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Conferences, Lectures, Workshops

Sikhism and Critical Theory

Workshop Conference at Hofstra University

PANEL 1: Diaspora

Post-Colonial Practices and Narrative Nomads:
Thinking Sikhism Beyond Metaphysics
Ajit K. Maan (University of Oregon)

I begin by assuming three things. First, I assume that the institutions of colonization continue to function within a culture even after the withdrawal of a physical colonial presence. Second, I assume a particular type of colonization phenomenon among indigenous elites which involves appropriating the colonial Master Narrative. My third assumption is that human experience, cognition and identity are primarily narrative in nature.

Having made similar assumptions, a number of theorists have focused on issues of cross-cultural conflict, physical dislocation, and experiential rupture in the formation of subjectivity. Critical engagement with colonial narratives and the re-examination of indigenous pre-colonized narratives has been recently popular. Some have engaged in “unlearning privilege”, while others have examined the practical methods, and unique position of subaltern subjects who have managed to maintain indigenous ways of being while simultaneously adapting to colonial impositions. Following this line of inquiry, I wonder about the possibility of the formulation of new narratives which make sense of (but do not necessarily integrate) one’s cultural past with the subject effects of colonialism.

There has been a terrible urgency since 1984 for Sikhs to define and defend themselves – to define, so that they can defend themselves. (I am referring to movements intent on gaining official “minority status”, “national sovereignty”, or “nation in exile” status). While identification is problematic for any colonized people, the obstacles of any form of selves-invention among contemporary Sikhs are considerable . I will argue that a disorder of identity results from clinging to colonial appropriations of Sikh identity, and I will argue that rather than attempting to create a central space , the project should rather be to fully embody ontologies, and to identify with dislocation; the project should be to fully occupy the marginal space.

The potential capacity for response to colonial impositions results, I argue, from marginalization and displacement. Sikhs are a minority community historically defined by exclusion from the dominant discourses of Hinduism and Islam, and as such, Sikhs are in a uniquely subversive position. And Sikhs are nomadic, perhaps the most diasporic population originating from India. Transnational and multi-linguistic, cultural nomads have access to multiple stories, voices and conceptual schemes. Existence between authoritarian discourses of dominant cultures enables an extended form of agency wherein a subject can undermine traditional associations, assumptions, and identity practices, while at the same time creating narrative connections between otherwise incommensurable world views.

“Diasporic Sublime”
Brian Keith Axel (Harvard University)

A key aim of this paper is to develop a precise means for studying the impact of the Internet on new processes of diasporic subject formation, including the interweaving of commodification and visuality with political conflict. The paper looks at how the Internet mediates, reports, visualizes, or makes possible new forms of global political action, concerning, for example, disputed territories, human rights, or Sikhism’s martyrs (shahid). The approach is to analyze a dialectics of what goes on “in cyberspace” and “on the ground” in India, England, and the US – seeing each in relation to important historical precursors.

The paper uses this material to engage debates over Kant’s original formulation of the sublime, which may provide a new position from which to theorize diaspora more generally – not in terms of homelands and kinship patterns, but through an understanding of how new forms of communication and capitalism may engender of generalize collective experiences of horror and desire. This specific use of critical theory and philosophical categories for the study of subject formation was introduced in the work of Leo Marx (1964) and David Nye (1994) on what they have called the “technological sublime”. These scholars have emphasized the ways that technology in the nineteenth century became a particular kind of agent capable of inspiring a sense of awe and reverence that came to be associated with utopian visions of an emergent American cultural nationalism. However, Nve and Leo Marx define the sublime as a generalized “experience” of technology. In contrast, my return to Kant’s writing on the sublime is intended to generate a more precise language for generating a critique of “experience”, and for analyzing the social efficacy of the Internet’s visuality (i.e., something distinct from nineteenth century utopian discourse). This is particularly important if we are to elaborate Benjamin’s provocative contention that what is definitive, precisely, is “what has not been experienced explicitly and consciously, what has not happened to the subject as an experience” (1965: 161). In other words, central for an understanding of the impact of new technologies and of the significance of visual images on the formation of a Sikh diaspora is the constitution of the diasporic subject by means of the irruption of what has not been lived into a moment that comes to be lived. This is a process I will name the diasporic sublime.

