Archive for the ‘activism’ Category

Modernity vs. Tradition

October 4, 2012


I found this image circulating around and realized that I had a rote speech from my lecturing about the categories ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’ and thought I’d share.

The term ‘tradition’ is new. It is an innovation. It is a signifier that only makes sense in relation to ‘modernity’. The two terms are mutually necessary pairs that evoke each other, stated or not, whenever deployed. That is, tradition is modern construct. To use the term ‘modern’ is to be traditionally modern.

The most interesting thing I take from these insights is really quite practical. Tradition is a modern recreation of a fictional past–the imaginations of innovators make tradition. Any invocation of tradition is actually a ruse. The moment we can conceive of the modern is the exact moment we create tradition. Before we imagined the modern, there was no tradition in the sense that we use the term now. It was just the way that things were. With the modern, everything is up for grabs and we’ve forgotten the way things were. To remember tradition, it must be re-created. It is made anew.

Thus, tradition is actually the most modern of phenomenon. Let’s see some examples.

In India, tradition, when invoked, often points back to the infinite past of Hindu culture and speaks of norms, like those of the Laws of Manu, that are in all actuality the joint construct of British scholars, missionaries, administrators, and Indian elites, be they pandits, rajputs or brahmins. That is to say, what is constructed as tradition is actually something made wholly new in the 19th century by the complex process of colonial and cultural exchange with its notions of cultural essentialism.

In West Asia, the various ‘fundamentalisms’ of Islam were created as anti-colonial responses to European colonialism. Immasculated and denegrated, Arabs and other people of color found a united resistance through this shared recreation of Islam. It is actually somewhat more complex than this, as much of the Islamic revolutions of the 60s-80s were undoubtedly also resistance to the fact that secular leadership in West Asia was concieved to be too much under the power of the West. And then when the West turned on West Asia, as it did in Iraq (which was the most ‘progressive’ part of Asia), this tendency only continued. My hypothesis is that the West, perhaps only partially unwittingly, actually played a large role in creating what it now calls Islamic fundamentalism.

Look at Asian diaspora in North America or Europe. It often holds on far more stridently to what it sees as ‘traditions’ of the homeland.

The global resistance to alternative sexualities and genders under the guise of tradition fits the same pattern: before colonialism, most regions had come to terms with it in their own way, were convinced to denounce it through colonialism, and now in the postcolonial moment understand that denunciation as ahistorical tradition.

There are many more examples that can be made. Often we find it oxymoronic, strange or even hypocritical when those who we associate with ‘tradition’ take advantage of what we see as ‘modern’ (like technology… twittering monks for example). In fact, it is the same activity under different labels. We only think this way because these terms modernity and tradition serve the purpose of obfuscating and calcifying power-relations, both real and discursive. Fundamentalists get much credence for their traditional stance, and can hide their innovations behind the veil of ‘tradition.’ Modernists too, can veil their conservativism behind the seemingly progressive stance of the ‘modern’ (take for example, the old-timey racism of the New Athiests).

Monks owning cellphones is no different than an Atheist with the bible on the shelf.

What does this insight allow us to do? It allows us to see far more clearly the ways in which people strategically use the categories (and all their associated semiology) modernity and tradition to get other people to do what they want, for one.

It may also allow us to see way to step past these categories–either in a dialectical way, or in a revolutionary way–and conceive of a world that cannot so easily use the enmity attached to this binary for divisive purposes.

Suffering Porn: The Flip-side of The White Savior Industrial Complex

March 25, 2012


As many may have been exposed to, the KONY 2012 kerfuffle has been getting quite a lot of attention lately. There have been many responses critical to this particular “charitable cause” which I will not rehash here. However, I do want to point to an article by Teju Cole entitled “The White Savior Industrial Complex“. It is quite an insightful and careful piece about how contemporary development and privileged concern plays out large-scale. It carefully dissects the effects of a (perhaps) well-meaning but (usually) harmful system of aid towards the “developing world”–otherwise known as the formerly colonized “Other”. Cole says,

One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of “making a difference.” To state this obvious and well-attested truth does not make me a racist or a Mau Mau.

