Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Of Arborescent Identity and Ethical Imagination: Envisioning a Post-national ‘Opposite Dream’ By:Prof. Syed Jamil Ahmad

At the age of eighteen, Rabindranath Tagore experienced a vision of the ‘real’, which triggered a sudden dilation of his consciousness ‘in the super-personal world’ (Tagore 1996: 121). In his own words:
One day while I stood watching at early dawn the sun sending out its rays from behind the trees, I suddenly felt as if some ancient mist had in a moment lifted from my sight, and the morning light on the face of the world revealed an inner radiance of joy. The invisible screen of the commonplace was removed from all things and all men [sic.], and their ultimate significance was intensified in my mind […]. (Tagore 1996: 121)
This vision, producing in Rabindranath an uncanny effect of dissolving ‘[t]he invisible screen of the commonplace’, explicates for us his perception that ‘fact is the state of being as it is; that on which depends a fact is the truth’ (Tagore 1354: 387, author’s translation). The fact is that all things and all humans appear as discrete and separate units. But the truth is, as John Paul Lederach (2010: 34) argues, ‘we all exist in a web of relationships, even with our enemies’, and so, in each victory that ‘we’ engineer over ‘them’ haunts John Donne’s foreboding reminder that the bells are tolling for ‘us’. As Rabindranath asserts, the ‘self is māyā where it is merely individual and finite, […] it is satyam where it recognizes the essence in the universal and infinite’ (Tagore 2008: 313).
            This presentation proceeds in two parts (i) to show, by drawing on Anthony P. Cohen’s (1985) notion of ‘the symbolic construction of community’, that it is often impossible to comprehend that ‘we all exist in a web of relationships, even with our enemies’ because arborescent nationalist identities built on the analogy of trees, branches and roots, weave ‘[t]he invisible screen of the commonplace’ in our daily life; and (ii) to argue, informed by Derridean ‘face-to-face’ encounter and Levinasian ‘relationship in which the other is a neighbor’, that the pain produced by nationalist strife can best be healed by the Lederach-inspired ethical imagination (2010) translated into performance. The presentation ends by inviting the audience to think beyond arborescent nationalist rhetoric to imagine an ‘opposite dream’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1986: 27) of post-national identities.
The Political Community of Nation and Its Arborescent Identity
Taking issue with the notion of ‘community’ perceived in terms of institutions and its components, Anthony P. Cohen (1985: 12) argues that it is ‘a relational idea’ that ‘seems to imply simultaneously both similarity and difference.’ Culture, as the experience of a community by its members, ‘does not consist in the social structure or “the doing” of social behavior. It inheres, rather, in “the thinking” about it’ (98). It is in this sense that a community may be understood as ‘a symbolic rather than a structural construct’ (98). When he further observes that a community ‘exists in the minds of its members’, he does not contest geographic or sociographic factuality; rather, the point he emphasizes is that ‘the distinctiveness of communities and, thus, the reality of their boundaries [..] lies in the mind, the meanings which people attach to them, not in their structural forms’ (98). The distinction embodied by the boundary that ‘marks the beginning and end of a community’ (12) is necessary, Cohen insists, because ‘the boundary encapsulates the identity of a community and, like the identity of an individual, is called into being by the exigencies of social interaction’ (12). Some boundaries, such as those of nations, may be statutory, physical (i.e., a mountain range or a sea), racial, linguistic or religious. Nevertheless, ‘not all the components of any boundary are so objectively apparent’, for they exist ‘in the mind of the beholders. This being so, the boundary may be perceived in rather different terms, not only by the people on opposite sides of it, but also by the people on the same side’ (12). Identifying this as ‘the symbolic aspect of community boundary’ (12), Cohen further argues that the boundary has a public face, which may be thought of as a ‘mask presented by the community to the outside world’, or as the typical ‘perception by the people on the other side’; but the boundary also has a private face, which is the sense of the community to its members ‘as refracted through all the complexities of their lives and experience’, where ‘differentiation, variety and complexity proliferate’ (74). It is because the boundary of a community is perceived in different terms, both by the people on opposite sides of it as well as the people on the same side, and because the proliferation of differentiation, variety and complexity in the private face usually remains unacknowledged, that the boundary appears as ‘[t]he invisible screen of the commonplace’.
