driven thinking. Recently Steven Gibson has been more concerned with popular fallacies in economics, and over-claims in regards to religion and politics that are not often covered in the general skeptic’s community, or are covered only in a standard “Democratic Party” liberal or libertarian matter. His honest struggling with the implications let me to want to talk with him on the issues in the community and the problems with skepticism as a “movement.”
C.Derick Varn: What are the major “skeptical issues” that concern you that you don’t think get covered in the greater skeptic community?
Steven Gibson: ether it can be called a major “skeptical” issue or not is unclear; most of the “major issues” do seem to be adequately covered, almost by definition. That said, there remain many important areas of everyday life that appear to lack critical analysis. Economics and politics come to mind, though admittedly they are complex, “softer” areas of inquiry, so difficulties abound. That said, it seems to me that many, many assumptions exist about how our complex economies and markets work, and that economists don’t understand them nearly as well as advertised. Trickle that down to we everyday pundits and skeptical non-economists, and contrary to what we might expect, we see solutions promoted confidently–often quite certainly as ”obvious” truths. But it is clear that ideological biases are attached, perhaps hinting at how we wish the world worked.
Among my favorite commentators happens to be a Hayekian, Austrian-leaning economist from the not-so-left George Mason University, Russ Roberts. He hosts “Econtalk,” and is generally a shining example of how to discuss and disagree while employing intellectual honesty (there are a few exceptions). He often has guest economists from other “schools” who disagree with him. But what I enjoy most is that he seems to readily admit that although he finds his math and arguments more compelling, others are just as convinced their math and arguments are far superior. And the truth is that these very limited models of hugely complex and unpredictable systems appear relatively poorly understood. In fact that is a fundamental message of Nassim Taleb (“The Black Swan” among his great books), who has also been a guest on the program.
Many argue that economics as a discipline, is not a predictive science, and thus should be off the hook for its astonishing failures to predict the things that really matter–such as busts like the global financial collapse of 2008. You might recall that most of the leaders of our economy touted the solid footings of the economy, and dismissed the sub-prime mortgage meltdown as quite isolated (from Bernanke and Geithner to Greenspan and Krugman). The simple fact is that for something as vital as how finance and economics systems work and are managed, we simply don’t understand how they really work in the real world. And yet we make all sorts of moral judgments based upon our almost faith-based narratives of what works and what does not.
Steve Keen’s new models, and thinkers like Nassim Taleb, and maybe a few others like Alan Harvey are at least banging their heads on the established clergy and encouraging rigor and dialogue, but there is a long way to go, it would appear. How about a little humility. Doesn’t the fact that an entire discipline completely missed, and cannot explain, the most significant of events in their economic lifetime imply the need for a little humility? A little introspection?
On the political front I will be more brief. It probably doesn’t even need to be summarized again, but from fact-checking to confirmation bias, we can quickly set our skepticism aside when it is “our guy.”
As always, my observations are purely anecdotal, based perhaps too heavily on Facebook exchanges and other interactions; and I admit to being guilty myself. My concern is that we too seem to fall prey to tribally- and ideologically-driven biases, filters of data, and downright flawed reasoning–just like anyone else. Whether that is objectivism, free market worship, or equally strong Marxist or populist views, we are not immune. Yet we do not discuss these real-world implications of lack of ”skepticism” enough as a community.
For me, all roads lead to Rome. All the smaller, hard-science questions about how the world works are wonderful, but to me the goal would be to work up the chain to god questions, economics, happiness, and philosophical arguments. We should dabble in what is, and what could be. Unfortunately for this average guy from the Midwest, who has discovered just how little he knows, many of these disciplines are far over my head. That’s why I count on you and your readers. All I can tell you is that everywhere I look I see complexity and lack of understanding, but the appearance from others–including skeptics–of dogmatic certainty.
C.D.V.: So what do you make of the relative decline of new atheism within the skeptics movement?
S.G.: Gosh, that’s a tough question because of some built-in assumptions and definitions. If we stipulate that there is a skeptic movement, I’m a bit more hesitant to confess knowledge of the intimate link to new atheism, or of a decline in new atheism within that community. That said, if there is a decline it could be related to the natural cycle of things–there were a few bestselling books for a spell there that ignited conversations; that’s a great thing but momentum ebbs and flows. So I’m not certain about the premise.
