Monday, July 2, 2012
EXCHANGE ABOUT LAKSHMI BANDLAMUDI’S DIALOGICS OF SELF, THE MAHABHARATA AND CULTURE: THE HISTORY OF UNDERSTANDING AND UNDERSTANDING OF HISTORY (New York and London: Anthem Press, 2010) by Thomas Fink
Thomas Fink: One main premise in Dialogics of Self for the investigation of Indian-Americans’ responses to the great Indian epic The Mahabharata and especially to its televised 1989 refashioning by the Indian filmmaker B.R. Chopra is the epic’s openness to so many different ethical, philosophical, and psychological perspectives, and this makes the participants’ interpretive discussions especially amenable to Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of Dialogism. You indicate that “while Ramayana . . . clearly stipulates the “ideal” to be achieved, The Mahabharata is . . . an intricate labyrinth of history of ideas that highlights irony at every point” (107). Does The Mahabharata (prior to Chopra’s version, of course) oppose a monologism in ancient Hindu Indian culture(s), perhaps exemplified by Ramayana, or does it bring out the true dialogism that is always already present in the ancient culture?
Lakshmi Bandlamudi: A very interesting multi-layered question. First, let us talk about the necessary conditions for a dialogue – there must be openness on the part of the individuals, a willingness to engage with competing ethical and philosophical dimensions and even place themselves in the midst of these conflicts, so that they may realize something about themselves in culture and history. Second, the text must be open-ended to invite dialogue and thirdly, cultural conditions must allow for the dialogue to emerge. Self-Consciousness may be very dialogic, but if the text is closed and rigid, the range of possible meanings is limited. Both the self and the text may be open, but if the cultural conditions are unfavorable (as in authoritarian regimes), then, dialogue may not be possible. The title of the book – Dialogics of Self, the Mahabharata and Culture reflects this necessary triadic relationship.
When you are studying Indian-Americans, they are in a unique position (as with any immigrant group) of experiencing the ‘enigma of arrival’ – where all the hidden cultural codes become visible and are forced to question selfhood, their cultural baggage and their histories. This feeling of displacement creates a unique opportunity to enter into a dialogue with different cultures, which could lead to creative understanding of self/culture/history. What was evident in my study was that the vast majority does not respond to this dialogic potential; instead, they either shun what they perceive to be ancient/Indian or romanticize the past and the culture. The expressions ‘back then’ and ‘back there’ are either glorified or vilified making any engagement with a familiar epic monologic.
Now, let us discuss about the text and its history. In general, the hermeneutic tradition in India was never preoccupied with preserving the authenticity and originality of texts, but instead, celebrated the ever-evolving living traditions of epic texts. Furthermore, when these texts are orally transmitted, the storyteller is always preoccupied with many truths – the psychological, social and the dramatic and hence resorts to all sorts of persuasive tactics to beckon the listener. The transition from oral to textual in numerous languages in India adds more layers to this complex phenomenon. Therefore, there is a built-in atavism to any version of the text. The dialogic potential is already present in the various versions of the text. Therefore, the ‘surplus of meanings’ about the text is always floating around in the cultural atmosphere and it is up to the reader to select a few and construct meanings. In the constructive process the ontological and the epistemic choices made by the reader become visible.
The epic Ramayana is Kavya – poem, while The Mahabharata is Itihas – history of ideas. The former preaches about the ideal to be achieved, and hence the Godhead Vishnu incarnates as a human being and sets an example for the subjects to emulate, whereas, The Mahabharata exposes the very process of ‘idealization’ and hence nothing is absolute and final. This does not mean that Ramayana cannot be dialogized, but the scope is greater in The Mahabharata, since the reader is faced with bewildering complexities. While The Ramayana commands devotion, The Mahabharata demands dialogue.
TF: Whereas Draupadi, a major female character in The Mahabharata whom we’ll discuss next, seems to invite dialogue, the male character Karna doesn’t. All of your interviewees—whether their perspective is feminist, patriarchal, or somewhere in between—indicate “unconditional respect, sympathy and admiration” for Karna, the “tragic hero, who has been abandoned by his mother, ostracized by the society, betrayed by teacher and tricked by gods…” (154). Does this result suggest that, even in the very dialogic situation of this epic, consensus is possible? Or, in your view, are all the interpreters missing (or even resisting) the possibility of finding a negative aspect of an otherwise respectable character and blameless victim?
