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Kosmopolis Institute Publications Changing Categories, Shifting Substance

Changing Categories, Shifting Substance

In the spirit of Pluralism Effects

I am back to New Delhi. Agus asked in his Facebook update: how is Delhi? I replied: it’s humid and hot, Agus. It is very much the same I had left about a month ago before going to Bloemfontein.

I was late to pay my room-rent for the month of August. So, I rushed to the house of my landlord and knocked at the door. After a while a teenager emerged from the house and having recognized me, he shouted to inform the landlady who generally collects the amount: “kiraayedaar hain naani” (a tenant has come to see you, granny!). While paying the rental, I could not stop thinking of my identity as a tenant in New Delhi. Though neither have I ever foregrounded my tenant-identity nor I would like to do so in future, however, the teenager could not see me except as a tenant. It reminded me a question that Phumzile shot at Frank during a discussion around the question of identity in the Winter School: what do you see when you see me? She stated that the first thing he would notice about her is that “she got a black skin”(1).

The question that arises here is: how to understand the idea of laying emphasis on a particular dimension of one’s multiple identities (whether it is being a tenant or a black)? There may at least be two kinds of emphasis that are attached to a dimension of one’s identity: labeling an identity and asserting an identity. ‘Labeling an identity’ originates in the act of the other and hence reflects the subjectivity of the other while ‘asserting an identity’ speaks more about informing the other regarding the perception of the self. I hope it is nobody’s point that to lay emphasis on a dimension of one’s identity is negation to its other dimensions. How should then both ways of foregrounding an aspect of the identity be understood in relation to the immediate as well as the long term context? Is it viable for me to suggest here something called ‘situational identity’? Does this tension (2) between the assertive agency and the labeling agency provide ample ground to make a case for the shifting nature of the substance of the category and also for changing nature of the contours (markers/references) of the same category?

In his post A Capability to Eat (3), Agus delineates ‘his’ idea of halal food and beautifully illustrates the tension between the assertive agency and the labeling agency. He successfully complicates the notion of ‘Halal’, bringing in the idea of different tastes within the range of halal food. The Indonesian/Javanese taste of halal, he argues, happens to be very different from the Arabic taste. The Javanese imagination of halal food is incomplete without rice, a quintessential ingredient of the staple diet in Indonesia. Interestingly enough, he discovers that “the traditional cuisines [of South Africa] are actually same as Javanese cuisines; the rice, the spinach, the chicken, the lamb, the beef…..”. One can notice the flexibility that marks his imagination of halal. Here he asserts that the traditional African cuisines are inherently halal, a conception of halal that is/was not available to those who think of halal only in terms of the Arabic origin. This example, I am sure, adds textures to the idea of tension between the asserting agency and the labeling agency and also alludes to its relation to the question of ‘situation’. Moreover, the shifting nature of the substance of the category called ‘halal’ also is pretty much discernible and the same does miracles to the contours of the category, pushing its boundaries very deep into the substance of the African cuisines. Thus comes into existence a zone that represents the overlap between the halal and the non-halal food. It seems that it is this zone of the overlap that is the site where the negotiation between the two agencies (assertive and labeling) takes place to re-/enact the category of the halal in the domain of practicality.

A few days of the month of Ramjan/Ramzan (the south-asian pronunciation of Ramadhan) coincided with the concluding week of the Winter School. Agus, Amber, Dewi and Frank had observed the fast while I did not. (4) Vinita curiously asked: how come you do not observe fast? I replied: I do not practice. She quickly added: Not even a single day? I said: No. In his effort to make sense of my non-conforming way of being a Muslim, Frank enquired: but you do not eat pork, so you observe halal, right? You see how assertive and labeling agencies together are at work here. The labeling agency, on the one hand, seems to draw primarily on the knowledge acquired from books and other media while the assertive agency, on the other, has its roots deep into the intersectionality of its episteme in the local milieu and the abstract ideals enshrined in the classical texts of Islam. The labeling agency understands the category of Islam or Muslim as a blanket category, expecting a person (who happens to be a Muslim) to adhere to its rituals in its totality. Any deviation from this standard understanding tends to shake the very foundation of philosophy the labeling agency rests on.

