This study must begin with what Paul Ricoeur calls in Freud and Philosophy (1965) the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion.’ The target of the hermeneutics of suspicion is the whole project of the philosophy of oral traditions and of ‘tribal philosophy.’ The question is whether we can say anything meaningfully today in the modern register about a culture that has no record of its classifications, history, philosophy in phonetic writing. Much of what is going on in the name of ‘tribal philosophy’ or philosophy of ‘oral traditions’ and even ‘comparative philosophy’ either suffers from an ethnocentric deprecatory stance toward oral traditions or its opposite, a condescending Rousseauist romanticization and valorization of the ‘tribal’ or ‘oral’ traditions. Both these approaches to the study of oral traditions have the Indo-European logo-phonocentrism as their underlying modular point of reference. This paper claims that the deconstructive frame of analysis of Derrida, which we have called linguistic materialism, is an attempt at moving beyond such categories and providing a hospitable and democratic frame of analysis pertaining oral traditions. Derrida’s thought makes this possible by reversing and challenging the whole of western philosophical tradition and thus undermining several of its categories, although it does so without the aim of ending or destroying that tradition. My study in this section looks at the premodern Khasi oral tradition in the state of Meghalaya, India, from the perspective of Derrida’s linguistic materialism as enunciated in this thesis.Footnote 2
In the spirit of the hermeneutics of suspicion, it is to be remembered that such exercises are, nevertheless, forced impositions on oral traditions. That is, even when we strive to understand oral traditions through the carefully thought out categories of Indo-European philosophical tradition such as linguistic materialism, the former is nonetheless violently reconfigured through the use of alien categories in the very act of making sense of them in terms of philosophical legibility. The tradition of deconstruction can only hope to be self-aware of the violent epistemic history, where from it arises, and relinquish the notion of absoluteness, right from the beginning of the analysis itself, before the inescapable reconfiguration, which the exercise is set to give rise to, actually unfolds. At the same time, we must start this study with a doubly conscious embrace of the deconstructive assumption that every object of study should be approached as a text in its own right. That is, if “[l]iterarity is not a natural essence, an intrinsic property of the text,” (Derrida, 1992: 44) as Derrida contends, then “one can always inscribe in literature something which was not originally destined to be literary, given the conventional and intentional space which institutes and thus constitutes the text” (1992:46). The inherent instability of conventional interpretations and approaches toward texts that Derrida speaks about here is our alibi for analyzing the Khasi oral tradition in terms of linguistic materialism. What is originary is writing in general mediated through the play of différance. Oral and phonetic traditions are different forms of the arche-writing, already permeated by the hybrid impurities and violent trajectories that the play of différance is wont to give rise to. Indeed, the premodern Khasi oral linguistic practices demonstrate linguistic materialism more saliently than phonetic practices, which are overrun by the erasures of the metaphysics of phonocentrism, although no linguistic practice, despite the erasures of metaphorizations, can in principle be outside the sensible-intelligible texture of the signifier. We will look at Khasi linguistic practices such as religious expressions, which in Indo-European phonetic traditions are usually subjected to inordinate metaphorization through the operation of metaphysics, but are not thus subjected in the premodern Khasi oral tradition, although it currently is, in response to the logocentrism of modernity.