LB: Any encounter with Draupadi – both within the epic text and in the literary history – has enormous potential for dialogue, but this potential is rarely realized because of the tendency to refract her character through the prism of patriarchy. Therefore, more than dialogue, Draupadi invites strong response and controversy. While passions run high in dealing with Draupadi, Karna invites tender sympathy, only because in every important relationship he faces betrayal for no fault of his. Draupadi is a woman of extraordinary beauty with a fiery temperament and so for men she is both the temptation and the terror. And so, when viewed through the patriarchal lens, Draupadi’s pugnacious nature is seen as the root cause of her woes. Interestingly, both Draupadi and Karna seek the battlefield to avenge the insults hurled on them, but Draupadi’s actions are seen as bloodthirsty and vengeful, while Karna is spared of such characterization. Seeking the battlefield is seen as a natural and justified response when a valorous hero is insulted. Whereas, when Draupadi’s asks pointed questions, all the wise men assembled in the court of Hastinapur not only fail to answer her, but questioned her audacity to question and most of my respondents also joined the patriarchal/masculanist chorus. Therefore, Draupadi is a palimpsest and a contradiction bearing all the marks of gendered history. She is the site for affirming and challenging the ideologies of patriarchy. Although Karna is a noble character and has numerous redeeming qualities, he joins hands with evil forces out of sheer loyalty and even instigates and partakes in their nefarious activities, and yet, he doesn’t receive the same degree of condemnation as the heroine. In a dialogic reading, one recognizes the temperament of a character, their unique role in a plot, their past experiences in the story and their situational trappings to give a multi-dimensional and multi-layered interpretation. The characters are located in a broader episteme to reflect on uneasy issues of caste, class and gender in our chequered history.
Therefore, to your question on the possibility of consensus even in a very dialogic situation, the answer is of course yes. Remember centripetal and centrifugal forces are inherent in a dialogue and hence voices do adhere. For that matter it wouldn’t be a dialogue if it were a collection of disparate and disconnected opinions. There must be points of convergence and divergence in a healthy dialogue.
TF: Perhaps you were constrained by your position as researcher/facilitator from entering the dialogue on Draupadi as much more than a questioner. What “multi-dimensional and multi-layered interpretation” of Draupadi would you like to provide that you might not have been able to present in the book?
LB: In the long literary history of India, Draupadi remains unparalleled in personifying womanhood in its wholesomeness and uniqueness, with all its glory, horror, retaliation and resilience. Her complex and contradictory nature makes her versatile and she has stirred the imagination of many writers. She is an excellent literary device to write commentaries on nation, gender, caste and class. During the freedom struggle, a Tamil nationalist poet, Subramania Bharati wrote a classic piece based on the attempted public disrobing of Draupadi titled Panchali Sabadam – the Vow of Draupadi. In the very public humiliation of Draupadi, the poet saw the tribulations of Mother India, whose body has been invaded and stripped of dignity, while the rulers and enforcers of law and justice were either complicit or silent, and her custodians remained pathetically helpless. Bharati mobilized the nation to wake up and retaliate and gain inspiration from Draupadi who relied on her inner strength and strong convictions. In this piece the poet justifies Draupadi’s anger and the Nation’s rage over colonial rule and even deems it necessary to overcome self-pity and degeneration. In my view, any encounter with Draupadi is like entering a hall of mirrors, where we see ourselves seeing ourselves. Infinity is the reality in the play of mirrors – and in the reflecting reflections we see both the mirror and the subject – Draupadi and womanhood, inseparable in our journey from the immediate present to the remote past.
In one of the cantos in The Mahabharata, Draupadi herself presents the most persuasive argument on the ethical-philosophical dimensions of anger. She vociferously argues for the ‘ethic of rage and retaliation’ in response to Yudhishtir’s ‘ethic of restraint and forgiveness’ and I read the Feminist Manifesto in this debate/dialogue.
