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Touchstones of Experience

Rethinking Cultural Information Models

 S. C. Malik

. . . sound and silence would sound simultaneously; presence from absence and again its dissolution. . . . In that first morning haze India was a world without things; nothing was separated from another. There were no backgrounds, no spaces, no divisions, no fields which things were reclining and appearing. There was nothing in space and nothing in time. Nothing happened and it was all nowhere. All there was, was a pulsating presence: movement . . . perhaps an invitation to draw out of this a perspectival world the multitude of simultaneous perspectives that made it simultaneously present and absent. Perhaps it was an invitation to a birth. . . . The old Cartesian mind with neo-Kantian justifications had used the weak stomach to return to sanity, but there had been no birth. . . . My body and the world were in Euclidean space and in Newtonian time. . . .

Antonio T. de Nicolas (1976:xvi)

Humankind today faces a crisis at many levels, despite (or because) the magnitude of resources available as a consequence of tremendous technological and scientific growth. The idea of progress and development begins with the positivist-reductionist, empiricist and anthropocentric enterprise in Europe in the 17th century. Underlying contemporary challenges are certain unquestioned assumptions (e.g. rationality, linear time, subjectivity vs. objectivity, nature vs. man). Although outdated by Modern Science, these paradigms dominate decision-makers who continue to ignore many of the alternate world-views of indigenous non-Western cultures which are very relevant today. This is the perspective of interconnectedness, simultaneity and multilayeredness of reality; of a seamless whole, a continuum in which we — earth with its creatures and the universe — are all enmeshed within a Unified Force-Field, Energy or Consciousness. This overarching energy-field is expressed in various cultures through the mythic domain within which experiencing takes place, allowing for the psychic maintenance of socio-cultural variations, as is the case in India and other developing societies. This domain is crucial in understanding indigenous cultures; it is the source wherein lies our collective memory. Modern man has ignored this dimension at its own peril, although it is trying to create a new world order with the myth of history, the myth of materialism and the myth of science; believing as if together these will provide answers to all our prayers, to all our questions about existence. This seeking for answers — one’s identity — in externalities alone has increased desperation and alienation; it has encouraged revivalism and fundamentalism. Clearly, this myopic unidimensional viewpoint has brought many diabolical scenarios for the planet and its creatures. Has not imagination and intuitive knowledge as experience, which is the essence of living cultures, taken a back seat?

Imagination literally means to form images which come to us from we do not know where. These are reappearances in individual minds of ancient and collective images. This mythic domain — call it Jungian archetypes — is the source of creative imagination which produces great works in the sciences, the humanities and the arts. This act of experiencing — including and transcending sensuousness — available to every human being, is not merely an individual creation, because the person within this totality acts as a vehicle for Consciousness. If fulfilling human potential is the goal of development in the long run, this becomes impossible in the present model of development, in the absence of the deeper knowledge which arises from the whole brain. Can happiness and fulfilling relationships be based on the mere pursuit of jobs, technological and social progress? Each one of us is aware of this intense longing to seek one’s identity, which is possible only when there is an interiorization of this creative urge. It is here that primal myths expressed through various media take one back to primordial memory when Nature and Cosmos lived in miraculous harmony. Before proceeding further let us briefly examine how we know what we know.

How do we know what we know?

Most of our lives are governed by several unconscious assumptions absorbed during the socialization process. These hidden premises are what allow us to make sense of the world, to know what we know. To go into its source requires us to have an ‘experiencing’ encounter with the self and the other. This is imperative if we are to correct the suicidal path along which humankind is heading. It is crucial to ponder over what and how we communicate, feel, think and experience in everyday life.

Knowing and communication may be classified functionally into three interrelated spheres, namely (see Figs. 1 and 2):

(i) Concepts, Symbols, Images, and abstract thought.

(ii) Experiencing — feeling and emotions.

