Hindering the emergence of alternative explanations: Colonialism

1. Earlier, I suggested that the psychoanalytical explanations (like the transformation of Linga into a penis as a fertility symbol etc.) not only trivialize and distort but also deny access to our own experience. In this post, I want to highlight one of the consequences of transforming our experiences in this fashion. In at least two different ways, these explanations hinder the emergence of alternative or different explanations of our experiences. This is relevant to both of us. That is why, when confronted with such explanations, we do not know what to say. These explanations rob us not only of our experience; while doing so, they shut us up as well. As far as you are concerned, while rendering you deaf to the silence from our end, it further blinds you. If this is the case, one might as well ask oneself what you describe. Are you describing what you ‘see’ in the mystical Ramakrishna? You could not: after all, what can you see, when you are blind? Nor it could be that you describe what you hear: you have become deaf to us. What, then, are you describing when you describe your experience? This issue is what this post will be about.

2. One of the most valuable and important facts about the growth of scientific theories (in the natural sciences) is the emergence of new problems even as some old ones are solved. The possibility that new problems come into existence because of a new solution to a current problem keeps the sciences growing. For example, when one ‘determined’ the boiling point of water, questions came up about its variations at different heights from the sea level. When the relation between pressure and volume was formulated as a physical law, issues emerged which led one to talk about ‘inter-molecular forces’ and so on. When the legs of the dead frog were observed to twitch when electricity passed through them, it raised many new problems even though it was not clear who should answer them: did the problems belong to the domain of physiology or to the domain of Electricity and Magnetism? And so on. In other words, a particular solution to some or another problem (in so far as the history of our sciences is concerned) has not failed to lay a foundation for the emergence of a newer and ‘relatively better’ solutions. As a rule of thumb, one might say that while evaluating the acceptability of a proposed solution to a problem, one takes into account the ‘vulnerability’ of such a theory. That is, does the theory hint in the direction of problems it cannot solve, or does it at least generate new problems? Science, one might as well say, is not only a problem solving activity but also a problem generating one. It creates new problems. Even if one does not accept the brief adumbration given above, it appears to me that at least the following (negative) requirement is acceptable: no explanation should ‘forbid’ the emergence of alternative explanations. Even Christian theology, with its ultimate answer ‘it is the Will of God that such and such is the case’, does not shut out further enquiries because it speaks of the revelations of such a Will. Even if we cannot know what God’s Will is, we can study the revelations of such a Will and try to figure out what God intends. In short, where possible, we should avoid explanations that render us incapable of seeking another. In fact, some philosophers of science make this into a condition of theory choice itself. They argue that choosing a scientific theory presupposes the presence of alternative, competing or rival theories. Only under these conditions, they think, is progress in science possible. Whatever your views on the matter of scientific progress and scientific growth, I am sure we can both accept the minimal proposal I make: it is rational to choose an explanation that does not ‘forbid’ the emergence of an alternative explanation. We should prefer these kinds of explanations to those that forbid a cognitive alternative. If you are with me so far, I can now formulate (more sharply) what I suggested in the first paragraph. Your endorsement of the Freudian explanation to account for some aspects of the Indian traditions makes the emergence of an alternative explanation impossible, both for you and for us.

3. Let me begin with the Indians. I suppose that you have no problem in accepting the suggestion that theories about cultural worlds have their roots in the experiences of such worlds. These theories describe experiences; they reflect on experiences; they problematize such experiences and think through them. In other words, if I want to theorize about the Indian culture, I need to have access to an experience of the Indian culture (whether directly or indirectly). As I said in my previous post, the explanation that Linga is a male fertility symbol (i.e. a penis) denied any further access to my own experience. The holding of hands between friends was transformed into a sign of homosexual affection, because of which I could neither continue the action nor remember the way I experienced it before. In other words, such explanations not only deny our experiences to us because of which we cannot theorize or describe them anymore, but also do so actively. These explanations act as a filter between our own experiences and us. In one sense, all theories act as some kind of a filter: they select some salient aspect of the experience and focus upon it. In the case we are talking about, the situation is not the same. These purported explanations act as a distorting glass. I knew I had such experiences; I saw that others apparently continued to have the experiences I had before (I still see adult male friends holding hands, I still see people going to do puja to the Shiva Linga, etc); I know too that I have had these but I cannot access them anymore because of these explanations. That is, these explanations come actively between my own experiences and me, and actively prevent me from describing or reflecting on my own experiences. Therefore, in so far as one continues to use these explanations to describe what people do in Shiva’s temple, what we say is not what we see. Because these explanations are theorizations of someone else’s experiences, we cannot see what we say either. Do I really ‘see’ the homosexuality of my friend when he holds my hands? Do I really ‘see’ the penis when I look at the Lingam? No, I do not.

