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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Principle of Hospitality (immigration, Islam, and global politics)

The issue of asylum seekers and refugees has been an ongoing point of contention here in Australia where I currently reside. Just watched this program on TV, Go Back To Where You Came From, and it reminded me of Derrida’s thoughts on hospitality, which are very pertinent not only for Australia but also for many other countries grappling with the issue of immigration more generally.

I’d also say that the principle of hospitality warrants sustained attention because it plays a central role in Islam, which is of course the biggest bogeyman in global politics today. Discussions about hospitality could offer considerable leverage for interrogating ongoing tensions surrounding immigration in so-called western liberal democracies, global anxieties about Islam, and the possibilities of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’—these political struggles are of course interrelated.


On a more personal level, I’m very interested in the principle of hospitality because I’ve been on the receiving end of immense hospitality, extended to me from my Muslim friends. So I wish to do what I can, in my own limited way, to express gratitude, to honour friendship, and to affirm good faith, goodwill, and above all else, unconditionality—those impossibilities which will always exceed logic, calculation, and every economy of exchange.
Throughout your latest book, Of Hospitality, you contrast the unconditional “law of unlimited hospitality” with “the laws of hospitality”, the rights and duties that are always conditioned and conditional. What do you mean by this? 
It’s between these two figures of hospitality that responsibilities and decisions have to be taken in practice. A formidable ordeal—while these two hospitalities are not contradictory, they remain heterogeneous even as, perplexingly, they share the same name. Not all ethics of hospitality are the same, of course, but there is no culture or form of social connection without a principle of hospitality. This ordains, even making it desirable, a welcome without reservations or calculation, an unlimited display of hospitality to the new arrival. But a cultural or linguistic community, a family or a nation, cannot fail at the very least to suspend if not to betray this principle of absolute hospitality: so as to protect a “home”, presumably, by guaranteeing property and “one’s own” against the unrestricted arrival of the other; but also so as to try to make the reception real, determined, and concrete—to put it into practice. Hence the “conditions” that transform gift into contract, openness into legal pact; hence rights and duties, frontiers, passports and ports; hence laws about an immigration of which we that we have to “control the flow.” 
It is true that the issues involved in “immigration” do not strictly coincide with those of hospitality, which reach beyond the civic or political arena. In the book you are referring to, I analyze what is not, however, a straightforward opposition between the “unconditional” and the “conditional”. The two meanings of hospitality remain irreducible to one another, but it is the pure and hyperbolical hospitality in whose name we should always invent the best dispositions, the least bad conditions, the most just legislation, so as to make it as effective as possible. This is necessary to avoid the perverse effects of an unlimited hospitality whose risks I have tried to define. Calculate the risks, yes, but don’t shut the door on what cannot be calculated, meaning the future and the foreigner—that’s the double law of hospitality. It defines the unstable place of strategy and decision. Of perfectibility and progress. It is a place that is being sought today, in the debates about immigration for instance.  
We often forget that it is in the name of unconditional hospitality, the kind that makes meaningful any reception of foreigners, that we should try to determine the best conditions, namely particular legal limits, and especially any particular implementation of the laws. This is always forgotten, by definition, when it comes to xenophobia: but it can also be forgotten in the name of a certain interpretation of “pragmatism” and “realism.” When, for instance, we think we should give electoral pledges to forces of exclusion or occlusion. These tactics, with their shady principles, could well lose more than their soul: they could lose the calculated benefit. 
(Derrida, ‘The Principle of Hospitality’, Paper Machine, p. 66-7; see also Derrida, Of Hospitality)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Osamu Tezuka's Buddha

Was going to write a post about the Osamu Tezuka's (creator of Astroboy, Kimba the White Lion, etc) manga series Buddha, when I learnt that an anime version is coming out sometime this year. Trailer:





Needless to say, Tezuka's retelling of the story of Buddha does not strictly follow the accounts in canonical texts. Nevertheless, it is a well crafted story. I read the manga series some years ago and I really enjoyed it. If you'd grown up with Astroboy or Kimba the White Lion (which Disney blatantly plagiarised), you'd be familiar with Tezuka's style. Widely regarded as the 'godfather of anime', he's quite the master storyteller. In his Buddha, he crafts a compelling tale with many fascinating characters--in fact, I'd say that the most compelling character is not the Buddha himself but the supporting characters. If you have an interest in manga--or what is called in western contexts, 'comics'--I highly recommend Tezuka's Buddha. I'm really looking forward to the anime.


