Tag Archives: structuralism

Imagining Karma

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth by Gananath Obeyesekere.

Ganath Obeyesekere Imagining Karma

Obeyesekere works through a project of “comparative structural interpretation” (354), using simplified and idealized models of the processes described by rebirth doctrines within and among various cultures. One of his goals is to demonstrate that reincarnation “eschatologies” are not unique to Indic religions, as is sometimes supposed. The societies that furnish Obeyesekere with ethnological data are Vedanta and Upanishadic Hinduism, Theravada Buddhism, West Africa, Trobriand, Northwest Coast Amerindians, Inuit, Tlingit, Kwakiutl, Classical Hellenism (as Pythagoreanism and Platonism), “Heterodox Islam” (as Druzes and Ismailism), and Bali. He omits the kabbalistic metempsychosis of mystical Judaism, as well as some Australian and Asian cultures of reincarnation, noting that he is especially interested in those who hold beliefs permitting cross-species rebirth of humans. This latter idea he ties to the notion of “species sentience” (his term) and relates structurally to vegetarianism, by means of an endoanthropophagy (cannibalism) taboo.

Obeyesekere distinguishes a “karmic eschatology” from the basic “rebirth eschatology” according to the presence of two features, which he groups under the process of “ethicization” of the reincarnation process. The first feature is a differentiation of post-mortem otherworld experiences based on the ethical status of the deceased. The second is the ethicization of rebirth per se, so that the ethical value of one life has the determinative effect on the identity and quality of the next life. (He notes that this latter feature correlates to a devaluation of animals, when compared to rebirth schemas that lack it.) Tied to this ethicization is the establishment of a salvation that lies outside the cycle of rebirth altogether. Obeyesekere also asserts a parallel process of “axiologization,” by which preexisting local values are conceptualized and universalized. While outlining his model of the “karmic eschatology,” he counters Western descriptions (or “inventions”) of Buddhism as essentially and originally “rational” (151 ff.).

Having constructed the model of Buddhist rebirth ideas, with reference to those of “small-scale societies,” Obeyesekere compares it to other cultures under his consideration. He also discusses instances of deviance from the model within Buddhism (e.g. 132), and variability within the other cultures. None are presented as static or uniform, but the structure(s) described by Obeyesekere serve(s) as a strange attractor around which the instances group themselves, according to “expectability” and its circumstantial thwarting. He emphasizes (e.g. 139) that “popular” features durably contradicting “pure” doctrines are as likely to be survivals from the religion’s first codification as they are to be “contaminations” from a subsequent, alien source.

He explains that his methodological goal is to demonstrate that while cultures as wholes may be “incommensurable,” comparison of important aspects or dimensions of culture can be undertaken productively. Although I found plenty of his more specific arguments questionable (often provocatively so), I think he succeeds on this most general plane of his ambition. [via]

Lectures on the Will to Know

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Lectures on the Will to Know (Lectures at the College De France 1970-1971 and Oedipal Knowledge) by Michel Foucault, edited by Arnold I I Davison, translated by Graham Burchell.

Michel Foucault Arnold I I Davidson Graham Burchell Lectures on the Will to Know

The lectures in this volume represent a pivotal moment in the career of French sage Michel Foucault, which he characterized as a turn from “archaeology” to “genealogy”: i.e. from projects inspired by structuralism to ones inspired by Nietzschean ideas. This 1970-1971 set were his first lecture series after achieving his chair at the College de France, and they manifest a change in direction from the work he had previously undertaken in order to establish his intellectual authority, to that to which he would henceforth apply it.

The texts are direct edits and translations from Foucault’s own lecture notes. While later Foucault lectures can be (and have been) reconstructed with the benefit of audio recordings, these early ones survive only in written form. Foucault’s own notes have been supplemented in places with notes taken by attendees. Still, the aide memoire character of the documents makes them sometimes hard to follow, and leaves many ambiguities. One lecture (on Nietzsche) has gone missing, although a another lecture on the same topic delivered in Canada in 1971 is appended to supply the lack. Further ingredients include Foucault’s retrospective “Course Summary” (which can be read profitably as a preliminary overview), the 1972 lecture “Oedipal Knowledge” which extends some of the final considerations of the series, and editor Defert’s helpful contextualization of the lecture series.

The meat of these lectures is a discussion of the development of concepts of truth and justice in ancient Greek culture, in which Foucault elaborates and supports Nietzschean intuitions with the benefit of more recent efforts in positive history. In the process, Foucault rescues Nietzsche from Heidegger, and Oedipus from Freud. Defert’s “Course Context” also supplies information on the relationship of these lectures to the work of Deleuze at the time. Foucault’s reflections on money as a simulacrum (in lecture 9) pre-date and may have influenced Baudrillard’s extensive development of the same notion.

The editorial apparatus is considerable, and the endnotes for each lecture give ample source information, and check Foucault’s references and allusions. I was a little frustrated with the translated quotes from Nietzsche, given to supplement (Burchell’s translations of) Foucault’s own translations and glosses of the same texts; it would have been more useful to have the German in the endnotes. Translator Burchell’s observations on the use of Greek characters and transliteration in scholarship (xv) were interesting to me.

This book demonstrates that the publication of Foucault’s work is reaching an impressive stage of completeness. It joins eight other volumes of his lectures, alongside his monographs and essays, with another four lectures volumes projected. Without having read any of the other books of lectures, I still suspect this must be one of the most significant, if not the easiest of intellectual access. [via]


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