Barnes Mawrie remarks that “the absence of a written literature…has not necessarily impoverished the Khasi culture” (Mawrie, 2000: 46). But, such considerations are phonocentric contemporary evaluations, which first of all assume and valorize the completeness, fullness and modularity of the idealizations of phonetic traditions. If we pay close attention to the Khasi oral or nonalphabetical linguistic practices, it becomes evident how the sensible-intelligible structure of text without neglecting the sensible and the material comes through in their language. Meaning or iterable ideality is a sensuous disclosure of the material world for the ‘premodern’ or ‘ancient’ KhasisFootnote 3 rather than a contextless code constructed by the mind by means of the logic of representationalism. This does not mean that the signifier and meaning in any tradition can be merely and solely material. As Butler says, “[t]he materiality of the signifier will signify only to the extent that it is impure, contaminated by the ideality of differentiating relations, the tacit structurings of a linguistic context that is illimitable in principle” (Butler, 1993: 68). Rather, my remark about Khasi premodern linguistic practices above merely means that the materiality of the iterable ideality of the signifier in an oral tradition is not erased through the metaphysical or philosophical process of metaphorization to the extent that the said tradition is unaffected by logocentrism. The infinite multiplicity of iterable ideality is inescapable in all contexts of signifiers, whether phonetic or nonalphabetical (oral tradition). However, the Derridean perspective is that in the oral traditions, the sensible-material aspect of meaning does not suffer the erasure, which is endemic to phonetic traditions. Further, the palpable material-sensible relation of meaning with its world, disconnects language from the domination of instrumental and calculative rationality, which has become characteristic of the modern global technocapitalistic culture, emanating from the dominance of western phonocentrism, as language in oral traditions is not thought of as the instrument or construct of the mind to reach out to the world. In other words, a close understanding of the Khasi oral tradition cannot be gained without listening to the material-sensible texture of their speech without any prejudice toward writing because this material-sensible texture, as the word ‘texture’ itself shows, is nothing but a form of writing in general. That is, when we listen to premodern Khasi words and narratives, we must come to understand that what for the modern era is a metaphor was not so for them, and the metaphysical project of erasure of the metaphoricity of signifiers, the process of metaphorization, was not instituted among them, at least in its powerful forms in Indo-European phonetic traditions. What was literal for them became metaphorical when the metaphysical project of phonocentrism began to operate among them. This does not mean that phonetic literacy, technology and science are distasteful things to be avoided or that they are possible only with the directly or reversely deprecatory logic of logocentrism. If anything, Derrida and this study is pointing toward the possibilities of postmetaphysical rather than primitivist and modernist science and technology. Neither a Luddite romanticization of the idyllic nor a triumphalist valorization of the modern is possible from the perspective of linguistic materialism. In fact, Derrida is averse to Heidegger’s technological romanticism and his human exceptionalism. What is possible, rather, is a frame of analysis of the premodern nonalphabetical tradition or any textual practice without deprecation and without romanticist valorization. In this spirit, I take up for analysis below three types of linguistic/textual practices of the Khasis pertaining to (i) eschatology, (ii) art and (iii) politics.
(i) The traditional Khasis believe that they begin their life on earth by establishing a covenant (ka nia-ka jutang) with God (u Blei) to earn righteousness by one’s own labor (kamai ia ka hok). This suggests that the present life is a journey toward another place. And, those who complete the journey are believed to have proceeded to a place where they are able to eat kwai (beetle nut) at leisure at the doorstep to the house of u Blei or God (bam kwai ha dwar u Blei). Hence, it is a practice of funeral ritual among traditional Khasis to keep beetle nuts and leaves, lime and a knife along with the body of the deceased when it is cremated. Dead ancestors are believed to be transported to the house of u Blei, which is said to be beyond the abode of clouds. To traditional Khasis, the expression ‘bam kwai ha dwar u Blei’ is not a metaphorical expression, except when they are influenced by the logocentric paradigm; rather, it is an expression of meaning (ideality) in terms of an embodied sensory-material cultural practice (of chewing beetle nuts) common in their world. It is a performative reality of their daily practice, which provides the sensory-material basis of a non-metaphysical imagination or ideality of afterlife. The fact is that such expressions like beatific vision, seeing God face to face and communion with God abound also in logocentric religious traditions. However, in the religious practices of oral traditions like that of the Khasis, there is no attempt to explicate such expressions as metaphors standing for an abstract metaphysical reality, which is a logocentric practice. The Khasi practice of eating kwai has a significance inherent in their everyday practices. It is a customary part of welcoming guests and greeting strangers. The imagery for freedom from sorrow in this instance is not the metaphysical conception of disembodied spiritual bliss, which we might recognize today as paradoxical since experiencing the transient, contingent sentiment of joy without the body seems to be impossible. In the nonalphabetical idioms of the Khasis, the desire for continued existence is not separated from the worldly experience of perfect existence, while erasure of the sensual-material aspect of expressing such desires and ideals is the routine way of operation of phonocentric linguistic practice. Such an economy, as Derrida reminds, leads to philosophy and metaphysics, which forgets and erases its mythos and circulates itself as the universal logos.