While we are on the topic of manga, I'd like to make some comments about general perceptions on comics in western popular culture. The comic medium is usually regarded as something for adolescents and is typically associated with the superhero genre. However, in the past three decades or so, it has gradually gained cultural catchet as a 'serious' medium and is no longer confined to the superhero genre. Emerging out of this trend is the label 'graphic novel', which has developed as an alternative to 'comic'. While I can understand why some publishers and readers prefer 'graphic novel', I've always preferred to stick with 'comic' because the shift from 'comic' to 'graphic novel' reflects certain dynamics of cultural politics which I wish to contest. Consider what Marjane Satrapi, writer-director of Persepolis, says in this interview in The Guardian, 'How to film a graphic novel':
The first thing to remember is that it's not a graphic novel, it's a comic. People are so afraid to say the word "comic". It makes you think of a grown man with pimples, a ponytail and a big belly. Change it to "graphic novel" and that disappears. No: it's all comics. Movies are all movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Orson Welles: one is shit, the other isn't. But they're all movies.
I fully agree with her. To call it by any other name is to assent to the system of cultural values which has diminished, and which still continues to diminish, the subversive, transgressive possibilities of the medium: its potential to constantly reinvent the image-text relationship, to repeatedly inaugurate an open and unpredictable language that would always elude the tyranny of globalising discourses.


When I posted this on Facebook, a friend asked (and he is certainly right to raise this question): 'I thought it was a distinction of format, ie: one is formatted as a book/novel the other is closer to a magazine? But then again, I know very little about these things.' This is my response:
Yup that's more or less how they're distinguished: collect a number of issues into a volume, give it a nice, glossy, or even hardcover so that it has more gravitas, and there you go, a graphic novel. I don't think the distinction will go away. But you've hit the bullseye. 'Distinction' is precisely the word:
'Bourdieu discussed how those in power define aesthetic concepts such as "taste". Using research, he shows how social class tends to determine a person's likes and interests, and how distinctions based on social class get reinforced in daily life. He observes that even when the subordinate classes may seem to have their own particular idea of 'good taste', "...[i]t must never be forgotten that the working-class 'aesthetic' is a dominated 'aesthetic' which is constantly obliged to define itself in terms of the dominant aesthetics..." (page 41)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Distinction
What's really curious is how a 'respectable' paper like the Guardian still used 'graphic novel' in the title when in the very first paragraph Marjane Satrapi makes the point about 'comic'.I have done some research into comics some years ago. In the West, the comic form came to the fore in the 19th century with publications like Punch, which often contained satirical messages, sometimes of a political bent. Anyway, without rambling on too much about it's interesting history, it shouldn't be too hard to see how the comic was, on the one hand, increasingly 'infantilised' and policed by various publishing rules and codes, and on the other, adopted by various authorities for propaganda (especially wartime) purposes--all these under the guise of 'good taste'. 


As I've tried to suggest in a different discussion on Iron Maiden and Oprah, such preferences as 'graphic novel' or 'comic'--which turn around the notion of 'taste'--reflect the workings of cultural power and social hierarchy.




Sunday, June 5, 2011

mo(ve)ments

I started a new blog called mo(ve)ments on tumblr a few days ago: movementsandmoments.tumblr.com

Why have I started another blog? 
Well, this blog has largely engaged in (sometimes lengthy) discussions about my practice of Buddhism and cultural research. Because of tumblr's image-centric platform, I thought I'd explore a more visually aestheticised and personal way of sharing the echoes, glimpses, and traces and traces that mark the movements and moments of a life called Ed. 

I will still maintain this blog and use this space to discuss my research and Buddhism. Mo(ve)ments will take a more personal slant, showcasing things like photos I've taken, videos I like, as well as snippets of other texts that resonate with me. Unlike this blog, I won't engage in extended ruminations on Buddhist or scholarly ideas on mo(ve)ments, though I will quote bits of wisdom from both Buddhist and non-Buddhist sources. It has a cleaner layout and I will simply leave it to the reader to read what they will into the posts and to make whatever connections they make between the collections of images, sounds, and words. 

