Duara on transcendence

Prasenjit Duara gave a talk yesterday at UCSC, in the sequoia-surrounded Humanities building at Cowell. It was a clear introduction to the way he thinks about the bond between modern history writing and the development of modern nations, a theme he has long explored, for instance in Rescuing history from the nation: questioning narratives of modern China (and in many other publications, such as: The global and regional in China’s nation-formation; Duara and Bose, Asia redux: conceptualising a region for our times; Decolonization: perspectives from now and then). The link is clear, and the need to criticize and overcome it urgent, especially as nation states are now up against much larger issues that they are ill equipped to tackle or control. I suppose Duara agrees with thinkers such as Manent, who see that modern nation states have quickly become very weak agents the world over and have lost their position as mediums between modern citizens and all kinds of forces exerting their influence daily on them: Metamorphoses of the city (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013). Let’s call them the lure and organizing chaos of capitalism. Duara sees local, regional, inter-regional histories as necessary counterpoint. By systematically developing these narratives and abandoning the artificial, falsely unifying supra-narrative dependent on nation states and often subservient to them, one would in fact also be resuming, reinforcing, or going back to an older tradition, still alive in pockets of culture, but displaced since the eighteenth century by histories at the service of conquering nations, their subsequent imitators, and the behind-the-scenes all-consuming capitalism. To abandon the linear history he thinks undergirds national histories would mean going back to pre-eminently cultural, infra-national accounts, leading to more open, adapting, circulating (as well as circular) and multi-focus histories.

Duara mentioned the role of transcendence in these stories at the beginning of his talk and the few sentences I’m putting together now on this topic may not do justice to what he meant. I need to do more reading of his work, and found for instance this essay by Duara, which introduces a chapter to appear in his forthcoming book on the historical field of Chinese religions. It deals with the difference between the notion of transcendence in the Abrahamic and Chinese tradition. I’ll have to return to this text in a later blog. In the talk yesterday, he made a remark in passing on the potential role of sacredness and the need to integrate it in what I take to be the new theoretical and narrativistic mediations he is calling into being. One example he gave, in relation to this notion of sacred, was of the sizable chunks of natural resources that states, as still eminent representatives of the public (of the people’s will, or also divine will?), control all over the world, something he called a form of “commons” at another point in his talk. I understand him to mean that pre-modern outlooks (still very alive of course in many regions of the world though buried under the still spreading and dominant rationalist versions of history) are predicated on a notion of transcendence that rationalist theories of politics, economics, and society have abandoned (or rather invested with new meanings invoked to their own advantage in their own secular form of it: modern ontologies naming state, nation, people, race, etc. as new grounds beyond discussion). In consequence, they have cut themselves off from theoretical possibilities and viewpoints that would be most useful when confronting such large, supranational issues as climate change. In other words, local, interlocking belief systems not only need to be taken into account when telling the story of what really unites and divides people but they are our main chance to avoid a type of history writing that has as much value and no more than the weakening national idea it has temporarily been linked to.

Nobody sees a problem, I suppose, in weakening—or showing the weakness and artificiality of—a historical framework all too often at the service of national and military power, itself at the beckon and call of capitalist instantiations. But what does it mean to appeal to other ontological ground than the “people’s will,” or “rationalism?” What does it entail to pay due attention (and return) to notions of transcendence and sacredness? Duara remarked on one of the great changes happening to large numbers of people since the eighteenth century and especially the past half century or so. Children used to begin to work and become peasants at the earliest possible time, from the age of five or thereabouts. Now, in very many places, in great part thanks to state agency, they go to school until sixteen or so. Childhood takes on a new meaning. When so many people leave behind agrarian systems in which one began to work early and enter capitalizable networks of relations, do they bring with them their own sense of mystery or transcendence and their old stories connected to that, or do they abandon them when they migrate to booming cities and when they switch to television- and internet-based story telling? What can “sacred” times and places mean for them?

Armand Robin

Ursula LeGuin spoke at the Rio tonight. Theme was: always coming home… and be patient enough to become rock or leaf. I walked to the Rio Theater then walked back and got soaked by a splendid drizzle. Any fine rain is home. Hence this poem of Armand Robin who spent much time listening to foreign radios in the many languages he knew and writing (righting) what he called Listening Reports:

Sans parole, je suis toute parole; sans langue, je suis chaque langue. D’incessants déferlements de rumeurs tantôt m’humectent et me font onde, tantôt m’affleurent comme un destin de calme promenade et me font sable, tantôt me choquent et me font roc. Je m’allonge en très immense et très docile plage où de vastes êtres collectifs, nerveux et tumultueux, abordent en gémissant élémentairement. (p. 14 of the edition by F. Morvan, ed. Le temps qu’il fait, 1979)