Cohen’s observation that a community ‘exists in the minds of its members’ is particularly pertinent when the community in question is a ‘nation’, for it brings home an awareness that, despite the certainty with which academics as well as the leaders of political parties speak of the ‘origins’, ‘the cultural temporality of the nation inscribes a much more transitional social reality’ (Bhabha 1990: 1). In the ‘imagined political community’ of the nation, as Anderson (1983: 7) famously pointed out, Rabindranath’s invisible screen erases the factuality that ‘cultural differences like language, religion, and even skin colour, are not primary and definitional characteristics but social identifiers which are the result, the product, of struggles’ on both sides of the boundary (McCrone 1998: 28). Consequently, one often forgets that ‘as an ideology and discourse, nationalism became prevalent in North America and Western Europe in the latter half of the eighteenth century’ (Hutchinson and Smith 1994: 5),[i] and only in the first half of the nineteenth century, in South Asia (Smith 1986: 146).[ii]
Behind the ‘[i]nvisible screen of the commonplace’, the nation is written, as Bhabha (1994: 147) suggests, by ‘the tension signifying the people as an a priori historical presence, a pedagogical object; and the people constructed in the performance of narrative, its enunciatory “present” marked in the repetition and pulsation of the national sign.’ Consequently, the writing of the nation needs to be qualified on two grounds. Firstly, the cultural shreds and patches used by nationalism are often arbitrary historical invention. Any old shred serves the purpose. But in no way does it follow that the principle of nationalism […] is itself in the least contingent and accidental (Gellner 1983: 56). Secondly, the writing is an on-going process and hence ‘nationalism’ is a fluid construction – always in flux, un-finished, reforming and re-formulating. Hence, ‘the nation is most apparent and most invented [in] the space of the boundary: the origin and the end, both entry and terminus, of narration and nation –’ (Baucom 1992: 152).
Because nations are imagined communities, and because the reality of the nation’s boundary lies in the meaning which people attach to the boundary, it is necessary to nurture and make tangible as a ‘lived’ idea the imagined bond that holds the nation inside the boundary, by an ongoing articulation process of the past and the present. Here lies one of the most crucial functions of the arts and artistic performances. The articulation of the past – re-presenting the past or making-present of the past by artistic means – generates a belief in the community members in ‘the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories’ (Renan 1990: 19), because memory is ‘the most essential element in any kind of human identity’ (Smith 1999: 208). At the same time, ‘[b]eing obliged to forget becomes the basis for remembering the nation, peopling it anew, imagining the possibility of other contending and liberating forms of cultural identification’ (Bhabha 1994: 161). On the other hand, the articulation of the present – re-presenting the present or making the present ‘alive’ and tangible as a ‘lived’ idea by artistic means – generates ‘present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form’ (Renan 1990: 19).
In the ongoing articulation process of the past and the present for the nation, when majoritarian axiomatics manage to embed themselves in the culture of a people by means of nationalist politics of identity, and consequently, when the process of assigning meaning on its experience of life is ordered according to a singular identity of sameness, the community in question is inevitably trapped in defending a constant principle or an abstract standard or a categorical schema that acts as a norm and a basis of judgement. Thus, trapped in majoritarian axiomatics, the all-embracing rule of the majority fore-grounded as the normative, generates the inflexibility and hierarchy of an arborescent systemwith centers of significance and subjectification, central automata like organized memories’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 16). The system seeks to categorize the perception of the entire nation into a well-ordered and singular meaning by the analogy of roots, trunks, and branches.