I am fascinated with Draupadi’s character, because long before women’s liberation philosophies were recorded, she loudly proclaimed that “Personal is Political” and hence challenged the kingdom about the legality of the transaction when she was pawned in the game of dice. In the court of Hastinapur nobody questioned when she was staked and nobody answered when she questioned, For that matter her question – did her husband lose himself before staking her or after – is a brilliant legal maneuver, because if the husband lost himself and if she is considered his possession, then she is lost along with him. But if the wife is an independent entity, how is the transaction valid if she was never consulted? This question remains unanswered to this day. Instead history has been clever, for it has been after all –‘his-story’ and not ‘her-story’ and so it has conveniently masked its inability to answer her question, by questioning her audacity to question and ascribing her character with subterranean and complex evaluations. She is both a victim of patriarchy and an irritant for patriarchy. I think to answer her question we need to go back to her – fight a good fight – and to use my earlier metaphor, when we enter the hall of mirrors, we see our reflection along with hers, and so we come in full circle – from Draupadi to Draupadi and between these two intervals we may discover new terms for gender relations.
TF: Did Draupadi feel that “rage and retaliation” was a strategic stage that would eventually allow women to gain equality with men in her society or a strategy for ongoing resistance in a never-ending conflict? (Separatism is a third option, but I don’t surmise that she would find this ideology satisfactory.) And which “new terms for gender relations” may we discover between the directional prepositions involving Draupadi?
LB: The epic The Mahabharata is about conflicts on many levels, and hence gender is not the only issue and therefore we could say that her legal maneuvering was a brilliant form of resistance and retaliation in a never-ending conflict. Now, how her strategy has been interpreted is an interesting issue and it says more about our contemporary conflicts than about the ancient past. As Gayatri Spivak has noted, I see Draupadi as an active ‘shuttle’ between the past and present and in this bi-directional movement we are constantly redefining gender relations. In our cultural life the nature of conflicts in class, caste, gender etc., are never static and the strategies shift and hence the shuttle does not necessarily explain everything about the gendered phenomena, but at best explains how and why the culture has produced some of these phenomena.
TF: From Bakhtin you derive (and in your assessment of the participants apply) the concept of seven kinds of selves: the Traveler, Biographer, “Clan” self, Seeker, Scriptural Self, Gendered Self, and Dialogic Self (92-3). You notice intriguing dialogic conflicts: “Interestingly, all the seekers are men, who insist on rational, scientific knowledge which they claim to be universal, and the gendered selves, who are all women, vociferously contest these claims,” which they say are held by “men with vested interests” (101). You speak of “the Traveler’s engagement” with the text as a “search for ‘authenticity’” (245) that, like the Seeker’s quest, is dehistoricized. The “rationalist” Seeker is after the replacement of ignorance by “Truth” (93), while the Traveler wants to enjoy and be moved by “fleeting impressions of the world” that s/he regards as “neutral” and “realistic” (92). I wonder, in a dialogic space involving The Mahabharata or not, whether transformations often occur. Might a Traveler ever get weary of the relative superficiality of his/her experience and “convert” to the seeker’s position or encounter an intense sense of gendered power relations and veer in the Gendered Self direction? Might a seeker ever reach such a mighty impasse that s/he experiences the limits of rationality and heads toward the Dialogic Self’s path? And can a Gendered Self, while retaining gender as a crucial category of experience/analysis, become fully dialogic in the sense that she acknowledges not only conceptions of gender change due to historical circumstances, as most influenced by recent feminist theory do, but also other categories that are vital and that, at times, may take precedence over gender?
LB: A very interesting and an important question. Transformations do occur in the interpretive act, either due to the pull of their reading partner or the plot. The movement towards dialogism was greatest in Plot III, where an attempt is made to disrobe Draupadi in public. The plot pulled the reader in multiple directions and hence it was difficult for them to exert complete authority over the text and determine its meanings. The dissonance was palpable in this plot, whereas the other plots involved more of affirmation and repudiation. Interestingly, the neutral, detached world of traveler was relatively more amenable to making entry into the dialogical world, than the absolute world of the biographer with a clear demarcation between right and wrong. Ideological idealism was far more obstinate than ideological realism. The objective/rational world of the seeker was slightly more malleable than the strict moralist world of the biographer. What was the influence of the reading partner? My study demonstrated that the dialogical readers were able to draw only few wavering subjects into a dialogue, whereas monologic readers were more successful in silencing the multiple voices of dialogic readers. Therefore, what is clear is that the monologic impulses are very strong. It is interesting to note that 50% of my subjects engaged in strict ‘Direct Unmediated Discourse,’ in reading all the plots, and only 8% were dialogic in all the plots and the rest occasionally moved towards multi-voiced reading depending on the plot. While the Scriptural, Gendered and Dialogic selves were interested in spreading layers of meaning, the single-voiced readers were busy scraping layer after layer only to negate other possible meanings or actually run away from the text or affirm their interpretive stance. The dialogic reader happily wanders in the semiosphere of the text and its immediate and remote surroundings only to discover a host of dormant meanings. That is why I am arguing that dialogic consciousness is rare and is a developmental achievement; it requires effort, courage and confidence in self to question our assumptions and transform.