It might be that the core of your question, however, focuses on whether or not atheism and skepticism are related; whether they should be; or better still if we run the risk of being scientistic when we spend lots of time on the god questions. At the risk of writing a book here, and showing my ignorance, I’ll take only a quick shot.
Atheism and skepticism are very much intertwined to the degree that supernatural explanations are used to describe natural events and make falsifiable (or potentially falsifiable) claims about how the natural world works. Taking actions based upon untrue assumptions can have horrible consequences. A sick child is refused a transfusion because god has told the parents to not allow it, and that this personal god actively will suspend the cause and effect of the world and move cells or molecules–without other known or unknown earthly cause–and thus heal him another way if we obey? That is a problem, and skeptics and scientists should be all over it. Great harm can come when any imagined claim about reality is acted upon without some degree of critical thinking, naturalistic testing, or thought. (Note: This is quite different than early intuition, thinking outside the box, and creativity or great insights or breakthroughs. (These appear to come from the same parts of the brain that religion does; one can be very “spiritual”, artsy, creative, intuitive, and even irrational, without resorting to defining the sources of such non-linear, non-reasoned creativity as supernatural.)
When “god claims” involve virgin births, causes of earthquakes, moving your pencil, or healing disease, it seems very cool to try to understand those mechanisms and falsify or prove the claim using earthly, naturalistic methods of science. The more we understand about earthly, natural “reality,” (always provisionally), the better off we are. Knowledge is a good thing, and improved knowledge of how the world really works, of causes and effects, always has accompanied forward progress and reduced human suffering. Always.
But beyond falsifiable claims, science has limits that should be recognized so as not to turn it into a religion or philosophy, without very clear disclaimers and delineations that we have entered a new realm (and maybe not even then; see naturalism.org as an admirable effort in that direction). Yes, one can probabilistically make guesses about the unknown based on the entirety of human knowledge, experience, observation, and testing–and thus suggest that a personal god who manipulates atoms is highly unlikely; but one cannot make definitive statements of certainty about that which is beyond our naturalistic, testable knowledge–at least it seems to me. We must be agnostic about mystical, non-falsifiable beliefs, as I believe even the great skeptic Marvin Gardner is said to have argued through his deistic beliefs. While I lean materialist, I realize that becomes a belief, and not the domain of science; . I have much to learn, but that is the thumbnail of my current thinking.
And to bring it full circle, to me it appears that new atheism gains traction slowly but surely when it stays in the realm of natural science, even when refuting claims of religion about testable claims. Where it seems to get itself in trouble is when it dips its toe too far over the line into scientism–which I might add that it does not do very often, but does do.
As for the “ought” part, I still say that all roads lead to Rome (the big questions), and that certainly religious claims made about cause and effect in the natural world are fair game and should be part of skeptical inquiry. But that ought to be engaged in carefully, compassionately, and kindly, with an eye on dialogue that makes the world better and affects meaningful improvements in the human condition. To simply badger or belittle, even with all the facts on your side, gets us nowhere.
C.D.V.: To be fair, Steve, that was a trick question. What do you think are the problems with the privileging of science over all other means of discourse for moral and aesthetics questions that often happens in the “skeptic’s community” through use of disciplines which are themselves problematic as to demarcation as being scientific? In this I would include things such as the use of simple evolutionary psychology or Dawkin’s memetics or Harris’s claims that morality is analogous to medical sceince to the claims that the laws of evolution may apply to physics as being prime offenders?
S.G.: So you are asking about the tendency of even skeptics to use soft or “sketchy” science (e.g. social science research, evolutionary psychology, etc.) in the arguments that science itself should be privileged above other means of answering moral and aesthetic questions? I’m a simple guy from Kalamazoo, and am probably over my head here so will simply say that I’m, well, skeptical of such arguments, and even dubious as to the motives for making them. Mix the demarcation problem with which philosophers of science have long wrestled, the dangers of groupthink and tribalism, and add the seductive power of a great narrative that makes so much sense that it “must” be true—and you have the potential for undermining the search for truth (via both the sketchy science itself, and the use of sketchy assumptions to oversell science, and its epistemological value).
