Footpaths Towards Deconstruction - Part 13
By Prof. Wimal Dissanayake
Today's column embarks on a risky venture, to point out some parallels and convergences of interest between deconstruction and some Indian approaches to language and meaning. The aim is not to argue that deconstruction and the Indian thought ways referred to, follow the selfsame path. That is clearly not the case. Deconstruction as a philosophy and mode of inquiry emerged from Western intellectual traditions and there are clear differences between Derrida and ancient Indian ways of thought. My point is a far more modest one – to demonstrate that there are certain detectable convergences of interest between the two.
Ancient Indian investigations into language and meaning were not foreign to post structuralist thinkers. For example, Jacques Lacan, in his book 'Ecrits', refers to ancient Indian poetics when discussing the playfulness associated with language. Similarly, one can draw certain parallels between the thought of the eminent Indian philosopher of language Bhartrihari and deconstruction, although it should be noted that there are significant differences as well.
The focus in this column is on the work of Nagarjuna and his approach to language, the meaning and communication of which, has clear similarities with those of Derrida. Nagarjuna (150 – 200 A.D) is held in the highest esteem by Buddhist scholars both in India and outside. He exercised a profound influence on the thought and imagination of scholars devoted to Buddhist studies. His formulations have had a far-reaching impact on scholars from India, China, Japan Korea, Tibet as well as the West.
'The Mula Madhyamika Karina' is Nagarjuna's magnum opus and it displays the author's deep understanding of Buddhism as well as his argumentative and interpretive skills. This text contains many important concepts such as emptiness or devoidness, relativity, ambivalences in the relationship between case and effect, misrepresentation, the idea of time. To be sure, these are all concepts that hold a deep fascination for deconstructive thinkers. The way Nagarjuna has framed some of these concepts bears a resemblance to the orientation of Derrida and other deconstructionists.
The 'Mula Madhyamika Karina' is an interpretive work, which displays Nagarjuna's understanding of the essence of Buddhist thought as an epistemology. He has sought to illuminate the human meaning of Buddhism from a largely Mahayana perspective.
This is a demanding text that needs careful unpacking. It is terse and compact; in his desire for terseness he has eschewed the rhetorical opulence that characterized some of the writings of this period.
The idea of emptiness or devoidness is central to the investigative endeavor of Nagarjuna. The term emptiness is extremely complex and admits of a plurality of contending and contradictory formulations. Nagarjuna was not advocating some form of nihilism as some have mistakenly claimed; he is only challenging the fixed and mutable essences that some Buddhist metaphysicians had proposed. In order to demonstrate the way of Nagarjuna's thinking, I wish to focus on a chapter in the text that addresses the issue of time and existence. He makes the point that from a temporal and existential perspective the concept of time can be extremely slippery and problematic. These are his actual queries and statements.
"If the past and the future are indeed contingently connected to the past they should all inhabit the past"
"The present and the future do not construct the past. How could the present and future be contingently connected?"
"It is not possible for the present and the future to associate themselves without being dependent on the past. Hence one cannot justify the existence of a present and future."
"According to the same method, the remainder of the time frame can be scarcely ordered and concepts like above, below, middle, identity and so on can be understood."
"Anything that is not non-static cannot be understood. Nothing one can grasp
as static time exists. If time cannot be grasped, how can it be understood?"
"If time exists on account of its status of being, where can it inhabit without that structure? As there is no structure of being, where can time exist?"
Nagarjuna's formulations of time are interesting and invite closer study. They bear certain resemblances to the comments on time made by deconstructionists such as Derrida.
Although Nagarjuna lived nearly twenty centuries ago, his formulations and approaches have a deep relevance for those interested in communication studies. In this regard, his insights and formulations bear a certain resemblance to those of Derrida.
Derrida was instrumental in ushering a far-reaching revolution in philosophy literature, and related fields by challenging the inherited wisdoms on questions of truth, textuality, language, meaning and so on. When we compare the statements of Nagarjuna and Derrida on such matters, we see certain points if affinity.
Derrida, like Nagarjuna, was a relentless critic of inherited wisdoms. Both were deeply engaged with the problem of language and textual production. Derrida sought to dismantle the conceptual oppositions and hierarchical systems of thought that supported signification. Indeed this was a primary objective of Nagarjuna as well. Derrida sought to focus on self-contradictions and blind spots that were at the heart of verbal communication and Nagarjuna did the same. Derrida challenged the notion that meaning could be comprehended through self-identical concepts, a preoccupation that marked the work of Nagarjuna as well.
In an interview, Jacques Derrida once remarked that 'I have attempted more and more systematically to find a non-site, or a non-philosophical site, from which to question philosophy. But the search for a no-philosophical site does not bespeak an anti-philosophical attitude. My central question is how can philosophy as such appear to the other through so that it can interrogate and reflect upon itself in an original manner.' Although Nagarjuna did not articulate his ideas in these terms, the effect has been the same.
Clearly, there are recognizable similarities between Nagarjuna's and Derrida's approaches to language, meaning, textuality pardoxicality and so on. For example, Robert Magliola says that, 'we should see that Nagarjuna takes on his specific task the dismantling of the principle of identity and that he accomplishes this he employs the same logical strategy and employs the very same arguments as Derrida. He goes on to say that Nagarjuna's devoidness (sunyata), is akin to Derrida's master concept of difference. The similarities between the concepts of devoidness and difference, the two master concepts of the two eminent thinkers, deserve careful scrutiny.