In Bangladesh today, the majoritarian schema articulates the Bengali-speaking community as the trunk, and the ethnic communities, defined by tiny numeral-minority status, as the branches. In terms of the vision of the intolerant Islamists in Bangladesh, as well as the state of Pakistan, the trunk is articulated as the Muslims, and the Hindus, the Christians, and the Buddhists as shrubs and bushes. In Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese Buddhists are increasingly asserting themselves as the trunk of the Sri Lankan nation, marginalizing the claims of the Tamils, the Muslims, and the Christians.[iii] In Bhutan, thousands of people showing signs of Nepalese identity were expelled in the early 1990s (UNHCR 2008), when the state claimed that they were illegal residents. However, the underlying reason was maintaining Bhutan’s majoritarian agenda of ‘one nation, one people’, articulated by Vajrayana Buddhist culture and identity. Nepal relinquished its majoritarian claim as the sole Hindu kingdom of the world in 2006, but is today is beginning to forget its ethnic diversity in search of a majoritarian national identity. India appears to be the only state that has managed to hang on to its Nehruvian principle of ‘a cultural unity amidst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads’ (Nehru 1989: 562), but the Sangh Parivar chanting the menacing clout of Hindutva is only waiting in the wings to reformulate the national identity of India with Hinduism as the trunk.
This is not to imply that the nation-states of South Asia are the sole perpetrators that attempt to manage the numerical minorities into an abstract standard to be compatible with and amenable to the controlling interests. Each and every nation-state in this world is already-always implicated in the act if only because the state has to mobilize nationalism (or patriotism as it is known in the US) as a hegemonic tool and ideological glue to bind the nation. But a hundred years ago, Rabindranath rejected the notion of the political community of the nation as a ‘Western’ construct that is founded on ‘the spirit of conflict and conquest’, and on the absence of social co-operation (Tagore 1918: 21). He urged his readers ‘never to follow the West in its acceptance of the organized selfishness of Nationalism as its religion’ (39), for, he asserted, ‘the Nation is the greatest evil for the Nation’ (29). As he argued further, the Nation is an aspect ‘of a whole people as an organized power’, which ‘keeps up the insistence of the population on becoming strong and efficient’ but, at the same time, diverts its attention from its higher nature of self-sacrifice and creativity, and its ‘ultimate object, which is moral, to the maintenance of this organization, which is mechanical’ (110).
As an alternate to the political community of the nation, Rabindranath turned his attention to Bharatavarsha, a geographical receptacle of diverse races and many countries (Tagore 1918: 114), and explicated how the ‘spirit of toleration has acted all through her history’ (115). As he observed, ‘a single objective [which] has always been motivating Bharatavarsha’ has been ‘to establish unity among diversity, to make various paths move towards one goal, to experience the One-in-many as the innermost reality, to pursue with total certitude that supreme principle of inner unity which runs through the differences’ (Tagore 2013). He further observed that ‘Bharatavarsha does not recognize difference as antagonism; she does not imagine the other as the enemy. This is why, instead of abandoning, instead of destroying, she wishes to accommodate all in a capacious system’ (Tagore 1347: 550, author’s translation). Indeed, the arborescent articulation of nationalism weaves the invisible screen of the commonplace and masks the fact that, as Rabindranath asserts, ‘differences can never be wiped away’, for, ‘life would be so much poorer without them’ (Tagore 1924: 25).
Ethical Imagination
When the articulation of the present as a lived consent fails and intolerance to difference rises to the extent that the web of relationship identifies a part of itself as enemies, or, going back to Cohen, when differentiation, variety and complexity proliferate in the private face of the boundary to generate a schism, then civil wars, such as those in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, erupt ominously. And after the war is over, leaving behind a barren landscape of mutilated bodies and mangled memories, it is pointless to ask who has won. What is necessary and humane is to ask, how do we heal the pain, recover from bereavement and rise from the ashes of loss to perceive that the bells are tolling for ‘us’? As Lederach (2010: 5) suggests, ‘by the capacity to generate, mobilize, and build the moral imagination’, which I would re-name as ‘ethical imagination’ to acknowledge the pre-eminence of ethics as values that allow competing conceptions instead of imposing a strict proceduralism.[iv]
Inspired by Lederach (2010: 182), it is possible to explain ethical imagination as the capacity ‘[t]o imagine responses and initiatives that, while rooted to the challenges of the real world, are by their nature capable of rising above destructive patterns and giving birth to that which does not yet exist.’ If such responses and initiatives are to arise, as Lederach argues, four disciplines are necessary: (i) ‘the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies;’ (ii) ‘the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity without reliance on dualistic polarity;’ (iii) ‘the fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act;’ and (iv) ‘the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the far too familiar landscape of violence’ (4).