Before I explain my viewpoint vis-a-vis Frank’s question about nature of my abstinence from pork, I would like to reproduce here, for the sake of better clarity, an extract from a wonderful conversation of Prof. Neshat Quaiser who seeks to deconstruct location of the Indian Muslim mind. Satish Saberwal, a noted sociologist from India, mentioned in one of his emails to Quaiser that the latter in a 2002 seminar had said that he was not a Muslim and that kind of independence must put him to considerable social pressure. (5) In response to Saberwal, Quaiser elaborates what he means by his describing himself as a non-Muslim:

“I cannot say that I am completely divested of my Muslim upbringing and by choice retain certain aspects of the ‘culture’ which is considered to be Muslim. My source of imagination and my metaphors mostly are of Semitic/Islamic/Muslim/Indo-Islamic origin and it is there that I am at home-I am not saying about culture. And yet I am comfortable with certain, say, Hindu or Buddhist metaphors which have come to me through or mediated by language, literature, family, (my) social surrounding-where I grew and was trained in the art (and science) of doing social life; they are part of my imagination and form an epistemological unity with the former. What does this signify-hybridity; synthesis; composite; commonality; shared culture; commonly shared human (/class/cultural) experiences; common and shared social space? Then, does my Semitic/Islamic/Muslim and Hindu or Buddhist represent an undifferentiated Muslim imagination? These are very dicey questions but we confront them in everyday life in one form or the other. Then, am I a prisoner of socialization or ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu’s)? (6) Or have I unlearnt many things? Or is it possible to unlearn? I think I should stop here for the time being.” (7)

In the similar vein, I explained to Frank that my abstinence from pork is not religious in nature but rather a psychological one. I in principle am not anathema to having pork but my upbringing in a Muslim family has strongly shaped my culinary sensibilities, to the extent of becoming my second nature. So, I may eat pork but feel like puking/may puke after that. Though I successfully unlearnt many things, I could not learn to appreciate pork as an ingredient of my diet. Moreover, pork in many parts of India is not a preferable diet. So, abstinence from pork is not only a marker of observing halal but there is a geographical dimension as well to it. The assertive agency, instead of falling into the trap of dichotomies of being right or wrong, goes beyond the textual understanding of Islam and tries to forge an organic connect with the social context/material culture and thus adds to the plurality of techniques of doing life.

Unlike in relation to the question of halal and pork where he represents the labeling agency, Frank symbolizes the assertive agency while observing fast in the month of Ramjan. Now, how to explain this interesting but fundamental change in the nature of agency of a person? Does the same also signify any change in the identity location of the agent? There is no doubt that observing fast in Ramjan is an important visible marker of the practicing Muslims and this is what explains the behaviour of the three ‘fasting’ Muslims: Agus, Amber and Dewi. This is the mainstream understanding of Islam. But Frank, who does not feel very religious when it comes to Christianity, also prefers to fast, along with the other three. (8) It is interesting that Frank explores the space that lies somewhere there between being a (non-) Christian and being a Muslim. This space that is the overlap of Islam and (non-)Christianity, exudes a sense of ambiguity, a sort of vagueness. Though it basically is individualistic in its nature, it enjoys recognition of a group (size of the group does not matter here) as well. But it definitely is neither a mainstream space nor an institutionalized one. However, it allows one to pluralize the ways of being a Muslim or a (non-)Christian or something of both/all at the same time. And perhaps for a while at least, offers a possibility of liberation from the dichotomy of the labeling and assertive agencies. While fasting, despite the fact that Frank makes a claim on a ritual that is associated with Islam, it is not his intention that he will embrace Islam. So though he apparently symbolizes the assertive agency but he in reality does not. Likewise, having noticed him observing fast, one may be tempted to label him as a ‘Muslim’ but this labeling will not stand the test of the ground realities that include his intention and also other criteria necessarily required to be fulfilled to be a Muslim (in the canonical sense).

Role of ‘seeing’ in constructing categories and shaping their contents has been very important. There are ways of seeing and Phumzile in her post “What do you see in the Dark?” brilliantly explores them with the help of ‘everyday’ experiences. (9) She differentiates between ‘seeing in the dark’ and ‘seeing in the light’ and proves that seeing in the light tends to be superficial. To her, both ways of seeing are ‘seeing’ but ‘seeing in the dark’ is more comprehensive than ‘seeing in the light’. I am tempted to draw a parallel between the ‘light’ and the ‘category’. Understanding through category tends to narrow the intellectual iris within the area where the light falls and what lies outside the boundaries of the category, in the dark, remains blurred or invisible. So, the category-based comprehension is always just a slice of the reality that is out there. Many posts that deal with the excursions to the sites of historical monuments/ museums (the Boer Museum, the Apartheid Museum, etc.) stand witness to this: there has always been a struggle to find an appropriate category to describe the object of seeing. How do the imported categories (categories that explain the epistemologies of those who are seeing) speak to the categories that the object of seeing offers?

