Thursday, May 22, 2008

The peverse core of Sameness

"[F]or a sufficiently different culture, the very understanding of what it is to be of worth will be strange and unfamiliar to us. To approach, say, a raga with the presumptions of value implicit in the well-tempered clavier would be forever to miss the point. What has to happen is what Gademer has called a "fusion of horizons." We learn to move in a broader horizon, within which what we have formerly taken for granted as the background to valuation can be situated as one possibility alongside the different background of formerly unfamiliar culture. The "fusion of horizons" operates through our developing new vocabulaties of comparison, by means of which we can articulate these contrasts" - Charles Taylor

In defense of my views of radical heterogenity and implicit difference, I hereby reveal that Taylor's Gadamer-inspired instructions to the future of ethnomusicology disguises a perverse totalizing ideoogy, albeit one intent on fostering common "vocabularies of comparison" which purports to erase fractured horizons of knowledge.

Taylor's allurng idea is by no means new to the field of critical studies. If Taylor had paid more attention to the French, perhaps Luce Irigaray would have rung multiple bells of consent. For Irigaray, disillusioned with phallogocentric models of articulation, the only exit from the symbolic universe of patriarchal knowledge production is through the fostering of a new language of commerce that simultaneously seeks to undo phallogocentric seams as well as politically rearticulate an agenda of egalitarianism.

Allow me to critique Irigaray, if you would (for I am not the first). Any totalizing symbolic system (or messily knotted discoursive tapestries) will inevitably create its own internal divisions of subscription and proscription. Ushuring in a new advent of a "language" that seeks to restore balance (or even undermind) an established heirarchy of power by tabling a flat political landscape will have to validate itself as a post-. This post-ness, by virtue of the Hegelian dialectic, can never recede to a choratic presymbolic realm (to use Kristeva in this debate), but must necessarily seek to incorporate, indeed disguise, the existing imbalance of power in order to legitimize its own agenda. What Irigaray's new language will do is (1) stratify differences between the old agenda and the new, creating a reflexive language of anxiety and taboos, and/or (2) seek new boundaries of otherness to clear-out its space of subscription.

This perverse core of Irigaray's "language" is a blunt rejection of phallogocentricism, but this rejection is not overcome, it constantly haunts the mechanisms that servs to legitimize the very use of the system. Lacan has reminded us of the shifting boundaries of the ego-Ideal, and the drive that constantly propels it towards alternative symbolic universes. Giving this a Zizekian spin (and I believe I'm the first to use the cheesy term "Zizekian"), the perverse political core of Irigaray's new language is a counter-drive to seek the stability of the political ego-Ideal, one that will restore presence to the marginal, and will install the decentered subject into history. Fancy hypothesizing, no? But Edelman reminds us that as long as new linguistic legacies are forged, the insoluble, traumatic kernal of the Real, that is, the subject's interminable lack, will forever be displaced onto another individual. Likewise, by act of dialectical incorporation, Irigaray's new language will have to sieve ideological plains for new scapegoats. Recall that guy named Derrida? Also recall it was as early as the 1970s when he remarked that:

"[T]he entire history of the concept of structure, before the rupture of which we are speaking, must be thought of as a series of substitutions of centre for centre, as a linked chain of determinations of the centre. Successively, and in a regulated fashion, the centre receives different forms or names. The history of metaphysics, like the history of the West, is the history of these metaphors and metonymies. Its matrix [...] is the determination of Being as presence in all senses of this word. It could be shown that all the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the centre have always designated an invariable presence – eidos, archÄ“, telos, energeia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject), alÄ“theia, transcendentality, consciousness, God, man, and so forth."

As Agawu has criticized, Taylor's inspirational address to the ethnomusicological community harbours not only a sense of politcal advocacy (which may be historically analyzed through the vehement and virulent aims of liberal democracy bent on world domination) but conceals the fact that the strategy of leveling difference has to be first predicated upon difference. Furthermore, who controls the terms of the levelling? As a dialectical mode of incorporation, the ones who figure difference get to propose the new paradigm, which paradoxically, rests on the position of power from which these policy makers are able to speak. For Agawu, the resulting "broader horizons" do not denote some form of Bakhtinian dialogue or agreement, where the negotiations of power are fluid, slippery and ever under question. Instead, these "broader horizons" are produced by the disciplinary field, and the discursive tradition of knowledge-production which lends it legs. It is indeed "our 'vocabularies of comparison' that will be enriched in the process" - as Agawu claims.

In another essay, I critiqued Agawu's solution regarding "sameness", but I feel for theoretical reasons, it should be returned to this discussion. For Agawu, "There is no method for attaining to samenes, only a presence of mind, an attitude, a way of seeing the world" (My emphasis). So Agawu envisions an enabling attitude that may be adopted which figures the Other as equal, (but can promptly be dismissed at will). Exactly what constitutes this "presence of mind"? If we push Agawu slightly further, we would find that his "presence of mind" strays no further that Taylor's activistic agenda. This "presence of mind" in "seeing the world" tries to stifle its own historical baggage while claiming to be reflexive of its own history. Personally, a "don't ask, don't tell" attitude seems the most dangerous one of them all. This "presence of mind" for Agawu is "not sameness but the presumption of sameness" (!) Hurray, a ladder for crawling over the fence which doubles up as an instrument with which to hit the other with. Again, "strategic sameness" falls into the trap of having to articulate itself. Once again, with whose vocabulary should "sameness" articulate itself with? Perhaps we are being too generous in letting the Subaltern speak when, at times, we are unable to listen.

Academic disciplines oriented towards the production of knowledge attempt to knot the discursive through the discoursive, each affecting each other via a highly complicated and messy feedback system. The very fact that knowledge has to be circulated in certain receptive spheres in order to be validated as a kind of academic knowledge reveals the fact that academic knowledge is, by extension, a disguised configuration of power, embodying multiple strategies of enunciation. Any symbolic universe has to be supported by the discursive, and the discursive oriented by the Symbolic. This system of power generation and perpetuation feeds back into itself, orbiting about institutional centers which oppose themselves to other centers. Producing "emic" knowledge or any form of knowledge along the gradient between "emic" and "etic" inadvertently subscribes to a particular symbolic and discursive universe - usually a Western system of articulation, that is strictly coded with its own philosophy and guiding rules to the production of knowledge. How can "new vocabularies" be forged or incorporated without being tinkered as a productive arm of the same enterprise? In the end, all that is being produced are multiple possible sites of enunciation within the same discursive sphere, an endless concentric circle of production that, fatefully, may be only undermined by academic silence.

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