Bringing in a breath of fresh air in the all too technical, skill-based, and process-oriented models of peace-building, Lederach (2010: 35) argues that for violence as an endless chain to cease to be operative, people have to ‘embrace a [..] fundamental truth: Who we have been, are, and will be emerges and shapes itself in a context of relational interdependency.’ As the proponents of the Buddhist principle of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) would posit, ‘contrary to our untutored beliefs, the ultimate nature of phenomena is its dependency and relatedness, not isolated existence and independence’ (Mansfield 1998). Samyutta Nikāya (12.61) explains the issue thus: 'When this is, that is./ From the arising of this comes the arising of that./ When this isn't, that isn't./ From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that’ (Thanissaro Bhikkhu 2013). Similar to the illumination that followed the Buddha’s address to the monks at Anathapindika's monastery near Sravasti, after he delivered the part of the sutta cited above, peacebuilding too must begin with an awareness of the ‘real’ that generates a sudden dilation of consciousness, a leap that leads those embroiled in violence to perceive Levinas’ (1978: 59) ‘relationship in which the other is a neighbor’. For the first step to peacebuilding to actuate, an awe-struck realization must be generated that ‘before being an individuation of the genus man, a rational animal, a free will, or any essence whatever, [the other] is the persecuted one for whom I am responsible to the point of being a hostage for him’(59). For, as Levinas asks, ‘[i]s there [..] anything less unjustified than the contestation of the human condition?’ (59)
            The second and the fourth disciplines that Lederach has outlined, i.e., ‘the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity’ and ‘the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown’, are self-explanatory, in that, embracing the paradox implies acknowledging ‘seemingly contradictory truths in order to locate greater truth’, and activation of curiosity is an excitement for ‘those things that are not immediately understood’ (Lederach 2010: 36); these in turn invite – more accurately, compel – a defiance of the normative and the prescribed, and a willingness to risk into ‘the unknown without any guarantee of success or even safety’ (39). Perhaps, such conditions can appear only in a Derridean face-to-face encounter that ‘eludes every category’, when ‘within it the face is given simultaneously as expression and as speech, […] as the original unity of glance and speech, eyes and mouth’ (Derrida 1978: 100). As Derrida explains further, in a face-to-face encounter, the face itself speaks, and ‘also pronounces its hunger’, and at the same time, ‘it is also that which hears the invisible, for "thought is language"’ (100). In such instances, the signification of the face is irreducible as ‘the face does not signify, [..] does not incarnate, envelop, or signal anything other than self, soul, subjectivity, etc.’ (100). Consequently, a face-to-face encounter is such that ‘[t]hought is speech’, and ‘[t]he other is not signaled by his [sic.] face, he [sic.] is this face’ (100). It is here, in this border-less space of null-identity, that each ‘I’ can engage profoundly with each ‘other’ in a manner that responses flow from both sides. It is here that one may concur with Spivak (1996: 270) to exclaim, ‘there is no victory, but only victories that are also warnings.’
