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This review appeared in Volume 5 (2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
S.C.Malik, Modern Civilisation: a crisis of fragmentation. Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, 1989,162 pp.
There are so many books about the crisis of modern civilisation that no survey would be able to take account of them all. The importance of the one that S.C. Malik wrote lies, I would venture to say, in the fact that it is, in many ways, more anthropological than others. The author's training and initial work were carried out within the Anthropology Departments of Delhi and Baroda Universities, in India, then at the Universities of London and Chicago. His first major book was titled Indian Civilisation: The Formative Period - a study of archaeology as anthropology (Shimla 1968, reprinted in 1987). The point of view presented by the book under review is largely that of an anthropologist. Malik observes modern civilisation both from without and from within: from within when he analyses our social problems just as is being done almost everywhere else, in London or in Chicago, but also from without when he imputes these problems to a "Western" culture from which he then vigorously differentiates himself in his capacity as an Indian anthropologist and philosopher. Another important feature is that the author is associated with a research programme of a highly ethnological nature, "Cross-cultural Lifestyle Studies", its objective being closely related to the subject of his book. More on this later.
The preface and the introduction immediately set the one: the crisis of the modern world is a crisis of the human species, endangered by the consequences of modes of action and of thought historically associated with Western expansion. Fault is not found however with modern science and technology, contrary to the "anti-revolutionary, anti-rational and antiprogress" movements found in the West itself (pp.5-6). The danger arises more out of the imbalance that has set in between the two traditionally established modalities of the relationship between man and the world, whatever be the way in which we designate them: the analytic approach ('analytic dismemberment') opposed to the forgotten well-Being of synthesis ('rememberment', to quote the exquisite word used by the author, p.130), symbolic thinking cut off from actual experience, or more simply, not withstanding the triviality of this expression, "reason ruling over the soul or the heart" (p.5). The present state of the human species is characterised by the expansion of the first pole to the detriment of the second, extending even to neuronal functioning, "enforcing dormancy on a major part of the human brain". His perspective is thus resolutely evolutionist, or rather evolutionary (p.17). However, S.C. Malik does not truly follow the paths of paleontology like Leroi-Gourhan or Teilhard de Chardin earlier. His vision is both more modern and more open: more modern insofar as it does not reject the present scientific hypothesis of a "cosmic evolution...basically devoid of any object, without beginning or end" (p.26), and more open insofar as it makes projections which we cannot but call philosophical or moral, for lack of an empirical anchorage deemed to be unassailable.
The remaining part of the book (eleven chapters) could be divided into three more or less equal parts.
Chapters II to V deal with modern science and its limits, but in a way that has nothing to do with the technophobic interchanges of Western counterculture, no more than with the search for an oriental alternative to Euro-American physics. The "obsolescence" of some formerly productive attitudes or presuppositions, but whose adequacies are more clearly perceived today , ,an they were then, such as Cartesian dualism, physicalism and its images, quantitativism, etc. are successively examined (chap.ll); conversely, the potential fertility of some "new ideas in biology", those particularly which concern the morphogenetic fields and their eventual role in the phenomena of consciousness and evolution, through what is known as the "morphic resonance" mechanism (chap. III); the failings of a linear concept of time which requires that we constantly (re-)write history or its projections with respect to our perceptions of the moment (chap.IV); the limitations of our learning practices which are closer to a socio-cultural conditioning through repetition and copying, than to a "true" learning based on "biological" imperatives or processes (chap.V).
Then come three chapters devoted to the consequences or corollaries of the preceding phenomena for human beings: the way in which we are formed today, literally through the processes of physical and social conditioning (chap.VI); the resulting atrophy of our own faculties of experience (feelings, emotions) and, thereby, of our free will (chap.VII); in short, a divided, 'fragmented' being, forgetful of his lost unity- a unity with what is improperly called the external, organic and mineral world as well as the inner unity.../...through the combined play of the senses and of the spirit which define the Being ('Beingness') in his primary harmony (chap.VIII).