I’ve long argued that one of the reasons we try to find truth in the world is so that we can take actions based upon how the world really works, which will minimize unanticipated consequences and make the world a better place (or less bad—depending on your perspective); conversely, when we take actions based on untruths, we get into all sorts of trouble. Simple. We want to seek truth, and need to be ever rigorous and vigilant of our claims, and avoid overselling what we actually know. But to take it another step, it’s my sense that science loses credibility when it crosses a line into scientism, and starts writing checks that just aren’t cashable (yet).
So it’s a simple answer that I would give: Sam Harris or others could certainly argue that science has the potential to answer moral and aesthetic questions, but as someone on the outside who owns and claims his ignorance on the topic, I can only say that so far I personally do not see any reason to yield too much ground to science on moral and aesthetic questions, especially where such arguments are based upon convenient but far-from-certain narrative hypotheses about what is really true. But again, I’m a non-academic observer and just one person on the jury of billions of humans who get to have opinions and votes; mine could be way wrong, but I’m saying that for good reason or bad, science has some convincing to do on me yet.
C.D.V.: How did you experiment in a Truth Driven Life community on line go? Why do you think it didn’t take off?
S.G.: Well I should probably explain what it was, and what the vision was. The goal was to create a “skeptic” learning community, and the “Bloomfire” technology behind it offered some promise to streamline multimedia and webcam exchanges, archival, and indexing such that participants could learn from the posts and exchanges. Those posts and video-heavy exchanges would then remain there for future members. I had noticed that too often we rehash old discussions in forums or “in-groups,” new members don’t know that we’ve already covered that, and the group or discussion never moves forward. But more than that, my suspicion was—and is—that for many people in today’s world it can be difficult to find authentic, open-minded, and intelligent people with whom I can have safe, substantive, stimulating, and open conversations—where emotion is mastered such that all honest thoughts and inquiries are fair game. So it was both a social tool, and a learning environment (dare I say “like church”?).
While I’m painfully aware of the dangers of in-group thinking and groupthink, I have also long argued that everyone needs a community—a safe place where likeminded people can grow and explore. The idea was to combine the power of peer learning with access to subject-matter experts, guest bloggers, great minds, and exclusive content—while supporting the Truth-Driven Thinking programming and mission. I envisioned more than a “forum”—rather a place where authentic people could gather socially, almost as if physically (via webcam elements of the platform), submit content; read; watch; learn; share; support one another; debate; and ask big questions.
We could also have some rules about tone, demeanor, and civil exchanges. This would be more of a “knowledge club” than a public square. Maybe even invitation, and maybe even with some dues to cover admin and membership, and contribute toward my then podcast.
So why did it fail? Probably for many reasons. 1) My time and resources became scarce, so I couldn’t give it a fair shot; 2) People have Facebook and other places to be social online—so who really needs one more; 3) the Bloomfire creators sold the company, went “enterprise,” and I believed that the platform wouldn’t be around for long in that form; 4) I’m not sure it was as technologically “there” as I’d hoped; 5) Eventually the utopian community probably doesn’t exist anyway—but part of me would still like to try someday.
C.D.V.: Why do you think that the skeptical community has such a limited range of political options expressed in it? Is this an indication that politics has replaced religion as an ideological framework within the movement?
S.G.: Based upon only anecdotes and gut, I will try to speculate. (Data driven? Who, me?) That said, I do think the skeptical community has a narrow range of political options that are expressed in it. And yes, I believe this is an indication that politics has replaced religion as an ideological framework within “the movement”.
Due to my retrenchment and restructuring of my income and life, most of my interaction with skeptics, listeners to my former podcast, and readers of my novel of skeptical ideas come via Facebook these days. So my anecdotes are drawn heavily from those interactions, but also from my broader body of exchanges over the years with many self-identified skeptics around the world. That said, I will hastily categorize my experience of skeptics into two main groups: radical libertarian, free-market, Ayn Randian or Hayekian Objectivists on one side—and general Democratic party enthusiasts in the other cluster. These groups find common ground on social issues: getting the government out of vaginas, etc., however they tend to differ on economic issues, ethical questions of fairness and wealth redistribution, effects of economic policy (Krugman vs. Laffer), and the very philosophical ethics that underpin those views—if they’ve ever even really thought about it that way.
