Wednesday, February 19, 2014

In confidence

In "Buddhism and Modern Thought" today we read three chapters of an old favorite of mine, Philip Almond's The British Discovery of Buddhism. Almond takes Edward Said's idea of "orientalism" and applies it to popular portrayals of the Buddha and his religion in Victorian England, and suggests that these portrayals have a lot more to do with Victorian England than they do with the Buddha. Was the Buddha like a Martin Luther, challenging the entrenched corruption and hypocrisy of a Catholic-like Hinduism? How convenient as Britain established its colonial rule over Hindus in India - and as a spasm of anti-Catholic protest roiled Britain. Or was the Buddha not a social reformer after all - a few years later the threat of socialism made a soteriologically oriented Buddha much more palatable. Almond lines up page after page of such convenient parallels, all in service of the claim that "Buddhism" was "created" in the West and for the West.

It is ultimately a little pat - not nearly as theoretically sophisticated as the comparable argument by William Pietz about the European invention of "fetishism," which I assign in Theorizing Religion - but it's an important argument for us to consider. "Religion" and "world religions" are categories emerging from a specific modern western matrix. To point this out isn't just to say the emperor has no clothes, though Almond comes close. "Buddhism" is a western concoction (I prefer that word, learned from Sam Gill, to discovery/invention/creation/construction, though these have their uses, too) but that doesn't mean there's no there there; rather is it an imperative to go beyond what the concoction claims, to seek out more, and more kinds, of sources of information, as well as more categories. The concoction can't be trusted to take us beyond our prejudices: that much is sure. That's why the next segment of our course takes us to the experiences of Buddhist modernisms in Sri Lanka, Japan, Southeast Asia, Tibet and China. The concocting didn't just happen with white guys in European capitals playing with the texts of long-dead Asians (Said's Orientalism), but affected and was affected by colonial encounters and responses in Asia, and the efforts and ideas of living Asians, some of whom - like Walpola Rahula - went to the colonial metropoles and talked back. They're moderns, too, but in a sense which doesn't make the European modern somehow more legitimate than the Ceylonese, or privilege an inaccessible "premodern" over efforts to keep living traditions alive.

This matters a lot to me. In a way this scrupulosity defines my generation of religious studies scholars - the ones who won't let you use words like "religion" or "belief" or "Buddhism" as if they had clear and objective meanings, as a matter as much of ethics as of methodology. So it was a little disconcerting to encounter this description of us:  

Is religion manufactured, invented, or constructed? And if it is constructed, is religion any different from other categories in social thought, such as society or economy? These are questions that engage the current generation of students of religion who have none of the epistemological confidence of previous generations. 
Peter van der Veer, The Modern Spirit of Asia: The Spiritual 
and the Secular in China and India (Princeton, 2014), 63

Lacking in confidence? In a way, I guess. Reluctant to claim universality or objectivity we are. Lacking in colonial bravado and missionary zeal, too, though we're fully capable of bluster and harangue. We abjure business-as-usual "objectivity." We're taking apart the master's house so that all may live. Van der Veer's sort of on our side, but he clearly finds our disciplinary navel-gazing tedious (his own discipline's debates matter to him more), and our scrupulosity about terms like "religion" and "Buddhism" evidently strikes him as exaggerated. I find the sloppiness of claims like these maddening:

The encounter of Western power with Asian religions in the modern period is one that has been preceded by precolonial missionary and political encounters, but also by a long history of the expansion and spread of religious formations within the Asian region. The presence of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in Asia long precedes European expansion. Moreover, there is a long history of expansion and spread of Asian religions, like Buddhism and Hinduism. In fact, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all originate in West-Asia and are Asian religions, but then we also have to ask from which period "Asia" is a meaningful category. (66)

Religious formations is still tolerable, but everything after it begs question after question, especially Asian religions, like Buddhism and Hinduism! Is the concoctedness of Asia the only problem here? Is it really unrelated to the concocting of Asian religions, like Buddhism and Hinduism? Van der Veer's whole book is about the fateful construct of the "spiritual East," so his flat-footedness here surprises me.

I know I'm being a little uncharitable. By "Buddhism" he surely doesn't really mean "Buddhism" but "phenomena which have been grouped under the name Buddhism by modern scholars in East and West," and it certainly would be unwieldy to have to spell that out at every turn! Almost every term in a book like his comes with invisible scare-quotes, dispensing with them in passages like the one just quoted so that he can make new arguments rather than always rehashing the old ones. His project is to take apart the syntagmatic chain of religion-magic-secularity-spirituality (9), not to mention "the nation" in general and "India" and "China" in particular. More power to him! Still, his language lets "religious formations" default to the world religions paradigm, which seems to me to risk undermining the critical force of all the rest! Lacking in epistemological confidence, did you say?

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