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STUDY OF RELIGION
Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282
The Un-translatability1 of Religion, The Un-translatability of Life: Thinking Talal Asad’s Thought Unthought in the Study of Religion
Department of Religion and Culture, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia 24061, USA email@example.com
Abstract Every scholarly attempt to define—and, by extension, theorize, interpret, and conceptualize— religion is based on the sovereign “force of decision.” Such theory-decision translates religion into a symbol or category, accounting for it, separating and releasing it from what Talal Asad calls the “not so easily varied” disciplinary practices that constitute life. In this separation of “religion,” life becomes a spectator (theoros) to itself. Asad’s argument about the impossibility of defining religion, connected to his contention that “life is essentially itself,” helps us think about the un-translatability of life. Closely paralleling Nietzsche and Heidegger’s reflections on existence and memory—but largely unthought by contemporary theorists of religion—Asad’s thinking about religion is a refusal to historicize life. Keywords Talal Asad, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Friedrich Nietzsche
Life is essentially itself. —Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion I will return . . . not to a new life, or a better life, or a similar life: I will return to this same, selfsame life. —Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra One ultimately inherits [experiences] only oneself. —Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
1 I hyphenate the word “un-translatability” here to note that it is not merely separate from or opposed to translation and grants the (whatever) possibility of translation. For ease of reading, I will not hyphenate the word in the rest of the text. Similarly I do also not hyphenate the word impossibility or unavailability.
© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2011
A. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282
One always inherits from a secret—which says “read me, if you will ever be able to do so?” —Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx
I. Theorization of Religion and the Force of “Decision” The argument that I make in this article is simple and far-reaching, one that is as yet unthought by academic scholars of religion who continue to define, and in turn and by extension, theorize, interpret, and conceptualize what we have come to know as religion in the humanities today. That (first) point is this: Any attempt—Nietzsche says that every attempt (Versuch) is a temptation (Versuchung)—to define, theorize, interpret, conceptualize religion, is based on a sovereign “decision” to do so. The second (related) point: With all the sovereign “force” and sense-defying logic of it, such decision to define, theorize . . . religion, which hardly corresponds to any reality or truth, always seeks (in ways perhaps scholars do not intend) to separate, “release,” or “set free” religion from what Talal Asad calls the “disciplinary practices” or what Nietzsche and Heidegger call life’s “center of gravity” or “attunement” (Bifindlichkeit) that constitute life/living/existence itself, respectively. Third point: The disciplinary practices that constitute religious life, within which any and every understanding or intelligibility of what we call religion is possible, do not remain available (verfügbar) for any kind of definition, theorization, interpretation, conceptualization. However, scholars, who seem to ignore or simply have not thought about the import of what Asad says (and perhaps are unaware of what Nietzsche and Heidegger taught us) can continue to theorize religion only by separating and releasing religion from such attuned disciplinary practices of life/living itself. The fourth point: this separation—note that decision (decidere), related to Greek krino, kairo, and krisis, means to separate, to distinguish, etc. (Abeysekara 2010; 2012a)—that goes into every decision to define and theorize religion is an attempt to translate religion/life itself into a symbol/metaphor, removed and separated from life, into some aspect or category of life. It is such symbol/metaphor scholars theorize and interpret in the guise of theorizing religion. My argument then is that the possibility to theorize religion is available for scholars not because of any actual reality called religion/life that awaits out there, as a conceptual object or category, needing scholarly conceptualization or, better yet, accounting for. Rather such theorization is an impossibility to begin with, which can be turned—or should we say translated ?—into a possibility only by the sovereignty of decision. The sovereignty of decision turns an impossibility into a possibility. Such is the sovereignty of decision to theorize religion.
as some concept. . that is. responsibility. Derrida). respectively) of such life. Following Derrida. Asad’s argument that life is essentially itself is a counterpoint to the presumption that life can be historicized. and Derrida. an argument shared by Nietzsche. This impossibility translated into a possibility by this seemingly simple decision sometimes comes to us in the form of making a simple choice to define religion. And. Heidegger. life” becomes possible. producing what Nietzsche and Heidegger call “distortion” or “covering up” or “burying alive” (Entstellung and Verstellung. Schilbrack 2010) who misread Asad’s argument. as do some scholars (Lincoln 2003. by way of his contention that “life is essentially itself. that the decision to define and theorize what is called religion turns religious practice/ life into a symbol/metaphor. Thinking this impossibility affirms the impossibility of the separation and translation of religious disciplinary practice from what constitutes it. I contend. I call this translation (that goes into every attempt to define and theorize religion) the force of decision: There can be no theorization of religion without the force of decision. is no longer another (philosophical) attempt at theorizing and interpreting religion/life/existence. and by way of Hegel. It is this point that scholars who consider it necessary to theorize religion—as if they were commanded or moved by some right or (Kantian or some other sovereign) sense of duty.” a history within which life itself (and whatever its legacy or inheritance) becomes qualified and “redeemed” as a symbol/metaphor. in this translation and theorization of religious practice. since historicization is a way of thinking of life as something that translates and changes within history. idea. Thinking this impossibility. .) I will discuss later Nietzsche’s argument that the historicization and translation of life constitute the very legacy of the “history of Christianity. life/living/existence itself.A. or call—have not thought.” Asad’s argument. life itself becomes something that can be historicized. (This is how the idea [Mufti 2000] of a historical “diversity of . Rather. Strenski 2010. . This. for me. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 259 My task here is to urge scholars to think this impossibility. the impossibility of theorizing and interpreting what we call religion. that religion cannot be defined because it is not an essential thing. affirms the impossibility of translating life/ existence into anything other than itself. I am not suggesting. When I contend that any and every interpretation and theorization of religion is based on a decision. a task that remains central to the very discipline that goes by that name: history of religions. or category (Heidegger 1996. is what Asad’s argument about the impossibility of defining religion invites us to consider. I argue. with all the metaphorical and metaphysical implications and extensions that follow from such an exercise.