Speechless, I am every speech. Tongueless, I am every tongue. Ceaseless crashing rumors now moisten me and make me water and wave, or come flush like a quiet afternoon walk and make me sand, or yet are bolts and make me rock. I lay down, immense and very docile beach where vast collective beings, swift and thunderous, land with elemental groanings.

the Word

I just read about the McCutcheon decision taken by the Supreme Court. It makes it easier for rich people to infuse even more dollars more often into electoral cycles. What would the biblical prophets say? Modern representative political systems are about the Word: spoken, amplified, written, published, filmed, internet-searched and promoted. The spoken and written word is still free and unrepressed but quiet. The amplified and copied form is the modern form of ancient baalism. Its size and gilding confuse those hoping to hear truth. Plutocrats will be able to exercise more fully their democratic rights to speak—demo-cratic: power to the people!—, the court opines. But this is not at all about speaking the Word. It is about a capacity to copy, amplify, flood. What is a plutocratic Word likely to be if not about defending and extending plutocratic interests, power to collect more symbols of power. How? By removing all limits to the ability to shape and satisfy the most hidden desires of the populace. By going down as low as possible. By speaking the Word of desire. Plutocrats have one Word to say: greed. Three words: greed is good! Twelve words: My Greed meeting your n(gr)eed on the market produces adorable, shareable wealth!


The cherry blossoms at the library move to the breeze under immobile, somber sequoias. Eternal profusion of an erupting sea over the peeling, dark silver, lichen-covered bark. Miraculous light that disarms the white and pink palette of the mind. A wondrous canopy will have dared spring up again, offer its abode, and quiz eye and heart.

Jesus tragic figure?

Two quotes from John Gray’s March 13 review in the New Stateman of new books by Peter Watson—The age of nothing— and Terry Eagleton—Culture and the death of god:

If Yeshua (the Jewish prophet later known as Jesus) had died on the cross and stayed dead, that would have been a tragedy. In the Christian story, however, he was resurrected and came back into the world. Possibly this is why Dante’s great poem wasn’t called The Divine Tragedy. In the sense in which it was understood by the ancients, tragedy implies necessity and unalterable finality. According to Christianity, on the other hand, there is nothing that cannot be redeemed by divine grace and even death can be annulled.

Complete misreading of Christianity, to think of the resurrection as a trick, a deus ex machina of the kind featured at the end of some classical plays. One doesn’t need to believe in the resurrection and the messianic interpretation to see that Gray here is assuming a very old posture that was of course rejected by the gospels themselves. But to think Jesus’ death is not seen as a tragedy in Christianity: No need to know what tragos and victimization mean to consider that what is splashed everywhere from churches to house walls, not to mention paintings and scuptures, for centuries now, and perhaps coming to an end (but I wouldn’t bet on it) is the belief that Jesus is forever both on the cross and resurrected. The real problem Greeks had with the passion—many would have agreed with John Gray—cannot be evacuated so easily. As for redemption of everything by divine grace: Christianity struggled mightily with this notion. Surely there are things that are unforgiveable? And yet, no matter the terrible failures of Christianity (-ies), the invisible and sotto voce call for boundless forgiveness, that is what keeps sounding. As for Gray calling Jesus Yeshua, that is fake historicization, part of his unthinking attempt to evacuate the problem. By problem I mean a tragic vision of life that incomprehensibly hearkens to forgiveness and a transformation of life mechanics into another, barely imaginable life, here and now. And here is another quote showing Gray’s willful misunderstanding:

The anti-tragic character of Christianity poses something of a problem for Eagleton. As he understands it, the Christian message calls for the radical dissolution of established forms of life – a revolutionary demand, but also a tragic one, as the kingdom of God and that of man will always be at odds. The trouble is that the historical Jesus seems not to have believed anything like this. His disdain for order in society rested on his conviction that the world was about to come to an end, not metaphorically, as Augustine would later suggest, but literally. In contrast, revolutionaries must act in the basic belief that history will continue, and when they manage to seize power they display an intense interest in maintaining order. Those who make revolutions have little interest in being figures in a tragic spectacle. Perhaps Eagleton should read a little more Lenin.

… And John Gray the gospels. What this author calls Jesus’ disdain for order in society was a refusal of the disorder and anarchy parading as order.

dates of birth

The need to know the dates of birth of my parents made me discover the digitized archives of the Côtes d’Armor, a département in Brittany—one of 96 in France. I could not find my parents’ dates in these digitized archives because they cover the years from 1467 (the date of the earliest registry of births in the collection, in Latin at the time) to 1902, sometimes 1906. My parents were born in 1906 and 1913 and the record of their births probably has not been digitized. It is still in the mairies‘ registries of their villages of origin.