The seeker is a classic Hegelian/Piagetian subject who is more interested in extracting a unified philosophical truth in the story. To them, the theatrical element of the story is just surface noise. For most part, they engaged in “uni-directional discourse” where extra-textual materials were used only to substantiate their already formed worldview. Remember, the seeker firmly believes that there is a deep down stable rational truth/philosophy in the text and it can be uncovered with objective methods. Hence their entry into the ‘vari-directional multi-voiced discourse’ is rare.
The gendered self is inherently dialogic to begin with, whether they retain gender as a central category of experience or not. In fact they seem fully capable of de-centering gender and treat it as one of the many stratifying factors in cultural life. For instance, when Draupadi dismisses the candidacy of Karna, the gendered selves are aware of the privileged position that the heroine enjoys at that moment. So you are quite right, at times other categories of class and caste may take precedence over gender.
TF: Using Giambattista Vico and Hayden White, you indicate how four master tropes are situated in discourse and how “the transition from one rhetorical trope to another… or the stagnation at one trope, signifies human and cultural consciousness” (33). Chez Vico, “the transition from a primal metaphorical world to a metonymic world leads to from a theocratic to an aristocratic world,” whereas “the movement from metonymy to synecdoche… represents the transition from aristocratic to democratic worldview, where wholes are constructed from parts” (255), and then, “as one moves from the world of heroes to the world of humans,… “individuals”—I take it, within democracy—“recognize their power and their limitations and, thus irony” (256) becomes the major trope.
I agree that irony is a vital trope for the realization of dialogism, especially in its connection with “parodistic discourse” and “hidden polemic” within “double-voiced discourse.” In American literary criticism in the seventies and eighties, one can look at dialogues among Stanley Fish, Wayne Booth, and others who tease out the distinctions between stable and unstable irony. For Booth, the former is readable as an attitude in opposition to a particular literal perspective, whereas the position or attitude of the latter cannot be located. Fish sees the binary stable/unstable as comparable to decidable/undecidable, but he argues that “all ironies are stable, even those that point in multiple directions, in that the shape they have (or don’t have) will follow from in-place interpretive assumptions; and all ironies are unstable, even those that are sharply pointed, in that they are the product of interpretive assumptions, and not the properties of texts” (Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies, Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1989: 568). Do you agree with Booth that stable and unstable irony can be distinguished or with Fish that it is all up to interpretive communities and conventions? In other words, would it be useful to perceive the irony you’re talking about vis-à-vis Vico and White as unstable or stable?
You point out the danger of synecdoche lucidly. But I would problematize the implicit devaluation of metonymy. This trope, when its constituent parts are both held in mind and one is not repressed, indicates relationality, interdependence, a non-hierarchical understanding of contiguity, and hence the possibility of a historically situated understanding that could exist in concert with dialogism. What do you think about this?
LB: Not having studied in any great detail, the works of Booth or Fish and in particular the distinction between stable and unstable ironies that they make, it would be difficult to make any intelligent connection with Vico or White. However, based on the explanation you have given, I would think that unstable irony would be closer to Vico’s explanation of the trope. In Vico’s exposition, ironic speech presupposes awareness that any interpretation could entail some amount of feigning or lying or masking and therefore you need a dint of self-reflection as a cover to establish veridicality of one’s position. It demands meta-interpretation. That is why I have argued that unlike monologic reading that is so keen on self-affirmation, the dialogic approach leads to self-realization – an awareness of the limitation of your interpretations – leaving a loophole for other interpretations to emerge, and thus keeping everything unfinalized and open-ended.