(iii) The overarching Be-ingness.

fig. 1.1

fig. 1.2 Holistic Model

In holistic functioning, the three categories are totally interrelated as one. In modern times, we largely function within the first, linear-hierarchical sphere, dominated by a one-to-one cause and effect logic, viz. the emergence of the notion of progress, development and so on. The second sphere, of experiencing, functions separately from the first, albeit it operates covertly within the first sphere, i.e., feelings and sensations are triggered by thought — words — semantic categories, even though initially it appears as if this sphere is quite distinct from the first. The reverse is true, i.e., emotions are triggered in a stimulus-response manner by coded memories which are thoughts, symbols and images. For example, the word anger triggers the concomitant emotions. Thought then wishes to do away with anger, etc., in the future — ‘tomorrow we will make it better, more and more. . . . ’ This is the becoming game of thought which one is thus caught up in. The linear model in its need to achieve something in the future the domination of becoming over be-ing. Moreover, this sphere of linearity and hierarchy makes us believe we are making contributions. All ideas of change and transformation are confined within the old paradigm of ‘survival’, so that any thinking of newer paradigms remains confined to the previous body of knowledge. Nothing new is possible, since one in fact is the paradigm which runs one’s life. It is like living in a prison, imagining creating freedom outside by painting pictures within the prison, without leaving it. One thinks, believes in the illusion of experiencing the self and the other.

In order to experience the other, it is essential to be aware of one’s own conditioning. Is it possible to do away with this conditioning? The first step is to be aware of this primary problem, since it is in the very understanding of this dilemma — the very limitations of the box — that the old paradigm disappears. In fact, the new and limitless cannot be understood intellectually. All this is only possible by dropping the old which functions within the context of a re-cognition. This process disallows first-hand experiencing. In this sense of re-cognition, all knowing of the new once again becomes the old. Thus, the old way is to be comfortable in the knowledge of the known. It does not allow one to be in touch with the Source, the Be-ing, which allows one to share, to be equally related to all of Creation. This kind of living is mere conceptual living, disallowing deep experiencing of the self and the other. In short, thinking about life is not living it, unless one sees that thoughts are subsets — material manifestation of Be-ingness — of the larger overarching category of Be-ing.

Thoughts are about the past and future reconstructions, about the becoming, which make us believe that we are alive. It is this becoming, this movement of thought which causes restlessness, this incessant seeking of what one has not got, away from what is — the experiencing in the now. It is from this wanting, desiring, searching for Utopias that the idea of progress and development emerges. It reflects the residues of incompletely experienced experience, or inexperienced experience. For example, this is why most of us easily recall painful and unpleasant experiences — thoughts about them — rather than the good and beautiful times; because the latter are complete experiences by themselves and have little residue as thought (merely stored as information, and not as a recall system). Hence, by this inherent logic, experiencing becomes a secondary feature, not a primary or experiential-existential state. This is what causes insecurity, which creates the need for constantly seeking new objectives. In this way is it that the behaviour of modern man is governed. As a consequence, this is how society is made up of insecure individuals who further create the concept of society that needs transformation. But can insecure individuals who make up society create a secure, peaceful and harmonious society? Thinking, limited within the paradigm stated above, has only further increased disorder and chaos. Of course, for a while there appears to be satisfaction, a feeling of achievement. But soon the old problems return, despite reaching the moon — so to speak, humanity continues to wrestle with the same old problems.

But what, one may ask, is Be-ingness? Be-ingness is not a thing; it is manifested in things. It may not be known conceptually, but experientially-existentially by a Self which transcends the boundaries of the limited person, a shadow of the Be-ing. The reference here is to primordial reality, to experiencing per se, which does not arise out of any person. It is an impersonal experiencing that transcends both the experiencer and the experienced. The latter are peripheral and arise secondarily as shadows of the former. It is like listening to the commentary on a tennis or cricket match and believing it to be the match — where action is taken place. The proof of Consciousness is that one is aware, and that it is symbolically known through the effects, the concepts, notions and ideas stored as memory.

True action lies in a kind of choiceless awareness. This implies the total functioning of all the three spheres, to be in the ‘here and now’ with no other purpose than to be aware, to be conscious, to be ‘awake’, to be ‘alive’. This perception itself is action. In fact, this itself is the transformation which arises out of the eternal ‘now’. While this is part of the ‘Indian’ heritage, it is also universal to many other cultures.

Mythic domain of cultures

Myths arise out of a broad base of the collective unconscious. There are, however, many meanings given to myths and their nature. A debate going on for many millennia concerns whether myths are distorted memories of historical events, or moral or psychological insights, and many other beliefs and speculations about myths. It is not possible here to trace these ideas in their historical setting. What one can say is that with colonial expansion new information was received about different peoples all over the world. By the middle of the 19th century, ethnologists and anthropologists attempted to deal with this new data in terms of some all-embracing new schemes of organization, viz. evolution of language, culture, and mythology, whereby the early stages were represented by various indigenous cultures within some value-laden theoretical ladder wherein mythologies were seemingly irrational obsessions of these peoples and the ancients — a prelogical, as James Frazer said, mode of thought that did not allow them to distinguish between Man, Nature and Cosmos. Even later Durkheim, with his functionalist approach to myth and culture, explained it in terms of social function, customs and attitude rather than by looking for deep philosophical meanings in myths. Of course Freud viewed myths as primitive humanity’s disguised expressions of unconscious sexual and aggressive compulsions. Both Durkheim and Freud, who influenced most of the first half of this century, sought to identify religion with illusion and explain myth by reference to physical, social or psychological phenomena. Later it was realized that something was missing in this collective dissection, analysis and classifications of myths.