Why don’t I know their dates? The main reason is that when we were growing up in the fifties in traditional Catholic villages in Brittany (and I suppose this is true of the rest of the traditional Catholic world at the time) we didn’t celebrate birthdays, or at least not our parents’. Saints’ days were celebrated or kept in mind and advertized by collective celebrations (pardons), the imagined days of a glorious entrance or birth into heaven after the travails of life. Like that of Saint Gildas, a sixth-century Welsh saint whose traces are celebrated from northern to southern Brittany, such as at this island below, called l’île Saint Gildas in French. The photograph taken from heaven comes from the Henrard collection and was bought by the Archives départementales where I found it. Photo taken in the late fifties (dates given: 1948–72)?

Enezenn Sant Gweltaz (St Gildas)

Boycott and boycott

Two boycotts are presently targeting Israel. One takes aim at companies and organizations having their operations, or some of them, in the settlements and implantations that have been developing on the West Bank since the seventies. The second boycott, started by the BDS movement (= Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), made news recently because of the American Studies Association’s announcement of its support of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Supporters of the anti-Palestinian policies of Israel’s present government are trying hard to confuse the public regarding the first one, the limited boycott of companies operating in the settlements on the West Bank, because it has a sound legal and ethical basis. It can really hurt and accelerate peace negotiations. They use boycott number 2, the BDS one, which they know is problematic for most people in the US, as if it were the basis for boycott number 1, the limited one. See for instance yesterday’s NYT article on countering boycotts by Landler, or today’s opinion piece by the foreign editor of Die Welt.

A few words about boycott one, which targets companies and products in the settlements. I support this boycott because these settlements are illegal and “an obstacle to peace” (footnote: this was the diplomatic language used by US Secretary of States until it was dropped by Reagan’s administration. Obama’s went tentatively back to it, at the beginning of his administration). The implantations prevent a negotiation and resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict on the basis of UN Resolution 242 and the Oslo Accords of 1993–95. A solution to the conflict on that basis, with land swaps, is possible. But the settlements’ continuous expansion since the Oslo Accords and especially now, in the face of efforts by the Obama administration to put the peace process back on rails, makes an economic and cultural boycott of these settlements necessary. We’ll see how a recently weakened AIPAC frames the discussion in the days to come. Kerry is to address it on Monday, if the situation in Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia, not to mention Syria, does not need his attention.

The second or BDS boycott is legally and ethically confusing to most people. The three main elements of its platform are: 1) equal rights of citizenship for current inhabitants; 2) the end to the occupation; 3) the rights of unlawfully displaced persons to return to their lands and gain restitution for their losses. Because numbers 2 and 3 could apply to the state of Israel as a home and refuge for many Jews since 1948, I don’t see how it can be supported.

Boycott number one needs to expand if Israel’s government continues to refuse to engage in the peace process.


This is a summary of a paper I gave yesterday on the origins of the apocalyptic mind and literature (Enoch, Daniel, right up to Revelation). It was a standard historical paper, with ethical and political considerations regarding the modern situation not buried too deeply down.

The paper starts by saying that apocalyptic literature—a three-century-something long development initiated in the third century B.C.E.—is the continuation of the sixth-to-fifth century monotheistic reframing of the Yahweh divinity. This reframing and broadening of Yahweh is in great part an explanation of, and resistance to, a succession of three empires. Belief in a single, only divinity was at the same time a listening beyond the fury and chaos of history. This listening to and obeying an inscrutable divine will had been revealed to an interstitial Moses, the story went, not to a king. Listening (in the sense of paying attention as well as a more problematic obeying) remained or became the driving metaphor, rather than seeing and its related political forms. The Mosaic story and law took their present shape together with the new temple in the late sixth-fifth centuries B.C.E.

Apocalyptic takes its cue from the central role played in Judahite society by this new temple and torah. For its own purposes, Achaemenid rule had allowed or encouraged limited, local, non-royal, control for peoples still reeling from the collapse of their monarchy and loss of political center. In this new situation, an original, divinely inspired, constitution had been created—as well as a historical narrative of origins, an explanation of failures, and reasons for hope. And together with the reframing of a catastrophic political history as being the expression of long-revealed divine will, the eventual rebuilding of the divinity’s house proceeded. Both Torah and temple became the sources of renewed strength for a small, beaten, partly dispersed, endangered people.