I think your point about metonymy is well taken. I agree that it could lead to dialogicality and I would stress ‘could,’ because not all readers move from metonymy to other tropes. I am not suggesting that movement of these tropes is necessarily sequential. If anything the discourse moves in zigzags and coils. When the movement stops with metonymy, then there is a danger of making simple-minded causal relations. I think you said it quite well that all the elements of metonymy create the possibility of a historically situated understanding.
TF: “A dialogic consciousness,” you write, “seems brave enough to explore every nook and corner of the semiosphere, which is the gathering ground for many disparate texts and distant spheres” (253). In this “journey,” “these spaces become ‘tools’ for reactivating the text” (254). Freshman expository writing (Composition) is a large part of what I teach, and you teach psychology, in which, I imagine, students also have to write papers supporting a specific thesis. To what degree would or could a dialogic pedagogy reconfigure expository structure into something that either allows the notion of a thesis to be much more capacious or is not thesis-driven? And how would such a dialogic advance in teaching methodology provide safeguards against the risk of chaotically thrown together, meandering essays?
LB: Sadly what we see in our classroom, despite creating an atmosphere for dialogue is the chaotic grouping of texts and ideas without achieving any kind of metamorphosis. This trend was evident even in my study, where readers would invoke many texts and draw comparisons, but fail to use the extra-textual materials as tools to return to the original text and open up other dormant meanings. For instance, while discussing the dice game plot where Draupadi is vociferously challenging the kingdom, the readers may invoke Anita Hill’s testimony and this was common. They would engage in a parallel discussion in an unconsummated fashion. Rarely would they get to another level of drawing converging and diverging points between these two characters. If they did that, they might have discovered something about the contemporaneity of the ancient text – in other words, recognize that Draupadi may belong to the mythical past, but the past she belonged to still remains with us. Despite my prodding, many of my respondents, like our students, fail to make the dialogic connection. I think that is what we struggle with in our classrooms, and hence, left with random grouping of references and texts without the central thesis. Even to engage in a good dialogue, there has to be some anchoring, so that there is unity in diversity. Surely, dialogue is murky and meandering, but there is method to this madness! I notice that in my developmental psychology class, students grasp F:Piaget with relative ease – it is a linear theory of development with neat stages, whereas the non-linearity of Vygotsky is a challenge, because it demands connecting disparate elements – that is, enter into a dialogue.
I wonder if we can directly teach dialogicality; after all it is not a technique or a concept with identifiable features, and the best one can do is to create a condition for a dialogue and make every effort to pull the student into the dialogic space with a hope that they push themselves too. I am curious about your take on this.
TF: Yes, we can create a space for dialogue, and we can help students organize the contours of their thinking without sacrificing dialogism. I have been very gratified when a student tells me that s/he has strong arguments for two opposing sides and is having trouble formulating a thesis or wonders whether any thesis will do justice to the complexity of the issue. We talk about the possibility of “weighing” the two sides and provisionally coming up with a qualified preference for one side, or else acknowledging a current impasse (undecidability without further data) as the thesis, or else achieving a synthesis that is not a “reconciliation of opposites” or paradox but a compromise formation that takes the best aspects of the two sides, shaves off the weaker aspects, and entails generalization that may go in an unexpected direction.
In the Platonic dialogues, the gadfly Socrates always wins. (Of course, the reader might engage in an ironic reframing of the philosopher’s bullying mode of questioning.) It would be exciting to allow some essays to take a (literally and non-Socratically) dialogic form, where there are ultimately two theses and not necessarily a winner, even as the two speakers acknowledge each other’s strong points. There’s no referee or judge.
Is monologism in its most extreme forms a kind of psychopathology? What modes of psychotherapy and/or psychoanalysis are most dialogic? Are the most dialogic most efficacious?
LB: I agree that non-Socratic dialogue would validate each thinker the ‘truth value’ in their own right – as Bakhtin would say, Dostoevsky created characters who were philosophers in their own right – often taking a diametrically opposite view from the author. It is this kind of dialogic form in The Mahabharata that is appealing to me – there are no phantom ethics, but only ethical validity at a given place at a given moment.