I have made many efforts to understand the course of the historiography within South Africa through the versions of history I came across while listening to the narration of the tourist-guides or reading the brochures and inscriptions or watching video-installations. Honestly speaking, I always found myself, at many of these occasions, using the evolution of different schools of the historiography in India as a template or as a reference. Though the same has allowed me a little peace of mind for the time being, am I not universalizing categories that have their origin within a particular spatio-temporal location? While so doing, do I not try to impose my categories on the South African past(s) and do I not represent the labeling agency? Do I not deny the agency to South Africa when I expect that its historiography will simulate the flows and rhythms of ideological engagements across decades the Indian one has had. Can it be seen as orientalism or a desire to discover the sameness or its shades? (10)

The question that still remains to be thought upon is: who is capable of seeing in the dark? I hope it is not out of place to bring in here the notion of insider/outsider? How to understand this notion of insider/outsider: in terms of ideology, spatiality or temporality? What does this dichotomy of the insider/outsider denote? How does the insider communicate to the outsider? In this context, the desire of Phumzile to explain “how I look at my community?” assumes extraordinary importance. It seems that she could not do so due to inadequacy of the categories that she had to take recourse to, to describe her experience in a way that would have made sense to the outsiders (non-South African students). Perhaps they will take long before developing a capability of seeing in the dark. For the time being, they will have to depend on the light that their categories shine for them on South Africa. Even if they develop a capability of seeing in the dark, I wonder, whether their seeing will ever be exactly the same as the Phumzile’s seeing is? The assertive agencies hence may differ from each other not only in terms of their location as insider or outsider but also in the sense of intensity.

Like food and history, the discussions around the Dutch identity also provide a fascinating site for the tussle between the assertive and labeling agencies. Fleur, Frank, Renske, Vicky, Vinita, etc., through their posts and presentations, endeavoured to find out the warp and woof of the Dutch identity. Vinita has dealt with the issue in great detail in her post and pointed out many processes and markers that play an important role in shaping different identities of the people and nations. (11) “So how come that I felt Dutch, but that at the same time I don’t really feel a connection with the country?”, wonders Vicky in her post. (12) The bone of contention here, I think, is not the absence or existence of a national Dutch identity but is the way of feeling associated with the state-projection of the national identity of Holland. Its inhabitants assert that the nature of their association with their country (state-rituals and other gimmicks) is very different from that of other countries. On contrary, participants from other four countries make heuristic efforts to understand the Dutch identity. The labeling agency symbolizes an attempt to understand the other through the categories one is familiar with but the assertive agency may not approve of them on the basis of differences in the ontology and epistemology. Depending on its epistemological location and hermeneutical demand, the assertive agency may see a need to redefine the substance of the same category or simply wants to refill within it a diametrically different substance or to invent a new category, to articulate the true core of its self.

This tension between the asserting and labeling agencies operate within the larger arena of politics of difference where the desire for recognition is crucial and is being articulated in terms of cultural and positional differences.

Arshad Amanullah

New Delhi

20 August 2011

1 Day 3: Early One Morning by Frank Nieuwenhuizen

2 I perceive this tension as ‘inter-personal’ rather than ‘intra-personal’, hence it operates within the social.

3 Day 5: A Capability to Eat by Agus Salim

4 Day 21: Singing Bhajan at Bloemfontein by Arshad Amanullah. Dindi too was not fasting.

5 Quaiser, Neshat (2011). Locating the ‘Indian Muslim’ Mind: An Incomplete Conversation, History and Sociology of South Asia. 5(1) 49-68.

6 For Bourdieau’s concept of habitus see Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1977).

7 Quaiser, Neshat (2011). Locating the ‘Indian Muslim’ Mind: An Incomplete Conversation, History and Sociology of South Asia. 5(1) 49-68. Quote from page no 16.

8 The First Day after the Course: Good Stuff by Frank Nieuwenhuizen

9 Day 13: What do you see in the Dark? by Phumzile Sokhela

10 For example, I felt at home while walking the downtown of Bloemfontein or I did not feel like training my camera at the person who was folding and unfolding his body as if he were boneless outside the Mandela House at Soweto, as these scenes carry an aura of familiarity with the ethnoscape or the antics I everyday see at the footpaths and redlight-crossings in New/Delhi. My use of the term ‘political society’ with reference to the Qwaqwa Campus of the University of Free State in my post “Singing Bhajan at Bloemfontein” may also be a case in point here.

11 Day 11: Charades Anyone? by Vinita Verma.

12 Day 9: In Search of the Dutch Identity by Vicky Hölsgens.