From a cluster of transcultural case studies to a topological conceptualization
Project presentation read at LE STUDIUM Loire Valley Institute for Advanced Studies, 2nd November 2017
My aim here is to present a larger picture of where I want to go with my research and what kind of stakes are in the game. One of its important aspects consists in approaching the gap that traditionally divides the humanities and the sciences. Any such approach, I regret to say, is very risky, especially after the postmodernism and after the so called Sokal affair or the so called Sokal hoax. This is thus the place where we should start our discussion. This lamentable hoax was made up in 1996 by the physicist Alan Sokal who submitted an article under the title “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to “Social Text”, a leading academic journal of postmodern cultural studies, and he got it accepted and published. Yet the text, in the author's intention, was a parade of scientific nonsense put together and lavishly adorned with an overabundance of bibliographical references, allegedly just to test the intellectual rigour of the editors and, in a larger sense, of the community faithful to the postmodern academic fashion. Sokal was speaking of quantum gravity as a social construct, so the kind of conclusion he reached was very well accepted in the context of the postmodern school, claiming that science is not really the absolute truth, that it is culturally constructed, and in consequence, valid only in a given social and cultural context. So concluding in these terms, Sokal was ironically exhorting to “a profound revision of the canon of mathematics”:
Finally, the content of any science is profoundly constrained by the language within which its discourses are formulated; and mainstream Western physical science has, since Galileo, been formulated in the language of mathematics. But whose mathematics? The question is a fundamental one, for, as Aronowitz has observed, “neither logic nor mathematics escapes the `contamination' of the social.”1
This happened twenty years ago. The details of the Sokal affair are often forgotten. But what remains is the supposition that any usage of scientific concepts in humanities, as well as mixing both things together, is lacking legitimacy. As you can easily imagine, this ends up forming a considerable hindrance in the development of humanities. Probably you scientists can more or less manage without the support of humanities, yet in any case our epoch remains deeply marked by this cleavage, this disconnection of the various fields of human thought. And of course the humanities are deprived of an important source of inspiration, if any metaphor taken from sciences is banished as illegitimate. This hindrance is particularly severe as it prevents us from rethinking and continuing the postmodern reflection, which in the meanwhile has become the “new classics”, the legacy of the past generation and so to say the backdrop of everything what we are in humanities right now. We are also so very much timid and shy and feeling small in front of the complexities of the contemporary science that this cleavage in the landscape of our times seems doomed to remain. This is why I must confess I'm shaking every time that I speak about my project, as if we were back to the early-modern times of the Inquisition. Even if the scholars are no longer actually burned on stake, they can very easily be burned in academic terms. But let's hope this will not happen here, and I can speak quite openly of my heresy. The main dogma that I want to attack concerns the relationship between the human and the cultural. The dogma says: what is human is necessarily cultural. There is nothing non-cultural, or “outside culture” in the experience of a human individual, and the cultural filter constantly interferes with our perception of the reality. Even at the basic, physiological level, everything we feel is mediated by the culture that shaped us. Our perception of pain is culturally determined, our perception of sexual pleasure is culturally determined. To be hungry and thirsty is different for those of us who are so to speak normal Western people and for our Muslim colleague who is fasting during the month of Ramadan. And of course, if we want to express any of these experiences, we must use the culturally determined codes: the language, but not only language, even gestures have different significance according to culture. The way we smile, the way we cry is culturally determined. In fact, it is quite difficult to get down to anything that is non-cultural or pre-cultural in the human being. Those of you who are doctors will correct me; I believe one of those rare elements which seem to be beyond culture is the gesture of open hand as the expression of despair. We have it in Picasso's Guernica, and the the doctors consider it as the indicator of stress in very young infants. But on the other hand, if we go so far, we come close to the very frontier of the humanity and perhaps we find the elements that are common to man and the remaining primates or even to mammals in general. On the other hand, the deepest roots of culture not only touch this biological frontier, but also actually cross it, as we find the traits of cultural transmission, and at the same time cultural diversification, f.ex. in