Time and again we skeptics pay lip service to the idea that my “beliefs” won’t own me, that emotional involvement and confirmation bias are to be guarded against, that no notion should be held above critical scrutiny, and that we will follow the evidence wherever it leads us—happily, and on any issue. But I simply don’t see humans, and skeptics are certainly human, behave that way. Our “beliefs” most certain to own us and blind us to pursuit of truth.
Economics is a wonderful example, as is the “issue” of anthropogenic global warming. In the economics sphere, one of my favorite scholarly voices is Russ Roberts, who hosts a podcast called EconTalk (Econtalk.org). What I love is not only his affinity for genuine intellectual exchanges among people who differ on their interpretations of economic theory (hypotheses)—but his experienced voice in articulating the limits of the discipline. Yet few economists would be as honest. In short, and I’m trying to be careful stating someone else’s views, Roberts admits that on the big questions—we just don’t know! That’s right, he sees major fights between “schools” of economic thought, where everyone has their data and believes their data are the best, and has their regression analysis and their hugely complex data sets and multivariate equations—but the reality is that they are simply inconclusive and unresolved questions! These are experts at rhetoric, but deeply divided by school, tribe, gang, or whatever you want to call it, which biases them and creates the illusion of certainty.
Add famed thinker Nassim Taleb or Australian economist Steve Keen (http://www.debtdeflation.com/blogs/), who passionately and persuasively argues that much of the neoclassical economic model is completely oversimplified and unsupported by the data (from aggregate demand to the critical role of total debt/shadow banking leverage in the system)—and you get my point. There is great doubt. But we don’t ever see academics or talking heads speaking as if there is any doubt whatsoever. Everywhere we see certainty. We are no different than those who are religious, we need narratives and structure, and will mold reality to fit them. We will then coalesce into tribes based on those “beliefs”.
So to tie this back to skeptics, and the question of politics having replaced religion as a narrative ideological framework, I see this play out routinely with both the objectivist/libertarian grouping, and the Krugman-ish liberal culture side. But what if both are wrong on this issue? What if rather than spending vs. revenue, we had a more sophisticated understanding of complex dynamics? Some of the same elements are at play in the global warming “debates”, but you get the point.
Again and again I think we have to pause and ask ourselves what would happen if it turned out that we were wrong, and then specifically examine how that would make us feel? Are we that pastor who has so tightly defined our role in the cosmos to a single school of thought or religion that we are blind to the other options? Are we so unwilling to challenge our very sense of self definition and how we interact with the world that we would succumb to the confirmation bias? Are we so afraid of something being taken from us that we cannot see the starving masses? What is the reality about what motivates humans? I don’t know, but I’m comfortable saying that.
The way I hear skeptics speak (and write) on a routine basis makes me think that even the most educated, rhetorically brilliant among us might simply be delusional and tribal at a higher level. Sometimes I lose the will to scale that wall. Frankly, it gets depressing, because I see it in myself as well. It’s human nature.
And that is my longwinded take on your question as to “why” we have a limited range of political options: we are human. We are tribal. We cluster.
C.D.V.: Do you see the passion in the various skeptics communities waning as divisions within the communities are getting more exposed in social network groups?
S.G.: It’s hard to know and I could be biased by my own skeptic friends and experiences, but in my humble opinion the passion does seem to be waning, perhaps as a result of the exposed divisions. The unity and “family feel” seem threatened. Divisions like “elevator gate” and disagreements over style (a.k.a. “don’t be a dick”—in Phil Plait’s terms), and even over scientistic overreaches do indeed take a toll. But it seems possible to me that other natural factors contribute to ebbs and flows as well.
For a long while I’ve wondered if skepticism for any individual doesn’t have a bit of a predictable trajectory and life cycle—perhaps not unlike that of a new adopter of a religion. (No, I am not equating them, per say.) Perhaps a more appropriate analogy would be religious de-conversion. There is often a period of strife and upheaval, or at least some emotional wrestling with a good dose of social side effects. There is also new beauty, and new joy, and perhaps a new sense of connection with new friends and people who think very differently than you used to—refreshingly so. But as with church, the power of that initial transition wanes over time. It might be in our own minds or it might be there is a real reduction in attention and outreach from the community as the dust settles and everyday life settles in. But one way or another we revert to the norms, or regress to the mean, of human behaviors and everyday experiences. Normalcy rules, and there are great people, assholes, and everything in between within a “community” that has very few shared beliefs, cultures, or norms to hold them together. (And see my prior thoughts on how we tribally segregate and remain quite fallible to all sorts of very human behaviors.)