What should we reach for henceforth? The last four chapters confront this difficult question by first of all putting it in another form: "Who am I ?" (chap.IX). The reply takes on a fairly esoteric turn, which actually is quite to be expected considering the analyses which preceded it. Our present "I" is nothing other than a "neurotic artifact incapable of engendering harmony and peace" (p.133): when we peel away the layers to arrive at the essence, to use the famous metaphor of the onion, we reach in the end, as for the onion, NOTHING. No one who has read The Book by Alan Watt (New York 1972) will be surprised to find it quoted here in the proper place (p.130); nor will anyone be astonished at the nature of the correctives suggested in the same chapter and those which follow. We must first of all, says the author, remodel this "I" by reintegrating into it the "memorable moments during which we experience what are called inexpressible, even ineffable states...coming to grips with the fundamental layers not of existence alone but of the whole Being" (p.135); or subordinate "doing" to"having", in search of a renewed 'I' - a "wider entity in which body and mind are one" - maintained in a state of awakening ('awareness') "which by its very nature generates harmony and peace" (p.139, these two words, 'peace and harmony' recur again and again in the book to describe the lost - or regained - paradise of the human species).
Other spiritual benefits are outlined: a happier way of life the polarity of births and deaths" (chap.X) and more generally the complementarity of all kinds of apparently contrary principles, key to "creativity and self-expression" (chap.XI). Language and thought are then fraught with metaphysical, even mystic, reverberations. S.C. MALIK, who initially refuted this (p.136, in which the definition of 'mystical' or 'supernatural applied to the experience of the inexpressible appears to him to be "very far from the truth"), seems now to accept it: he evokes in a straight-forward fashion "the consciousness of the mystical and metaphysical reality" at work in every creative process, and even in science itself (p.259), and better still, "the single state of Communion with the essence of life" which is achieved at the height of self-expression (pp.160 sq.)
What remains to be specified are the paths by which we can raise ourselves to this height: the Eastern techniques come quite naturally to mind, and it is in fact these which put in an appearance in the last chapter of the book, evocatively entitled "Dimensional Space as Eternal Silence" (chap.XX). Zen enigmas, Chinese wisdom, Indian philosophy, the author leaves no stone unturned, and even goes on to quote Saint-Jean-de-la-Croix which points indeed to the universality of his wisdom for even the "Western mystics" find their place here (p.165).
At the end of such an itinerary, the 'professional' anthropologist may well wonder whether this discourse is truly addressed to him, and if so, in what way does it concern the practice of his profession? I can only give to this a personal reply, based partly on the discussions that I was fortunate enough to have with S.C. Malik after reading his book, in "applied" contexts which obliged both of us to make a closer examination of these practical implications.
But first of all let me make a confession: the language of this book is unfamiliar to me and I fear that a large number of researchers, not only the "Western" ones, may experience the same difficulties as I did in relating it to the "normal" language of anthropology, be it of the "Eastern" variety. This remark is equally valid for the iconic language of the book: the fifteen figures which accompany the text were of no help to me in deciphering it. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend that this be ignored as those passages which are open to comprehension more than suffice to nurture reflection. Four themes in particular seem to be deserving of attention:
The readers of S.C. Malik will not all agree with me in this appreciation of his book. Many of them will probably find that I am giving undue favour to reason in it, whereas the work is oriented more towards the cosmic mysteries than to our immediate destinies. I understand this feeling but will end with the arguments which have nevertheless led me to go beyond it.
