A One Day Workshop

Sponsored by: Institute for the Humanities

University of Michigan


June 2nd  2016


Workshop Theme

Intellectual encounters between modern Western and non-Western cultures have long been framed as ‘comparison’ or ‘crossing of horizons.’  Built into such comparisons and crossings, however, is the implicit structuring privilege of Western traditions and perspectives. The unsurprising result has been, and continues to be, a non-encounter. This happens because of an othering theo-philosophical framework which then transports meaning from one language/culture to another. While some recent philosophies have critiqued these structures of power, they remain based on negativity and lack. This leads the study of religion/culture to deny encounter by arrogating to itself the very definition of what thinking is, or what a concept is that might breach these boundaries. This colloquium will explore ways to rethink encounter between concepts from different cultural traditions by reconsidering the temporality in which encounter occurs, referring, inter alia, to Deleuze’s notion of the event, the temporality of his unique iteration of the concept. To do so, the colloquium will use a broadly conversational format: speakers will briefly outline a position toward this conundrum of ‘true’ encounter, which will both serve as springboard and direction for a larger discussion. In preparing remarks, the participants are asked to imagine themselves speaking from a mode of conceptual diaspora or liminal space from which to pivot plurivectorally, rather than carry content that proves too unwieldy to travel.

Diaspora Machines: Rethinking Conceptual Encounter

Why are Western thinkers (long dead) still treated as if they were living, whereas Asian concepts and thinkers were treated as long dead and gone, with no possibility of bringing them into the light of day (Chakrabarty 2000)? Worse, why are scholars working with non-Western materials ghettoized into the silos of area studies, and their conceptual apparatus held suspect if it “borrows” from Western theorists? Alternatively, why do some students of non-Western traditions consider it useless – even intrusive – to invoke such theory? Is this hermeneutics of suspicion simply a (reactive) colonializing hermeneutics, or is it a postmodern “cuius regio” of a fractured globalism? Surely these temporal strictures give lie to the politics of multiculturalism, a regime of conceptual septa which end up resolidifying the royal, centripetal privilege of Western cultural discourse. It seems that language (langue) cuts a major figure in this theater of cultures, defining conditions for historicity, and that which transcends it. Does the use of European languages as the international scholarly idiom overdetermine this script? Is it possible to work with Asian or other non-Western matters and notions in Anglo- or Europhone environs without distorting them? Perhaps the real enemy is the very idea of the West, with its residual and persistent coloniality, or even just the broader vice of lithely naming cultures.

What might be the temporality of an encounter that is no longer Orientalist or colonial? A productive avenue to explore may lie in Gilles Deleuze’s “event,” which names a temporality working between and pushing against the limits of history and majoritarian structures. This proposal seeks to explore the possibilities of reimagining the space of encounter in terms of the event across two major axes. One is to take Gilles Deleuze’s notion of concepts and see to how much it may be stretched out beneath and beyond the wall between philosophy and wisdom wall that he himself (out of ignorance) erected between the “West” and “East.” Would a demonstration of the conceptual rigor of thought from India, Persia, China and elsewhere help to create a “smooth space” for the encounter of traditions not “striated” by the politics of a colonial geophilosophy? Would that in turn sacrifice conceptual autochthony of the very tradition we may wish to revive from non-Western sources? Or should we rather draw a criterion of thought from the latter and ply it to critique shortcomings of the Greco-Roman and Hebreo-Christian axes? A second thought experiment would be to turn to Daniel Barber’s recent argument On Diaspora, in which one finds oneself detached from the grip and charms of a particular tradition, and yet continues to use and engage it critically and creatively – even atelically. Could such a move be enacted in a plurivectoral way, so as to perform an “interaffective” encounter between traditions of different roots, a theater of shifting sets and “infinite speed,” or is haphazard hybridity the inevitable outcome?

June 2nd  – June 3rd  Sessions

The preceding statement should be treated merely as a guide for focusing the conversation. Our conversations will be structured around three sessions, each of which will attempt to develop and deepen a particular question:

Session 1: Replacing the Problem of ‘Theory’ With Concept Encounter

Let me pose the following problem for the first session. It is one that I have grappled with since I started graduate work, and I continue to be troubled by it today as I am working on my second monograph. Bluntly stated, the problem concerns the relevance of what is called ‘Western theory’ to Asian concepts, materials and bodies. I have been directly confronted by this problem twice, one sophisticated, the other naïve, but both asking the same question in different ways. For example, in my tenure report, an anonymous academic from an outside university asked the question: “why does he rely on Western theory to explain Asian concepts or ideas? Why not let the Asian materials speak for themselves?” A different version was posed to me by a graduate student: “Why should I have to read Deleuze to understand what (e.g.) Nanak is saying? Why can I just read Nanak’s own writings?”. I would like to begin the colloquium by having each of us think broadly about the above questions during the morning session.

Session 2: Thinking About Conceptual Encounter as ‘Event’

This will be the first of two afternoon sessions that focus on the themes of ‘event’ and ‘conceptual encounter’ as ways of answering the above questions and problems posed in the Colloquium Precis. I will be sending around two sets of materials for reading: (i) a draft of Arvind’s book synopsis (Untimely Events);  (ii) a section on the ‘Event’ from Michael’s new book Precarious Diasporas. The materials hopefully will help to steer the discussion in a focused manner.

Session 3: Constructing a “Body Without Organs”:  Conceptual Diaspora and Intra-Affective Encounters

All of us in some sense work with the notion of diaspora. Treatment of the term ‘diaspora’ has to a large extent been determined by post-structuralism which is now worn out and in need of replacement. In this session I would like us to examine the diasporic body as a site of conceptual encounter.  The session will begin with a brief statements by David and Arvind about how their proposed joint book project (Postwestern Stanzas) which looks at bringing together Indian, Chinese and Western concepts through an intra-affective encounter vis-à-vis the diasporic body as the site of mixing of different cultures. My question to the group is this:  in what way can the diasporic body be considered a ‘Body With Organs’ – that is, an experimental site where the ‘diasporic subject’ is simultaneously disconnecting from existing unproductive cultural and conceptual strata and creating new and more productive conceptual connections? What are the implications for studying ‘Asian’ cultures?




Arrival and Welcome Dinner


8:45 AM: Pick-up From Wyndham Gardens

9:00 – 9:45 AM: Breakfast

10: 00 – 11:45 AM: Session One (Replacing the Problem of Theory with Encounter)

11:45 – 1:00 PM: Lunch

1:00 – 3:00 PM: Session Two (Thinking the Conceptual Encounter as Event)

3:00 – 4:15 PM: Coffee Break

4:15 – 6:15 PM: Session Three (Conceptual Diaspora/Inter-Affective Encounters)

6:30 PM: Dinner at Mani