(Here I cannot of course go into all the ways that perhaps more than anyone Derrida has taught us about the complexity of the sovereignty of decision. Despite Asad’s well-known argument. thinking. or better yet. dislocate. 3 Hegel’s Phenomenology is in many ways an attempt to both overcome and authorize this sense of “expression” (Äußerung) and “externalization” (Entäußerung) by way of his notions of negation. with no reference to Asad.” finds in that definition a new and radical potential for religious studies theory. and disfigure every stabilizing structure. This is what Hegel calls the “negative of the force.2 That is. to theorize religion is indeed to define religion. these scholarly attempts to interpret and theorize religion are made possible by a “decision. or accounting for. scholars continue to offer or endorse new definitions of religion. by being an accused or acustative in the Greek sense of the word (Heidegger 1996). disrupt. For Tweed. Religions. will always require explaining. without noting a single problem with it: “Religion is an emergent.” which is the “medium of matters. with all the sovereign logic and force of decision.” The list goes on. and interpret religion.3 Despite sophisticated justifications.) A recent such sovereign decision to define and theorize religion can be found in the work Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion by a distinguished historian of religion. which. mediation.” Smith (1998: 281) asserted religion is a “term created by scholars for their intellectual purposes and therefore is theirs to define.260 A. complex adaptive network of symbols. theorize. almost five years after the Asad’s Genealogies. its sovereignty. Thomas Tweed (2006). Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 This translation and redemption of life is what we find in the force of decision. which are always new “theories” of religion/ religious practice. Other scholars (Strenski 2010) persist in making “usable and revisable definitions” abandoning only “parochial notions of religion. reminiscent of Hegel.” More recently. Taylor’s (2008a) definition of religion. and negation of negation involved in the dialectic. on the other. qualifying. an “expression” of life. which ultimately supersedes itself and is the “actual.” Similarly. which at the same time is nothing else than a supersession of itself (sichselbstaufheben)” (Hegel 1977: 86). and vice versa. This decision. and rituals that. as for others. by way of its own “force (Kraft). exists solely and simply in its expression. scholars continue to regard religion as an object or category of theory. myths. is assumed to translate itself into an (academic theoretical and secular) responsibility and “obligation” of inheriting the legacy of religion. is the “expression” of itself. as the unconditioned universal condition of the whole. Tweed is prepared to do so by discounting unaccountably all the “warnings about the For instance. in an article called “Religion. The immediacy of a thing is always mediated.” (Hegel 1977): The force. figure schemata of feeling. postmodern theologian Caputo (2009: 62-65) quoted verbatim Mark C. who quotes approvingly Taylor’s above definition of religion and argues religion is not just “locative” but it is “virtual. Religious.” in that to interpret and theorize religion is simply to decide to do so. on the one hand.” which is also the “whole. Roberts (2009: 81-104).” “Force as the actual. and indeed its irresponsibility. which goes into the scholars’ attempt to define. in a review essay.” 2 . and acting in ways that lend life meaning and purpose and. Here religion becomes something external to life.
Tweed claims that he is obligated—here choice translates itself into obligation—to offer this definition in part out of “role-specific . the very force of choice translates (or pretends to translate?) an impossibility into a possibility. discounting all the warnings. renders Tweed’s choice to define religion most sovereign. Here. Here metaphors multiply metaphors. definition of religion.e.” Here we are already led to believe in a relation between “choice” and “obligation” simply based on the maddening force of this metaphor itself. .. stretching forth) such a sovereign choice as an obligation. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 261 futility of efforts to define religion” (Tweed’s words). Tweed writes: “despite warnings about the futility of efforts to define religion. which claims to (implicitly?) controvert Asad’s argument about the impossibility of such a definition. toward the possibility of metaphor.) So the choice to get up and start running becomes a sovereign choice in that only a sovereign can perhaps run. (I have detailed elsewhere  how this logic of decision is central to many historicist and empiricist works within other area studies of religion such as Buddhism. many scholars choose to get up and start running.. The warnings about this purported futility is discounted for the sake of a presumed utility. as if by a feat of magic.” This supposed choice to “get up and start running” is a choice for a particular kind of “obligation. supposedly better. It is this choice/obligation. away from all responsibility of thinking the impossibility of defining religion. Maddening because the choice to “get up and start running” becomes merely possible by way of a metaphor itself. The result of this sovereign choice/decision is the following sovereign definition of religion: “Religions are confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and superhuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries” (Tweed 2006: 54). only to start running. in the sovereignty of this (simple?) choice to get up and start running. professional obligations” to the discipline of religion. One can only suppose that the single reference to Asad. the force of the sovereign metaphor to get up and start running. The force of the sovereign choice to get up and start running is to run away from the impossibility of defining religion. (We are told that in part the possibility of this choice and obligation supposedly has its origin in what Tweed witnessed at a Cuban . as it discounts all the “warnings. a thing pulled out of the air.A. or a magic wand. that comes in the form of another. away from an impossibility. presenting and pretending (i. without any responsibility of pausing. The mere choice becomes a sovereign decision. simply because of a choice that (soon) translates itself into an (academic) obligation and accountability! The choice to discount such warnings is based on a sovereign metaphor itself.” as if with a single wave of the hand. in a single sentence in Crossing and Dwelling.