Not universally, but many psychologists, anthropologists and historians have abandoned this reductive approach. This radical new way of seeing myths as the doors to a realm of experience that was, and is, both real and profoundly meaningful owes much to the work of Carl Jung, who said, ‘. . . a tribe’s mythology is its living religion whose loss is always and everywhere, even among the civilized, a moral catastrophe’. He saw myths as ‘original revelations of the preconscious psyche, unconscious psychic processes . . . whole spiritual heritage of mankind’s evolution born anew in the brain structure of every individual. . . . ‘Jung was followed by Otto, Guenon, Campbell and Eliade — the latter refusing to see mythology simply as a study of economic, social and cultural meanings, emphasizing the primacy of the sacred in all traditions in the East and the West, among all peoples side by side and not in any evolutionary order in order to reveal and clarify their common motifs, archetypes of Jung, so that a universal pattern is revealed, e.g., rock, trees, rivers, and clouds are living parts of a living whole in which the Cosmos is alive and conscious, subject to the same intelligent force by which humankind itself is animated and acts as a link between the inner dimension of spirit and the outer world of form, i.e. every individual knew that his/her life was the embodiment of principle and purpose so that even the most mundane activity had an overarching significance because every act was performed not as a private act but as part of a Cosmic drama. In short, respect for the sacred was derived from an awareness of the creative process of Nature, and it implied a hesitancy to arbitrarily intrude on those processes in which time and space were themselves sacred.

Almost all non-industrial human cultures in the past and even today have had traditions of this simple yet magical harmonious attunement with Nature and the Cosmos. There is a mythic unity in the spiritual and religious realms; for repeatedly in America, Africa, Greece, India, Australia and so on, in different ways cultures have pursued this Cosmic unity in varied ways both metaphorically and literally. It is, in short, a sacred world-view which is devoid of any sense of sectarianism or dogmatism because there seems to be an understanding of the universal order and meaning of existence that guides one in relationship to social order, Nature and Cosmos. Indigenous people have never assumed that Nature exists for the benefit of Man; rather, humankind owes a responsibility to Mother Earth and all its creatures — plants and animals. They in fact are apologetic for exploiting the earth for their food, and clearly see the Universe as aware and benevolent. In this sense, there has been a decline of humanity, for religions today appear as remnants of a formerly universal spiritual tradition which had the original sense of a sacred purpose. Hence, one sees uneasiness and restlessness despite all the technological and other achievements; this psychic and cultural neurosis is due to the lack of being in touch with an inner dimension which is so vital for humanity’s nourishment. The emptiness is being filled, in vain, through personal achievement and material acquisitions, or by attempting to formulate new ideas albeit within the same dichotomous paradigm about Nature and Man.

The sacred world-view and mythology need to be resurrected, through acknowledgment of the principle of Consciousness in the Cosmos with a perspective of Holism which means that it is wholes that determine the design, function, and health of the parts, rather than the other way around. Modern physics, unlike classical physics, is recapitulating in many ways the ancient spiritual world-view of integral living. But in these new formulations, is it possible to discern any sense of the sacred? And, whatever the name given to this ultimate source — this universal ground of Being — it is no modern invention. Indigenous peoples all over the world were masters of holism long before this term was coined!

Let us consider the word myth and its possibilities. It functions as an internal image to guide actions; it acts as a suppressed premise, and is rarely made explicit. It is to this internal image that we give the name of myth. What is a scientific set, for instance? This is the myth of objective consciousness, i.e. that the mentality of scientists leans heavily on objectifying as the basis for explanation and prediction. In this view, science cannot go beyond the ‘thinking-of-everything-and-everyone-as-object’; and thus, scientists ‘certify themselves as experts . . . in the decision-making process generally employed in the "technology" ’. While it is widely prevalent, Quantum Mechanics has gone beyond the general myth of science; the latter implicitly provides a useful, meaningful and sufficient way to cope with human experience, supposedly. In this way, the scientific mode of explanation has taken over the other two modes of explanation and acts as a large controlling image to govern all human experience. The main feature of such a definition is that neither of the other two explanatory modes are meaningful for human experience if science cannot deal with them; the dominance of the reigning Image-Myth or action is established. Thus human experience is deprived of the possibility of further self-expression and integration. In short, myth is a large controlling image that gives philosophical meaning to the facts of ordinary life: that is, which has organizing value for experience. Science and technology are not only a suppressed premise but have become a Fundamental Myth, a statement about dealing with all human experience. The same may be said about religion, magic and other sets of explanatory modes which lend themselves to this kind of examination.