Memory, location, genealogy, history: or, why I am not an American
Jeevan Singh Deol (University of Cambridge, U.K.)

Much modern writing has had a latent fascination with two themes: migration and America. The first of these themes has been a recurring motif in modern fiction and has recently been linked explicitly to the discourses of identity politics. It has now received significant theoretical attention in recent work by Derrida, who has considered themes of hospitality, belonging, foreignness and linguistic self-identification. These themes potentially have much more to contribute to writing on South Asia than the narcissism of the Saidian post-colonial ‘ur-text’, particularly to work being done by diasporic academics. The second theme, America and the varying perceptions of what it is, has explicitly or latently informed or shadowed over much theoretical writing, postmodern or subsequent, most openly of course in the work of Baudrillard.

I propose to explore these themes and their interrelations in the context of diasporic Sikh writing through my own relationship to these motifs. I will look at the nexus between scholarship and notions of identification through the lens of the history of early Sikh migration to America. In particular, I will use autobiography and genealogy to interrogate identification, belonging and hospitality.

Early Sikh migration to America was fraught with many difficulties. Male Sikhs were not generally permitted to bring over spouses or families, and in some jurisdictions they were not allowed to own land. My own grandfather’s story will form the departure point for my investigations: he came to America in 1912 and received his citizenship, as a ‘white Aryan’ by race, in 1917 in exchange for a promise to join the US Army. The arguments that allowed him to be classed as an ‘Aryan’ rather than as a ‘Negro’ were, ironically, constructed from ‘authoritative’ Orientalist discourses on India. Six years later, they were demolished by empirical observation and a conception belonging based on Enlightenment political discourse: in 1923 the US Supreme Court upheld a local magistrate’s opinion that Indians were ‘Negros’. Indians in the US were stripped of their US citizenship, and my grandfather eventually left for Canada.

I will explore this history of migration, belonging and exile from a diasporic point of view, focusing particularly on my engagement with it and the ways in which these discourses intersect, overlap and, ultimately, conflict with one another.

Locating the Sikh Pagh - Mis-identity or Missing Identity
Vrinder Kalra (University of Manchester, U.K.)

The death of Balbir Singh following the attacks on the WTC and Pentagon in 2001 once again highlights the problematic nature of Sikh subjectivity in the diaspora. Buy highlighting the major signifiers of beard and pagh, Sikhs come to represent not only their own self-identity but that of the whole mysterious Orient. This diasporic conflation of Sikhs with Muslims has tragic consequences in the light of attacks on Sikhs and Muslims, but also points to more deeper issues of concern. The misidentification of Balbir Singh as a Muslim is not solely context specific. It perhaps indicates that when a counter force to Western hegemony rises in the shape of Islam, then other identity markers become subsumed within the greater conflict. So even when critiques of western liberal discourse emerge from post-colonial theory and from Islamic scholarship the openings that emerge are not necessarily counter universal, rather they are in competition for the hegemonic position. At this point it then becomes difficult for Sikhs to articulate their own subjectivity in any meaningful sense. And in the aftermath of the death of Balbir Singh and other attacks, the Sikh community has gone to great lengths to align itself with the forces of western hegemony, rather than grasping the opportunity to present a position consistent with the practices (remember the Khalistani struggle) and ethos of Sikhism. But this absence of articulation may be reflective of not just mis-identity but of a missing identity. A point that maybe uncomfortable for many to reflect upon. It could be argued that Sikhs were unable to represent themselves as anything other than non-Muslims precisely because the pagh and beard are not a sufficient basis for constructing the collectivity required for tackling such grave issues. This is not to say that Sikhism is not resourced for this kind of work, both institutionally as well as intellectually there is material available to construct such a number of perspectives. The task then is perhaps to work out the processes by which this might occur.

PANEL 2: Politics

Re-thinking the Political: Sikhism and Critical Theory
Gurharpal Singh (University of Birmingham, U.K.)