The lay and soon-dominant priestly elites in Judah, however, were in a paradoxical situation. The authority of both of these groups, in regard to Achaemenid and later Ptolemaic kings, depended on their ability to ensure order and tribute. But from the Judahites’ point of view, it depended on their contiguity or nearness to temple and torah. It was precisely their religious authority (including their eventual creation and placing of the torah at the center), their attached rights to religious tithing, and consequently their local integration and intimate knowledge of economic resources and social situations that enabled them to play an effective role as disguised tax-farmers for the Persian kings. Leaders or protectors of the people and facilitators of a tributary empire at the same time.

This uneasy equilibrium lasted for some time. Two centuries something later, however, two combined pressures came about that could not be managed anymore. One was a particularly oppressive external imperial assault that, in its combination of Hellenistic and eventual Roman competing claims, made overt as well as implicit linguistic, economic, and cultural-religious demands that the people and many among the elites found impossible to meet. The second was a more complicated, local development, marked by the end of the authoritative and uneasy role of the Judahite leadership that was summarized above, of lay elites and priesthood. Part of it was the hardening of the temple as institution, and the torah as canon. The latter was not hermetically closed until long after, but prophetic voices and eschatological thinking were discouraged. The elites’ splits and abandonment of their responsibilities have left traces in some of the later layers of the Hebrew Bible.

This is the situation that apocalyptic responded to and tried to transcend. So, the core of apocalyptic was not otherworldly or devoid of ethical concerns, on the contrary. In the re-mythicized forms it adopted, evil was politically and socially rooted and the writers projected the unseemly and incomprehensible victory of unrighteousness as part of a divine plan revealed to visionaries: the ineluctable and inescapable triumph of an “enthroned glory.” Yet, this enthroned glory was still an absent male patriarch, the absent father of daily life as well as the absent and formidable head of state, the Ancient of Days, a glory before which one could only prostrate oneself.

I concluded the paper with a discussion of Jesus. Was he an apocalyptic thinker (dreamer?) or an anti-Roman peasant revolutionary? I tried to show there is no either/or. Jesus folded the apocalyptic worldview unto the here and now. That is, the grandiose cosmic waiting and near-coming featured in apocalyptic, he took to be the waiting and expectation of the paralytic, the hungry, the woman with a blood flow, disciples, hearers, or those waiting (in the parables) for the master, the landowner, the king, the groom. This announcement that the waiting was over (is permanently over?), however, went directly against the notion of a structured absence we see at the center of the Temple and Torah as well as in much of the apocalyptic literature. Directly against the Roman and Judaean managerial politics surrounding this convenient absence. Jesus continued something long at work in his society since the transformation of the Maccabean revolution into another kingdom yet. He radicalized the logic of those large movements (especially the Pharisees but also the Essenes) and claimed a life in which real bodies and souls could live here and now the promises and hopes of a decentered or dislocated temple and torah.

I did not play a coda that could have gone as follows. The story of this collapse of a cosmic wait onto the mundane here-and-now led to a refocussing of history, on a much larger scale than before, around the vanishing point of a returning Christic figure. It lasted aeons, right up to our seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (and it lives in large groups still around us). Then it transmogrified into the steely and brave-new-worldly dream of the advent of reason, and that too, at the hands of national entities, liberal and/or fascistic, became apocalyptic. Exhausted, we look over our shoulders, deconstruct all of that, and find ourselves at the mercy again of managerial politics, with floating chunks of rationality here and there, though thankfully without mediation of any kind: no temple, church, state, vectorized Hegelian history. The ethics and rationalizations of our managers seem very thin and narrow. Greed and sheer stupidity are well matched. So, here and now we are, pilgrims and explorers again and again.

From TS Eliot, Four quartets, end of East Coker:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

The Stuart Hall Project

The Stuart Hall Project: Revolution, politics, culture and the New Left experience: a new film by John Akomfrah. A major success in Britain last Fall, “The Stuart Hall Project” is now being distributed in the USA.

It will be screened at UCSC on Tuesday evening, February 25th. 7:30 PM, Studio C. (Communications 150)

The film, 102 minutes, will be followed by an informal panel and general discussion animated by James Clifford (History of Consciousness), Jennifer Gonzalez (HAVC), and Herman Gray (Sociology).

See also the interview of filmmaker John Akomfrah by Jonathan Derbyshire in the Prospect Magazine.

Stuart Hall Project

Generously funded by the Arts Dean’s Fund for Excellence. Co-sponsored by The Center for Cultural Studies and the Department of Film and Digital Media.

Huñvreoù (Gildas Hamel)