I very willingly admit, first of all, that certain propositions in the book are debatable: those concerning the relativity of all things, for instance, end up by losing all their argumentative value by virtue of generality. "All notions of reality are relative", writes S.C. Malik, and right up to the very notion of 'verifiability' which is supposed to be the basis of our science of the real. On a certain level of apprehension of things, that is true; but what do we mean here by 'true'? And would we still mean it, whatever may have been said on this score earlier, at the time of choosing between two ways of escaping death - or, if we prefer, between two ways of committing suicide - when we know that till now one has always been followed by the desired effect, the other never? "The problem is that ideological analysis has been applied on the wrong scale", as R.C.Lewontin, claims on the subject of the weight of historical contingency in explanations about evolution; and he adds that it is the considerations of efficacy which generally end up getting the upper hand, however relative they may be and whatever be the way in which they are measured (capacity for prediction, material action, cost-profit ratio, etc.). Again, we have yet to admit that science has an aim, some specific aims, without which there would be no question of even mentioning effectiveness. But these aims, S.C. Malik would probably say, are themselves relative, peculiar to one or another culture, one or another 'paradigm', and not universally established. Here again we find ourselves brought face to face with the problem of scale, as Lewontin pointed out: it seems to be difficult to simultaneously recommend a 'new paradigm' meant to safeguard all that is best ('peace and harmony', etc.) in the species, and a return to traditional value systems, anchored in specific societies. There is nothing to justify our postulating a pre-established harmony between the two perspectives, except certain somewhat antiquated anthropological beliefs. Moreover, the antimony is so patent today, - as we hear in debates, all over the planet, concerning demography or ecology - that it would be unwise to persist on this path.
One may well wonder then why show so great an interest in a construction whose base gives rise to such doubts? The reason is that, in my opinion, the author himself is not far from sharing these doubts, and that it is, in fact, interesting to observe what he does, and not only what he says, when he finds himself confronted with the kind of antinomies that I have just mentioned. Since I had several opportunities to observe the proceedings of some of the working sessions of the research programme mentioned above, "Cross-cultural Lifestyle Studies" I will mention some examples of the problems encountered.
Among the principles underlying the "Cross cultural Lifestyle Studies" programme, special mention should be made of the holistic approach of study, the care with which the indigenous point of view is kept in mind (that is at least how I would summarize the thousand and one ways of reminding that the "lifestyle" studies must be apprehended with respect to the categories of those who live them or who make them), and as a corollary, a certain distancing with relation to ethnological science such as it is practiced in the West, with its reductive and exogenous approaches. Numerous references are made to Indian traditions, in the formulation of these principles, but 'Western' anthropologists will recognize, there again, many features of a stream of thought already existing in Europe and in America without these references. Our task is not therefore to once again pit the overwhelming reason of some against the wisdom of others, but rather to ensure that the manner in which the above principles are applied to the study of the manifestations of a given 'lifestyle' - the rock art monuments of Madhya Pradesh, for instance - are understood .
The primary objective or concern is to free ourselves from the reading patterns drawn up by researchers trained in the Western mould concerning such monuments, to turn the attention more to the meanings that those "familiar" with our paintings in the region being considered, endowed them with at the time, even along the ages. This latter clause is obviously necessary, in the case we are preoccupied with, since we date these eras with great uncertainty, their range of accuracy being at the mark by some hundreds or thousands of years. We are therefore left with no recourse but to come down to the historical periods, and even up to the present day, to collect the testimony of those "familiar" with the matter, contemplators, users or sometimes even again authors of these monuments. In short, we inevitably encounter again the problems raised by the proceedings of ethnohistory or of ethnoarchaeology: is it reasonable to search in the classical literature of India for the keys to the original meaning of the Bhimbetka paintings? Is it wise to entertain the thought that what are known as the tribal societies of Madhya Pradesh themselves hold these keys, as a consequence of the perenniality of rock art in the region? Are these transfers of meaning not all the more fragile for being linked with "deep" meanings, in which are interwoven symbolic thought, emotions, aesthetics, the individual or collective drawings of the carvers, etc? And if we submit that these paintings are works of art and that the sensitivity of an artist is required for their understanding, does it follow that the art or the artist referred to, forms necessarily a part of the universe that the first creators or spectators belonged to? In the absence of this, what reasons do we have for adhering to a particular, endogenous and sensitive, interpretation, rather than to another one which is, or is not, equally endogenous and sensitive?