the tool usage among different populations of bonobo. They use sticks and straws to catch termites in different ways in different places in Africa, and they have their “tribal” ways of smashing the nuts that are characteristic for some groups and vary across the general population. So culture is everywhere, our humanness appears as totally immersed in it since the earliest beginnings. In the 16th century, people still believed there was some pre-cultural stage of humanity, namely in the garden of Paradise, before the original sin, when the first humans didn't even know they were naked and didn't need this profoundly cultural element that are clothes. But we don't share this belief nowadays. We know that since the earliest beginnings Homo sapiens evolved as a cultured being, and cultured means divided into different strands of tradition. Even if we didn't actually break the mystery of the origin of language yet, it seems that there was no language of Adam, and no universal grammar. At every stage of human history, the culture was polycentric, local, creating distinction, division, and hostility between different groups. There have never been just one, common culture for all humanity. No wonder why the humanities – as generally understood – consist essentially in the study of the cultural. The orthodox humanity scholars don't even attempt to go beyond this cultural inscription of man; they find plenty to do without it. This is why we are lacking the instruments to approach the heterodox hypothesis that there might be anything non-cultural or trans-cultural in a human individual and that there might exist any form of radically trans-cultural communication between humans. And here of course there is an obvious paradox: we do communicate across cultures, even if the thesis of untranslatability, like recently defended by Emily Apter in her work Against World Literature, returns over and over again. Let's say there is no perfect translatability, not perfect transparency across the cultural filters, because since the German neokantianist school, since Ernst Cassirer and others – and here I speak about a philosopher who died in 1945 – we got used to the general assumption that meaning is constructed inside a given cultural system, and cannot be constructed otherwise. This also explains why the postmodernists found it so hard to believe that science might be anything but a cultural construct, and how it might actually be possible that we have one science for all the humanity. This is why they were ready to follow Alan Sokal when he insisted on the question: “whose mathematics it is?” The postmodernists quite seriously presumed there must be something like Native American physics, New Guinea physics, Chinese physics and so on, and the dominant position of Western physics is only the result of colonial hegemony of the white man. This is why they accepted for publication that article in which Sokal was concluding that quantum gravity is a construct, valid only in a given society, in a given culture. It is enormously striking, really mind-boggling for me that, against the postmodern views, science proved to be increasingly international across the last decades; there was nothing we might call a decolonisation of the scientific mind. Well, as far as I know, the quantum gravitation theory not ready yet, people are still thinking how to actually describe the gravity in the language of quantum mechanics. Each of the researchers is an individual immersed in a given culture; some of them even believe in God and participate in revealed religions – there has even been studies on this; surprisingly, a large number of people manage somehow to believe in God and the Big Bang simultaneously; even if we have the creationist crisis in the United States, it is rather at the level of the social groups alien to science than troubling the scientists as individuals. I suppose none of them is without culture; but nonetheless the result of their reflection is beyond any particular culture. This is why I believe that what we should actually study is the coexistence and intersection of two spheres, the cultural and the transcultural. If we take contemporary mathematics or physics as an example of a transcultural sphere, we can see immediately that this exemplification is situated at the level of extreme complexity, not at the basic level of affects or some simple inborn ideas. Metaphorically speaking, the language of Adam is not situated in illo tempore (in the times of beginnings – this is an expression used by a Romanian theoretician of mythologies, Mircea Eliade). It is not behind us. It is in front of us, as a new threshold of complexity, more complex than culture. Here we enter the zone of what you might think of as yet another campus fashion: the transhumanism. I don't have enough time to enter this field; I just point out the entrance is here; one might also go in this direction. But let's rather speak about the complexity. Here comes one of the scientific concepts that I find crucial for the new humanities I think about: the emergence. Here I quote quite simple, standard definition given by the Wikipedia:
Emergence is a phenomenon whereby larger entities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities such that the larger entities exhibit properties the smaller/simpler entities do not exhibit.