The convergence of modern science and ancient insights

The viewpoint suggested above may be disturbing since it challenges earlier frameworks and unexamined certainties. The study of this area by many disciplines is inhibited by the essentially linear or non-contextual historical tradition that provides the presuppositions of scientific enquiry in the West. But these instruments of Western rationality are not applicable to other cultures, wherein rational principles are discoverable through their own world-view, i.e., a text within its own context, which is peculiarly non-linear or contextual. This is to be understood in the way complementary frameworks in Quantum Mechanics are created by different contexts of measurement — frameworks that are mutually exclusive (and therefore non-linear) but ordered to one another in a lattice structure (and therefore complementary). Complementary frameworks involve changes in the embodied subjectivity of the knower. Knowing about cultures therefore cannot be done with the head, on the conceptual soil of Europe, nor new models formulated about culture and development without sounding the death knell of this culture and civilization which is still a living body. The lived experience of such cultures seldom arises by describing the surface of their world; this knowledge must act, reflect, and communicate experiencing since it is this consciousness of man on which man counts and man must get hold of it in himself/herself.

The reference here is more to Western Thought which has become a cultural determination for all men. The first determination, for instance, in the problem of the one and the many, was the identification of the one with Thought; and the second was that this Thought was Being. This notion has become common to the individual both in the East and the West; that is, Be-ing identified with the word which proclaims in this fashion as able to control universal human behaviour, to this logic. But this will not allow us to reach the shores of other cultures which do not take Thought and Be-ing to be identical. It is possible to understand these cultures through the action and meaning given in their cultural ‘texts’, implicitly and explicitly; abandoning one’s own theoretical knowledge, i.e. the starting point will be that Thought is a subset of Be-ing. The latter, for instance, is not an element in the conceptual system; it creates a reference to a domain of things, processes and events and exists independent of any human involvement. Be-ing is primal and as mentioned in Buddhist tradition, ‘What is evident — pratyaksam — to men is concealed —paroksam — to the gods and what is concealed to men is evident to the gods’.

These ways of looking at the world may further be illustrated by the responses from philosophers of the West and the East, to the question ‘What am I?’ Socrates, as quoted by Plato, attempts to bring together the what and I of the question by trying to figure out the x-what and thereby have the answer to the dictum ‘know thyself’. There would be a long list of each of the identifications given to the ‘what’ of man in the History of Western Philosophy — this figuring out the whatness of man or what it meant were it not for existentialism or phenomenology. But in every answer provided, the phenomenon itself was forgotten as meaningless. In this way the what became a strictly linguistic question, or some sort of an empirical problem which could be answered by adding up sets of empirically discovered characteristics or as a substance, etc. In contrast, in other cultures, it is not the what nor the subsequent possible identifications with the I which would give an answer to the problem, but rather the am-being of the question. What is being looked at is neither the whatness nor even the I as the source of enquiry but to go to the core of both the what and the I, i.e., existence itself, the am-being which every question-asking-subject is before he even bothers to figure out essences, or substances, whatever else becomes fashionable within a community to ask. In the modern world this dictum has become a question of achievement, of seeking self-identity, personality through several frantic steps of one order or another. This is the human-being-in-reality of Merleau-Ponty, of what Heidegger calls this priority of existence, or Sartre’s ‘existence precedes essence. . . .’ and other phenomenological and existential approaches to philosophical anthropology.

The main point of this comparison is not to prove anyone nearer the truth than another, or to arbitrarily establish contact points between East and West. It is clear that man must realise himself as ‘this’ , ‘that’ , ‘here’, ‘there’ ; since, originally and finally, man-was-able-to-become one or another or several in an infinite repetition of this first affirmation of existence-as-capacity. It functions as the original ‘space’ out of which all form and name derive; as such, i.e. as original space, it is the container of all human possibilities.

