[-empyre-] Ontology again

sdv at krokodile.co.uk sdv at krokodile.co.uk
Wed Oct 24 17:56:59 EST 2007


Thanks for the Chakrabarty text which I've not seen before. I have 
briefly read the text this morning, and will have to print it later to 
read it properly. Once I've done that I'll respond and ask why you think 
that this is important.

However a clarification on how you understand the text would be useful. 
As I'm unsure what the text is supposed to demonstrate for you, is it 
read as supporting the notion that either a) transcendentalism in the 
form of an existant God or religion is necessary or perhaps b) as an 
alternative to  the predominantly western metaphysics that have been 
used to discuss science and DNA or c) something else ?

Perhaps 'master utopian narratives' needs further discussion as well. 
Are you interrogating this through a co-option of Lyotards death of 
meta-narratives ? which logically should have included the religious 
meta-narratives though usually is restricted to the western narratives 
of human liberation, aka enlightenment, socialism and communism. It's 
clearer now that this postmodern position was wrong and that universals 
are required... but still the question is whether you are producing the 
concept in this light or something else entirely ?


>>Reggie Woolery wrote:
>>>Someone mentioned the invention of God earlier, as if He
> is not a "code", which like DNA in the West, is hugely
> productive for science, culture, art -- Watson knows this,
> as do academics, citizens, and businessmen. No
>>>conspiracy. It would be a shame to foreclose the
> productivity of God-ness because of ethical passions. Why
> and for whom do people desire to re-appropriate Master
> utopian narratives is more of my interest, and I think
> * * * 
> Dipesh Chakrabarty
> The Time of History and Times of Gods
> In truth, the historian can never get away from the question
> of time in history: time sticks to his thinking like soil to
> a gardener¹s spade. ­ Fernand Braudel, On History
> The vulgar representation of time as a precise and
> homogeneous continuum hasŠ diluted the Marxist concept of
> time of history. ­ Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History
>    At its core, this essay is about the problems a secular
> subject like history faces in handling imaginations in which
> gods, spirits, or the supernatural have agency in the world.
> My central examples concern the history of work in South
> Asia. Labor, the activity of producing, is seldom a
> completely secular activity in India. It often entails,
> through rituals big and small, the invocation of divine or
> super-human presence. Secular histories are produced usually
> by ignoring the signs of these presences. In effect, we have
> two systems of thought, one in which the world is
> ultimately, that is, in the final analysis, disenchanted,
> and the other in which the humans are not the only
> meaningful agents. For the purpose of writing history, the
> first system, the secular, translates the second into
> itself. It is the question of this translation ­ its methods
> and problems ­ that interests me here as part of a broader
> effort to situate the question of subaltern history within a
> postcolonial critique of modernity and of history itself.
>    This critique has to issue from within a dilemma that
> must mark a project such as subaltern studies. The dilemma
> is this: Writing subaltern history, documenting resistance
> to oppression and exploitation, must be part of a larger
> effort to make the world more socially just. To wrench
> subaltern studies away from the keen sense of social justice
> that gave rise to the project would be to violate the spirit
> that gives this project its sense of commitment and
> intellectual energy. Indeed, it may be said that it would be
> to violate the history of realist prose in India, for it may
> be legitimately argued that the administration of justice by
> modern institutions requires us to imagine the world through
> the languages of the social sciences, that is, as
> disenchanted.
>    History¹s own time is godless, continuous, and, to follow
> Benjamin, empty and homogeneous. By this I mean that in
> employing modern historical consciousness (whether in
> academic writing or outside of it), we think of a world
> that, in Weber¹s description, is already disenchanted. Gods,
> spirits, and other ³supernatural² forces can claim no agency
> in our narratives. Further, this time is empty because it
> acts as a bottomless sack: any number of events can be put
> inside it; and it is homogeneous because it is not affected
> by any particular events: its existence is independent of
> such events and in a sense it exists prior to them. Events
> happen in time but time is not affected by them. The time of
> human history ­ as any popular book on the evolution of this
> universe will show ­ merges, when thought of backwards, into
> the time of prehistory, of evolutionary and geological
