Kids Corner


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

Q & A with Author by SIKHCHIC.COM




Continued from last week …


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

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

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

For many people ‘reform’ simply equates with the retrieval of a purely ‘religious’ identity, without realizing that this equation between ‘reform’ and ‘religion’ is actually a translation of sorts. But it’s a translation in which the negative work of the dialectic remains invisible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hence the agency of the native elites (e.g., the Singh Sabha), based on dialectical movement, continues to be shaped by an imperial or possessive inclination of self to other. Shaped by a form of difference grounded in causal negativity, the reform movements were driven by a politics of negation (I am Sikh because I am not so and so …, etc) which consistently positioned bearers of difference (Sikh, Hindu, Muslim) as active agents of change, but simultaneously as bearers of the problematic negativity that desire seeks to eliminate or transform.

Now, when the responsibility for transformative action (reforming agency) rests with the negating class (Sikhs/Hindu reformists, etc), the active critical potential and accountability of the dominant class is elided, with the result that the apathy of the privileged (British/European) is excused. There is therefore little or no motivation for the colonizing class to engage in any postcolonial transformation “when this is not presented as a common task responsibly shared by all within the postcolony”.

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

This in turn generates social forms (Singh Sabha, Arya Samaj, etc) that reproduce relations of power structured by the impulse of self-mastery and self-possession, and by relations of desire aimed at appropriating the lacking object (the Tat Khalsa, the Arya, etc). Any break with this neo-colonial sociability requires us to introduce a genuine historical (and therefore dialectical) discontinuity rather than continue with the progressive process of continuous reconciliation (Singh Sabha history, theology, etc. as reconciled with the master narratives and codes of imperial discourse).

Only such a discontinuity can inaugurate new kinds of difference and a qualitative change in the kind of sociability that is practiced.

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

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

The continuity consists in the perpetuation of the religion-secular binary and the perpetuation of an opposition between:

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

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

To bring this continuity into sharper focus was the purpose of the first part of the book.

It was designed to show that the dominant symbolic order of the colonial period is not qualitatively different from the dominant symbolic order that is operative today - what Charles Taylor calls the modern social imaginary.

Only its form has changed.

Non-Western discourses are still faced with the burden of translating into a dominant Western conceptuality. And from this bind stem the basic problems that the book tries to address.

Q   So if the dialectic introduces negativity into cultural projects, how can it be stopped? How does one go about breaking the cycles of repetition driven by the causal negativity of the dialectic? How to effect an alternative kinds of repetition, one that does not reproduce the vicious cycles of identity politics?

  My solution to the problem of the dialectic’s causal ontological negativity and the process of repetition and history that it drives was to turn, not to Western theoretical sources (which I have explored mainly for the purpose of diagnosing the problem), but to the writings of Guru Nanak.

Of course, the Singh Sabha scholars of the colonial period also based their exegetical reformulations on the teachings of the Sikh Gurus. But as I have argued at length in the book, their interpretations were caught within a field of translation governed by Western metaphysics – specifically, a comparative conceptual framework which was central to the colonial symbolic order.

Once they began to enunciate within this framework, and therefore by the rules of the dominant symbolic order, they could not avoid reproducing the dialectic.

And this is best illustrated in their collective conceptualizations of the figure One or Oneness, which acquired ontological lack in the very moment that these were produced philosophically, theologically and politically in relation to the comparative frame of world religions.

For reformist elites in the late nineteenth century, this perceived lack in the Sikh Gurus’ conception of Oneness then became the force that drove their desire to prove the existence of God in order to establish a conception of the One that had ontological fullness.

By contrast, Guru Nanak’s experience of Oneness, which he translates into language through the enigmatic phrase “Ik Oankar“, articulates a positive conceptualization of causal difference and creative desire that “offers an alternative view of ontological process as actualization (sargun) driven by an immanent virtual positivity (nirgun)”.

This ontology helps to actualize a theory and practice of complex relational embodiment enabling multifaceted, heterogeneous and affective forms of subjectivity. By drawing on this alternative ontology it is possible to theorize postcolonial agency and transformative action through a non-dialectical method, that is to say, one that does not accrue lack from the outset. Guru Nanak’s ontology of virtual creativity (nirgun = hidden / non-present = reality here and now) can only make sense as a materially engaged employed in the here and now of this world. In doing so his ontology inverts the Real / Virtual binary upon which depends modernity’s central claim, by allowing what is virtual (hidden / immanent) to be seen as Real in the actual.

To Be Continued Next Week …

February 24, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: Harmeet Singh (USA), February 25, 2014, 8:45 AM.

Appears like the author subscribes to a deterministic ontology of history and dialectic in general. A Hegelian viewpoint of history appears to be one of the most deterministic dialectic of history. I think the author is over-simplifying history and ends up misappropriating Singh Sabha as a result of "reform" consciousness as a result of Hegelian dialectic, when it was at its very heart, a movement of enlightenment, upliftment and equality, unless of course equality is something that the author suggests is too western to be applied by Sikhs.