            Derridean face-to-face encounter can of course take place serendipitously in everyday life, and as in the case of the feuding houses of Capulet and Montague in Renaissance Verona, Romeo can fall head over heels for Juliet in the fabled domain of love. But for ‘face-to-face encounters to transpire by design and not accident, it is necessary to mobilize Lederach’s third discipline, i.e., providing a space for the creative act. Because ‘[c]reative spaces are those in which people feel safe enough to take risks and to allow themselves and others to experience vulnerability’ (Nicholson 2005: 129), creativity can move ‘beyond what exists toward something new and unexpected while rising from and speaking to the everyday’, and thus a creative act can be transcribed simultaneously with ‘the transcendent and the mundane’ (Lederach 2010: 38). Arguing against sole application of the processes of cognitive analysis in the field of peacebuilding, I would assert that knowledge, understanding, and deep insight ‘are achieved through aesthetics’ and the capacity that relies ‘on intuition more than cognition’ (69). Therefore, I suggest that the Lederach-inspired ethical imagination can be best generated by means of artistic performance.
By artistic performance, I do not imply any performance, but a ‘total act’ envisioned by Grotowski as ‘a dialogical encounter with the spectator in metaphysical terms’ (Lavy 2005: 180), which can take place in any actual (and not virtual) creative space. In such a performance, ‘face-to-face’ or dialogical encounter can produce ‘the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity’ and ‘the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown’. Going back to Cohen (1985: 18), it is also necessary to perceive that artistic performances necessarily employ symbols, and symbols not only ‘stand for’ other things, but also represent the ‘other things’ ambiguously, ‘in ways which allow their common form to be retained and shared among the members of a group, whilst not imposing upon these people the constraints of uniform meaning’. Hence an artistic performance can be malleable and imprecise, and the trickster-like potential of the symbols can accommodate individual circumstances and at the same time circumvent any attempt to subject their meaning under rigorous scrutiny. Slipping away from a ‘tyranny of orthodoxy’ (21), such a performance can negotiate the boundary that ‘marks the beginning and end of the community’, and re-write symbolically and adeptly the notion of ‘community’ that exists in the minds of its constituent members as a mental construct, in a manner that the members’ social theories of similarities and difference accommodate plurality and multi-vocality. It can work by continuously reconstructing the ‘norm’ and ‘the cultural boundary through the use of symbolic devices’ – specifically by re-rendering forms of behaviour of the other which are perceived as threatening in a way that they are made congruent with the proclivities of a community’s cognition of the self (86). It can articulate a ‘commonality’ of community that does not homogenize in a monolithic uniformity, because the commonality can capture the ‘forms (ways of behaving) whose content (meaning) may vary considerably among the members’ (20). It is thus that an artistic performance can lead the spectators to generate ‘the capacity to imagine [them]selves in a web of relationships that includes [their] enemies’.
            Sociologists and development workers often ask, how is it possible to measure, and therefore be sure that change has indeed taken place by means of performance. In unison with Lederach (2010: 153), I can only say that ‘I am not sure I can answer that question.’ But with him, again, I can ask back, ‘[h]ow, when and why did politics and developing responses to needed social change come to be seen as something separate from the whole of human experience?’ (153)

Envisioning a Post-national ‘Opposite Dream’
If we acknowledge that the rhetoric of globalization ‘is most often underwritten in that grim prose of power that each nation can wield within its own sphere of influence’ (Bhabha 1990: 1), and that the neo-liberal free market doctrine is predicated on the principle that trade barriers must remain ‘[f]or thee, but not for me, except for temporary advantage’ (Chomsky 1998: 361), then it is not too difficult to understand that the ‘nation’ has not become redundant in this globalizing world today. Indeed, it remains a site of fervent passion as in Tibet, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Chechnya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, to name a few. In such a world, if peacebuilding is to have even a chance to succeed among the political communities of nations marked by inflexible boundaries and stubborn hostilities, it would be worth remembering that ‘the boundary of a community is perceived in different terms, both by the people on opposite sides of it as well as the people on the same side.’ It is also necessary to remove ‘the invisible screen of the commonplace’, and, as Heidegger (2001: 152) urges us to see, that ‘[a] boundary is not that at which something stops but, […] the boundary is that from which something begins its presenting.’