There is a modernist tendency to eulogize oral traditions or cultures as models of environmentalism, both in their social customs and linguistic practices. The naturalistic ecophenomenologist Abram is guilty of such non-contextualized eulogization because he makes a moral environmentalist move from the problematic philosophy of etymologism—finding the original sensory image behind concept-words—to the ethical claim that “the linguistic patterns of an oral culture remain uniquely responsive, and responsible, to the more-than-human life-world, or bioregion, in which that culture is embedded” (Abram, 1996: 178). It is true that linguistic materialism is more apparent in oral traditions such as that of the premodern Khasis, where the binary of speech-writing is not instituted. It is also true that the sensible-material texture of meaning is more palpably experienced among them because the erasures of it through the operation of phonocentric metaphysics has not come into play. However, the tendency to eulogize the non-erasure of the sensible-material figures of language in oral traditions from a modern environmentalist perspective is perhaps not sufficiently contextualized, and so it must be emphasized that the human-nature relationship among them was not conceived either as particularly ecofriendly or as overtly eco-unfriendly or eco-degrading and eco-destructive. These categories indeed arise from our contemporary experiences. My emphasis in the present study is the embodied, material, sensory texture of language in oral traditions, but it must be acknowledged that it is not experienced by these traditions in opposition to phonetic traditions and their overt idealizations, and hence the many analytical angles that modern scholarship tends to take with respect to ‘tribal’ communities are in fact irrelevant to them in their premodern setting. It is also not that they abided by a way of life or a view of things in perfectly fated docility, but that the differential, sometimes violent and disloyal relationship of oral traditions to them was not mediated through a clearly articulated conception of the inadequacy and imperfection of a binary opposition.
(ii) In the broad sense of text according to Derrida, whose materiality mediated through the play of différance he underlines, the folktales and songs, proverbs and wise sayings, fables and incantations, parables and couplets, dreams and visions, folk drama and dance, ritual and ceremonial sayings, stored in the text of the memory of the oral tradition of the Khasis and documented after the arrival of the alphabet, can also be analyzed in terms of linguistic materialism. Let us take for the purposes of the present study the example of the traditional Khasi dance known as ka shad suk mynsiem (translatable as the dance of peaceful hearts or the dance of contentment and joy; that is, dance of joyful hearts). Heidegger’s main criticism against modern aesthetics is that it has turned art into a form of subjectivistic representation, leading to rather than resisting modern representationalism and technological enframing. Modern dance also is an abstract art like modern painting and drawing because it is supposed to be about representing a formal and static reality and is supposed to entertain onlooker subjects. “In tribal cultures, dance has provided a means for establishing and conveying the relationship between the mundane and the spiritual, for integrating the individual and community, for reflecting and enhancing the connection between the human and natural world, and, through enacted myth in ritual, for marking important events and meeting challenges” (Halprin, 2003: 59). Tribal art is not really to entertain or to represent some surprising phenomenon. It is “not about spectacle and has no theatrical correlates, least of all in tribal ceremony… [It] is not staged so that the spectator may see. There is a prior understanding among the initiated by which they can already see” (Nelson, 2007: 105). For Heidegger, a genuine work of art like the Greek temple is not a spectacle but is something that forms and orients the world of a people. It “first structures and simultaneously gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire for the human being the shape of its destiny. The all-governing expanse of these open relations is the world of this historical people” (Heidegger, 2002: 20–21). Khasi art is world-formative, world-orienting and world-expressive in Heidegger’s sense, though whether it is revolutionarily world-making in Heidegger’s sense is uncertain. Ka shad suk mynsiem is performed to mark the onset of the sowing season and to express thanksgiving for the fruits of the earth already harvested. It is also considered a sort of fertility cult by which deities are propitiated for the productiveness of plants, animals and humans. Women are considered as the recipients of seeds and bearers of fruits, while men as the providers of seeds. The material-sensible symbolism of the dance is rich and is well-known to the community without any struggle with abstract interpretation. The female and male dancers are dressed in traditional fineries of fine silk, along with silver and gold ornaments, a silver crown on female heads, and a silver quiver with arrows upon the shoulders of males. The costume is, on the one hand, inscribed with the celebratory mood of the occasion, but on the other, is also inscribed with the classificatory text of the roles of males and females in the Khasi social scheme. Dancers move rhythmically along with the beat of nakra (big drum), ki ksing padiah (smaller drum), and the tunes of tangburi (pipes), besli (flute), ka duitara (string instrument), and other musical instruments. The dancers are unmarried males and females. The male performers along with swords and whips circle around female dancers as if to protect them, a gesture that betrays gender stereotypes even in the Khasi matrilineal world and which squarely reflects the prevailing Khasi social practices of the time. At the same time, the art form, rather than being an abstract representation of unworldly phenomena, relives the world of the Khasis, reinforces and orients it. That is why I think that the sensorial-intelligible play of the social text is easily recognizable in it unlike in modern forms of abstractly representational art. Ka shad suk mynsiem is also an offering of thanksgiving to u Blei for blessings showered during the harvest. The meaning of the dance is well-known by the community members and this meaning is relived while the dance is being performed. Indeed, a world that is fast disappearing with the arrival of Christianity and modern institutions is reenacted today under the initiatives of those who believe in the traditional Khasi religion, the Seng Khasi or Niam Khasi. In contemporary times, the orientation toward the Khasi world that the dance as a sensible-material cultural text provides in close affinity with the various linguistic-cultural practices of that world, however, is often an exotic, curious reminder of an existence that is truly in ‘between’ an ancient tribal tradition and modernity. Even the practitioners of Seng Khasi religion participate in modern education and the modern nation state. In this deeply hybrid context, we can only imagine what the dance suk mynsiem did for the Khasi people once upon a time within an oral tradition as the Greek temple did for the Athenians or the river Ganga did for premodern Hindus. In any case, the dance is a text that reflects Khasi existence even today, even if in a grossly hybrid and sometimes even unintelligible fashion.
(iii) When we consider the sensible-intelligible texture of meaning, folklores are interesting objects of study, for they often do not weave a narrative distant from the practical concerns of embodied existence, do not incline themselves to the phonocentric metaphysical process of metaphorization and erasure, except when they are brought under the analytic lens of phonocentric paradigms, and it neither claims fixity and decontextualized universality of meaning as logocentric narratives tend to do, nor claims to deny the play of différance endemic to meaning. These features of folklores, which are interesting for our study of the sensible-material texture of meaning, is visibly seen in Khasi folklore. It is generally claim that the Khasis derive their ethical, epistemic narratives form the world around them. When the Khasis look at their world, they closely examines their natural world and its mode of operation. They relates the natural phenomena with their daily lives. In this manner, a Khasi could translate the natural phenomena into the form of parables, wise sayings, proverbs and folk tales to convey moral lessons and insights for the people. The Khasis because of their oral traditions, generally speaking, hand down moral precepts not in the form of abstract metaphysical principles like the Kantian categorical imperative or moral virtues or the principle of utilitarian maximization of benefit, which are all founded on logocentric reasoning. Rather, they hand down moral precepts in the form of proverbs and tales. These forms, at the same time, relate to their existential world palpably, thus revealing the sensible-material texture of meaning. However, we must also note that Khasi folklore is not only moral but also religious and political.
Let us take the “Hynniew Trep Hynniew Skum” (the seven huts/families or the seven roots) which is a religious narrative of origin, a very central narrative to the Khasi political and cultural identity. The ancient Khasis believed that Lum Sohpetbneng, the name of which means the navel hill of heaven, had upon it the jingkieng ksiar or the golden ladder that connected the heavens above and the earth below just as a baby was connected to her mother through the umbilical cord. Humans, who then lived in the heavens, were used to descending everyday upon the lovely earth, using the jingkieng ksiar in order to labor and cultivate and were used to ascending into their heavenly abode at dusk. There was a man among them, who desired the power to rule over others, unwilling to be a subject of u Blei, and one day, when only seven families (ki hynniew trep) descended upon the earth to labor, he secretly left the field and hacked and felled the mighty jingkieng ksiar, leaving ki hynnew trep stranded upon the earth forever. Ki hynniew trep, who descended upon the earth on that fateful day, are the skum or roots of all humankind and of the Khasis. Lum Sohpetbneng today is a pilgrimage site for the Seng Khasi or Niam Khasi religion. The merely ‘mythological’ and fictional overtone of the Hynniew Trep narrative strikes the modern ear, but not so the older generations of the traditional faith. Soumen Sen characterizes the tale as a historical narration, a ‘belief legend,’ because it is narrated as believable. The credibility or incredibility of the tale was not in question for traditional Khasis, though the tale was variously interpreted. “The believability of such legends is to be seen in their rhetorical weight as an expression of something that ‘might well have happened’” (Sen, 2010: 74). However, the tension between modern and traditional perspectives do exist.
The Khasis narrated the ki hynniew trep ceremoniously and placed it at the center of their national identity. The political tenor of such narratives is to be underlined because they inform political behavior. It has been central to Khasi cultural identity and has been a unifying factor among them even in modern times. Among the Niam Khasi followers, the legend is ritually narrated and reinforced even today. In the modern Niam Khasi context the myth is theologized and given a metaphysical explanation. Ritual reiteration gives it fiduciary authority, relating to cosmogony and cultural identity of the group. Sen observes that the ritualized performative narration leads to “a reorganization of sensory experience within the context of a semantic system” (Sen, 2010: 78). According to him, the narrator, the performer, the audience and the priest become involved in the ritual performance, the past and the present of the community are linked, and performance becomes a legitimizing doing again of origin, thus reinscribing the truth of the social norms, religious ideology and political organization. With regard to the ki hynniew trep narrative and its ritual reenactment, three points strike me with respect to the argument of the present study: (i) The absence of a metaphysical explanation for the elements of the myth of origin in the oral tradition of the Khasis, which was later given such an explanation after the fashion of the western ontotheological narrative by the followers of the Niam Khasi themselves; (ii) The evident credibility and workability of the narrative of the fall for the traditional Khasis, a narrative drawn from localized sensory-material imageries, which strikes the modern ear as incredible, fantastical and therefore fictional; and (iii) The palpable effects of the narrative for contemporary Khasi politics as it is often referred to as the mark of political-cultural identity by traditional and modernized Khasis alike. As a narrative, which is ritually reenacted and recounted as believable, and politically informed and attested, ki hynniew trep, is a historicizing, value-and-identity-framing and politics-orienting narrative.
Derrida’s own approach to logocentric, idealistic discourses of Indo-European philosophy has been to question it from within. This is because of “a profound difficulty to practicing non-logocentrism. This is because we do not escape logocentrism. If we thought we could escape it, overcome it, master it, this thought would only be another logocentrism which makes us appeal to an ‘answer’, or ‘solution’ or ‘alternative’ to a text” (Campbell, 2012: 109). To this extent, we also have not given a non-logocentric exposition of a non-logocentric tradition’s sensory-material texture of meaning and language in opposition to the Indo-European phonetic tradition’s erasure of the sensible-material and valorization of the ideal-intelligible texture of meaning. This is impossible inasmuch as we are participating in a modern academic discourse. Our attempt in this study, instead, has been to pay attention to the sensible-material texture of meaning in its ideality-intelligibility (iterability). Specifically in this section, our attempt has been to amplify this attention with respect to the linguistic/textual practices of a non-phono-logocentric oral tradition in terms of linguistic materialism. This exercise has to be a mere gesture, successful only in its failure to give a genuine exposition of a truly oral tradition’s sensible-material disclosure of meaning. This exercise, rather, points to the difficulty of overcoming logo-phonocentric metaphysics and to the distantness of non-logocentric oral traditions from our contemporary existence. From a truly non-logocentric perspective, this exposition itself should seem strange because such a perspective does not begin from the opposition of the sensible-material versus the ideal-intelligible texture of meaning and does not experience the logic of logocentrism.
What provisional lesson do we, then, learn from the above analysis of khasi oral traditions from the perspective of linguistic materialism as that space of linguistic practice where the sensory-material texture of meaning is not erased or suppressed in favor of the logical-ideal aspect of meaning? First of all, the acknowledgement and recognition that a type of ‘logos’ without the transcendental signified, without the erasure and deprecation of the sensible-material texture of meaning, without subordinating mythos to logos, without the formal-calculative abstractions of metaphysical and modern technoscientific-instrumentalist reason, without logocentrism in other words, has been prevalent among oral traditions. This logos eased the challenges of human existence in the face of a possibly hostile environment and enemy others and for the purposes of social organization, economic life, training of young members, medical emergencies, leisure activities, artistic creativity and technological making. While an engagement with oral traditions in these times of globalized techno-phono-logocentrism is not for the sake of the impossible possibility of a retreat into the oral practices, this engagement is supposed to aid analytical rigor and the conceivably most genuine understanding of the tradition studied.
Secondly, we also realize the possibility and the requirement to imagine the alternative of what Spitzer calls a balanced, non-totalizing “networking of mythos and logos” (Spitzer, 2011: xxiv). This possibility, thus, is without the erasure of mythos and materiality as we find in modern thinking, systems and life, and without what could have been a sort of reign of mythos in oral traditions (if we consider mythos as a type of unaccountable, unlogofiable logos or companion of logos in Spitzer’s terms), at least from our own modern logocentric perspective. As Bruce Lincoln points out, what in all probability has happened with the introduction of philosophical logos, whether in Greece or in India, is a shift in the balance of power between mythos and logos, material and ideal, metaphoric and literal in favor of the latter member of the above binaries. Their historical locus of prominence was not stable and mythos was more privileged, for example, in Homeric Greece. Mythos was then associated with truth and logos with clever ways of masquerading the truth (See: Lincoln, 1999). If we take Spitzer’s sense of mythos as the unfalsifiable, ungrounded, assumed, non-transparent, ineffable abground of logos—the transparent, falsifiable and discursive element of the binary—it is immediately evident that both of these modes operate in human thinking and practice, even in the most abstract technoscience. This realization is also, I suggest, a rewarding method of approach toward premodern oral traditions, toward traditions unfamiliar to the researcher, and toward multiple forms of modern society—in other words, the quintessential ethnological-anthropological task—because it is necessary to see the indecidable, unfalsifiable ‘logos’ in the ‘mythos,’ which makes sense only within its world, and reversely to be suspicious of the ‘mythos’ hidden in the ‘logos’ as its unjustifiable abground, beginning exemplarily with the researcher’s own logos, as Derrida does. The danger of turning the self’s mythos into universal logos, transparent and credible on its own right, needs to be constantly guarded against and critiqued. This is, therefore, the most important critical task of thinking.