If it were so. ultimate fighting. For him. Tweed may retort.) Note the particular relation between professional obligation and the decision to define and theorize religion. we are simply called to be “clear” about how we define the term! Here the unclarity is presented as the (tautological) condition of the sovereign call itself. ophthalmology. the obligation to define religion is simply synonymous with the professional demand for clarity about our terms. anyone in religious studies can fulfill her professional “obligation” by defining religion! Needless to say. Tweed does not pause to think how and why such an obligation is demanded. everyone who attended such a ritual would find herself obligated to define religion and write a book on it! . he must water down religion and make it available for explanation in more self-evident and less complicated metaphorical terms. That is. and theorize religion! Exactly my point! If this is so. or in dentistry. in and all by itself.” To do so. for the sake of something else. as we will see. a call is demanded. since unclarity is the (tautological) condition of the term that repetitively calls for clarity. For Tweed. What Tweed seeks to produce is ultimately a politics of clarity about religion pretended as an “obligation. by what/whom.” for instance like professionals in the State Department. given the sovereignty of this decision. This is why he says. However. its owness. or why it constitutes an obligation at all. if you will. the Department of Defense. or professional wrestling? The difference. a discerning reader may question: can this relation between the decision/choice to define and theorize religion and “professional” obligation really hold? How does such professional obligation differ from that of any other “professions. The question of the “call” itself remains hardly thought—how and when. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 Catholic ritual among transnational migrants in Florida [Tweed 2006: 54].262 A. Given Tweed’s sense of obligation. astoundingly. Such professionalism is then supposed to translate itself into a general sense of (political?) obligation/ responsibility. is that those professions do not study. the CIA. as it comes from its own condition. simply “we are called” to define religion by the “fussiness” of the term itself. then the relation between professionalism in general and the obligation to define religion that Tweed assumes to follow from professionalism cannot possibly hold up! Neither can the relation between attending-witnessing a Cuban Catholic ritual and the so-called obligation to offer a definition of religion that supposedly represents and explains such a ritual. Rather the sovereign call to define religion is based on a presumption that such definition has to be repeated until (complete?) clarity of the term can be gained. define. The obligation nonetheless is not finally to Cuban Catholics but to the professional academy of religion. that “religions function as clock and compass” (91). of being unclear. something that is never certain and thus may remain an infinite task.
” Tweed’s decision to define religion in the above way. When metaphor “prompts .” “being. it is difficult to tell what is really prompting sightings. Needless to say. That is. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 263 Here. idea. both “time” and “place” themselves become universal metaphors.”4 Tweed may claim that his definition that religions function as clock and compass or religion is what intensifies joy or confront suffering is not universal. But Tweed’s idea that metaphor prompts sighting/seeing is logically and patently false. Christians. without being able to go into detail. as do the metaphors of “crossing and dwelling” in them. have taught us so well. prompts new sightings and crossings. is caught up in this logocentric history of metaphor. ideas. which more or less verbatim replicates all the aspects of the Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion that Asad takes apart. Jews and others can be a metaphor like crabs because. This is why Heidegger. they can also be “crustaceans. as one reads on. neither is existence metaphorical. one would never see. 4 In a decisive metaphorical touch. it is whatever that does “intensify joy and confront suffering” or it functions as “clock and compass. with which one sees. which is a metaphor/symbol.” According to him. as one does with something like a hammer (which is Heidegger’s favorite example). One never sees through a metaphor. remains. and other religious persons to the metaphor of “crabs. .” But this substitution (and supplementing) by way of metaphor/symbol. as we discuss below. (Need I remind that one never does hammering with a metaphor?) Neither is metaphor something like a pair of eyeglasses. sightings and crossings. neither is a hammer or eyeglass some concept.” “goodness. like crabs. If it were so. one never does anything with a metaphor. . Tweed (2009) compares Jews. . says that seeing is existential.” This can hardly be so. fallaciously. Nancy (2008) et al. Put differently and more simply. However. at the heart of the Western history of logocentrism. crossings. 1981). rendering Tweed a cosigner to the legacy of what Derrida (1982) calls “white mythology. religion is substituted for something else. from Plato onwards. for Tweed.” This way of representing religious identities constitutes for Tweed an “ethic of representation. But metaphor is not existential. or category. metaphor does not have the handiness (Zuhandenheit) of a hammer. within which the questions of “truth. Heidegger (1996). as Nietzsche. or “expressions. that “metaphor .” and indeed “God” itself are conceptualized as concepts. we may not have much hope for “ethics”! . Derrida (1974. with which ones does hammering. I can only say that in the attempt to interpret and theorize religion by way of defining it.” If this is so. . because his theory recognizes religion in time and place.” one must ask. do sightings and crossings themselves become metaphors or metonyms? A careful reader may note the confusion here. and dwellings— religion/religious practice or its metaphor or its metonymy that represents religious practice.A. This is why Tweed claims. That is.