Thus, one can say that there are two sources of knowledge — the indirect one (called understanding, imagination, etc.) and the direct one (called sensibility, perception, etc.); the two sources of knowledge are called ‘nonsensuous’ and ‘sensuous’ sources — neither better nor worse except in the manner of how we deal with the world. Instead of negating each other, these might be seen as complementary. In short, there are many ways of viewing the world and describing it without any one way being pre-eminent. If this is not the case in the modern world, it is because of certain preconceptual visions which are exclusivist and not inclusivist, and are adhered to dogmatically. The need is to transcend one’s own framework. These two distinctive ways are available to man to view the world: the dominant ‘commonsense-Classical-Physics viewing’ and the ‘Modern-Physics-Eastern viewing’ of the world. Man’s condition is such today that he is bound to use both viewpoints if he is to solve the problem of ‘what-is-really-the-nature-of-things’.

Modern Physics and the Eastern world-view assume that whenever we are in search of anything, we are primarily in contact with a totality, the most ‘real’ aspect of any entity being the total pattern. Our perception of ‘it’ defies any atomicity or real identification. It is only secondarily that classification of individual entities is made possible, and for this we revert to ordinary symbolic manipulation. For example, one no longer says, ‘Here is an electron’, but instead, "Here is an area where the field is strong’. In this view, ‘what is’ appears as a quantum, a whole, a totality; the identifiable parts of this totality are artificially created for purposes of linguistic communication and conceptualization: they are artificial sub-patterns. The separation is totally false in relation to ‘what is’.

The impact of this idea is to note that we are living in a continuum, in the present, where the distinction between living and dead, between moving bodies and bodies at rest, etc., no longer holds good. Man is now in nature, not seeing something distinct from himself. In this way we shall have to describe things in new and better ways, sometimes creating and selecting or abstracting. The human condition is such that both ways are essential, if man is to feel at home, and this is what complementarity means. ‘It is not there are songs to be discovered but that the symphony was already there — sometimes in one note or in one song because both are necessary in knowledge. This freedom is necessary if one wants to stop reinforcing what one already knows’.

The historical accident of the discoveries of quantum mechanics and their relation to linguistic communication, complementarity, indeterminacy, and vision, makes our project of understanding cultures easier.

Culture, experience and oral traditions

Perhaps the greatest shortcoming in cultural studies is the hidden presupposition that our linguistic criteria are the only ones by which all men and cultures should be measured — the positivist view of language where the logic is universal irrespective of how the people use it. [The problem cultures face is not only to guarantee continuity but also to guarantee innovation.] The dialectical tension between continuity and innovation has given rise to the greatest inhumanity of one man against another, or one culture against another. Hence culture is yet to be discovered; and what we constantly face is the plurality of perspectives with which a culture has to contend and somehow guarantee equal rights so that culture may live in continuity and innovation. It is essential therefore that we do not presuppose what Culture is before we discover it. Culture is always incomplete, always on the move; this making gives it a certain indirection as an open phrase hanging in mid-air.

The knowledge we formulate about the ‘other’ is filtered or refracted through the knowledge we have built for ourselves, i.e. we are interpreters of cultures and can observe ‘others’ only through our own cultural and experiential biases. But this is not all so subjective, for at any given time there are accepted norms of what knowledge is conceived to mean, i.e. knowledge of the ‘self’ and of the ‘others’ come together in terms of some subjective and creative understanding; say, about new sights, sounds, rhythms, silences, feelings and tastes amidst many other cultural paraphernalia. Theoretical issues may be raised asking, Is it possible to talk about shared experiences that exist in the absence of being part of the local culture, language comprehension and so on? This means that a consideration of methodology, evolving a new framework, becomes necessary in terms of the anthropology of experience. This does not mean that language is not important in that culture and that they are not linguistically sophisticated. It is just that in the natural flow of interaction, especially in music and dance and so on, there is something behind the words — a hum of another kind — which takes into account a large sensory inventory which cannot be frozen into the written word that becomes the so-called ethnographic record. The human approach to a cultural model just encompass all ‘experience’ even if in terms of categories — taste, smell, sound, shape, colour and so on. Moreover, while linguistic categories may be gradually learnt, cultural learning may have to be picked up through sheer participation — doing the right thing at the right time, by feeling something beyond language that give some meaningfulness and vibrancy before these are classified and explained away. One can of course only attempt to approximate to verbal and non-verbal experiences in terms of the shared experience as a participant-observer, and as far as possible it is to share emotions. Maybe there can be a lived understanding of the situation, event and process. Primarily, I must feel and learn to express my own experiences.