Sikh studies as a distinct subject has made remarkable progress since the late 1970s. From an obscure specialism it has attracted a growing body scholars trained in Western universities who have distinguished themselves at many levels. Over the last two decades the arrival of Sikh Studies as a distinct subject area has been marked by its growing institutionalization within the academy.

Although much of this interest has taken place within the traditional disciplinary boundaries, some scholars are beginning to move beyond these frames of reference to utilize critical theory to revise our understanding of conventional wisdom. Thus far these efforts have been confined primarily to historical and religious discourses.

The sphere of the political remains largely unexplored. This paper will argue that for the encounter between critical theory and Sikhism to be fruitful there is need to re-think what has so far been understood as the political. Familiar discourses of the political rooted around religious identity, territory, ethno-nationalism, secularism, statism, institution-building for the study of Sikhs and Sikhism predominate in the current literature and have become established as the conventional wisdom. A more self-critical and expansive vision of the political for Sikhism would interrogate the narrow limits imposed by these discourses and the need to engage in deliberative dialogue around cherished ideals that are sometimes seen as the defining markers of the community. It will reflect on post-secular rethinking of the political dimensions of Sikhism and evaluate the consequences for the notions of sovereignty, equality and democracy.

Beyond Westphalia: Sikh Identity and Critical International Theory
Giorgio Shani (Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan)

The state building process in the Westphalian era produced territorial concentrations of power. Centralized political institutions established a complex ensemble of monopoly powers over clearly defined territorial frontiers and aimed, with varying levels of success, to create homogenous national units. Territorialized nation-states employed nationalist symbols to bring political and cultural boundaries into close alignment and to accentuate the differences between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsider’. Neo-realism, the dominant perspective in international political theory, is testimony to the success of the totalizing project in creating the sharp divide between domestic and international politics. Recently, however, increasing globalization and fragmentation in the post-Cold War world has led to the return of culture and identity to international relations theory (Lapid and Kratochwil 1996). Fragmentation has highlighted the disjunction between the boundaries of cultural and political communities in many parts of the world whilst globalization casts doubt on the supposition that the nation-state is the only significant political community. The impact of global social and economic change on the territorialized nation-state now means that the notion of a bordered, self-contained community that is at the heart of international political theory has become difficult to sustain. International relations is increasingly seen as constituted by thought on issues of ‘inside-outside’ (Walker 1993) or ‘inclusion-exclusion’ (Linklater 1998). Whilst neo-realism continues to focus upon the relations between these self-contained ‘units’ (Waltz 1977), critical theory looks at the origins, development of and potential transformation of the bounded territorial state. This creates space for the articulation of a deterritorialized Sikh diasporic identity which challenges the Westphalian order in its rejection of sovereign statehood and its assertion of the sovereignty of the Khalsa Panth. Unlike Khalistani discourses, Sikh diasporic discourses do not place territorial limits on the sovereignty of the Khalsa Panth, and thus, may be seen to go beyond Westphalia.

The U.N. and Internal Conflicts: A Sikh Perspective
Jasdev S. Rai (S.H.R.G.)

As people develop increasing realization of a globalized period, the interdependency of states has meant a reduction in inter-state wars normally called international wars, and an increase of wars in the global context. Many of the conflicts labeled as internal conflicts can perhaps be considered as precursors of global wars or localized wars of the global era. The large number of these localized conflicts and the new obvious global conflict precipitated by al qaeda, have found international institutions, particularly the United nations, challenged to a point of ineffectiveness Classic notions of resolving these conflicts, both by the States themselves and by international institutions, have failed.
The nation state is considered to be the product of the project of modernity rooted in secular ideas, values and principles. Given that the notion of territorial limit in religious philosophies is a contradiction it can be argued that even the theocratic State is essentially a derivative of the secular nation state.

From a subaltern Sikh perspective I propose in this paper (i) a departure from the traditional understanding of these conflicts and orientation of international institutions, (ii) a review of the mental and dogmatic obstacles to realistic solutions.