One of the topics that I am often preoccupied with is the connection between monologism and psychopathology. Long ago I presented my work to a group of very culturally oriented psychiatrists and psychologists and they made a very interesting observation about my various categories of self. Gingerly, they said that very often the dialogic character arrives at their clinic feeling thoroughly exasperated by the rigid world, feeling like misfits. Whereas, the monologic character might drive a reasonably healthy individual into therapy, making them believe that they need to sort out their emotions. The dialogic character operating in an ever-ambiguous world might become susceptible to that kind of labeling, while monologism masquerades itself as firm, decisive and by extension healthy. This kind of struggle was evident in my study; often the traveler would shout, “get to the point” or “don’t be so emotional” at the meandering dialogic reader, whereas for the latter there are too many points and emotions are one of the basis for interpretation. This disturbing trend is something we witness in our cultural and political life in particular, where volume of the voice drowns the nuanced voice. The dialogic self has greater penchant for self-interrogation, thus leaving the door open for attack, while the world of monologic reader is heavily fortified.
About the modes of psychotherapy that are most dialogic, I think first, we need to re-examine how we define human pathos. Think about the play – One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and I think we have gotten worse in attaching pathos where there isn’t one and we offer pills as the remedy, making drug companies rich. Therefore, as J. Krishnamurthy, a philosopher from India said, it is not a mark of great mental health to conform to a sick society.
TF: Those who say, “Don’t be so emotional” themselves are being emotional, and the dialogic reader as an interpreter, I suspect, tends to be less in the thrall of emotions that are hostile to particular points of view. Openness and irony contribute to skepticism about situations in which emotion and, in fact, bullying overrides thoughtful reflection. And perhaps the dialogic thinker can be sensitive to the “get to the point” attitude—which can be understandable in terms of norms of attention spans—by verbally foregrounding process in advance of and during elaboration.
What you say about our political life is so true. Kerry was branded as a “flip-flopper” rather than a dialogic thinker, and Bush’s monologism was considered admirable, though by 2004, people were thinking less monologically about Iraq, and so Bush squeaked by. Somehow, in 2008, Obama’s dialogism relative to McCain’s monologism won out, as the former was viewed as more sympathetic and “cool” than the latter, and Bush was blamed for the tanking economy. This year, with respect to monologism/dialogism, I wonder whether the electorate will behave as it did, marginally, in 2004, or in 2008.
Regarding the Krishnamurthy quote, I would say that there’s a condition of heteroglossia in our society: there is a good deal of conformity to exclusively money- and status-centered striving, and yet many people are pursuing deeper desires in a self-directed and/or communitarian way, and still others are trying to synthesize divergent aims, perhaps with some success. And this diversity is probably reflected in the panorama of psychotherapies.
As a scholar of Dialogism, what post- Mahabharata project might lie ahead for you?
LB: I agree with your point that there is equal measure of conformity and creativity in our culture. In the former one marches to the drums of culture, pursuing money and status to enter into a Faustian bargain, while the latter pursues deeper meaningful desires that are in tune with their inner rhythms. Perhaps that is what makes life bearable.
I am at present working on a manuscript – Difference, Dialogue and Development: A Bakhtinian World – in which I am trying to look for images of developing subject in his collected works, to explore significance of his theory for developmental psychology. The basic argument is the reality of differences in the world necessitates dialogue, which in turn leads to development.
I will also be convening an All India Bakhtin Conference in August 2013 in India to explore the dialogic potential in the culture. Interestingly, if Mikhail Bakhtin’s works stand under the banner of plurality, open-endedness and diversity of languages and social speech types, the cultural, philosophical and literary histories of India may very well be brought under the same banner. A polyglottic culture with an amazing assortment of dialects, religions and customs would then seem to be an ideal soil for the growth of Bakhtin’s ideas. It may very well be the case that long before the principles of dialogism took shape in the western world, these ideas, although not labeled as such, were an integral part of the intellectual tradition in India. However, like most places the monologic impulses have taken over, and hopefully in the conference we will explore ways of recovering the dialogicality.
It is a rare privilege to respond to someone who asks thoughtful open-ended questions and so THANK YOU for opening up a sustained dialogue…
TF: Thank YOU, Lakshmi. I have learned a great deal.