We need to consider our model along these lines; the multiplicity of perspectives. Modernism has imposed a single perspective in dealing with human language and human culture. Cultures have to be seen as a whole, linguistic or otherwise. It is to see the presuppositions and criteria on which life is grounded, to discover a different way of viewing and listening. This perspectival vision thus does not rupture the continuum between thought and action, viewing and action. To reduce and measure man by the image of his thought carries inevitable consequences: for one thing, what is not an image, a thought, is outside of man, a mystical power, a god or a devil; while whatever is human must of necessity be only that which appears or is an image. For another, the only possible role for man to play in a world grounded on thought is to systematically reduce and control all his possibilities to the reality offered by the image; it is to condemn man to a programme of desensitization through the reinforcement of his belief of sensation. Through this identification, the bodies of man and woman have grown sick and live in mortal suffering. The integrating way to see this in many cultures is to put an axe to this tendency, so that all perspectives are kept alive simultaneously.

The question may be asked, how is one to include such recent and ancient ideas into anthropological knowledge of cultures? Normally governed by Newtonian-Cartesian notions, cultural information continues simply to be gathered; it is then embodied in words and applied in the relevant areas through new technologies wherever the ‘quality of life’ is to be altered. But since quality (lacking a human face) is equated with statistics, and despite the availability of tremendous resources, hitherto unimaginable psycho-social disasters have hit humankind. It has been overlooked that most social experience about cultures is not beyond language, both ‘theirs’ and ‘ours’. Cultures are not things, objects, theoretical frameworks. The error lies in the production of anthropological-ethnographic knowledge which has ignored experience, personal and social. Language categories fragment the experience of both the ‘self’ and the ‘others’, i.e. there is an inherent unidimensionality and linearity involved in this domain of objective rationality which blocks out experience (subjectivity and intuition). The contention here is that this need not be so in any exclusivistic terms, as both domains are crucial for understanding cultures in general and specifically in India.

Clearly, the spoken or written word — prose — involves one of the senses, and not the other senses (say, smell, touch, feelings, sight, rhythm and so on) which express vividly what cultures are all about, especially Indian civilization. It is dominated by oral means of transmission of heritage where songs, music, dance, poetry — the Arts in a broad manner — are important. While this point is easily accepted, the question asked may be about its relevance and of how to show what means and methods are to be evolved at both the theoretical and applied levels to build information models which will allow us to put across such creative understanding of any culture. The first step is to rethink earlier axioms and assumptions of the research involved. An awareness of the issues and seeing that such fusion is possible between the two poles, is itself an important step in contributing to methodological frameworks. This is the only way to incorporate inputs which become suitable for including endogenous cultural dimensions into the idea of development. The latter may be restated and defined as the growth of creativity of human potential — the being of man — rather than merely the advancement of science and technology which in developing nations is considered by those who matter to not only be the answer to our prayers but an explanatory concept which tells us about all of existence, even lived experience!

The making of cultural information models is only possible when cultures are experienced comprehensively; the internalization of the holistic social and cultural experience is crucial since it allows one to move beyond conceptual worlds of people, to a totality that comprises thoughts, feelings and emotions. In fact, this is the only way which allows for a fuller understanding of both cognitive and embodied knowledge. Understanding cultures is not about information categories; it is a learning process that can only come via experiencing. This is especially true for India. Of course, field workers have been aware of the discrepancy between what is observed and what is recorded. But is it possible to change the route radically by researchers and decision-makers if meaningful inputs are to be made into the notions of culture and development even though it appears that time has already run out for most of the world?

The centrality of the methodological issue is on how to deal with this flow of intersubjective human experience without dehumanizing it in presenting any cultural model. This linking of the inside experiencing world and the outside analytical one is crucial, and once this proposition is accepted other avenues will open up in the ethnographic understanding of cultures.

There are problems, of course, of definitions, concepts and theoretical models which need to be evolved. The approach suggested here is an integral one, a holistic view of the totality of cultural transmission. The importance of global cross-cultural framework — this may be true for this subcontinent also — is clearly a movement beyond normative, prescriptive and ethnographic description of written forms which allows for expanding cultural links in a worldwide perspective. In short, it is no longer possible to work within old dichotomous boundaries, viz. primitive/civilized, industrial/non-industrial, tradition/modernity, written/oral and so on, emphasized in the Western sense. Oral and written interaction is part of a whole human communication system in which a number of different media and processes are involved. The notion of pure forms is practically and theoretically no longer true in understanding the long continuity of a civilization like the Indian one. This perspective allows one to focus attention on comparative questions about historical and specific approaches to cultures — local, regional and all-India ones. The emphasis is thus on the multilayered nature of the transmission of human expression — especially on audio-visual, verbal, artistic and literary forms; the anthropology of social experience reflecting a multiplicity of interpretive approaches that are not fixed within binary divides.