PANEL 3: Religion

Questioning hermeneutics: the difference nondual interpretation makes (to interpret gurbaani without interpreting)
Balbinder Singh Bhogal (James Madison University, USA)

This paper builds upon my doctoral thesis and my ‘on the hermeneutics of Sikh thought and praxis’ (Shackle et al 2001). It analyses the difference between the hermeneutics of vaak lao as a very personal communication with the hermeneutics of SGPC exegesis as public document and universal statement. The interest lies in the impermanence, embodiment and historicity of the former and the ‘permanent’, abstract and supposedly ahistorical nature of the latter. In short the difference between a hermeneutics of ‘Sikh lived experience’ as opposed to a hermeneutics of one Sikh metanarrative or ideology, or as Ardener (in Overing 1985:52) puts it ‘what was once life simply becomes genre… as experience is made text, life becomes genre’.

This difference between a ‘boundaried or abstracted’ hermeneutics of genre and a ‘cross-boarder’ hermeneutics ‘of life’ is compounded by the notion that scripture (gurabaani) does not follow a singular nor straight path to systematization (guramati); that the teaching, rather, leads to multiple interpretations. That is to say, the transition from personal lived experiences to collective representations of a social group, from ‘a specific word for an individual to enact’ (praxis) to a ‘universal doctrine for a community to uphold’ (theory), and finally from gurabaani to guramati leaves interpretive traces laden with historical circumstances. In this respect the paper will briefly trace the difference translations make. In tracing this difference an adjacent question about the point of praxis must also be asked: is the ‘truth’, or indeed oneself, lost or found in translation?

More broadly questions about the nature and scope of Sikh scripture must also be outlined. Since the paper aims to translate Guru Nanak’s ‘other voice’ into English the notion of ‘cross-boarder’, or ‘cross-cultural’ hermeneutics needs to be carefully investigated. The paper will therefore spend time to delineate current hermeneutic theories and critiques, for example Wolterstorff’s notion of ‘deputized and double speech’ (in Luden 1997) adapted in the light that Guru Nanak not only spoke ‘on behalf of Hari’ being commissioned or deputized by Him, but was also ‘spoken through by Hari’, as well as deputizing successors to speak with the mantel of Guru. In this respect the notion that ‘hermeneutics’ as one thing is complicated with recent work outlining an ‘anatomy’ or range of hermeneutic theories, spanning textual hermeneutics (scripture as book), visual hermeneutics (scripture as vision, darshan of the Guru) but more importantly a hermeneutics of music and song (scripture as sound, mantra, hymn etc). (see Iser 2000, Dasilva and Brunsma 1996 to cover only western notions of these)

The use of hermeneutics will then need to be qualified and the challenge from deconstruction (Derrida, Vattimo, etc Derrida versus Gadamer debate) will also need to be debated to radicalize the interpretive thinking, especially in terms of the critique of historicism, given the hemeneutic historicizing of understanding, and universal assumption of historical knowledge/consciousness. There are also many problems with interpretation from the Sikh context especially when one acknowledges that one is interpreting the visible half (granth) of the invisible (guru); that the Guru’s Word (gurasabad) cannot simply be identified with the words of the Adi Granth. A trajectory between hermeneutics and deconstruction will therefore be assessed, whether as Silverman’s (1994) ‘hermeneutics semiology’ or ‘juxtapositional deconstruction’, or Caputo’s (1987) ‘radical hermeneutics’ or indeed Schrift’s (1990) Nietzsche. It is important to note that hermeneutics itself has developed over time, as Jennings (in Lundin 1997:12) notes, ‘on the way from Kant to Derrida, from Schleiermacher to Baudrillard, hermeneutics has been repositioned… as fully the power of reading’. Note also the emergence of ‘vernacular’ and ‘postcolonial’ hermeneutics (Sugirthirajah 1999, 1999), as well as ‘diasporic’ hermeneutics.

If the Granth as text demands interpretation, then the text as gurasabad demands application. Though the AG is commonly interpreted as a timeless revelation it is also tied to the lived experiences of those that apply its ‘truths’, and application is conditioned by contemporary contexts, and therefore must change to remain appropriately sensitive to changing discourses.

Underlying the whole paper will be the argument that a nondual interpretation has been elided. And that this omission is crucial in any understanding of the Sikh scripture and tradition.