So perhaps the initial trajectory of the experiential curve flattens, and individuals go from raging fire and front-of-mind consciousness, to the warm glow of a naturalistic worldview that shall sustain and enrich them for a lifetime perhaps—albeit at maybe a somewhat less intense level. So could that micro-level effect, if real, also affect and play out on the macro level? Just a thought.
The good news, and my hope, is that there are new people and new passions being introduced to the process on an ongoing basis, and that more and more people are adopting more reason-driven and skeptical worldviews. It does seem to me that this is happening at the same time as our current ebbing, as supported by several recent surveys. So I am not without hope, and not without great gratitude for what skeptic groups and passionate individuals accomplish.
Perhaps this relates to another of my unachieved goals. I used to call my blog “Perspectives: food for the skeptic’s sole (if there is one).” Not unlike churches, who always seem to struggle with retention, its my hope that skepticism and intellectually honest discourse can inspire more soul-feeding initiatives like TED, or The Amazing Meeting, or skeptical comedy or art, in order to feed our intellect and fulfill our social needs—such that our passion remains, and the trajectory of our individual curves don’t flatten quite so much. We are, after all, humans. We need to be connected. We need to be re-amazed. We need to be reinvigorated.
C.D.V.: Do you think this maybe because skepticism is conceive internally as a set of methodological and not an ideological movements?
S.G.: As always I’d drop a disclaimer (in addition to the one that says “what do I know anyway”): that is that it’s probably hard to say for sure how the “movement” conceives or perceives itself. But to the degree it exists might there be some waning passion in the skeptic community as the result of a reflexive and endemic in-group perception as being focused on method more than ideology? Again I’ll bite and say yes, because there are real philosophical schisms, right? Many of the divisions I mentioned (and others) have to do with substantive differences in meta-ethics, ethics, morality, and/or guiding beliefs and philosophies. But those of us who are not trained in philosophy, or who are new to it, are often unaware that our differences are at all born of ideological and philosophical assumptions. So yes, if what unites us is an affinity and affection for methodological naturalism, the fact that there are schisms, tribal divisions, or sects should probably not be surprising—especially in light of the lack of common ideology or guiding principles.
C.D.V.: What do you see as your new projects in regards to skepticism?
S.G.: Well, for the immediate future I am rather occupied with the mundane aspects of existence and survival. That said, as finances and time someday allow, I would like to return to some non-fiction book ideas that I’ve been pondering. Specifically I would like to further explore the real-world implications and practical application of a naturalistic worldview to everyday life, and even more so to the challenges of social-sexual ethics and marital customs. I touched on some of those issues and challenges in my novel of skeptical ideas, but would like to explore them in a deep and personal way in a non-fiction book. I see great pain and angst caused by our unrealistic expectations of strict monogamy for life, romantic love, and the western pressures to achieve all depth of intimate experience through a single person, exclusively, forever. Obviously there are great depths and significant complexities to be plumbed there. And as with all things, the more I learn and experience, the less I “know” for certain, and the more gray I see. But that’s another topic.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
S.G.: Just thanks for your work, posts, writings and thoughts. I readily admit that as a non-academic, my skeptic voice is truly just that of a grassroots life traveler in a state of evolving. You and other academics have so much to give and share with we who are emerging from our Midwest (Western) cocoons. Thanks for doing so, and thanks for rolling with my occasional and obvious ignorance on many levels. But I guess that’s really what it is all about, connecting and influencing a humanity that is composed of people on many different levels of their journeys, and with many different capacities. So we have our work cut out for us. Especially you.
From the Iron Age to the Age of Irony
SIC “The forest ministry [in India] had for long classified bamboo as a tree despite its scientific description as a grass. The classification ensured that under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, fallen bamboo got classified as timber and remained under the firm control of the forest bureaucracy which harvested and sold it to the industry. The tribals got a pittance on some occasions even as the industry got bamboo at low rates over long lease periods” (Sethi, 2012). The striking, enigmatical nature of the above developments is not the impression that accompanies a novel experience but the rude epiphany that an old delusion’s recognition in its present guise occasions.