life undergoes a certain division or splitting of itself. I would like to emphasize that my point is not that this substitution of religion to metaphor (e.” a symbol.264 A. unlike the flâneur. However. which is an impossibility. the humilitas of life. the rolling idle spectator. I am also saying that the sovereign is a name that we assign to a scholarly theoretical exercise whose logic we do not either know or understand. a redemption or erasure of a memory or legacy of life takes place. the “force” of theorization. as it turns life into a spectator to itself. In this division and death. reduced to an “eternal fact. then I am suggesting any and every attempt and decision to theorize religion is an attempt to memorialize life. and back to Asad to show how some scholars like Tweed have not thought about attuned disciplined practices of religious life. The force of such theorization may no longer even be the “force” (Kraft) that even Hegel worked so hard to avoid. In such theorization. separating. memorializes the memory of life. as it always already seeks to set free or lift life from itself. as his life became released from time. Also when I say that the force of decision is sovereign. One can never become. true to that word. In saying so.) In this death. (In contrast. .g. This is why Derrida says that madness—he does not mean this in any pejorative sense—belongs to this logic of decision. Heidegger. Thus. as if by some force. from the discipline or—to use Heidegger’s word—attunement that constitutes such life. Rather the substitution of religion for a metaphor is possible by way of setting free. life’s center of gravity. This is how. becomes possible. the force is merely the force of decision.” This ideal painter has no “right” to judge or “despise the present” life in which he lives. from its own humilitas. as we will see soon. life becomes a spectator or martyr to itself. leaving it to the “medium” of matters itself. the Dialectic (see note 3). and this force of decision hardly corresponds to some objective reality. as Heidegger and Nietzsche demonstrated. a certain “death.” if you will. or releasing (Erlösung) life from itself. or in Nietzsche’s terms. I am also saying there can be no theorization of religion without the force of decision. as it leaves behind a remainder. the idea that religion is what does “intensify joy or confront suffering”) simply turns religion into anything and everything like sex and drugs. With the releasing of life from the humilitas of life. That erasure. think about Baudelaire’s [cited in Foucault 1984] idea of flâneur. Nietzsche understands the historical possibility of the memory of Jesus’ life. which is how then memory. the “modern” painter par excellence that Baudelaire admires is not busy searching himself but begins to work as the “whole world begins to fall apart. becoming a historical figure. Asad. any and every theorization of religion ultimately seeks to make possible the impossibility of turning life into a spectator to itself. a spectator to oneself. life becomes dead to itself. In the modern theorization of religion. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 Before I get to Nietzsche. and indeed any memory.
and acting in ways that lend life meaning and purpose and. myths. Taylor goes on to make the equally false distinction between “religion” and “religiosity. disrupt. life is symbolic.” Taylor of course “introduces a new set of categories” by repeating a discredited definition of religion! Unfortunately his European “guidance”—I weigh this word guidance—did not help him understand the fallacy of this definition of religion. which “gives” life meaning. . to any other recent scholar who has tried to define religion this way. Surprisingly. “Religion is an emergent. which. Now Taylor claims elsewhere (2009) that “one of the reasons that I did not directly engage the [contemporary] theorists . Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 265 It is the force of decision. thinking. .A.” And this is why. as it receives meaning from another symbol. that we find in secular theologian Mark C. Here in this schemata. . .” Once again. Rather. dislocate. as if it were an accusative. as Asad discusses. and rituals that. It is to explain this symbolic life that Taylor has to come up with numerous diagrams.. for that matter. which. Taylor can claim that “religious symbols and myths function as schemata that lend life meaning and purpose” (15. where religion lends life meaning.” because symbolic life like religion becomes a “category” in that the both can be objects and indeed accusatives. [of religion] is that I did not want to remain bound to the terms of past debates but wanted to introduce a new set of categories to theoretical discussions of religion. figure schemata of feeling. Taylor’s recent magisterial definition of religion. Perhaps.” This definition. In a chapter entitled “Theorizing Religion. emphasis added). complex adaptive network of symbols. on the one hand. My point here is that a life that receives its meaning from symbols is a life that cannot possibly “exist. the medieval European monks sought to cultivate. life is already separated from religion. what we see is not even the “distortion” (Entstellung) or “decay” (Verfall ) or even the death of life and its memory that Nietzsche speaks of. Taylor makes no reference to Geertz or. This is what happens . In this schemata we know neither religion nor life as they both are symbols. It is a “network of symbols . religion is not really religion. . and disfigure every stabilizing structure (emphasis added). In this division. need to be qualified and accounted for. reminiscent of Geertz. .” Taylor offers us the following definition of religion. .” ultimately follows the logic of the structure of Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion. which is essential to Taylor’s symbolic view of religion as the “virtual. Taylor who claims that he has been “consistently guided” by European thinkers asserts that his definition of religion helps us grasp “the complex interrelation between religion and secularism” that secularists have allegedly misunderstood. . by definition. a schemata of feeling . the madness of its sovereign attempt at releasing life from the humilitas. on the other. in this symbolic translation of life. by virtue of such definition. Theorization of religion always becomes a way of accounting for religion. that lend life meaning .