Hence the feeling of ‘wrongness’ with respect to these explanations. Our experiences of the world and the explanations we use are at loggerheads with each other: without speaking about experience, one cannot say what the ‘Indian experience’ consists of; the stories we reproduce tell us that there is no ‘Indian experience’ to talk about. The result? One merely falls silent, our mouths stitched tight together, as dumb as human beings can get. This is no tearjerker but the lot and daily life of cultures and peoples colonized by the western culture. The colonization, as many have pointed out, was not merely a process of occupying lands and extracting revenues. It goes deeper. It is not a question of aping the western countries and trying to be like them. It is not even colonizing the imaginations of a people by making them ‘dream’ that they should become ‘modern’, developed and sophisticated. It is deeper than this too. It is one of denying the peoples and cultures their own experiences; of rendering them aliens to themselves; of actively preventing any description of their own experiences except in terms defined by the colonizers. The terms of these descriptions, as said already, prevent the ‘native’ from discovering himself. Of course, there is a very substantial issue here that I cannot address. Why do we, the Indians, continue to be colonized when the ‘real event’ ended more than fifty years ago? At the moment, I have only fragmentary answers that do not form a coherent pattern; none of the extant answers even remotely address the issue in either its depth or complexity. Consequently, I will merely register this state of affairs. Besides, it is not directly relevant to this post either.

4. This is why we become dumb, Jeffrey Kripal. But how did you become blind? This part is also interesting in its own right, irrespective whether you hear our silence or not. To appreciate it, let us take a step back from the psychoanalytical explanations and ask ourselves the following question: which problem was Freud trying to solve? There were, of course, many: he wanted to investigate into the nature of ‘hysteria’; he wanted to figure out the story behind incest fantasies; he wanted to understand the slips of the tongue, etc. I do not mean any of these. What is the problem behind these issues? Philosophers of science identify such problems as the ‘problem-situation’. What then was Freud’s problem-situation? Both the nature of the psychoanalytic practice and the structure (and content) of the psychoanalytical explanations give us ample clues in the direction of an answer. In its blandest form, it is this: “Is one’s experience in the world (especially about oneself and the others) veridical (i.e. true)?” If we keep in mind what I have said hitherto and what you implicitly assume, it can be put even more provocatively: Is the experience of an individual directly accessible to the individual whose experience it is?

5. Freud’s answer is known: no, he said, one can access one’s own experience only through the mediation of another, in casu, the psychoanalyst. This is not the only reason why Freud’s story appears unbelievable. There is something else of importance as well. I am sure you will admit that not only the notion of experience but also its existence is of crucial importance to us human beings. We think that experience is valuable important; it is both the source of and the precondition for most learning. Given its centrality to human existence, one would naturally expect the western tradition to be bothered about figuring out what this ‘experience’ is all about. Yet, amazingly enough as it turns out, such is not the case. Despite books and articles in many, many disciplines bearing the title, the nature of ‘experience’ is hardly studied. More often than not, it is reduced to thoughts, feelings, perception (or even sensation) and action. None of these, either severally or jointly exhausts experience because one could experience any or all of them as well. Thus, what is ‘experience’? An important question, but very ill understood. Such being the case, Freud’s observation and his sensing of the ‘problem-situation’ is very sensitive indeed. Of course, he hypothesized that the individual experience is not directly accessible to the said individual, and postulated many mechanisms to account for this non-accessibility. We need take no sides on the ‘validity’ or otherwise of his individual hypotheses in this post even though I will return to this issue in another way at the end of this post.