The Iron Age
The Mauryan period in its social composition embodies the form of a crude analogy to present Indian civilization. The prism which illuminated old atrocities continues to be held in place by the armature and buttress of caste baiting and routine mystification of class struggle. The simultaneous unease towards, and exploitation of, ethnic minorities on one hand and the flux of socioeconomic realities that necessitated their unresisting presence as subjects of the Mauryan empire on the other bespeak an anachronism that is at once more than infelicitous and yet less than surprising in its contemporary Indian instantiation. It is infelicitous in that it’s in lewd symmetry with the bigotries of the past, and not surprising in that, in several ways, the past has never really ceased to exist.
But this is not to mitigate the case against a retreat into Iron Age expansionism, and in fact is an impassioned indictment of the present, which further heightens the impropriety of legally enforced tribal privation. The Mauryans to their credit, at least, had a well disclosed and uniformly instated religio-mythological cosmogony that equated forest dwelling tribals to mixed breeds, inherently inferior to contemporary civilization and thereby subject to them (Kapur, 2011). India today, however, would insist on the irrelevance of the mythological striations that cut loose the literal marginalia of the past in their bid to bolster erstwhile rhetorical inclusionism, while their actions fall short of even the pretensions of hypocrisy.
The Mauryans were an expansionist empire that appropriated whichever territory complemented its particular shortcomings in its plenitude. Romila Thapar argues that their expansionism and the displacement and subjugation of tribals which went with it were their defining hallmarks (Kapur, 2011, p.3-4). The subjection of tribals was par course, from a religious perspective, since the distinction between those from civilised centres and those who were forest-dwellers was one of purity; those from forests were ritually described as barbarians (Kapur, p.4-8). The strategic governance extended to them in the Mauryan empire took the form of a gradualist policy of “…disintegration…”and reassimilation into a “…class society based on individual private property” (Kapur, p.9).
The, thus far, unimpeachable lacuna between legislative provisions for the enfranchisement of Indian tribals and their actual experience at the hand of the executive and judiciary[i] only indicates a deep rooted, meta-structural fissure in the egalitarian edifice of unified India. For one, the Mauryan period marked the prominent secession of Buddhism and Jainism from Hinduism (Lockard, 2010, p. 116), and their literature before this juncture abounds in the description of forest-dwellers as “…unlearned, barbaric…half-civilized, unconverted people…who rose and ate at improper times” (Kapur, 2011, p.6). By the time of the ascent of Aśoka the traditional attitude towards tribals was undergoing a pseudomorphosis, they were being differentiated by various technical names as well as being painted into a corner by “…ideological dominance” (Kapur, 2011, p.6).
The post-Aśokan phase of the Mauryan empire saw the fall of Jainism, and the rise of Hinduism fueled by the re-emergence of interest in Śaṅkarācārya’s and Rāmānuja’s philosophies (Bentley, 1993, p. 46). It is interesting to note the oppositional tendencies between their respective philosophies are emblematic of the paradigmatic shift in the consciousness of Hindu thought, which maintained its hegemonic hold on an administrative level. The main contention between Rāmānuja and Śaṅkarācārya schools is about the nature of reality, which for the former is a dualistic metaphysics sustained in an immanent god while for the latter all nature is one and so all knowledge is illusory (Dasgupta, 2007, p. 165-86).
To extrapolate the inimical worldviews as constitutive of the empire’s attitude towards administration is a legitimate intervention, given the central expansionist agenda of the Mauryan dynasty was keeping in line with the Hindu capacity for assimilation by containment. The material dispossession of forest tribals was seen not as an inimical intrusion but an economically expedient procedure for dynastic interests, and with its share of exceptions. There was no uniform system of administration, even since Aśoka (Kapur, 2011, p. 12). May one not contend that the lack of uniformity in administrative action in relation to tribals represented the fragmented core of Hindu consciousness, with its coextensive metaphysical chasms as epitomised by the coexisting relevance of Rāmānuja and Śaṅkarācārya?