In other words, the emergence is an unexpected qualitative passage to a new complexity level, based on the proliferation of simpler elements beyond a certain quantitative limit. Imagine such a passage if we consider cultures interacting in the global space as those simpler elements that at a given moment form even more complex, planetary organism. Uh, that's very well the nightmare of any scholar in humanities. You scientists actually deal with simple things, compared to us, the humanities scholars. To illustrate the emergence, you take the simple, smiling geometry of the molecule of water and you muse on the passage to the fractal geometry of a snowflake. I know there is quite a deep mystery concerning this passage; nonetheless imagine what we the humanities scholars need to bring forth to give an example of emergence. Over a period of seventeen years starting in 1922, the Irish modernist writer James Joyce wrote a book under the title Finnegans Wake, which is apparently written in English, but in reality it's full of neologistic multilingual puns – neologisms made up with words not only in English, but also in French, Norwegian, Polish, Samoyed and a number of other languages that remains controversial (some specialists say there is about 150 languages used in this book, including the language of science; the term “quark”, as subatomic particle, is allegedly originating from this book). So the meaning of this literary text is constructed not inside one, coherent linguistic system, but deliberately at the intersection of various linguistic systems, creating a new sphere of increased complexity which is beyond the reach of standard tools such as philological analysis. And believe me, Finnegans Wake is only a relatively simple example of what is going on when cultures cease to exist in separate societies inhabiting distinct territories. In the age of global mobility, we constantly live so to speak inside the Finnegans Wake, at the cross-section not only of various languages, but also of various sets of rules of politeness or moral normativities. The way of approaching a man or a woman with a sexual objective is very strictly codified, or ritualised in any culture, and these rituals are very different from one culture to another. This is why I wonder how people living at the cross-section of different cultures actually manage to have any sexual intercourse whatsoever, but apparently they do – perhaps they break all the rules; there is no rigid code any more. This reality inspired the hypothesis of the “dissolution of cultures” (Auflösung der Kulturen), proposed by Wolfgang Welsch in 1992. This is why we need radically innovative tools for the humanities to deal with this new reality; tools that would enable us to capture sufficiently large picture of this emergent complexity. Some attempts have already entered the current academic practice in such areas as comparative literature, tackling the complexity not only of a single national literary system, but of something that is currently called World Literature with increasing precision. Probably the most famous methodological innovation is the idea of “distant reading” developed by Franco Moretti in the first years of this century (his book Graphs, Maps, Trees. Abstract models for a literary history was published in 2005). The innovation here consists mainly in abandoning the idea of “close reading”, the minute, detailed analysis of the text, in order to attempt a general cartography of the entire landscape of texts, the flow of their production, translation, readership, genres in global circulation, etc. In this perspective, the text, as complex as it is in itself, is taken as a simple occurrence coexisting and interacting with thousands of similar simple occurrences of similar entities. Finnegans Wake in this perspective would be just one single point on a global map. This is just an example of how, with increasing insistence, the recent humanities try to deal with entities – such as texts – , and contents – such as iconic schemes, narrative structures, concepts, etc. – travelling between cultures, without entirely belonging to any of them. The very term “cultural” becomes problematic, because we need a more neutral term, just to avoid the incongruence of something like “cultural but not belonging to any culture in particular”. This is why I try to recuperate the old neokantian term “symbolic”. It was an important keyword half a century ago, but the old meaning was wiped away by the postmodern revolution; this is why I thought the time is ripe to recycle the word and give it a new definition. The alternative would be to go on with the radical term-making strategies of the postmodernism, and go on forging hermetic terms such as khōra, originally a Plato's term, transformed into a new concept by Derrida in 1993. Yet this problem of term-making is a topic in itself; it seems that all the good words have been taken already. Postmodernists were still taking their terms from the Greek and Roman classics; I claim a set of concepts taken from science, even if it causes a series of problems due to the long shadow of the Sokal affair and not only; (I have a very big problem with the term “dimension”, because when you start talking about the “fourth dimension” in the humanities, people think you refer to ghost stories...) What I propose is to speak about a unitarian symbolic space in which the cultures in their classical understanding of separate, even if interrelating, systems of meaning may be immersed like bubbles in a liquid. At the same time, such a conceptualization would permits us to focus something what has been out of scope in the humanities, namely the processes going on in the interstices between cultures (this is why the Derridian term khōra might also come in handy in this context, but I have no time to delve into it). At the same time, such a notion of symbolic space would facilitate the study of the non-local mechanisms of constituting the meaning and permit to grasp the human potential of transgressing the limitations imposed by the cultural inscription. If these bubbles represent cultures, so what is inside them has been very well studied already. But what is outside them is a great question. Many or most of my colleagues would say either there is nothing, or – even if there is something – we don't have the tools to deal with those contents. There might be some extreme experiences or special states like madness, but as far as the expression and communication of these states is implied, we are sucked inside one of the bubbles. Because if one has, just to give an example, an ecstatic vision that puts him or her outside the normal mood of cultured functioning, in order to tell other people about