Why 'mo(ve)ments'?
The title is inspired by an interview, 'Navigating Movements', by Canadian philosopher Brian Massumi which has inspired me greatly. I'd previously quoted his thoughts on why we need reasons to believe in the world. In the same intervies he muses about this notion of 'walking as controlled feelings':
I like the notion of ‘walking as controlled falling’. It’s something of a proverb, and Laurie Anderson, among others, has used it. It conveys the sense that freedom, or the ability to move forward and to transit through life, isn’t necessarily about escaping from constraints. There are always constraints. When we walk, we’re dealing with the constraint of gravity. There’s also the constraint of balance, and a need for equilibrium. But, at the same time, to walk you need to throw off the equilibrium, you have to let yourself go into a fall, then you cut it off and regain the balance. You move forward by playing with the constraints, not avoiding them. There’s an openness of movement, even though there’s no escaping constraint.    
His thoughts are informed by Foucauldian ideas about power-resistance. While Foucault's analysis of power has been very influential across many disciplines, it has also been criticised for being too deterministic or pessimistic, that it leaves little to no room for personal agency or resistance. This is an inaccurate criticism. I won't go into the details here suffice to say that Foucault does not conceptualise power as an attribute or quality possessed by anyone or anything. Rather, power is constituted by social relations which are, of course, dynamic and constantly shifting. While his work in the early to the middle part of his career was focussed on the disciplinary functions of power, his late work takes a different approach to the analysis of power. In fact, in relation to his late work he has said--no doubt confusing and frustrating his critics--that he is not a theoretician of power, that that ‘it is not power, but the subject that is the general theme of my research’. 

While Foucault turned his attention to the themes of subjectivity and ethics, he didn't abandon his concern with the dynamics of power as such. Rather, the shift in his late work represents an attempt to demonstrate more forcefully the argument that power and resistance are two sides of the same coin, as it were. In the History of Sexuality vol. 1, he makes the argument that power is not repressive but productive (i.e. power is not simply about prohibiting this or that behaviour or identity, but is rather the process that gives rise to this or that behaviour or identity). Such an analysis of power casts a new perspective on the relationship between domination and liberation, constraint and freedom: i.e. there is not escaping of constraint as such; liberation does not come about only after the elimination of domination. Following such an analysis, freedom is then not conceived as a historical constant or an ideal state. Rather, freedom is found in the very process of negotiating constraint/domination, arising out of an ongoing process of probing the limits of the present, of not accepting as 'inevitable' our historical conditions and existing social relations. In other words, it is in this ongoing process (aimed not at any preconceived end) that allows things to become otherwise: change, discovery, transformation, invention, freedom. 

Such an understanding of power--constraint/freedom--is compatible with certain Buddhist ideals. In the Mahayana tradition for instance, it is said that nirvana is no different from samsara. I've encountered criticisms by non-Mahayanists against this interpretation of the Buddhist goal of Awakening. How can there be liberation from samsara, from the cycle of birth and rebirth, if the two are the same? I'm not a Mahayanist, so my understanding is limited. Nevertheless, to my basic understanding of Mahayana philosophy, I do not think that the Mahayana is denying the possibility of Awakening as such, nor are they deny the possibility of an Unconditioned experience of reality. What they are pointing to is a more reflexive way of conceptualising nirvana/samsara that does not slip into dualistic thinking, which, in reifying 'samsara' and 'nirvana' hinders the cultivation of Awakening. 

Anyway, I've again written more than I had originally intended. But I hope I've teased out the parallels between the Foucauldian conceptualisation of constraint/freedom and the Mahayanist conceptualisation of samsara/nirvana. This is not to say that the Theravada tradition is 'wrong' in positing Awakening as a final goal to strive for. While Theravadin teachers would not typically adopt the same rhetoric as Mahayanists, they do make a similar point about not reifying the goal of Awakening. As I've mentioned before, my first meditation teacher S.N. Goenka repeatedly warns students against craving or harbouring expectations about Awakening. To do so is to set oneself in the opposite direction from the goal! 