What Cole is pointing to here is the larger discourse of Orientalism making complicit a racism that allows the superior Westerner a position to “save those who cannot save themselves”–which at once dis-empowers the abject Other and empowers the righteous Self. The problem, that Cole touches on, is that Orientalism is never divorced from global systems of power: be they economic, political or developmental. How do we “save” Africa, India… the developing world? Look to Iraq and Afghanistan for examples. Look to dismal but quite intentional track record of the IMF or the World Bank. The righteous salvation of the West  on the other is almost always allied in ways that empower or enrich the West. To debate how much good is done to the Other is to concede that the West decides what is good or bad for the Other.

This analysis is large, broad, complex and global. And necessary. However, there is a flip-side to this broad global analysis. It is an analysis of the insidious ways that Orientalism and neo- or post-colonial discourse impacts individuals to support the White Savior Industrial Complex. It speaks to the individual psychological payoff that individuals get when they think they are helping the Other and think they are being charitable. It is an analysis that may not itself be charitable. I have called it for a while now “Suffering Porn”.

The Sunday afternoon commercials that show malnourished African children with distended bellies and flies buzzing on their faces is Suffering Porn. The stream of news footage of refugees, or oppressed Muslim women, or whatever may be the Third-World calamity of the day is Suffering Porn. KONY is Suffering Porn.  (more…)

Colonial Terror in North America

January 17, 2012

Angry Black Lady: “You have no idea what Martin Luther King Actually Did.”

In terms of global colonialism, we forget that North America is still a post-colonial region. Take the message of this link as one set of proof (and add it to other sets of proof, like the treatment of indigenous peoples).

Homophobia and the Post-colonial Predicament

January 28, 2011

As we mourn the passing of David Kato (h/t: feministing) and imagine how this is the tip of the homophobic iceburg, the whole global issue of homophobia makes me ponder some of the historical and structural issues that come into play with world-wide homophobia.

As some of us know, homosexuality is a recent development. While same-sex love has been around for all of recorded history, its iterations have been many, various and at times even the status quo (I’m looking at you, Ancient Greeks). Homosexuality itself, however, is an invention of a nineteenth-century Europe dedicated to SCIENCE!!!! and the “finding”–pronounced construction–of deviance from a bourgeois, middle-class state-promoted sociology of the nuclear family. This sociology was developed in order to guarantee the subsequent generations of a middle-class educated populace that is the foundation of the modern nation state. For those who like trivia, keep in mind that the term heterosexuality only began to see wide usage in the 1930’s, about 50 years after the invention of the term homosexuality (which, originally meant what we now think of as heterosexuality, with a brief period where it meant what we now think of as bisexuality).

Homosexuality as a term is not some neutral term that just describes the state of affairs of a particular sub-set of people. It is a term that springs from the titillated desire for science to shamelessly catalogue and pruriently search out for hidden deviance with a perverse twinkle in its eye. The term has a complex history that includes its use to discipline and discriminate against those classified as homosexuals. It has also been taken up with pride by those who faced oppression based on the term, and in this strategy there has been some success in the West in ameliorating its rhetorical uses for oppression.

Aside from these elements worthy of note, most important for understanding global homophobia is that at the same time as homosexuality is being constructed as a deviance–not coincidentally–European powers are colonizing the world. The power of Europe to be there (a phrase I take from Edward Said–also note how close this resembles Heidegger’s Dasein, “being-there”) enabled Europe to construct itself as the West, and this in turn affected its own constructions of sexuality. The end product was that most colonial powers brought a new and, for Europeans, important,  legal framework into the colonies: sodomy laws, and laws against homosexuality. For many of these colonized regions (aside from those already impacted by their common connection to Western epistemes, most noteably Islamic regions) these laws criminalizing homosexuality and sodomy were new and entirely innovative procedures of classifying people. For some countries, these laws were minor blips that were paid little attention. For other countries, especially those who were under discursive pressure to fight against the “feminization of the East” that Orientalism so handily lobbed towards them, these laws were quite useful for convincing themselves that they were as masculine as masculine can get.

And here we come up against what is known as the post-colonial predicament. This term was coined by Carol Breckenridge and Van der Veer in their edited volume The Post-Colonial Predicament. What the post-colonial predicament describes is the internalization and naturalization of colonial epistemes, structures and institutions by once colonized peoples. That is, it is when colonized and post-colonized people take once imposed colonial stuctures as if they were their own natural way of doing things.