it, one has to translate this experience into the terms accepted in a given cultural context. In other words, the transmission of this experience that we get and that may eventually take up as a working corpus for our analysis is already culturally inscribed. So apparently whatever we touch, is culture. Nonetheless, I would like to try hard and catch at least some glimpses of the transcultural, even if it comes to us only through imperfect translations into culturally determined languages. This is also the reason why I introduced the expression “transcultural aspiration” in the title of my current research project with Le Studium. My hypothesis is that other people before me also tried to pierce the cultural bubbles and to catch those glimpses of something beyond culture. Why? Because the general tendency of the human nature is to seek freedom and transgress borders. And the culture, among many other metaphors or definitions that you may give of it, is also a system of rules making rails on which you smoothly run across your everyday experiences. But where you have rules, you have also rule breakers. Heretics, madmen, visionaries, or generally the derailed people falling off the bitten track. One of my heroes, Guillaume Postel, is just an example. As I've just argued, as scholars, we don't have a direct access to the transcultural (I believe we might have such an access as humans; I can possibly have an ecstatic vision or an episode of madness, but I will be obviously in trouble to bring it up to the academia). We can only approach it from different sides, trying somehow to hem in our problem. This is why I've had the idea of building up a cluster of case studies that may touch these unexplored regions. For the moment, they are three. Case Study 1 is built up around the question of the Adamic language and the search for its restitution. The idea of this primordial language of the humanity migrated between Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the Middle Ages.1 It resurfaced at the age of maritime discoveries, when the Portuguese humanists such as Joao de Barros, as well as the French polymath Guillaume Postel, transformed the recuperation of the primordial language dispersed among distant peoples into a promise of radical enlargement of human cognitive abilities. Case Study 2 deals with the Islamic mysticism (Sufism) and its exploration by European scholars (perennialist school, Beshara movement, religious topics elaborated in the Eranos circle). Once again, the crucial element is the problem of “inexpressible” mystical experience and the ways of its paradoxical transmission across time and cultural frontiers.2 Case Study 3 deals with yet another element migrating through the cultural frontier between the Islamic past and the secularized Western present, i.e. the tradition of delimiting and naming the diverse “stages of love”.3 Originally connected to the context of mysticism, the proliferating “names of love” in contemporary Arabic-French elaboration grapple with the inexpressible character of the erotic experience and its ineffable connection with the spiritual. Finally, the concluding part of my work on this cluster of case studies will reach the idea of the universal community of interrelated transcultural individuals immersed in the world of cultures. Once again, I will build up on the material taken from the Mediterranean past, namely the treatise The Rule of the Solitary by Ibn Bajja, who was a 12th century philosopher living in the Muslim Spain, known under the name of Avempace in the Latin medieval tradition. I intend to reinterpret this text in terms of cultural/transcultural dualism. Reaching at these conclusions, I will discuss the two possible ways of configuring the symbolic space: as a vision of separate, yet interrelating “dimensions” (cultural vs transcultural) or a continuum of symbolic elements interacting freely, as the result of a complete dissolution of the cultural. These three case studies deal with the problem that appears as crucial for me: the problem of cultural inscription of the natural languages – I mean just languages like French, English, Arabic, Greek, Latin, etc. This is why the first part of my research is about the search for the Adamic language as a language that hypothetically might be ample enough to express not only the cultural but also the transcultural. As it was understood in early-modern times, the Adamic language was characterised by some kind of more essential link with the reality than all “normal” languages, that are mere conventions established among a group of people and valid only for this group of people. It is also an early-modern idea that this language might be somehow close to mathematics. Because as you know, there is a conventional element in mathematics, the way people agree on representing certain concepts in a certain way. But at the same time, it's idiot to ask, as Sokal provokingly did, “whose mathematics it is?” Because under this conventional level there is a representation of something deeply rooted in the very structure of the reality. In the meanwhile, the natural languages like French, English, Greek etc. seem to lack this deep roots of absolute correspondence between words and things. This was the problem of the early-modern Kabbalists and the striking treat here is that you have not only Jewish Kabbalists, but also Christian Kabbalists and also very similar currents in the Islamic world. The same idea seems to pierce the borders of cultures and religious orthodoxies established inside each of those cultural bubbles. What I would like to stress is that I'm not interested in the study of the past “just because it happened”. My main motivation is to bring these antecedents into light for the reasons of our present need of transcultural condition. The main problem we face is the alienation of the individual who pierced the frontier of his or her original culture. This alienation is the natural consequence of the “unspeakable” character of these experiences, as I have already mentioned. I suppose someone like Guillaume Postel would know very well what I'm speaking about, but in the contemporary world we have an increasing number of those alienated individuals. This is what makes an ancient idea extremely up-to-the-date. This is why I return to Ibn Bajja / Avempace and his idea of solitary thinkers making up a kind of network through some subtle form of communication. In his philosophical tale, The Rule of the Solitary, these transcultural individuals are lonely, but nonetheless they participate in some kind of invisible community, and at the same time they foster the slow evolution of the “normal” society, people just living on their cultural rails without nurturing