'Walking as controlled falling'. A fitting analogy for the above, don't you think? For Buddhist readers, it's also reminiscent of walking meditation, don't you think? So, perhaps we could say that to pursue the Buddhist path (or any other path, really) is, to borrow the title of the interview, about navigating movements. 

For my new blog, I've reworked the notion of navigating movements as 'movements and moments', or in a word, mo(ve)ments.  At the moment, I've reposted some material from here, but will definitely try to explore new modes of expressions there. I hope you'll check it out occasionally: mo(ve)ments.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Musical Musings: To Whom Should I Write

To complete my musings on the 'trilogy' of songs by Mojave 3 which have touched me recently, I'd like to quickly touch on some of Derrida's ideas about writing. I'm too lazy to find the links to the original texts, so I'm just going to summarise the general thrust of his arguments in my own words.


If language/conceptuality is always on the slide, always deferring and differing, then, the meaning of any writing cannot be guaranteed. Hence, using the metaphor of 'the letter' Derrida talks about how it is not the simply the case that a letter may sometimes get lost in transit or sent to the wrong address. Rather, in its very nature a letter may always never arrive at its destination: this is a structural necessity, the condition of possibility for the letter in the first place, a structural necessity that applies to all forms of communication, all modes of address. The general thrust of this argument is repeated in other extended meditations on alterity, otherness, and of course death--the one biggest unknown, the wholly 'other', that confronts us all.  


I was reminded of these ideas when I recently rediscovered the song 'To Whom Should I Write'. To me the song is a kind of meditation on death, but not in a morbid way. To me, the song poses important questions that we ought to constantly ask ourselves--not at some later stage of our lives or when we face death--but questions that are pertinent right now.


And speaking of death, as a Buddhist I'm of course aware that a central doctrine of Buddhism is rebirth. Many contemporary, secular-minded Buddhists struggle with this doctrine. With my very limited experience in Buddhist practice, I certainly cannot say if there is truly such a thing as post-mortem rebirth, though I should point out here for non-Buddhist readers that the Buddhist concept of rebirth is not the same as the notion of  reincarnation. That is to say, the Buddhist understanding of rebirth doesn't posit an entity (like an enduring soul or essence) taking form as another being. My limited experience notwithstanding, I'm willing to keep the question of rebirth open for now, because what little experience I have suggest to me that it is a hypothesis worth exploring. Anyway, this is a complex issue, and I won't dwell on it any further. I'll try to come back to it in the future to work through my feelings on the issue.


For now, I just wish to point out that some contemporary translators of Buddhism have adopted a kind of agnostic interpretation of the idea of rebirth. I've encountered the suggestion that 'rebirth' need not be read literally, that it is possible to adopt the doctrine as a general guiding principle for life without blindly accepting as fact post-mortem rebirth--which is of course difficult, if not impossible, to prove in an objective or empirical manner. One way of reinterpreting rebirth is to read it as an advice about being heedful of how we lead our lives because the consequences of our actions could reverberate well beyond our deaths, 'rebirthing' in various forms that we cannot foresee and which could possibly generate undesirable effects on others and our environments, if we had behaved irresponsibly.


I'd like to relate Derrida's thoughts to this understanding of rebirth. Following such an interpretation, life is like a letter that is being written from moment to moment. Every act of thought, speech, and body in this very life is like an address to the wholly 'other' that is death, which remains unknowable and whose arrival we cannot truly know in advance. And regardless of what we think or belief--what happens after death, where we go--the destination, if there is one, remains 'other' to us. As 'the letter' comes to an end, all we leave behind is a signature--who is the addressee, who is going to read this 'letter' we leave behind and what would they, if anyone, make of it? Can we know?


To whom should I write?





Where are you now
did you travel too far
and how are your dreams
Have you got what you need
and whom do you smile on
did you walk out the line
did you take what you wanted
did you take what was right
And whom do you fly with
when you break out the day
whom do you cry with
whose wings do you steal

To whom should I write

Whose smile do you ride on
when you're walking alone
and whom do you think of
when the night is your home
is there nothing that breaks you
no thought for the dead
and whom should i think of
when closing the door
yeah whom should i think of
which smile should i write

To whom should I write