6. There is, however, another culture in the world, which has made this ‘problem-situation’ an absolutely central focus of its enquiry. All the Indian traditions, without any major exception as far as I know, have made experience and its interrogation central to their enquiry. Naturally, they too discovered that experience is not ‘veridical’; there are ‘things’ that prevent us from accessing these experiences. Different traditions called it different things: Maaya, Avidya and Agyana, are the best-known categories in this context. They called it a ‘paapa’ and, in fact, removing this has been their central goal: Gyaanoodaya or the ‘arising of knowledge’ (again, it is called differently by different traditions). The hindrances to knowledge were either ‘illusions’ (of sorts) or ignorance (of sorts). One could remove them, they said, and developed any number of practical ways of doing so. (The plurality of the Indian traditions is partly a plurality of the ways of removing the veil of ignorance.) Though ill understood among most Indologists and philosophers, these notions are crucial. ‘Ignorance’ is not mere ‘absence of information’; it is accorded a positive role, and seen as a positive force that actively hinders the emergence of knowledge. Maya is not mere illusion; the world exists and impinges upon us too much to make the facile claim of the sort that Patrick Hogan talks about in his article on Sulekha. In any case, these traditions believed too that some kind of ‘mediation’ would be helpful in accessing one’s own experience. They called such a mediator ‘Guru’ and suggested that, in most cases, one needed a Guru to achieve ‘enlightenment’.

7. In other words, Jeffrey Kripal, there exist two rival or competing practical traditions that address themselves to the same (or very, very similar) problem-situation. By virtue of this, they become rival or competing research traditions that provide different answers. Why did you not look at these Indian traditions in this way to understand Kali’s Child? [Why do you speak as though the tantric ’emphasis on sex’ antedates Freud’s claims? You say that Tantrism spoke about ‘sex’ even before Freud, as though you want to compliment the Indian culture for its acuity. Actually, it does not sound complimentary but patronizing.] The Indian traditions challenge Freud’s theories. Why did you not look at the issue in this manner? It is not as though you are ignorant of the Indian traditions. Even if you are, your mentor Wendy Doniger is supposed to be the expert on ‘Hinduism’. Why did it not occur either to her or to you that the theories you used were already facing challenges from within the Indian traditions? Here is my simple answer: your explanations have blinded you to the existence of Indian traditions as alternatives to Freud.

8. It is in this sense that these explanations blind you. You already know how they make us dumb. Since you have used Freud to ‘explain’ its rival traditions, allow me the simple courtesy of returning the favor. How does Freud appear to those who are within the Indian traditions? If you put this mail alongside my previous one, the answer must be obvious. Freud’s story is Maaya, avidya, agyaana: by actively preventing the arising of knowledge, it is indeed avidya. My brother and apparently many others like him on Sulekha board, hit the nail right on the head when they look at descriptions provided by you, Wendy and the rest of her children and say: it is a paapa to do so. They are neither naïve nor stupid when they say this; instead, they are perfectly rational and perfectly right.

9. You say, as though rediscovering the wheel, “it is sex. It is always sex.” I was intrigued by the possibility whether you knew what you were talking about. Did you mean ‘sex’ or did you mean ‘sexuality’? Have you thought much about the growth of ‘sexuality’ in the western culture and its obsession with the same? Foucault, for instance, understood neither. That is why he wrote his multi-volume work on the history of sexuality in the western culture. Whether one agrees with him or not, he at least thought that there was another culture that did not think that “it is sex, it is always sex.” May be, another peek at these books might be of some help.

10. Be it as that may, I have written at least a part of what I want to. Should you want a ‘dialogue’, you might think of taking up the some of the questions people have raised. Alternately, you could also keep quiet. Silence does talk, even if it does not always say what one would like to hear. In this case, I suspect you would not want to know what silence is going to say about you.

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  1. Pingback: On Colonial Experience and the Indian Renaissance: A prolegomenon to a Project—S.N. Balagangadhara | All Roads Lead to Jerusalem!

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