” One may say that not to believe in God in the traditional sense and to take God as virtual life is to take God as literature. All this is to say. And this inheritance/translation becomes possible by the mere act of articulation that passes for theorizing. This privileged position of not believing in God in the traditional sense now passes for a proper responsibility to the past and its memory. or. or rebirth “in the traditional sense of the term.) To clarify my point. Heidegger labors in Being and Time to think of existence in existential.5 Now the point here is not that Taylor’s is just an instance of God’s being reduced to a “creative process” in which one can simply “believe. The future is simply liberated from the threat of the past by way of not believing in God in the traditional sense of the term. This is why. . can give rise to the very possibility of the gradations and distinctions of life— that is. It is in this secular inheritance of religion. the divisions of one life that can be greater in meaning than some other life out and over there. imagine for a moment a Theravada Buddhist saying that she does not accept nibbana. qualified. differentiated. I remind. that is.” Surely an empirically minded scholar may suspect that there may have been some Buddhists who have made 5 Taylor (2009) often speaks of the need to find “alternative visions of religion” which do not “remain stuck in the oppositions and contradictions of the past” and do not “pose a threat to the future. by way of merely articulating it. something I have detailed elsewhere. let me give a counter-example. who claims to offer an “alternative” to secularism. that is. within or beyond some geographical or historical border. to make it known in terms of something that can be articulated. God. Uprooted from the center of gravity.” but that this belief turns itself into an act. Following Taylor’s logic of belief. in different terms. as a kind. Life that can be historicized is life that can be accounted for. what one supposedly inherits. religion without all of its historical-political problems. (We will come to this question of what one does below. from its constitutive discipline. is the infinite creative process that is embodied in life itself ” (Taylor 2008b). terms. and graded. the divine. Note for example that Taylor. once it is accounted for and qualified. avers that he does not believe in God “in the traditional sense of the term. is inseparable from the Western history of inheriting religion. not categorical. The predicate “without. becoming a spectator to. where life itself then becomes qualifiable. Taylor’s definition of religion is an instance of inheriting religion without religion.” as in x without x. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 when one reduces religion to a category. symbolic meaning-pursuing life. One last point I want to make about Taylor’s inheritance of Christianity in terms of the above logic of x without x is that it is a particular (modern or not) instance of how a legacy is received by way of a particular translation. something that one does. divided. kamma.266 A. x without x. that the very labor to historicize life becomes available. Theorizing religion is impossible without translating it into something that one can merely utter. by a simple qualification.
” “I am a Hindu. And simply qualifying it as a product of history (i. Releasing and Translating Life from Time into an “Eternal Fact” According to Nietzsche. as an instance of historical “change”) in which some Buddhists themselves have understood Buddhism differently over the course of time cannot and will not translate disciplined life into something that remains available for articulation.” “I am a Sikh. Mandair 2009). Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 267 such claims about themselves at some time. one may also argue that this possibility of translating lived disciplined life into an utterable knowledge about oneself.”6 If one follows carefully what Asad is arguing. My point here is that trying to lessen or qualify the supposed religiosity of these so-called identities. as a propositional truth about what one believes. from how Da-sein is involved and attuned in taking care of the world. Nietzsche traces the connection between inheritance (of religion) and symbol/literature to the “history of Christianity” itself. that is to turn them into some kind (i. Translation of that life into an articulatable knowledge about oneself is possible only for someone who theorizes and interprets a life in which one becomes a spectator to what one is/does. becomes possible when removed from the disciplinary practices that make one Christian. II.. . before any theoretical statement or before any words. is at the heart of the possibility of propositional truth claims and articulations about oneself in terms of “I am a Christian. whether it is modern or not.A. traceable to the “Gospels. from taking care of the world. interpretation and understanding belong to Da-sein. one can suggest that articulating such knowledge about oneself is impossible for someone who lives a life of disciplined practices. I do not believe in God “in the traditional sense of the term”) can hardly constitute the kind of radical political “change” that Taylor and other secular scholars of religion seek. Following Asad’s argument. then. Buddhist.. for Nietzsche. who argues that.” or their other counterparts (“I am not a Sikh”) (cf. as something now one does.e. the tradition of inheriting and translating or “misunderstanding”—which is understanding—religion by way of symbol (and “literature” which supposedly makes available life as something that can be read) goes back to the very emergence of what is called Christianity.e. “the very word ‘Christianity’ is a misunderstanding 6 Here Asad is remarkably close to Heidegger (1996: 147). Interpretation and understanding are inseparable from being in the world. This is why Asad argues that “it is a modern idea that a practitioner cannot know how to live religiously without being able to articulate that knowledge (emphasis added).” Indeed. Muslim. But my point is that this articulation.
—this is not only tradition. “the ‘Gospels’ died on the cross. Nietzsche asserts. (Nietzsche 2007: 61-62. the teacher of morals. the future judge. Such literature-books permit the innocence of receiving/translating “a tradition” by way of “symbols. Nietzsche does not want to call such inheritances/histories even “traditions. in the first disciples’ understanding of the Christian life in terms of “symbols. . The Christian inheritance is only it. by which he means covering up or concealing (Verdecktheit). “The gospels have been read as a book of innocence” because “for the majority. What. was called the ‘Gospels’ was the very reverse of what he had lived (der Gegensatz dessen. It “repudiate[s] every other mode of thought. the messiah. With the death of Jesus. . 1999b: 219). in order to understand it at all—in their sight the type could take on reality only after it had been recast in a familiar mould .” the understanding that makes possible the “misunderstanding” named “Christianity”: The first disciples. books are mere literature” (Nietzsche 2007: 80). . the worker of wonders. which can also mean “misunderstanding” (Missverständnis). Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 [Missverständnis]” (Nietzsche 2007: 71).” repudiating “every other mode of thought .” “decay” (Verfall ). died on the Cross. This is what we find. emphasis added). . . in particular. The prophet.268 A. . from that moment onward. and Freud’s (1967) idea of Entstellung. . The Gospels have been inherited as “books” to be read. in contrast to Heidegger’s difficult idea of distortion (Verstellung). was er gelebt)” (Nietzsche 2007: 71). “the only one Christian . That “beyond” or “across” is a name for incomprehensibility. .” “What do I care. happily enough. to “translate” (übersetzen) “existence” into symbols is to render it into “incomprehensibilities” (Unfasslichkeiten). 7 It might be helpful to reflect here on Nietzsche’s idea of “distortion” (Entstellung). must have been forced to translate an existence visible only in symbols and incomprehensibilities into their own crudity.” With Jesus. . John the Baptist—all these merely presented chances to misunderstand it . it is [its] inheritance [Erbschaft]” (Nietzsche 2007: 80. Nietzsche sees the emergence of the Gospels—which he calls “corruption. “distortion” (Entstellung)7 marking the emergence of Christianity—as annulling (Jesus’) life/existence itself.” Nietzsche writes: “The underlying will” to translate everything into “symbols. . To translate (Jesus’) existence into symbols is to place or carry it across or beyond itself. Nietzsche writes. This translation of (Jesus’) existence/life into a symbol constitutes the fundamental inheritance of Christianity. For Nietzsche.” he quips. “for the contradictions of ‘tradition’? How can anyone call pious legends ‘traditions’? The histories of saints present the most dubious variety of literature in existence” (Nietzsche 2007: 58).” manufacturing a “type [that] could take on reality only after it has been recast in a familiar mould” (Nietzsche 2007: 62).
Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 269 How we think such an inheritance. a “tradition” translated and received via “symbols. .) So translation “kills” that which is translated. But the notion of translation—be it cultural translation. This erasure8 becomes possible when life is translated. what is erased is never erased. at least in terms of Nietzsche’s remarks about the inheritance of religion. to the same” and not to a “better life” only to counter such a Hegelian notion.” into a symbol. but only sovereign attempts to do so.” when it assumes that name. by extension. which. without the translation of oneself to oneself?” Didn’t Hegel already note this when he said that being is absolutely mediated? Perhaps Nietzsche in the above epigraph claims to “return . (Can anyone today receive and inherit oneself. from the distortion or erasure of life. .” or translation of oneself to oneself—carries the kinds of connotations Nietzsche ascribes to it. we may say.” There is then never really any erasing.A. Translation produces such a Verfalls-Prozess. which. It always leaves behind a remainder or a “trace.” “The concept of ‘the Son of God’ does not connote a concrete person 8 I use the word “erase” deliberately.” Decay is not mere death or expiration.” is far from an easy task. For Nietzsche the very idea of a tradition or inheritance becomes possible. simultaneously in and after its own “death. By definition.”) This is what Nietzsche (2007: 67) sees in the very concept of the “son of God.” This is why Nietzsche says that with Christianity (that is. the “glad tidings”) “a process of decay [Verfalls-Prozess] began with the death [tode] of the Saviour. Put slightly differently.” “Decay” begins with and after “death. with the Gospels. In this maddening logic. “carried across. as Derrida (and Nietzsche too) might say. transfers itself across and beyond (metapherein). surely as a secular subject. translation that involves “transition to capital. That is to say. (Again this is what Nietzsche calls “decay” or “distortion. constitutes the scholarly force of decision to inherit religion by way of theorizing and interpreting it. translation is marked by an impossible contradiction: the translated must carry (if it can ever carry) “itself ” (its very possibility) in its own death. itself becomes a symbol that carries its own “death.” as it carries itself across. The translated carries beyond. which is that incomprehensibility or misunderstanding. by way of redeeming life and any legacy/memory of it. Decay is another name for a life to which death gives rise.” colonial translation of “religion. . This sense of translation/decay is what inheres in the translation of religion (into a symbol). But the translated does not amount to a death in itself. in its death. Now one may say that the translation of life into a symbol of which Nietzsche speaks is not the same thing as the translation of a text into some other language. the very “misunderstanding” called “Christianity. is an attempt at the separation of life from life. translation is irreducible to the binary of life and death.
a freedom of redemption (Erlösung. as it is set free or released from time. to itself. Inheritance of any legacy by way of a symbol constitutes a logic of redemption of itself. a psychological symbol set free from the concept of time” (emphasis added). regained possession of itself.” perhaps with a certain value attached to it. and thereby redeems time. it now becomes a symbol. By returning to itself. but an ‘eternal’ fact. theoros?) But to do so. that is. became the God of the “great majority. then. or better yet. away from oneself. . released or redeemed ] from the concept of time. by way of symbolizing “it. released from time. then. as it is released from (turns from and returns to) the very thing it is. Something impossible and maddeningly incomprehensible happens in a symbol’s turning away from and returning to itself as it is released (erlöstes) from time. or. as if having been previously sold and now bought back “itself. it remains fully redeemed. that it—again whatever this it may be—may return to itself. That is. only to return.perseus.tufts. time. This is how God. can redeem any legacy or memory. (Have we taken for granted that one is not a picture to which one can become a spectator. itself. lit. or relieved of.edu/hopper/searchresults?q=redeem&page=1 for Latin and Greek references to redemption. or having been released from.” Apparently here Nietzsche is punning on the word erlöser. shall we say. by returning to time. which constitutes the memorialization of its memory. Nietzsche argues.” its memory. it relieves itself of itself. a certain freedom. having bought itself back (re[d]emere).” no longer the God of the “Chosen People. Redemption of and by symbol. It is as if one could look at oneself. Releasing carries this sense of “turn” and “return. standing beyond time. which means savior or redeemer. as a symbol. extended beyond. as I noted earlier. which is itself. (Nietzsche may have in mind the biblical concept of [apo]lutrosis. once it is turned into a legacy. having returned to itself. as if one were a picture. In this logic. This is how a symbol. Here. Released and freed from itself.” Rather it is a “symbol set free [erlöstes.) Symbol. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 in history. erase) and translate itself into something that “it” symbolizes. as if it were a burden to itself. an isolated and definite individual. by symbolizing it. in this sense-defying logic. by simultaneously turning away and returning to it.” the God of the “weak. involves this buying back of itself. is outside. symbol becomes a spectator to itself. its “time. Symbol can be so only because it is a symbol. belongs to symbol. 9 See http://www. from the beyond. then redeems itself.270 A. In this logic of madness. redemptio). The savior is the one who is also saved (salvare) from and redeemed by time. which is time itself. its camp or flock.” That which is free from time. It is from this outside. its legacy. a symbol is separated (turned itself away) from the very thing that it is. then.9 which is madness. symbol must kill itself (or. beyond itself. to its own life.” being other than itself.
