Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Being grounded

Previous post here.

Sunthar wrote (you'll need a yahoo ID to view his complete post): "My above observation does not necessarily imply that we necessarily need to assume and vindicate this alternative ground terms of (proselytizing on behalf of) a systematic and clearly delineated (counter-) project. What matters here is that the juxtaposition and confrontation of 'hegemonies' ...provides the intellectual space and raw materials for exploring multiple other modes of being in this world. One could even argue, with some justification, that these Jewish 'sages' [Freud, Marx, Einstein, Lévi-Strauss, and Derrida] have injected even more ethnocentric baggage into the Western tradition precisely because they have not openly assumed their own (unlike a religious scholar like our late 'iconoclast' friend Charles Mopsik...)."

Thanks (as always) for injecting a more precise terminology as a corrective to my previous post. For indeed I would agree that what is to be resisted is the "(counter-) project" as opposed to "groundedness" per se (Heidegger's flirtation, and subsequent disenchantment with, Nazi politics is perhaps symptomatic of the distinction, or at least of a distinction that we may usefully draw). Perhaps Derrida has been most sensitive to this need to avoid (falling into the trap of), this wariness of, projects, particularly--or at least with greater explicitness-- in his later work. One well remembers his rejoinders to impatient university students in the mid-1990s ("impatient" because many of the students appeared to have drunk the Kool-Aid of "relativism", and were disappointed by what they took to be their idol's feet of clay) who accused him of backdoor essentialism with his overt focus on ethics, to the effect that his notion of ethics was not so much an essence but simply why we "do" deconstruction. I do not read him to be obfuscatory or evasive here: rather, I read the ethical impulse as an irreducible, not an essence, a thing, but a signpost to a way that may not be traversed by Enlightenment rationality.

As an aside, I am sensitive to the charge of (inadvertent) ethnocentrism, but perhaps one hopeful way to read Levinas and Derrida is to appreciate the modesty of their philosophical claims and inquiries. I use "modesty" carefully, not as a limitation but as a strength, for to me it reveals a sensitivity to the neo-colonialist implications of universalizing discourses far more than many of the professional (and comfortably tenured) anti-imperialists around. This reticence (taking Derrida as an example) goes a long way toward explaining his lifelong reluctance to expound on or write about the implications of his work for socio-political situations afield from his immediate "Western" mileu. Certainly one might say there is a normative impulse, perhaps even a (Freudian) urge at work here, but equally there is a determination to resist assimilation into a normalizing (always a Westernizing?) project.

Indeed I see a useful interplay between the above and the excerpt from your piece on transgressive sacrality. Specifically, the "adepts of transgressive sacrality" are "potentially the most effective instruments of change in their own traditions" precisely because of a "norm", but one not beholden to a universalizing architecture, or more accurately a norm inextricable from the tension between universalizing norms (which by now hold dominion over all the traditions of the world) and a "local" groundedness that we may provisionally term (while always recognizing the potentially fetishizing gaze that always looms over such a word) authentic. I am reminded of your challenging piece on the Lat Bhairava/Ghazi Miyan economy, wherein you threw out the suggestive (even tantalizing) possibility that Islam does not so much as define itself against polytheism as depend upon transgressive idolatry as one of its two constitutive poles (symbolized neatly in the Makkan circle at the center of which is a featureless cube that idol, featureless as a lingam). That economy, that relation, is perhaps a fruitful one, if we are to preserve some notion of a norm (I prefer to think of it as a drive) without being harnessed to the service of a project. To put it another way: inasmuch as I confess to an id(o/ea)l, a norm, this is mine: a mood that is no more than a perennial disquiet.

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