The Modern Spirit of Asia:

In defense of the fragment

posted by Peter van der Veer

Richard Madsen has done me the favor of reading my book carefully and sympathetically. He points out that the complexity of comparative analysis increases immensely when one does away with assuming unified cultural wholes. The kinds of narratives that were built in the past on the assumption of unified wholes have become impossible, and with them the kind of theorizing that characterized comparative analysis. In the view of many scholars, that means an end to comparative analysis. How can one do comparison of shifting, disintegrating social and cultural realities? How can one compare India and China when one respects the fragmentary nature of society? To an important extent, the narrative presented in my book reflects the fragmentary nature of the object of comparison. By implication, my refusal to go from sketching fragments to painting the whole picture does not satisfy a desire for unity or for a metanarrative. Such a metanarrative might go in the direction of theorizing what makes us human. For example, I see in the current interest in cognitive science a metanarrative about what connects animals and humans: here, theoretical unity is provided by science and the integration of the humanities into science. Another example would be that in ethical debates about moral empathy and humanitarianism, one finds a concern for common humanity: the unifying idea is that we are all humans, whatever our cultural and historical differences. As Madsen suggests, it is especially the environment or nature that connects us with animals, things, and universal ethical concerns. These are some of the directions in which these metanarratives might go.

At the same time, I feel deeply uncomfortable with universalizing discourses that mostly (like in psychology) come from an extrapolation of findings in the West. In the Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures that I gave recently, I tried to make an argument for fragmentary understandings that can counter the Western ethnocentrism that still dominates the humanities and social sciences. My claim is that through close study of a fragment, one is able to understand and comment on the larger whole, allowing one to interpret the fragment (whatever that particular whole or fragment may be). It is the choice of a particular fragment of social life that determines what its relevant context is or what larger question to address. While this resembles the hermeneutic circle of textual interpretation, one needs to recognize that social life is not a “social text” and is certainly not a closed text. The openness of social change is multi-directional. Similarly, one needs to steer clear of a universalizing approach that first defines some kind of essence, like “ritual” or “prayer,” and then studies it comparatively across cultures.

At this point, it is important to emphasize that what I am suggesting should not be misunderstood as a process of generalization from the particular. The purpose is not to come to some general truth, but to highlight something specific and of broader significance. The perspective I offer is obviously close to that of Clifford Geertz in his famous essay on “thick description,” but there is a significant difference. What has to be curbed is the quite understandable desire to say something general about, say, religion as a universal entity (as a “cultural system”), or about a particular society’s religion in general (as in “religion of Java”), or about the general and thus comparable features of a world religion’s manifestations in different societies (“Islam observed”). The move from a fragment to a larger insight is a conceptual and theoretical one, not a form of generalization. It does not come from mere observation, but is theory-laden. Theory should here be taken in its original sense of observing and contemplating, not as generalization, as in “a general theory of action” (Talcott Parsons) or a “theory of practice” (Pierre Bourdieu). Therefore, I take anthropology to be a conceptual engagement in which translation plays a central role. Its basic starting-point is to question the universality of what, in modern society, is taken to constitute the separate domains of the economy of politics, of law, and of religion as well as the dichotomy between state and society, or between the individual and society, or even between inner feeling and outward appearance. In fact, these pervasive dichotomous conceptualizations have a particular history in modern Western societies and languages. The perspective of anthropology, incorporated in historical sociology, allows us to bracket Western assumptions and investigate how people outside of “the modern West” are conceptualizing their social life without presuming the universality of Western understandings.

This is also a response to Jason Ānanda Josephson, who would like to have either social theory (whatever he imagines that might be) or detailed historiographical or ethnographical accounts, but not essays in comparative understanding that lead to new observations and questions that specialists have ignored. His comments show the extent to which some textual scholars cannot, or will not, read. Let me respond to some of the most egregious comments.

I make it very explicit in the book that I lift the term “syntagmatic” out of Ferdinand de Saussure without adopting his linguistic theory, and certainly not adopting the idea of a general grammar that underlies manifested language. I argue in the book that this syntagmatic chain emerges in the context of imperial modernity and that I consider imperial interactions the cause of the emergence of this particular chain of concepts. I use this concept to indicate that the terms “religion-spirituality-magic-secularity” belong to each other, are not simple essences, and do not possess stable meanings independently from one another. Nevertheless, Josephson sees fit to give a lesson in de Saussurean linguistics. The point I wanted to make in the book is that, at the end of the nineteenth century, Asian traditions are translated in interrelated Western conceptions of religion-spirituality-magic-secularity and that these conceptualizations have become increasingly dominant in Chinese and Indian self-understanding, to the extent that one of the leading contemporary Chinese interpreters of Confucianism, Tu Weiming, writes books about Confucian spirituality.

Josephson complains that “in The Modern Spirit [of Asia] we don’t really have China and India interacting.” The explicit point of the book is that there is little direct interaction in the modern period between India and China, but that both are transformed in different ways by their interaction with imperial powers. This is one of the core arguments in the book and it is astonishing that Josephson misses it and wants me to examine marginal events such as the Sino-Sikh War. A much better suggestion would have been to look at the production and trade in opium and tea (and other commodities), but I would argue that this trade is only rightly understood as part of imperial interactions.

Josephson is surprised that I feel compelled to defend a comparative analysis. Where has he been? There is hardly any comparative work on India and China available. He has not done any comparative work himself that I am aware of; indeed, in his entire response, there is no sense that he is interested in this kind of comparative work. There is no engagement with the substantive comparisons that are offered in the book. One would have expected a substantive critique (based on the archive, for instance) from a specialist in the study of Japan, since there is so much intellectual traffic between China and Japan. It is amusing that Josephson does not understand that the kind of comparison I make must, by necessity, be based on a synthesis of existing literature. That is by no means a denigration of the archival or field work which I have done extensively in India and also in China (“archive rats” is a positive term where I come from), because the synthetic work that I have presented in the book has to be based on that primary work.

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One Response to “In defense of the fragment”

  1. Dear Peter, I see you’ve replied to my reply.

    Excellent. I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation.

    Again, I want to reiterate that I don’t think we differ in the aims of our projects so much as their methodologies. Indeed I think in ways we agree about more than we disagree. And there is much I liked about your book.

    From your response, however, I don’t think I have successfully communicated to you my constructive suggestions. Apologies.

    I’m hosting a conference here (http://religion.williams.edu/theory-after-postmodernism) and I won’t be able to comment on your reply until next week.

    Until then, hope you are well,
    Best!
    ———-Jason

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