> changes going back to the beginning of the universe. It is
> part of nature. This is what allowed J.B.S. Haldane once to
> write a book with the telltale title Everything Has a
> History.  Hence the time of Newtonian science is not
> different to the time historians automatically assume as
> providing the ontological justification of their work.
> Things may move faster or slower in this time: that is
> simply the problem of velocity and speed. And the time may
> be cyclical or linear: the weeks belong to cyclical time,
> the English years go in hundred-year cycles, while the
> procession of years is a line. And historians may with
> justification talk about different regions of time: domestic
> time, work time, the time of the state, and so on. But all
> these times, whether cyclical or linear, fast or slow, are
> normally treated not as parts of a system of conventions, a
> cultural code of representations, but as something more
> objective, something belonging to ³nature² itself. This
> nature/culture division becomes clear when we look at
> nineteenth-century uses of archaeology, for instance, in
> dating histories that provided no easy arrangements of
> chronology.
>    It is not that historians and philosophers of history are
> unaware of such a commonplace as the claim that modern
> historical consciousness, or for that matter academic
> history, as genres are of recent origin (as indeed are the
> imaginations of the modern sciences). Nor have they been
> slow to acknowledge the changes these genres have undergone
> since their inception.(2)  The naturalism of historical time
> lies in the belief that everything can be historicized. So
> while the non-naturalness of history, the discipline, is
> granted, the assumed universal applicability of its method
> entails a further assumption: that it is always possible to
> assign people, places, and objects to a naturally existing,
> continuous flow of historical time.(3)  Thus irrespective of
> a society¹s own understanding of temporality, a historian
> will always be able to produce a time line for the globe
> whose structure is like this:
> Time    Events in
> T1    Area X  Area Y  Area Z
> T2    Area X  Area Y  Area Z
>    It does not matter if any of these areas were inhabited
> by peoples such as the Hawaiians or the Hindus, who (unlike,
> as some would say, the Chinese or the Arabs) did not have
> a ³sense of chronological time² ­ as distinct from other
> forms of memories and understandings of historicity ­ before
> European arrival. Contrary to whatever they may have thought
> and however they may have organized their memories, the
> historian has the capacity to put them back into a time we
> all are supposed to have shared, consciously or not. History
> as a code thus invokes a natural, homogeneous, secular,
> calendrical time without which the story of human
> evolution/civilization ­ a single human history, that is ­
> cannot be told. In other words, the code of the secular
> calendar that frames historical explanation has this claim
> built into it: that independent of culture or consciousness,
> that people exist in historical time. That is why it is
> always possible to discover ³history² (say, after European
> contact) even if you were not aware of its existence in the
> past. History is supposed to exist in the same way as the
> earth does, for instance.
>    I begin with the assumption that, to put it strongly,
> this time, the basic code of history, is not something that
> belongs to nature (i.e., is not completely independent of
> human systems of representation). It stands for a particular
> formation of the modern subject. This is not to say that
> this understanding of time is false or that it can be given
> up at will. But clear, the kind of correspondence that
> exists between our worlds and the Newtonian imagination of
> the universe, between our experience of secular time and the
> time of physics, breaks down in many post-Einsteinian
> constructions. In the Newtonian university, as historical-
> imagination, ³events² are more or less separable from their
> descriptions: what is factual is seen as translatable from
> mathematics into prose or between different languages. Thus
> an elementary book on Newtonian physics can be written
> completely in Bengali alphabet and numerals, using a minimum
> of mathematical signs. But not so with post-Einsteinian
> physics: language strains wildly when trying to convey in
> prose the mathematical imagination contained in an
> expression like ³Curved space² (for, thinking
> commonsensically, in what would such a space exist in not in
> space itself?). In this second case, one might say that the
> assumption of translatability does not quite hold, that the
> imagination of Einsteinian physics is best learned through
> the language of mathematics ­ for we are speaking of a
> universe of events where the events cannot be separated from
> their descriptions. Modern physics, one might say, took the