Between Bodies: The Imminence of Khalsa Identity
Navdeep Singh Mandair (S.O.A.S. University of London)

In this paper I will attempt to justify the perversity of a proposition which posits the focus of Sikh studies as an object other than Sikhism. The lacuna within Sikh studies signaled by this assertion will be highlighted by problematizing the uncritical acceptance of a Sikh identity, here interrogated from the perspective of the male Khalsa subject, which has been surreptitiously reorganized in an encounter with the pernicious sympathy of modernity’s gaze. What this inscrutable act of revision signals then is that Sikh identity is an object which unfolds upon the ontological horizon of the virtual. A genealogy of this event will track its inception to the deployment of masculinity , by the British in colonial India, as an icon to inscribe an underlying affinity between Sikh and Christian religious beliefs and follow the rehearsal of this colonization of difference as reflected in the recent work of Sikh studies specialists which aims to situate Sikhism firmly within the ambit of a world religions project.

Drawing on the work of Jacques Lacan I will attempt to read the mimetic event informing colonial encounter through the notion of the mirror stage. An initial reading will suggest that the coming-into-being (devenir) of Sikh identity is predicated on the eliding of a carnality which disfigures it vis-à-vis the colonial imago. A subsequent rethinking of this event will foreground the possibility of an interpretation based on a return-into-being (revenir) of identity - this temporalization of the virtual disclosing a mode of existence which at bottom constitutes the horizon of the haunting and posits the Sikh (other) as revenant.

Ironically however it may be the idea of the revenant itself which provides the key to thinking Sikh identity beyond the vacuity of a virtual ontology. This idea will be explored using insights from the work of Jacques Derrida in particular the notion of the supplement. It will be argued that the corporeal signature of the Khalsa-pre-eminently the beard, turban and the conspicuous display of weapons- is supplementary to biological masculinity and that the revenant exists in between conflicting interpretations of this fact, the disavowal or affirmation of this supplementary body determining the manifestation of the Khalsa Sikh as either, a ghostly presence or, radically other.

Thus, if Sikh studies is to be about Sikhism it must remain attentive to those excessive aspects of religious identity hitherto elided from its phenomenological accounts, signaling therefore that the ostensible openness of such studies to cultural difference conceals a desire to annex it to a monosemic model of identity.

Emancipatory Discourses of Sikhism: A Critical Perspective
Gurnam Singh (Coventry University, U.K.)

Against the backdrop of globalization, and the attendant instability in the global economic order, coupled with an apparent upsurge in local, regional and international conflicts based on various kinds of group identification (race, ethnicity, religion etc), the promises of western progress, of modernity and civilization are becoming increasing incredulous. The temporal and spatial distortions caused by globalization, underpinned by economic, cultural and epistemological uncertainty, throw up a number of extremely difficult challenges for critical social theory. In response to this challenge, postmodern and postcolonial scholars have begun to problematize and prise apart the surface narrative of western modernity. These new spaces of intellectual inquiry offer scholars of Sikhism, new and exiting opportunities to revisit our own understandings of Sikh theology and tradition. More specifically, it enables one to re imagine and rein scribe the emancipatory discourses that have historically been associated with Sikhism within the context of late or post-modernity.

The central aim of this paper is to critically interrogate the key and widely celebrated emancipatory claims of Sikhism, namely the rejection of social division based on race, class/caste and gender. The paper will be structured in four parts. To provide some kind of theoretical coherence to the latter discussion, the first part will set out the problems and possibility of postmodern theory for understanding human oppression and emancipation. The second part will establish a broad theoretical exposition of ‘race’, class/cast and gender. This will be followed by a selective interrogate Sikh scriptures in order to both map out the ways in which the Gurus both theorized these social divisions, and to highlight the kinds of remedies for proposed for their eradication and the kind of utopian society that is envisaged. Both as a means of concluding my paper and also in order to provide some prompts for further debate the final part of the paper will raise some tentative points about the contemporary status of the social divisions within the Sikh Diaspora and the likely impact that the dual forces of globalization and postmodernity are likely to have in the near future.