Cultural models provide a resource for understanding, for the negotiation of understanding, in short, for making sense of experience. Cultural models cannot be taught exclusively by linguistic means but must be acquired through embodiment, through the heart — the notion of a cultural model is a way of describing knowledge that cannot in and of itself account for how this knowledge is used, even though it is produced from repeated experience. In this context several critical questions may be asked, and these are as follows:

1. What are the concepts, definitions of orality, traditions (is there a time limit of tradition?), verbal, audio-visual texts?

2. What is patterned communication in tradition, in myth, ritual, oral history and literature? Is there such a thing as a neutral text?

3. What are the problems related to collection of data, observation, equipment used, analysis of data, and other ethical and social issues involved during field work?

4. In this seamless area of speech, idea, action and performance that make up living where there is no clear-cut ‘object of study’, how do cultures express their ideas, emotions and actions in both formalized and oral ways? Are not both ways, empirical and theoretical, Western and Eastern, verbal and nonverbal, to be taken into account? Is there any universal category applicable throughout Indian civilization, or elsewhere?

5. Is orality transmitted by word of mouth alone, or is it also referring to nonverbal — artistic performance, paintings on rock, monuments, sacred places, etc. — media as opposed to literacy defined in the modern sense? In this sense, is not oral tradition on ‘open’ system compared to the literate one since it is not restricted and receives knowledge from many other senses and sensibilities?

6. Does not this means of communication refer to group identity since the process of handing down is related to a collective memory bank with methods of recall, of particular cultural groups vis-a-vis another group in terms of some generalized tradition of context, myths, genre and so on?

7. Do current definitions seem true, and is the term ‘folk’ to be restricted to rural, traditional non-literate people, in contrast to modern urban populations who themselves have no verbal arts worth studying and are gradually becoming illiterate through the media of movies, television, etc., without becoming creative as they are passive receivers only?

8. What is the information base of specific cultures characterized by oral traditions? What, in this context, is theory about Memory — sruti or smrti? Is it automative, is there mere recall, or does it involve change by individuals, both in terms of cultural-specifics and the brain itself in terms of scientific laws, and what is remembering both as rote and creative and reorganizational recall? Is there a stream of verbatim recall in terms of style, content, or form? And who in a culture is trained to do this memory transmission? Is there not an ideology and process involved in the preservation of records of memories? Who are the experts and specialists involved in this process, and can these be identified?


Various routes from social experience to anthropological knowledge have been explored and discussed above, questioning both local and anthropological concepts. This tour reflects different poles of experience, stressing process at the expense of structure and knowledge as a creative field rather than as a solid construction. The objectivity approach has been replaced by more sensitive forms of studying and by a much wider use of the senses in ethnography. The ethnographic experience cannot be taken at face value but must be studied in its sensational depth. In real life, knowledge, so often isolated as cognition in theory, is not independent of emotion. Emotions, consequently, belong to the realm of rationality. Individuals are not only defined by their space but are also its defining consciousness — thinking implies caring. Scientists also architecture a particular space with its own vectors of direction towards the desirable, if these have generally been silenced. Most often the scientific space has been conceived of as wholly unemotional; it has been flattened into a place. We can no longer live by Cartesian rules but only by its illusions. The goal of the ethnographer is established on a much wider basis of experience, which again transforms the nature of the objects studied. They are somehow subjectified, and we have to understand how this does not detract from their reality. The main condition of knowledge is still related to individual field work, which cannot be conceived of independently of the subject; there is no experience apart from the experiencer, no knowledge without a knower. The idea of dissecting a dead body, experimenting on it as a clinical view of science, has to be given up as a model — it is not a lived experience. One of the results was the splitting apart of body and mind, which we have had to straddle. Realizing the impossibility of equating lived experience with dead bodies, anthropologists face a methodological problem acknowledging the corporeal fields of people. The reference is to that larger space with which every individual is inextricably linked by way of the physical, sensing and moving body. Whatever the words used, we need to recognize that the apparently theoretical problem of uniting mind and body as the locus of action is itself constituted within a specific discourse that separated them in the first place. Anthropology must learn to question the conditions for experience and it cannot continue to accept a radical discontinuity between theoretical and practical knowledge — or, for that matter, between mind and body. The origins of this false ontology have to be traced and understood before a new way and vocabulary is found for dealing with lived experience that was broken in two only in theory.