> linguistics turn early in this century. Post-Einsteinian
> cosmology, as the physicist Paul Davis puts it, makes even
> mathematical sense only so long as we do not try to take ³a
> God¹s-eye-view² of the universe (i.e., so long as one does
> not try to totalize or to view the ³whole²). ³I have grown
> used to dealing with the weird and wonderful world of
> relativity,² writes Davis. ³The ideas of space-warps,
> distortions in time and space and multiple universes have
> become everyday tools in the strange trade of the
> theoretical physicistŠ. I believe that the reality exposed
> by modern physics is fundamentally alien to the human mind,
> and defies all power of direct visualizationŠ²(4)
>    Historians writing after the so-called linguistic turn
> may not any longer think that ³events² are completely
> accessible by language, but the more sober among them strive
> to avoid absolute lunacy by resorting to weaker versions of
> this position. As put in the recent book Telling the Truth
> about History by Lynn Hunt and her colleagues, historians,
> writing in the aftermath of postmodernism, would work toward
> an ideal of ³workable truths,² approximations of ³facts²
> that can be agreed to by all even after it is granted that
> language and representations always form a (thin?) film
> between us and the world (in the same way we can mostly
> ignore the insights of Einsteinian or quantum physics in
> negotiating our everyday movements in practical life). The
> higher trans ideal of translatability between different
> languages ­ thus Vietnamese history into Bengali ­ remains
> something worth striving for even if language always foils
> the effort. This ideal ­ a modified Newtonianism ­ is, in
> their view, the historians¹ protection against the sheer
> madness of postmodernist and cultural relativist talk
> about ³untranslatability,² ³incommensurability,² and all
> that. (5)
>    Unlike in the world of physicist Paul Davis, then, the
> imagination of ³reality² in the discipline of history is
> dependent on the capacities of ³the human mind,² its powers
> of visualization. The use of the definite article is
> critical here, for this ³reality² aspires to achieve a
> status of transparency with regard to particular human
> languages, an ideal of objectivity entertained by Newtonian
> science where translation between different languages is
> mediated by the higher language of science itself. Thus pani
> in Hindu and water in English can both be mediated by H-2-0.
> Needless to say, it is only the higher language that is
> capable of appreciating, if not expressing, the capacities
> of ³the human mind.² I would suggest that the idea of a
> godless, continuous, empty, and homogeneous time that
> history shares with the other social sciences and modern
> political philosophy as a basic building block belongs to
> this model of a higher, overarching language ­ a structure
> of generality, an aspiration toward the scientific ­ which
> is built into conversations that take the modern historical
> consciousness for granted.
>    A proposition of radical untranslatability therefore
> comes as a problem to the universal categories that sustain
> the historian¹s enterprise. But it is also a false problem
> created by the very nature of the universal itself that aims
> to function as a supervening general construction mediating
> between all the particulars on the ground. The secular code
> of historical and humanist time ­ that is, a time bereft of
> gods and spirits ­ is one such universal. Claims about
> agency on behalf of the religious, the supernatural, the
> divine, and the ghostly have to be mediated in terms of this
> universal. The social scientist-historian assumes
> that ³contexts² explain particular gods: If we could all
> have the same context, then we would all have the same gods
> as well. But there is a problem. Whereas the sameness of
> our ³sciences² can be guaranteed all the world over, the
> sameness of our gods and spirits cannot be proved in quite
> the same object manner (notwithstanding the protestations of
> the well-meaning that all religions speak of the same God).
> So it could be said that while the ³sciences² signify some
> kind of sameness in our take on the world across cultures,
> the ³gods² signify differences (bracketing for the moment
> the history of conversion, which I touch on very briefly, in
> a later section). Writing about the presence of gods and
> spirits in the secular language of history or sociology
> would therefore be like an act of translating into a
> universal language what belongs to a field of differences.
> Excerpt from The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of
> Capital, edited by Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd, Duke
> University Press, 1997 (pg 35-60) Post-Contemporary
> Interventions series editors: Stanley Fish and Fredric
> Jameson

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