any kind of transcultural aspiration. Nonetheless, due to the solitary thinkers, also this society is slowly, slowly improving to reach some kind of higher condition. This cluster of case studies may create the impression that I'm really overambitious. Nonetheless, I'm persuaded that this amount of material is just the necessary sample to give the idea of the intricacy of the symbolic space understood as the result of an emergence, i.e. as an unexplored level of complexity. These case studies are not to be treated as separate topics for their own sake, but as the exemplification of the entanglement between migrating ideas. The Mediterranean is for me a great laboratory of such phenomena, that expand to a planetary scale in early-modern times, due to the European maritime expansion that is essentially conceptualized according to the notions elaborated in the Mediterranean context. In a way, it would be thus more proper in my opinion to speak even of an expansion of a transcultural Mediterranean. Even if the Europeans were so to speak “the vector of transmission”, the migrating ideas they took with them are born at the crossroad of more strands of tradition than just European or Christian. My exemplification, i.e. the case Studies 1-3, should thus illustrate the heterodox legacy helped to form the global reality. This involves the return to the banished notion of universalism. I say banished, because at the heyday of the postmodern relativism associated with the postcolonial school, the notion of universalism has been deconstructed; what remained was uniquely the thesis that the only universalism we had was the falsified one, pretended one, that in fact was covering the hegemony of the white male. Things are of course much more complicated. But this is just another reason to relaunch the search for the non-cultural with as politically neutral tools as possible. This is just another, perhaps marginal reason why I want to seek inspiration in the mathematical topology to build the notion of symbolic space. What I actually want to analyse with this new tool is the complexity of the network of intellectual connections developing in the interstices between the cultural systems. The notion of the higher dimension would be very useful to create just enough room for this complexity. Even if we step here on a very unstable ground. Just to give an example, one of the small topic or items I deal with in my research is the curious notion of uwaysi transmission. It is a concept that appeared in the context of Islamic mysticism to speak about the possibility of receiving an influence without any material means of transmission. In other words, we may rediscover some truth known earlier by some other mystic, even if we never met this person, discussed these problems with him or her, or read his or her written works. This might be just a medieval name for an idea that is in the air. On the other hand, it strikes me as an early attempt at conceptualizing something that lays parallel and at the same time beyond the strands of cultural transmission. The term may correspond to no reality whatsoever. But on the other hand it may serve us to conceptualize the way how we catch the glimpses of meaning across the cultural border, even if the message as such is untranslatable at the linguistic level. We construe human situation on the opposite end. As I said, my research program prepares the ground for a topological conceptualization of the symbolic space as a continuum of actualized and possible interactions between complex forms of information. A topology (or various topologies) of the symbolic space will describe the occurrence of continuity and rupture in its tissue. Once such a conceptualization is made, the interpretation of complex symbolic entities, such as poems, paintings or narrations, as well as the relationships they establish between themselves, may be inscribed in or derived from a determined hypothesis concerning the topological properties of the symbolic space that they constitute and in which they are immersed. Such an interpretation of the unity of the symbolic space and the “entanglement” of distant elements (belonging to separate cultures in the traditional paradigm) will put in the limelight the processes of interaction and the formation non-local (“transcultural”) structures. This may seem very strange, but in fact it's not entirely novel. The inspiration for the topological approach to the symbolic space and its properties has been found in the essay “Coca cola as a petit object a” by Slavoj Žižek (2000) who reflected on the non-trivial properties of the space in which the “objects of desire” are immersed. Shortly speaking, there is a strand of ideas leading from Lacan to Žižek and from Žižek to me. As a part of his argumentation, he was reflecting on the way how we can describe and analyse the properties of the space inside the museum that somehow make the dead cow that is exposed there into a work of art. Also the reflection on space conduced by the postmodern classics, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari is very important in this context. Obviously without omitting Peter Sloterdick and the way how he used the topological metaphor of bubbles or spheres to attempt his philosophy of the globalization. In a way, my own notion of the symbolic space is more literal and less metaphorical than one might expect, given these antecedents. What I want to do is to postulate a matrix of connections, both virtual and actualized, between the symbolic phenomena sensu lato. It is very important for me to bring back the entities we deal with in humanities – so to speak back into the realm of reality, treating them just as complex forms of information. The ontological gap between science and humanities should be closed, even if there is still a missing link that prevents us from understand fully the connection between the material brain and its immaterial products. Nonetheless, these immaterial products, such as concepts, ideas, images – and heavenly revelations –, are intersubjective objects of knowledge that can be inscribed into an infinitely extensive matrix of possibilities. What I should accentuate is the special sense of the adjective “extensive”. My problem with culture consists in the fact that is also an extensive matrix of possibilities. There is an infinite number of word combinations in a natural language, and an infinite number of possible novels in English. Why did Joyce ever attempt to write Finnegans Wake at the cross-section of more than just English? Such metaphors the multidimensional space help me to speak about the consequences of such a creative transgression. Finally, I believe, the stake in this game is to increase our freedom.