In order to understand globalized homophobia, we need to understand that in almost all cases (I’m hedging my bets, but note I’ve never seen a counter-example) homophobia in postcolonial regions is precisely an example of the post-colonial predicament. The homophobia of, say Uganda, was a colonial trope that is now coming to fruition as if Uganda has always been against people of alternative sexuality. This is absolutely not the case. And it is not isolated. World-wide, almost every case of homophobia is caused by the remnants of colonialism.

In fact, there is even further transformation of discourse about this. In India, we find a discourse among the right that India has never has same-sex love and that homosexuality is a Western imposition, and that same-sex love is actually Indians pandering to the West as if they are some sort of colonial spy. This makes the right feel good, as it rhetorically situates them as anti-colonial gatekeepers. However, as people like Ruth Vanita and Peter Jackson and others have shown, India has a long long history of alternative sexualities. Indeed, what IS new is the taking up of Western understandings of same-sex love by activists in order to find strategies and global support for fighting DISCRIMINATION. It works both ways. Also note that this discrimination only began because of colonization.

So how do these insights help us? There are many answers to this question, but I would argue that a rhetorical strategy that reversed the Indian right’s strategy would not only hold some element of facticity, but also be quite attractive. I would argue that LGBT activists and the like should start arguing that homophobia is pandering to colonialism. One could even spin it by making material connections between the elites in, say Uganda, and the right of the United States. If homophobic rhetoric in post-colonized countries begins to be associated with colonial cow-towing, the anti-colonial sentiment that still remains a powerful rhetorical device world-wide can be strategically and fruitfully used to shame and counter this homophobic discourse. The key, of course is marketing and the pragmatic concern of being able to penetrate the media etc. with this trope.

Regardless, my sentiments go out to all those globally who have to face oppression based on the convoluted and complex history of homophobia and its rhetorical uses by elites to shore up their own power.

Foucault and Buddhism Redux

June 28, 2010

Caveat: Comparing two distinct trajectories of thought–considerably removed in time, place, historical development, context, background assumptions, socio-cultural surroundings etc. is a problematic endeavor. Why do it? One is essentially appropriating some aspect of each trajectory for one’s own uses. So one must be careful not to contribute to the various systemic forms of domination that play out: e.g. those that inform why we are choosing to care about these trajectories of thought as opposed to others and may not be independent from problematic interests; the way we speak about each may be impacted by forces that contribute to systemic oppression (i.e. orientalism); our goal in comparing is never separate from our own interests, and we must be careful about the potential productive use our comparing can do).

Taking these concerns and others into account, I’d like to compare Foucault and Buddhism to elaborate on why one would compare Foucault and Buddhism. Just as in the caveat above, any contribution to knowledge is the putting into play of a discourse for certain effects. In this (my) interpretation (i.e. for this post, this instance of comparative work) the intention is to speak about social justice. Social justice is many things to many people, so perhaps a working definition is in order. To whit: Social justice is the idea that domination should be eradicated, and socio-economic, gendered, sexual, racial (etc.) equity is a major part of combating domination. Domination comes in many forms, but the most productive forms of domination are institutional and structural and impact the individual lives of everyone. With this insight, social justice is the analysis of, critical engagement with, and strategic operation against the institutions and systemic processes within which domination operates.

From this perspective, when comparing Foucault and Buddhism, we can see prima facie (and understandably, given that idea of social justice is already heavily influenced by Foucauldian thought), that Foucault’s analysis of discourse, genealogical history, the construction of the subject and the disciplining of the self through institutions is an important and insightful examination of domination. One way we can think about Foucault’s answer to domination is to imagine that he is saying that these broader structures  are only continually reified in local instantiations–the sum and interrelation of which through history is what enables domination. Thus, strategically, and ethically, the opposite is true: it is only through local instantiations of strategic resistance to, and positive alternatives from, dominating relations that the work of social justice happens.

Buddhism’s concern is somewhat removed here. The telos of  Buddhism is different things to different people. Without going into the historical and comparative background, I think a plausible universal within Buddhism is the goal of the cessation of suffering, most commonly through the work of the cessation of attachment. How these two things play out in Buddhist history is exceptionally varied: from the 8-fold path, to the bodhisattva vow, to the six or ten perfections (depending on the tradition), etc. Two common themes develop in Buddhist history: the cessation of suffering at an individual level (in Foucauldian terms, the construction of the self that suffers less); and, the cessation of suffering at a universal level–that is, the goal of alleviating suffering for all sentiant beings (or sometimes just ‘the most one can reach’). The latter can speak to something similar to social justice: within the category of suffering are those things that lead to the more ‘mundane’ sufferings of poverty, illness, violence, etc., and also the more ‘existential’ suffering of uncontentedness engendered by, say, impermanence. The former theme of the cessation of suffering is a very local one: how does one produce one’s ‘self’ in such a way as to continually decrease one’s own suffering.