It is because Asad refuses to historicize and translate life that he says that life is essentially itself. Benedict). the forceful ordering or subsuming of life into a system of purposes. in one way of another. even as this genealogy seeks to produce a certain “history. Nietzsche (1996b: 73) notes the relation between redemption and the release from this call to account when he says that “self-pardon” (Selbstbegnadigung). figurative. God became such a symbol because “they spun their webs around him for so long that finally he was hypnotized. unless one resorts to the sovereign logic of decision.A. a self-pardoning that is giving oneself completely. Metaphor translates and historicizes life. is always a “self-redemption” (Selbsterlösung). metaphorical vs. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 271 For Nietzsche.” became “the absolute. The collapse of a god: he became a “thing-in-itself ” (Nietzsche 2007: 42). combat with . and began to spin himself. or Sikh) lives. . this process creates the very excuse for redeeming one’s legacy. For Nietzsche. creating the false possibility of dividing life. . public vs. The lives that Asad discusses center around the practices of medieval monastic life—involving the disciplinary practices of liturgy (the Rule of St. These lives are not available for theorization and interpretation by way of distinctions such as real vs. religion vs. This is what Nietzsche (as we see later) calls Einordnung. Hindu. This is what takes place in metaphorical translation of religion/disciplinary practice. Asad’s work is a refusal to historicize life. literal. The chapters in Asad’s Genealogies (and in Formations) hang together largely as a demonstration of how such a translation and separation of life from life or religion from power/discipline cannot hold true for “non-modern” or even so-called “modern” religious (Muslim—and I would even add Buddhist.” it refuses to historicize life—be it medieval monastic life or contemporary Muslim life in our so-called secular modern time. religiosity.” became “pure spirit. private. inner vs. a redemption from an accusation. shows carefully why one cannot understand religion/disciplinary practices in the historicist terms that subsume and translate life into a metaphor/symbol. Religion and Disciplinary Practices: “Life is Essentially Itself ” Asad’s entire body of work.” became “the thing-in-itself.” . in ways that others—including myself at one point or another—have not noted. as Nietzsche showed long ago. III. thereafter he became ever thinner and paler—became the “ideal. back to oneself. outer. that is. and became another metaphysician. Thereafter he resumed once more his old business of spinning the world out of his inmost being sub specie Spinozae. from a call to account for itself? It is a self-excusing or self-pardoning redemption of one’s own legacy or memory. This is what Asad’s genealogy of disciplinary practices seeks to do.
Work/labor for them did not mean some “metaphor” removed from religious life. It is a mistake to see the limitations—nasiha’s appeal. “The limitations are part of the way a particular discursive tradition. and thus required “an unending struggle” (104). It is the same with the Cistercians’ rejection of penance and adoption of monastic “work” (labor). nasiha. in the medieval monastic discipline of transcribing manuscripts. cited in ibid. flogging. 153-154. one cannot discern between “sinful behavior” and “sinful thoughts. Similarly. . at a point in time” (232). the disciplined making of the Christian self (according to the Rule of St. humility. The same is true of penitential discipline: “The concept of penance as medicine for soul [of the sinner] was no fanciful metaphor. on the contrary. between activities that are expressive and those that are technical” (64). which was an essential part of a disciplined life involving “prayer and fasting.272 A. and its associated disciplines. and self-punishment—or contemporary practices of religious “criticism” (nasiha) in the Middle East.). in medieval monasticism. Kant saw (secular) criticism as an alternative to religious authority. Work was a religious way to salvation.” Penance was not some quick remedy for a temporary sinful state but “a continuous process of curing symptoms. Asad tells us that we cannot regard the contemporary practices of “religious criticism” (nasiha) directed at the government in Saudi Arabia— which is often viewed as authoritarian and resistant to change—as mere opposition to modernity. Benedict). Indeed.” “outward sign” and “inward meaning” (Clercq. a means of correcting one’s unruly passions. “liturgy is not a species of enacted symbolism to be classified separately from activities defined as technical but is a practice among others essential to the acquisition of Christian virtues” (63). are articulated . between social and individual sentiments.” there could be no differentiating between “outer behavior” and “inner motive.” Here again. penances (penitentials of the Early Church). is to the very religious authority that imposes limits on what it can choose to criticize—as “instances of local leaders . obedience. “there could be no radical disjunction between outer behavior and inner motive. it is the limitations of a life lived that makes nasiha possible in the first place. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 “the flesh” (Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences). works within the “limits” of a religious tradition in order to be authoritative and persuasive. ironically. Contrary to Kantian critique. or the everyday lives of Muslim immigrants in post-Satanic Verses controversy England. Similarly. nasiha is not super-imposed on Muslim life. but a mode of organizing the practices of penance in which bodily pain (or extreme discomfort) was linked to the pursuit of truth—at once literal and metaphysical.” They could never be fully cured. Love of Learning and Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture. For example. . In the disciplined programs of such virtuous lives.