Et cetera: all these are banal, hackneyed questions. Nonetheless, they dominated the discussions I have mentioned above, when the matter arose of deciding which interpretations were admissible and which were not for constituting the expert system alluded to. The point that I wanted to underline is that the answers suggested by S.C. Malik were in no way different from those that are suggested today by researchers in artificial intelligence, however imbued they may be with a pragmatism and a neutrality that are quite far removed from the normative attitudes of the present book. What should we conclude from this? That our author contradicts himself? Not really: I would rather say that this kind of divorce between philosophic reflection and practical action is precisely an illustration of his theses on 'fragmentation' and on the difficulties experienced by our species or by ourselves, in overcoming it. From the point of view of S.C. Malik, these difficulties are the consequence of a kind of biological imbalance whose responsibility would be incumbent on Evolution, personified by the capital E, rather than on ourselves: the paradigm of scientific and technical 'progress' has forced itself upon us too quickly, he writes, as compared to an incomparably slower psychic development. "There is an imbalance of being, psychologically not in tune with the enormous external adaptations and control of the environment...the paradigm of progress is an inheritance of the biological notions of survival, of scarcity with which we began in our evolution at some point of time...we may say that the reptilian and mammalian brain, which forms a fraction of the human brain, is still what dominates our thinking even though physiologically and biologically this is not necessary for a large part of mankind".
This view of a disintegrated machinery suggests to the author a parallel with the analyses of G. Bateson in anthropology. I would add on my part some references to works tending more towards biology or psycho-physiology, in the same evolutionist perspective, in which S.C. Malik would find greater topical backing. One example of this kind is the recent work of Merlin Donald on the "Origins of the Human Mind (Harvard University Press, 1991)", which similarly depicts the imbalance and the lack of adaptation of our psychic condition, "a hybrid structure built from vestiges of earlier biological stages as well as new external symbolic memory devices that have radically altered its organization".
But from where can we hope for a re-balancing, a reintegration? From the same unexplained sources of Evolution with a capital E, probably, since - again according to Donald - "we may have not yet witnessed the final modular arrangement of the human mind". Our share of power appears in this case quite small, condemned, as we admit to ourselves, to being, on this scale of observation, simply the witnesses of a history over which we have no hold, no more than we have had over earlier transitions (Homo erectus, habilis, sapiens once, twice). S.C. Malik seems to place himself on the same scale and to draw from this the same "contemplative" implications. His mystic references, in fact, can be explained, after all, quite well, in this manner; so also the flattering pictures of lost paradises, during happy eras and in fortunate regions where the violences of Evolution were less perceptible. But can we follow S.C. Malik to that extent?
Speaking here of a contradiction would be, I repeat, a gross misconstruction. In the present book, S.C. Malik is performing the functions of a philosopher; he also gives the impression of being a moralist, according to C.P. Zoller. As for me, I have seen him act and work in his capacity as an anthropologist in circumstances in which the moral of his philosophy hardly mad itself felt.
Such a conjunction of roles and interests is not devoid of risk. It would be frivolous to retain only these and condemn that one. S.C. Malik's book is indeed baffling, at least for a wretched archaeologist like myself, but more so on account of its references and its sketches than because of its substance. Its importance lies in the planetary nature of the question raised, as in its topical interest "in a world" in which it will soon be necessary, as Leroi-Gourhan wrote earlier, "to change the specific label and find another Latin word to join along to the generic term Homo (Le Geste et la Parole, vol.2, p.266. 2 vol., Aibin Michel, Paris 1964-65). The analysis of S.C. MALIK actually falls into the same category; and it is remarkable that despite his will to lead it into the oriental frameworks of thought, the end result arouses so much resonance on our side of the Indus. I have quoted some of these in the form of references to very recent books in which authors originating from all countries (France, Canada, Chile, United States, etc.) and from all disciplines (physics, psychology, biology, etc.) consider it necessary to admit the claims of value systems closely related to those whose cause S.C. MALIK pleads here, on the testimony of more or less comparable biological, moral, even metaphysical observations or arguments, in both cases. Could it be that cultural relativism has become "outdated", giving way to a common science or consciousness of the present discomfitures of the species? The author will pardon me for thinking that in spite of his insistent anchorings in Indian culture, his book belongs to the family of those who demonstrate most vividly this "outdatedness", each in his own particular style.
Jean-Claude Gardin is Director of Research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and Director of Studies at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris. His recent publications include: "From discourse analysis to the use of expert systems in the sciences of man", "Les embarras due naturel"(1993), "Semiotic trends in archaeology" (1992). He is also coedited with Christopher Peebles Representation in Archaeology (1992).