Age of Ironic Amnesia
The ambiguity of contemporary governance with regards to tribal populations harks back to an ancient rift in the cultural logic of Hindu India. As if in obeisance to Śaṅkarācārya’s notion of avidya [non-knowledge], on one hand, the law continued to misrecognise the true genus of bamboo as a grass, and, on the other hand, taxed the tribals on the same premise which was leveled as justification for Mauryan impunity in acquiring tribal resources.
Implicit in this violence is the underlying assumption of the economic irrelevance of the tribals, whose land and stead could be put to better use in strengthening the nation. Strengthening the nation that is, in constitutional terms, egalitarian and secular, and which in practice behaves as though the old traditional markers of ethnic barbarity in their transformation into economic jargon are neutralised, or somehow shown to be nominal, by regressing to old preconscious habits. Indeed, the inertia of the past is still visible in the controversial and, no doubt, complicated issue of Christian ministries’ involvement with Indian tribals- which deserves another essay for itself.
On one hand the ministries have been victimised by nationalist brigands on the bases of Hindu narratives of tolerance, freedom and equality, which it is alleged are violated by Christian missions[ii]. On the other hand, there is the glaring fact that none of these self-appointed keepers of traditional cultural memory came forward to alleviate the tribals from their national irrelevance and sheer distance from the state mechanisms that represented their access to the tolerant, free and egalitarian ethos now retrospectively suggested as worthy of their people (Ilaiah, 2010, p. 37). Convent schools set up by these missionaries have been used by the children of the vanguards of Hindu nationalism, while the tribals for whose alleviation the missions had arrived are strategically severed from their beneficence (Ilaiah, 2010).
The same pernicious self-contradictory timbre is to be heard in the application of the egalitarian rhetoric of inclusionism by the government in the same breath as industrial expansionism. The issue of the oustees of the Narmada dam project continues to play itself out amidst governmental mystifications that predict eventual uplift of local tribals as an event that will follow the submersion of their villages (Gadgil, 1995, p. 61-2). It has been contended that the eventual benefits of the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project will outweigh the immediate displacement of tribals (Cullet, 2007, p. 60), but it remains tentative and unspecific about the issue of their reassimilation into the better accommodation promised.
In the issues that generate a contest between the immediate lives of tribals and the putative allures of industrial expansionism for the beneficiaries of erstwhile civilization what subtle balance implicates the chain of action? The recognition that bamboo was grass and thus legally salable by tribals took several decades to come through (Sethi, 2012), because the merely material nominalism of knowledge [aka Śaṅkarācārya’s shadow] refused to reify itself in the dualistic split between the us versus them narrative of an ever urgent administration, reflecting the merit of lives vis-à-vis other lives in the comfort of its reactive, if sometimes tacit, Hindu nationalism. The ironic descent into solipsism on part of Indian governance comes to its nauseating fore in the open contradictions between the espoused constitutional jargon of equality and the facts of the subject matter of exploitation as they emerge in the public space. The public space, where history is a constant improvisational gig, a cultural confabulation, which regulates the dreams of our future in the waking nightmares of those caught in the thrall of mystified, disavowed, systemic violence.
Atal, Y. Ed. (2009). Sociology and Anthropology in India. India: Pearson Education.
Bentley, J. (1993). Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times. USA: Oxford University Press.
Cullet, P. (2007). The Sardar Sarovar Dam Project: Selected Documents. USA: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
Dasgupta, S. A. (2007). History of Indian Philosophy: Volume III. India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Ilaiah, K. (2010). The Weapon of the Other: Dalitbahujan Writings and the Remaking of Indian Nationalist Thought. India: Pearson Education.
Kapur, N., S. Ed. (2011). Environmental History of Early India: A Reader. India: Oxford University Press.
Khongsai, C. “Manipur Tribals and Issues of Social Inclusion and Exclusion”. Journal of North East India Studies. Website. Updated July 17, 2012. Accessed September 6, 2012 <http://www.jneis.com/?p=264>.
Lockard, C., A. (2010). Societies, Networks and Transitions: A Global History, Volume I: To 1500. USA: Cengage Learning.
Sethi, N. “Bamboo Trade May Open up For Tribals”. Times of India. Website. Updated September 3, 2012. Accessed September 6, 2012. <http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes .com/2012-09-03/india/33562268_1_bamboo-trade-tribal-affairs-ministry-minor-forest>.