The trite part of my analysis comes in here: it seems to me, from the perspective of social justice, Buddhism only works at the level of the individual subject and at the level of a universal abstract. From this same perspective, Foucault’ s analysis works in between these, but only offers up the method for challenging and producing subjects and also leaves for continual re-imagining the goal (the abstract universal telos) of strategic work. In both cases, one could say that he leaves the end-product up to each of us. I would like to imagine, for this comparison, that these two ways of thinking about Foucault and Buddhism are complimentary. The open ends that Foucault leaves us, when filled with my abstract Buddhist analysis above, can be interpreted to speak towards social justice.

The work of re-imagining the subject could be predicated on constructing one’s subjectivity (through whatever practices) towards the goal of the alleviation of suffering. This subject-construction must work in tandem with the more abstract end of one’s reconstructions: the alleviation of suffering for everyone (or, in utilitarian terms: the least suffering for the most amount of sentient beings). What Foucault’s analysis allows us are the tools to interpret the systemic and institutional forces that shape domination and the expanding of suffering, and allow us a method towards which we can work for the cessation of suffering at an individual, local level for broad universal effects. Put another way, perhaps more negatively, Foucauldian analysis fills in the gap between the individual and the universal goals of dukkha-nirodha (the cessation of suffering) that is lacking in Buddhism. Buddhism can help concretize the open-ended nature of Foucualdian subject-construction.

Indeed, put in this light, I would argue that Buddhist goals and aims are on par with other social justice perspectives like feminism, post-colonialism, anti-racism, marxism, etc. that attempt to use Foucault to develop strategies of analysis and resistance to fight Patriarchy, Orientalism, Racism, and socio-economic imbalance, etc. Buddhism, when put within the list of social perspectives, could use Foucault for strategies to fight Suffering. Add dukkha to the list of intersectional oppressions, and use it in conjunction with feminism, post-colonialism, etc.–perhaps even include it, from this perspective, within the list of progressive doctrines. And, since we love labels, call it Progressive Buddhism.

Inspired by this thread: by Klonke at Feministe.

Anatomy of Rapists

March 29, 2010

If only this title could be in reference to rapists having some sort of post-mortem. Figuratively, this is a kind of post-mortem, but not the revenge fantasy kind. I have a lot to say about rape culture and masculinity and the failures of men at being able to handle Patriarchy’s messages about masculinity. But, new research coming out is giving us a much better idea of who rapes (aside from Catholic priests). It may lead to some new beginnings for fighting rape on the ground and provide some more data for fighting rape culture. Anyway, the research coming out has been called Predator Theory, and feministe has an excellent post about it.

A related link is one to a post over ion Kate Harding’s blog that coins a term that I have now started using in my daily parlance (yes, daily. I basically use the word Patriarchy 20 times a day without thinking about it): Schrodinger’s Rapist.

A glut of categories

June 17, 2009

The glut of categories threatens to drown us. Let us no longer use them. Let us just think. Practically, effectively, empathetically, stridently–without tying our necks to abstract models in order to ground ourselves: those binds choke us and pinch the blood to our brains. New words, simple effective use of the past, and inspired new connections are in order. Enough of the self-colonization of our minds by our shackled reliance to categories. Snip the threads of those labels that halt our movement; tug the strings that can hold weight; weave a new tapestry. Let it be a tapestry where more and more voices are accounted for, but without the imperial majesty of taxonomy to put them in their place. Let these voices bleed color into the fabric of our new reality. A new way of thinking that privilages understanding over categorization. Let us live for each other, and not for our labels.

Asian Women’s Carnival

April 13, 2009

I ostensibly started this blog for me. However, a deeper and more insidious purpose was to write about issues of Asia, feminism, orientalism, colonialism and representation. Among other things. So, it was really great for me to see this carnival of Asian women writers talking about how they see the world. Many perspectives are diaspora perspectives in the carnival, which says something in its own right. Anyway: here is the link: