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The Materiality of the Sign in Khasi Oral Tradition: Derrida’s Linguistic Materialism

Abstract

Several interesting and significant philosophical, political and other possibilities abound in Derrida’s linguistic materialism, but the objectives of my paper are to describe the general tenets of Derridean linguistic materialism, and to deploy it in the context of Khasi oral tradition in order to lay bare the sensory origin of the sign. I therefore argue, firstly, that Derrida’s oeuvre espouses a nuanced case of linguistic materialism of the sensible-physical trace, which in its materiality is constantly in the process of standing for or representing another sign/signs through the basic process of mediation that he calls écriture—‘writing’ in a more originary sense. Meaning is inscribed in the materiality of the sensible world, is manifested in the material trace of signifiers and is not mediated through the transcendental signified or metaphysical idea. By implication, Derrida’s linguistic materialism is also a theory of the material and empirical origin of the sign. However, the material nature of the thing, which itself is a sign, is not fixed, but is multifaceted, split and polysemic, making meaning contingent and differential. I argue, secondly, that such an understanding of language and meaning must direct us to language in its most original and primordial forms as found in (ab) original oral cultures, where the materiality of the sign is most unhidden and discernible. I, thus, give an account of the sensory, original and material character of linguistic meaning with reference to the case of the oral culture of the Khasi community of India. Khasi words, metaphors and imageries can be demonstrated more plainly in their sensory derivations. Query

The broader understanding of Linguistic materialismFootnote 1 in the oeuvre of Jacques Derrida means that meaning originates from our sensorial experience in the world and with the material things in the world and it is not purely ideal. Language is inscribe in the materiality of the sign, in the things or objects in the world and not only in it ideality. This is the understanding of language as a speculative turn toward materialism and realism, which is in contrast with the idealistic view of meaning of the Platonic tradition, which understand meaning as housed in the human mind. Linguistic materialism takes meaning as not solely spiritual and non-material. Such a thinking on the materiality of language and meaning can be seen more in a non-privileging oral tradition like that of the Khasi language and tradition.

This paper has two sections. In the first section on the materiality of the sign in oral traditions, I dwell on how Derrida’s thesis about the materiality of the sign can be clearly understood in the oral traditions. This argument is further illustrated in the second section by recourse to the Khasi oral tradition. This paper argues for the materiality of linguistic meaning and linguistic materialism can also be seen as the most rigorous and authentic lens for understanding the logic of oral traditions.

Oral Traditions and the Materiality of the Sign: Linguistic Materialism

Derrida’s revolt fundamentally is against the “suppression or repression of the sensibility and materiality of the signifier” (Llewelyn, 2002: 203). There are two major ways in which Derrida argues for the materiality of the text: (a) in terms of the physical element in the material signifier, which coexist with its ideal content, whether the signifier is phonic or graphic; and (b) in terms of the sensorial element in the signifier, which allows something that is foreign to the senses (ideality) to be called ‘sense’ or meaning, despite the privileging of ideality in the metaphysical-philosophical process of erasing that element, thus reminding us that the sensorial element cannot be completely lost in the metaphysical attempt to privilege the ideal, and full presence if the ideal can never be achieved. For Derrida, the sensible-material basis of ideas is, however, not outside language. Intelligibility is intrinsically hooked to the materiality of the sign. The materiality of the phonic and graphic signifier—indeed, of writing as such—is the basis of intelligibility. Derrida shows that such is the thesis also of Hegel in “The Pit and the Pyramid” (1968), though with a contradictory idealistic teleology: “Since the sign is the negativity which ‘relifts’ (reléve) sensory intuition into the ideality of language, it must be hewn from a sensory matter which in some way is given to it, offering a predisposed nonresistance to the work of idealization” (Derrida, 1982b: 90, italics added). He explicitly states here that the concept of ‘metaphor,’ “which would summarize the entire itinerary of metaphysics,” is the line along which Hegel’s notion of ‘physical ideality’ functions in two distinct and opposite directions, namely “the sensualist or materialist reduction and the idealist teleology” (Derrida, 1982b: 91). Both sensibility to light (graphic sign) and to sound (phonic sign) are shared by Hegelian physical ideality. The metaphoricity of the sign, “this movement between the materiality and the ideality of the sign” (Ward, 1995: 218) in the words of Graham Ward, is différance itself for Derrida, and “philosophy is incapable of dominating its general tropology and metaphorics” (Derrida, 1982c: 228). Referring to Hegel, Derrida writes that the Aufhebung or sublation—the rising up from materialist signifier to idealist signified—(which is philosophy’s general programme according to “White Mythology,” the programme of erasing the metaphorical or materialist side of meaning) is constrained into writing itself otherwise. Or perhaps simply into writing itself. Or, better, into taking account of its consumption of writing” (Derrida, 1982a: 19). That is, philosophy’s concept-making activity or Aufhebung is a constraining and consumption of the différance that is at play in the general concept of writing.

However, Derrida argues, meaning is never possible if we had to rely totally on the full presence of the materiality of the sign. So, we are not here speaking about the traditional concept of materialism, including dialectical materialism. Meaning is possible only when we are able to recognize a sign, whether spoken or written, as the same, as iterable. This recognition or intelligible meaning is possible only on account of its materiality. Only when the sign is repeatable as minimally the same but in fact different in terms of the variations of voice modulation and sentence formulation, for example, according to each measure of temporal and spatial context. “What gives rise to an ideal form is the spacing between its nonidentical repetitions, which means that the identity of form is always already contaminated by non-presence and repetition” (Pirovolakis, 1991: 124). There is alterity inherent to ‘the temporalizing movement of spacing’ in all cases of repetition of the signifier. On the one hand, the sign makes repeatability and identifiability possible; on the other, repeatability is not of ‘a purely material presence. In the absence of full presence, what happens to the materiality of the sign, according to, Pirovolakis is this: “By allowing for an originary commingling of presence and absence, spacing gives rise to the sign as a repeatable mark, a structure intended to replace the plenitude of presence not with absence but with effects of presence, with effects of sensibility, intelligibility, and referentiality” (Pirovolakis, 1991: 124).

The materiality of the sign in Derrida’s work means that meaning is associated with the differential and deferential relation among signifiers, without reference to transcendental signifieds in the Saussurean sense. This is also a commitment to the view that linguistic meaning is textually corporeal, and essentially material and sensorial, but always, at the same time, mediated through the play of différance. There are only signifiers in their endless differential relation. Transcendental signified is only an attempt to dominate language, an illusory construct, succoured by the metaphysics of presence and centrism of logos. As Bill Readings states with reference to Lyotard: “To read the materiality of the signifier is to refuse ideological illusion and show the mechanism by which discourses are produced” (Readings, 1991: 16). A sign or a signifier is related to another sign or signifier in a web of their repeatability and interrelation, and not to a concept. With the play of trace and différance, a sign has a power of repetition and it enters into an intertextual relationship with other signs. In the words of Derrida: “A signifier is from the very beginning the possibility of its own repetition, of its own image or resemblance” (Derrida, 1974: 91). However, as I have explicated above, repetition or iterability not only means random recurrence of the sign, but there is also shifts and changes of meaning whenever a sign repeats itself in the web of differential relations. Materiality of the sign opens up the possibility for the thing in the world to enter into the interpretative space, the space of meaning. That is to say, meaning is split, multifaceted, iterable and unconcealed to humans through the material, sensorial texture of signifier.

Now, if Derrida is right in saying that every society, no matter how ‘primitive’ it is, has a certain type of writing (as he says in Of Grammatology), then the materiality of the sign in oral cultures help us lay bare an originary writing therein, different from the vulgar conception of writing, and which is not any pristine or pure self-presence, but is an originary condition of language, still beset with the play of différance. My argument is not at all that oral cultures somehow manifest a condition of language without the frictional play of différance and with complete self-presence and pure, which are impossible according to Derrida. Meaning-making is always already a play of différance, a movement from material referents through the materiality of the sign within a system of differences. The propriety and full presence of the ‘proper name’ is already dissimulated by the differential play. My claim, rather, is that the materiality of the play of différance is more palpably seen in a more unhidden manner in oral cultures because of the fact that the work of metaphysics, the erasure of metaphoricity, is less evident and even absent in such cultures, at least in their forms before their encounter with modernity. That is, my attempt is to articulate the sense of originary writing, which Derrida calls arche-writing, a writing in which oral language belongs, in such cultures (Derrida, 1974: 55–57). If we can conceive such writing within oral cultures, then his argument that “[n]o reality or concept would therefore correspond to the expression ‘society without writing’” (Derrida, 1974: 109) is further evidenced. Hence, if writing is no longer understood in the narrow and traditional sense, then the Nambikwara, for instance, as Derrida argues in Of Grammatology, is not without writing.

The materiality of the signifier or language itself in its more originary metaphoricity is more demonstrable in oral cultures—culture in which the mode of meaning-making is more primordial, sensorial and original. In an oral culture, less touched by modern technological reductions of linguistic formations or writing technologies, language is closer to the natural world of the ‘thing.’ It is in an oral culture that language is expressed more in non-verbalized forms, in non-alphabetic writing such as dances, signs, images and other visible objects. Instead of the removal of meaning from the daily activities and existential concerns of humans—the metaphysical process of abstraction—meaning in oral cultures is coherence with experience of the world in social relations. In such traditions, the materiality of language as it exists in social relations cannot be isolated from the sensuousness of the material world. Language in its material signification within a system of signifiers without clear and metaphysical allusions to a transcendental sphere of meaning generates knowledge, history, religion and ethics, which are non-metaphysical in nature.

The evident materiality of the sign in an oral culture shows that language emerges as the play of différance without any transcendental content or spiritual form dissociated from the relational system of signs. Language as writing does not form itself with reference to an abstract ideal content, but within the relational whole of sensible-material dispersal of signifiers with reference to material objects in the world. As for ideality or conceptuality as a specific relation within a system of signs, the reference is either to immanent phenomena within the world, which metaphor is in its original emergence, as it is the case with oral traditions, or the reference is to objects considered unworldly or spiritual, which is but a specific negotiation within systems of signs as in Indo-European traditions, whereby the metaphoricity of signs is erased through the metaphysics of presence or logocentrism. Hence, the primacy of the ideal over the material collapses in Derrida’s argument, although the ‘material’ spoken of here is a non-metaphysical notion of the material, already affected by the play of différance. The Cogito is no longer the repository of language and language is decentered from the Cartesian subject, as it is the world as the field of the play of différance is the original sphere, which generates meaning. “These aspects of the materiality of language seem too obvious to have been missed in the millennia during which individuals have been thinking about language” (Beetz, 2016: 82–83).

Derrida is not a linguistic idealist; he does not say that matter is a linguistic product or that matter exists only within a system of human signs or in the human mind. Such positions would be metaphysical for Derrida. At the same time, he is not saying also that the play of différance within materiality is simply an aspect of our experience, a phenomenological fact. His thesis, rather, is more radical: there is writing within the thing itself; materiality is itself writing. Human language, thus, cannot be identified with materiality, which is already a writing outside of human language and human systems of signs. As a readable trace, materiality is exposed to humans only in the differential system of a human language. This is how I understand Judith Butler’s claim that language and materiality are “[a]lways already implicated in each other, always already exceeding one another, language and materiality are never fully identical not fully different” (Butler, 1993: 69). This is how we can also understand the entanglement of language and nature in David Abram’s ecophenomenology and phenomenology of oral cultures: “In such indigenous cultures the solidarity between language and the animate landscape is palpable and evident” (Abram, 1996: 87). Abram demonstrates how language and human existence as a whole in its originary sense has negotiated a close affinity with the sensuous world. He also writes: “meaning sprouts in the very depths of the sensory world, in the heat of meeting, encounter, participation” (1996: 75). The sensuousness of human language (linguistic materialism) acts as a chiasmic force between language and the material world. He argues that “if human language arises from the perceptual interplay between the body and the world, then this language ‘belongs’ to the animate landscape as much as it ‘belongs’ to ourselves” (1996: 82). Other than the strongly ecophenomenological tenor of Abram’s argument, the sense of linguistic materialism and its demonstrability in oral traditions are also evident in The Spell of the Sensuous.

Another important aspect of investigating the materiality of the sign in oral traditions is the problem of universality. As we have seen above, just as the notion of a ‘self-same subject’ is a specific movement or negotiation within the play of différance, a ‘self-relation within self-difference,’ (Derrida, 1973: 82) any notion of the universal has to be a specific mediation within a system of différance. This is demonstrable when we study oral traditions with differential understandings of the world, humans, others, the good, gods and so on. There cannot be a deployment of the idea of the universal to align these understandings in any linear order, which is a logocentric exercise. Therefore, it is a pre-given that one oral society need not share the same understandings and ways of life with others. The differential play of ‘worlds’ or the Heideggerian notion of differential ‘worldings’ is palpable among oral traditions. This factual category in fact highlights the primordial manner in which meaning appears differentially as the Derridean perspective insists. It also attests to the fact that meaning unveils within a particular background or context, which cannot be the same for all and which always already emerges within the play of différance. While the finitude inherent to the play of différance within which humans exist, within it there can be the logocentric construction of the universal, which is today extended in its various global forms with modernity. While the absolute and violent universal is to be denounced, keeping in mind the memory of colonialism and the event of the first half of the twentieth century, and while it is necessary to remember that the universal is the specific negotiation of the play of différance like all meaning, it is important to consider the metaphoric effect of the universal, which need not be undermined, except when these effects are unhospitable to otherness and difference (See: Davies, 2001: 213–37). The universal is not a given but something that is arrived at through a historical process of dialogue and addressing, which is itself never a neutral and moral process but a process of difference, non-arrival, power and a difficult morality. It is with respect to oral traditions, again, that the originary unavailability of the universal can be palpably experienced and known.

With regard to an oral culture, the notion of the ‘text’ in the Derridean sense is of great significance. The characteristics of the ‘text’ such as non-homogeneity, multi-layeredness, perspectival rather than fixed meaning are valuable in this regard. The instability and fluidity of the text in linguistic materialism implies that oral cultures cannot not be thematized in a stable logocentric format without overlooking the interplay of the various layers and forms of the text in oral traditions. The futility of the exercise of deciphering the materiality of the signifier in oral cultures arises from the complexity and multi-layeredness of the ‘oral text’ itself. The notion of the ‘text’ after Derrida is far more extensive than spoken or written language; it is extended to the textual representation of inanimate objects and the affairs in the everydayness of the people in the world. This paradigm shift in the understanding of the text demythologized the concept of the text as merely the copying or writing of mental images on paper. This understanding of the text restored language to its more originary aspect as sensible-intelligible texture. As such, ‘there is nothing outside the text’ and every event and thing can be read as text. This implies that everything and every affair and happening, including human existence and all forms of discourses in the world, appear to us as meaningful in and through language. Because nothing is understood outside the purview of language as text, there is a playful textual interactivity between human beings and the material world through language. It is as text in its manifold layers that the world exists for us. This notion of text is a commitment to the visible marks, and material and corporeal features of the world in their differential play. Hence, it must be underlined that a full thematization or capturing of the self-presence of oral traditions is an impossibility.

In this manner, Abram writes that if we are to listen to the sounds of an oral language, we are going to hear the “rhythms, tones, and inflections that play through the speech of an oral culture…” (Abram, 1996: 140). These acoustic modulations are, according to him, attuned to the sounds of the waterfalls, to the gurgling of rivers, singing of birds, creaking of trees, cries of animals, and to the non-human voices coming from nature. For the members of oral traditions, these are not analogies of relation between human beings and sensory nature, not even an anthropomorphism of nature. Rather, it represents for them the profound relationship of human beings with the material things in the world. The ‘thing’ is one of the most central notions in an oral culture. Not only human beings speak for them, but the natural world also speaks to them. Language belongs both to humankind and to the material world. As Abram writes, “language, in indigenous oral cultures, is experienced not as the exclusive property of humankind, but as a property of the sensuous life-world” (1993: 154). Language for them is not considered as a discovery of human beings, but a gift of the material world (1993: 263).

Keeping this in mind, I shall now present a study of the oral tradition of the Khasi community of India to ferret out the originary materiality of meaning in that tradition’s language. Today the Khasi tradition has turned alphabetical. Hence, what can be really shown is what kind of forms the traditional Khasi oral linguistic practices have taken with the introduction of phonetic literacy and modernity. This inadequate exercise, thus, becomes a study of oral tradition from the perspective of Derrida’s linguistic materialism—that is, without the modernist deprecation of oral traditions for the absence of phonocentrism in them and without the Rousseauian valorization or romanticization of their pristine ‘orality.’ This is what the following account is attempting to demonstrate.

The Khasi Oral Tradition: A Study in Linguistic Materialism

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.

Concluding Remarks

The paper has attempted to explain oral traditions as linguistic spaces where the sensible-material texture of meaning or the materiality of the sign is felt palpably without the deprecation of its ideal-intelligible aspect. The general case was made regarding the experience of meaning in oral traditions without the denigration of its sensible-material aspect as in phonetic traditions. However, care was taken to show that all forms of arguments of origin are to be rejected because meaning is never merely material, but is always already tied with the ideal. What the paper underlined as palpably visible in oral traditions is the sensible-intelligible texture of meaning, without the metaphysical denial and disparagement of the sensible-material. The second section of the paper, building on the general argument of the previous section, took up the specific case of the Khasi oral tradition, showing mainly that in that tradition’s eschatological narratives, artistic performances and mythico-political narratives—which are generally given metaphysical meanings in response to modernity by traditional practitioners themselves—their world shines out in a sensorial-palpable form, bearing witness to the sensible-intelligible texture of meaning, without the metaphysical process of metaphorization that phonetic Indo-European traditions introduce into their languages, and without the denial of the intelligible-ideal aspect of meaning.

The above account of how meaning circulates in oral traditions without the erasure of its sensible-material aspect is a study in linguistic materialismithe sensible-intelligible texture of meaning without the denial of the material. Thus, the argument is that it is the more appropriate lens to study oral traditions than any purely logocentric approach. At the same time, Derrida’s linguistic materialism is not fully outside the logo-phonocentric tradition, but is a reinscription of it. Without the play of the logocentrism of metaphysics and the consequent erasure of the materiality of language, the ‘tribal’ world did produce a meaningful and different account of human experience and knowledge of natural phenomena. The deconstructive or differential materialism of the signifier, understood as the locus of meaning in an entwining, embodied relationship with the world, unsettles the binarism between metaphysical and non-metaphysical traditions, and thereby putting ethnocentrism on the dock in a radical way.

Notes

  1. For a detail explication of Derrida’s linguistic materialism, see: Lyngdoh 2017: 107–120.

  2. The Khasi people live mainly in the states of Meghalaya with a population size of about 1.6 million according to the 2011 census of India. The Khasi language belongs to the Mon-Khmer or Austroasiatic language family, which is an exception in the tribal scenario of Northeast India as all other tribal languages there are of the Tibeto-Burman language family. According to the most general scholarly consensus, they are believed to have migrated to the present habitat from Southeast Asia. Prior to the coming of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Mission to Khasi Hills in 1841, there was an attempt by the Serampore Baptist Mission to translate the Gospel of Mathew to Khasi language in the early 1800s, using the Bengali script. But, this was not popular among the majority of the Khasis who could not read the Bengali script. Only a few educated Khasi individuals could read the Bengali script at that time. It was only in 1841 that Thomas Jones of the Welsh Mission composed the Khasi First Readers and he introduced the Roman script to alphabetize Khasi language. In 1841, therefore, the Khasi nonalphabetical language tradition became a phonetic tradition with the efforts of Thomas Jones, who is also known as the father of Khasi alphabet. In the following years, he continued to publish other works in Khasi language, which were needed for church activities and the schools at that time. His successors also continued to write in Khasi and translate Christian literature and the Bible into the Khasi language. By the end of the nineteenth century, a few Khasi authors began to write in their own language, namely Radhon Singh Berry, Babu Jeebon Roy and Hormu Rai Diengdoh, with the intention to codify the traditional teachings of the Khasis. And, in the beginning of the twentieth century, many Khasi authors and poets, like Sib Charan Roy, Nissor Singh Lyngdoh, Soso Tham, H. Elias and others, began to write in Khasi language and this led to the formation of the Khasi Authors Society in later years, which popularized writing in Khasi and preservation of Khasi customary laws and folk literature. In the beginning, their writings mainly aimed at codifying traditional beliefs and practices, and social and cultural norms. Hence, as a phonetic tradition, the Khasi tradition is rather young. The literary culture among the Khasis is a recent phenomenon and nonalphabetical modes of transmission was the dominant tradition among the Khasi community over the centuries. Prior to the year 1841–42, the Khasis did not have a modern phonetic alphabet. (However, this should not be judged as the enlightenment of the unenlightened savage tribes, for the Khasis had their own understanding of knowledge, reality, ethics, religion, socio-cultural practices, political-economic systems and other classificatory schemes, with their own possibilities and problems, before the arrival of the alphabet.) At the same time, since the Khasi oral tradition became a phonetic tradition over a century and a half ago and since the phonetic tradition has picked up quite a lot of momentum, in fact the Khasi tradition cannot be accessed in a meaningful way today in terms of its nonalphabetical past. It is rather impossible to reproduce the premodern sense of Khasi tradition today, except through violent mediations. Hence, when we speak of the “Khasi oral tradition” today, we are in fact dealing with a highly idealized and often romanticized category. This may be kept in mind with respect to the following analysis.

  3. The expressions like ‘ancient’ or ‘premodern’ should not be taken to mean a strong division between modern and premodern Khasis in an absolutely dichotomous fashion. While a majority of the Khasis have embraced modernity and Christianity, several facets of their traditional life still linger among them.

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Lyngdoh, S.S. The Materiality of the Sign in Khasi Oral Tradition: Derrida’s Linguistic Materialism. J. Indian Counc. Philos. Res. (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40961-022-00279-5

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Keywords

  • Materiality
  • Khasi
  • Différance
  • Text
  • Oral tradition