The shift in scientific theory pioneered by Galileo, and to which Cartesian reason was intimately linked, transformed the idea of a unified Cosmos embodying the Ideas of the World, of which humans were but fractions (and representations). Instead the world became recast in mechanistic terms; moral virtue and self-mastery were transformed in the process. The mechanistic approach dissociated human from nature, as it were. This dislocation also implied a uniformation of time which dissonated with the ordinary experience of density and emptiness. During the 17th century reality was recast as a machine, a precise clockwork rather than an arhythmic living body.

With Descartes moral resources became firmly within ourselves; outer points of orientation were evaded, and the entire inner/outer dichotomy took on a new meaning. Scientific explanation was cut loose from moral vision; the former became a question of correct representation, the latter of individual firmness of will. The very notion of ‘idea’ migrated from Cosmos to person; its ontic sense was translocated to an intrapsychic world. Ideas became something one had ‘in the mind’. There, it became a means for objectifying the world, including the body. As a cultural model it had its own motivating force — we are accustomed to the mind and body distinction. And it is this metaphysical dualism that has ever since been reflected in the subject-object dichotomy as basic to our knowledge of the world. However, this violates both the classical ontology and the ordinary experience of embodied understanding; the need is also of dissolving the Kantian distinction between pure and empirical knowledge.

Just as culture is meaningful only to someone in particular, not in some emotionless state of reasoning which we share in some cross-cultural sense, the agent of scholarship is a living person, not just the mind. Field work is thus essentially an intersubjective experience; sensations, feelings, and emotions demand a certain degree of personal involvement — what it means to be in pain, hungry, joyful and so on. In short, there is no way of understanding people except through one’s own experience and power of imagination.

The dualism of mind and body, on the other hand, implies hierarchy, an implicit scheme of evaluation; it calls for disengagement from world and body, i.e. a rationality not defined by order of being but by the standards by which we construct orders in science and life. Anthropology has grown thus within a field defined by Cartesian co-ordinates; culture and society were studied from ‘above’, so to speak. But can we know except by way of our own presence and questioning? Since knowledge is profoundly embodied, understanding can only be achieved by way of involvement — the lived experience of the anthropologist. The capacity for understanding is not solely located in the mind; pure reason, as opposed to imagination, is not the locus of rationality. Human rationality is profoundly imaginative; it is a capacity for ordering representations, for making sense of unprecedented experiences, and for acting upon them in meaningful ways. Meaning is not a fixed relation between sentences and objective reality, as objectivism has it. Meaning does not exist in itself within the fixed co-ordinates of an abstract place; it is always meaning for someone in a particular social space.

The desire for fixed standards in science is challenged by the frightening indeterminacy of experience, social experience as the starting point for anthropological reflection. To understand the interplay between social processes and cultural knowledge, the model set by Enlightenment natural science is of limited value. The search for the One Truth in the Many is at odds with the relativist experience of anthropology. The point is to dignify subjective experience, not to deny reality; to appreciate imagination, not to disregard reason; to honour our differences, not to underestimate our common humanity. Within this view of anthropological practice, there are no facts without value, no reason without emotion, and no knowledge without experience. In this way the particular conditions of knowledge also become shared experience among anthropologists.


Finnegan, Ruth, 1992, Oral Traditions and the Verbal Arts. London.

Hastrup, Kirsten and Peter Hervik, 1994, Social Experience and Anthropological Knowledge. London and New York: Routledge.

Malik, S.C., 1989, Modern Civilization: A Crisis of Civilization. New Delhi: Abhinav Publishers.

——, 1995, ‘Matter Is Consciousness’. Prakrti, New Delhi; IGNCA & D.K. Printworld.

——, 1995, ‘Holistic Science and Consciousness’. Prakrti.

——, 1995, Re-conceptualising the Sciences and the Humanities – An Integral Approach New Delhi: Manohar and NMML.

——, forthcoming, ‘Interface of Science, Consciousness and Identity’. New Delhi: IGNCA.

de Nicolas, Antonio T., 1976, Meditations through the Rg Veda: Four-Dimensional Man. New York: Nicolas Hays.


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