What I have sought to do here, is to indicate certain affinities of interest between Nagarjuna's and Derrida's thinking. I am by no means claiming that they belong to the same intellectual and investigative tradition. There are very many differences between the two to make such a claim plausible. What is obvious is that in terms of mind-set and orientation, there are certain identifiable similarities and we, as students of communication need to explore these further. Jacques Derrida's deconstruction is very much a product of European intellectual traditions, Derrida's engagement with such thinkers as Plato, Nietzsche, Hagel,Heidegger, and Levinas served to give deconstruction its characteristic flavor.
My effort to relate deconstruction to certain modes of thinking associated with classical India is only an effort to widen the contexts of possible understanding of deconstruction. Similarly, one can suggest comparisons with classical Chinese and Japanese intellectual and cultural traditions, for example Zen Buddhism.
(To be continued)
- China to provide 90 water bowsers worth Rs 1b 2291
- Wag the Dog 2288
- A brief look at FARC’s origins in Colombia 2235
- ‘Panama Papers’ bags Pulitzer 2258
- SAITM will cooperate with Govt 2262
- dead man was near fashion mall 2300
- Japanese MPs back Lanka’s development 2264
- CB Bond earnings whitewashed – JVP 2273
- Talks to extend Lanka’s Continental Shelf 2282
- Ex-DIG and son re-remanded 2274
- Government can be sent home 2814
- GMOA flogging SAITM for Mahinda– Rajitha 2282
- Ranil invites Japan to invest in S. Asia 2250
- Somali Pirates’ Captives Back Home 2267
- Customs in Rs 8 M bust 2261
- Redefining Rape 2431
- The march of folly Our mad Cabinet system 1912
- First adventures in Europe 1998
- Inspiration for writers 1969
- Sri Lanka’s sustainable development dream 2285
- Sinhala and Tamil New Year with Easter 2167
- Filipino Oconer wins overall title 1903
- Unsporty conduct by Joes 1954
- Bertie Wijesinghe, pre-Test era Sri Lankan cricketer, dies aged 96 1927
- CEAT revs up for 2017 1918
- Palace shock Arsenal 1891
- Argentina fire coach Bauza 1913
- BCCI postpones SGM to 18 April 1883
- Murray returns from injury 1903
- New mum Azarenka to return to WTA 1861
- Galle win by 188 runs 1873
- Keeping Cool 1901
- Do the right thing and do it now! 1906
- Ravi Jayewardene Pious son of a political giant 2502
- In the heart of the old country 2325
- Sarath Weerasekera’s Geneva adventure 2153
- No moral right to play with public funds 2084
- No need for fine if route permits are issued in fair, just manner 1998
- UDA incurs Rs 330M Loss 1922
- DOUSING A MEGA SHIP FIRE 1740
- Health authorities in denial? 2226
- Minorities’ frustration a powder keg – VIDURA 2249
- Administrative powers a must for the Plantation Tamils –Radhakrishnan 1504
- Rajapaksa sought advice from McGuinness– Indika Perera 2650
- I will lead SLFP to victory in future elections – President 2029
- Hang the ‘traitors’– RTD. REAR ADMIRAL WEERASEKARA 2441
- We oppose Nationalism and Federalism – Samarasinghe 3104
- SilkAir launches direct flights to Colombo 1964
- Rupee falls on thin volumes 1937
- SriLankan, Japan Airlines add new routes 1924
- Colombo Port box volume up 5.6-pct in Jan 1919
- Private sector to transform into main domestic growth engine 1926
- Oil eases from 5-week top, rising US production weighs 1889
- Tight fiscal and monetary policies constrain SL’s growth 1917
- Shell admits dealing with money launderer 1898
- Toshiba may sell chip business to Foxconn for $27bn 1908
- Asian shares pressured by geopolitical risks; Nikkei down 0.25% 1892
- SLIM launches Certificate in Digital Marketing 1895
- Microsoft Hosts Second ‘Device Day’ in Sri Lanka 1896
- Emirates named Best Airline in the World 1877
- Turkish Airlines and social media assist Somalia 1897
- Brain cell therapy ‘promising’ for Parkinson’s disease 1891
- Trump pushed into bombing Syria 1951
- Thailand discovers Power of Women Travellers 1917
- Economics of gambling 1823
- Trans National Aural Identity 3479
- Queen Anula The Shadow of Cleopatra 3540
- Poetry and its possibilities Part 2 3540
- The Enigma of Labyrinths 3631
- From Couture to Kutir 3529
- Hybrid Sources 4919
- Offering Riddles & Enigmas 4982
- Poetry and its possibilities 5037
- With a festive bang! 1140
- Easter Fun 1130
- Arrogance and crowing is the way of the doomed 1178
- Avurudu on the streets 1187
- Tick control 1169
- Sunny Sunday on the beach 1148
- It’s time to save the world 1196
- From viewer to YouTuber! 1216
- Expert skincare and makeup 1238
- Avurudu at Induruwa 1206
- Exo 1234
- Remembering our fallen heroes 2324