            Admittedly, we ordinary mortals are not quite as gifted or fortunate as Rabindranath to land into a serendipitous experience of a vision. Like gods and fairies, the visions are getting increasingly hard to come by, when the dominant economic order in the world today is neo-liberalism. Not waiting for such chance-accidents to occur, I suggest that we spend our time in devising artistic performances for peacebuilding, underpinned by Derridean ‘face-to-face’ encounter and Levinasian ‘relationship in which the other is a neighbor’. It is a risky proposition with no warranty, I assure you. But then, why not reach for the sky to erase the pain produced by nationalist strife on the wings of the Lederach-inspired ethical imagination? Why not dream of building a bridge that, borrowing from Heidegger (2001: 150), will ‘bring[..] stream, and bank and land into each other’s neighborhood [and], gather[..] the earth as landscape around the stream’?
If the going gets tough, if we are beset with doubts, it may be worth reminding ourselves that ‘we are always both more and less than the categories which name and divide us’ (Finn 1992: 113). We are always more and less than a woman, a man, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Bangladeshi, a Sri Lankan, an Indian, a Taliban, a Tamil, a Bengali, a Sinhalese, ……. more or less than ‘anything that can be said about us’ (112). We are always more or less because we inhabit ‘the space between experience and expression’ (112), always submerged in a process of becoming, always on a line of fluctuation, always separated by a gap from this or that axiom constituting the category of a nation. ‘Our lives leave remainders (they say more than they mean) just as our categories leave residues (they mean more than they say)’ (114). Hence we are forever too late or too early in arriving at the normative identity of the nation, always seeking but failing to be because the ideal, the principle or the schema is never actuated, although the controlling interest of prevailing political power attempts forever to manage us, contain us with it, and ‘organizes and obscures; organizes to obscure’ that we are inevitably ‘fated’ to fail in actuating the normative identity (115). After all, any identity is more of a ‘process of becoming rather than being’ (Hall 1996: 4), more of ‘a concern with “routes” rather than “roots”’ (McCrone 1998: 34).
            In this new reality of a globalizing-totalizing world underwritten by divisionist discourse of nationalism, if we have to forget asking ‘for whom the bell tolls’, then perhaps it is necessary, as Deleuze and Guattari (1986: 27) would say, to ‘[c]reate the opposite dream’ of a post-national global community articulated by a rhizomic network of a thousand plateaus that celebrates multiplicity and heterogeneity. Let us say farewell to national identities. They have made us suffer too much by their fictive passions.

[i] The signposts that are often singled out as indicating the advent of nationalism include 1775 (the First Partition of Poland), 1776 (the American Declaration of Independence), 1789 (the French Revolution) (Hutchinson and Smith 1994: 5).
[ii] As Anthony D. Smith (1986) shows, the ‘Western’ concepts and civic models failed in nation-formation when they were applied in the first half of the 19th century South Asia, except for inciting a narrow circle of elites comprised of the upper-middle class Brahmins, petty officials, lawyers, some Kshatriya landowners and Vaishya merchants. Consequently, Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920) and Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) ‘had to appeal to a Hindu India, with its Sanskrit, Vedic and Aryan culture, which invariably excluded Muslims and Sikhs from the new genealogical-cum-religious nation’ (Smith 1986: 146).
[iii] This is evident in the observation made by the UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay at the end of a fact-finding mission in Sri Lanka in the last week of August 2013. ‘Ms Pillay said she feared the country was becoming increasingly authoritarian. […] Sri Lankans who came to meet her were harassed and intimidated by security forces. […] In addition, she said she was concerned at recent attacks on religious minorities and at what she felt were government attempts to downplay them (BBC 2013).
[iv] As Chantal Mouffe (2000: 92) argues referring to Habermas, ethics is ‘a domain which allows for competing conceptions of the good life’ and morality, ‘a domain where a strict proceduralism can be implemented and impartiality reached leading to the formulation of universal principles.’ Spivak (1996: 270) sums it up succinctly by asserting that ‘ethics is the experience of the impossible.’

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