2: Simran Kaur (Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada), February 25, 2014, 12:49 PM.

I have tried to understand Prof Arvind Pal Singh's language but it is completely inaccessible. I'm a post-graduate and I still cannot for the life of me figure out what he means when he says "Related to the ontological negativity of the dialectical process is another process that informs the dominant Western view of progressive history-making and is in turn absorbed by the reformist scholars in their various constructions of national histories."

3: Sarabjit Singh (Michigan, USA), February 25, 2014, 3:01 PM.

We have been blessed in Michigan to have adult Grmat classes in various gurdwaras and community outreach lectures with Professor Arvind Pal Singh ji from the University of Michigan. All this has helped us in our personal journey and has made us think outside of the box, especially about how Sikhi is being defined by others for us. It is opening our eyes as Sikhi is a lot deeper, universal and cannot be put into a compartment. Recently, a Sikh gentleman visiting from India attended a Gurbani Vichaar and remarked that it is the Sikhs outside of India who are going to carry the Sikhi torch. He remarked they can't even have open discussions on many issues, e.g., on 1984, with friends even in their own homes! How sad to hear this. Where are our Sikh intellectuals in India? Thank you, Prof Sahib, for your efforts to not let others define who we are.

4: Sarina Kaur (Kingston, Jamaica), February 25, 2014, 6:06 PM.

Simran, I'm happy to help you understand. It's quite simple actually. The modern age assumes that time is progressive as if there are 'backwards' people/cultures and that there are 'advanced' people/cultures. But this is built on racist and supremacist assumptions that some people/cultures simply don't deserve to exist in the world unless they 'reform' themselves. So, colonized people like Sikhs find themselves accused of being backwards, illogical, irrational, i.e., subject to 'lack'. That's what the negative dialectic is. The negative dialectic happens when one party is accused of being lacking, and this party subsequently responds by saying, "No, we're not!" The entire dialogue comes to be premised around the inferiority of the colonized. Much of Sikh activism and reform is still caught up in this negative dialectic. Prof Arvind Pal Singh Mandair is helping us see something so pervasive yet practically invisible to our very eyes.

5: Sarina Kaur (Kingston, Jamaica), February 25, 2014, 6:08 PM.

Harmeet, the author is actually undermining the Hegelian dialectic. That might clear up some of your confusion. He's suggesting that the dialectic subjugates Sikhs in India and the diaspora.

6: Sarbjeet Kaur (New York City, USA), February 26, 2014, 5:02 PM.

It is very clear from this portion of the interview that Prof Arvind Pal Singh is exposing and deconstructing the Hegelian dialectic, not subscribing to it. As for his remarks about the Singh Sabha, it is flagrantly obtuse to suggest that he is opposed to enlightenment, upliftment and equality. As he has repeatedly explained, the very language of reform itself, including terms such as enlightenment, upliftment and equality, retrieve and reproduce an imperial narrative. He suggests that the reform project is so insidious precisely because it masquerades as revival, as something positive and comforting and innervating. Perhaps it would be helpful to go back and read the previous entries in this interview series, to get the full context of everything Professor Mandair says here.

7: Makhan Singh (United Kingdom), March 11, 2014, 3:10 PM.

These insights are phenomenal. I am rather disappointed with the responses of Harmeet Singh and Simran Kaur, who have failed to engage with Prof Arvind Pal Singh's insights. If, as Harmeet Singh puts it, the Singh Sabha 'was at its very heart, a movement of enlightenment, upliftment and equality,' one cannot help asking from what state of existence (ontology) it moved away from or transcended in the first place? The statement suggests that something insufficient was in place. (Why else would it need 're-forming'?). The statement only reinforces the point made by Arvind that the Singh Sabha internalised the coloniser's view that Sikhism was not a religion as it lacked sufficient ontological proofs for God's existence or lacked a coherent concept of the Diety or a myriad other theological substances. Furthermore, the remarks show all too well how lack or 'causal ontological / dialectical negativity' (call it what you will), filters straight into a modern / post-modern psyche without question (i.e., the very fact that Sikhs today insist that the Singh Sabha was a reformation of something, which was clearly not sufficient in the first place). Hopefully, this post might help both Harmeet Singh and Simran Kaur appreciate the thought processes operating behind Sikhism today. I agree with Arvind that a discontinuity is needed to stifle the unconscious presupposition of lack which underwrites Sikh thought today. Interestingly, this means that Sikhs cannot afford to lapse into yet another 'search for origins' project which has mesmerized a number of Sikhs in the Diaspora, whereby authenticity is quite literally 'exhibited' in likeness to a pre-colonial culture, which allegedly produced the 'real Sikhs.'

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Arvind Pal Singh - "Religion & The Specter of The West"
Part VI"

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