Asad 2003: 199). cannot be so easily varied.A. which seems to continue in Euro-America today). It is already existence. Indeed there is scarcely anything that they are not capable of. disciplinary practices are not just available for mere interpretation. cultivating capabilities is not the same thing as just having “universal human capabilities. “humans will have to be taught what good capabilities are and how to exercise them.” “aptitudes. After all. or even any particular view of the person or of human nature. emphasis added).” and so on. as one inhabits the world of existence. for Muslims. “Symbols .” Thus Asad finds unsound Martha Nussbaum’s idea of universal human capabilities.” “virtues. any particular comprehensive or ethical view. call for interpretation.” is not about what they believe (in terms of Kantian “maxims”).” The important point here is that unlike metaphors/symbols. Scholars who theorize religion have not understood why disciplinary practices are not so easily “varied” and do not simply call for interpretation. . .” “dispositions.” For Asad. then we may begin to think the impossibility of theorizing religion. In the same vein.” “bodily attitudes. to cultivate also means to “inhabit. and to be prevented from exercising vices that harm others. which she claims anyone can “sign on to . It is what they do in a disciplined life. so interpretations can be multiplied. Heidegger might quarrel with Asad’s idea of cultivation as existence in itself does not need cultivation. . and if to define religion is to engage in an impossibility. that is.10 The cultivation of moral capabilities and dispositions is not induced by symbols. Thinking this impossibility can be done only by way of a life constituted by disciplinary practices that do 10 In principle. translated as “religion. . and even as interpretative criteria are extended.” Then Asad (1993: 290) writes memorably: “life is essentially itself.”) Neither can we translate the everyday religious lives of Muslim immigrants in England into a modern.” But Heidegger himself uses the word “cultivation” at least twice in Being and Time. . privatized notion of religion (this was part of the demand on Muslims by English liberals during the Rushdie affair. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 273 manipulating religious symbols to legitimize social power” (Asad 1993: 210. to think of such a disciplined life is to think of “cultivation” and the “development” of “disciplinary practices.” According to Asad (2003: 79). din. Hence.” “moral capabilities. (Note that Kant opposed the idea of “discipline. Everyday life is not like a work of art because it “is not constructed out of preexisting matter as works of art are. because learning to develop moral capabilities is not the same thing as learning to invent interpretations” (Asad 2003: 79. Only the part of it that can be narrativized may be said to be ‘made up’ like a story by an artist. without accepting any metaphysical view of the world. on the other hand.. Disciplinary practices. If today any attempt to theorize and interpret religion is always to define religion.
If for Asad one is what one does in a disciplined life. Let me put it differently. That is to say. .11 For Heidegger. and future. This point may appear orthodox. Life can become “virtual” only through that task of definition/translation of life into something other than life. But it is precisely because it is orthodox that it is often lost on scholars concerned with the task of theorizing and interpreting religion. ever. Such divisions are not possible with the limits of life/ existence. interpretation. if not at war.274 A. The Limits of Religious Life: “One is What One Does” Again what Asad’s work forces us to do is to think of life in “terms” that constitute life itself. Life is essentially itself. No life can ever cross its limits. life and death are inseparable. the question of what being is remains inseparable from the question of what one does. 11 Heidegger (cited in Derrida 2009: 305-306) later says that “only for those who are stubborn in their head [or fool-headed] is life is merely life” (“denn Eigensennigen ist Leben nur Leben” ). theorization of disciplined life. the relation between what one is and what one does remains in constitutive tension. and theorization has to be thought. It will be helpful to recall that this is what Heidegger irrefutably demonstrated in that inexhaustible text Being and Time. was man betriebt”). There can never be a non-locative. it is in the limits of what one is and does that the question of the availability of “Being”—or disciplined life in Asad’s terms—for definition. What one is can be possible only with what one does. no one does ever live a life beyond the limits of what one is and does. for Heidegger—in remarkably similar ways—“‘one is’ what one does” (“‘Man ist’ das. Heidegger says this in order to make space for the claim that life is being toward death. So the word “thinking” here is only a way for thinking the question of the impossible unavailability of such practices for interpretation. with each other.0 This constitutive tension between is and does already presupposes an impassable limit in that it does not suppose that one can do anything and everything and be whatever one wants to be. If life is possible. In Heidegger’s argument. Life that is being toward death is life where there cannot be any separation between past. For Heidegger. Nor can there be some ordinary life as opposed to non-ordinary life. that is to say. its own terms. as for Asad. as some scholars (Orsi 2010) assume. IV. which essentially are its “existence” or disciplinary practices in Asad’s terms. present. it can only be within/at its own limits. the very conditions that constitute its own limits. The terms of life are its own conditions. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 not lend themselves to interpretation because such practices are simply unavailable for theorization. that is. and not one more interpretation. virtual life.
”12 (Recall also how Nietzsche [1968: 312. Heidegger begins Being and Time by taking up the very problem of the “definition” of being. Existence is not given to definition. It remains that Being. is attuned.13 For Heidegger. To ask any such a question prior to existence is to assume that “the meaning of being must therefore already be available [verfügbar] to us in a certain way” (Heidegger 1996: 4.A. cannot be said. Heidegger wanted to liberate existence from any biological sense.” the “ontic” and the “ontological. the question of the meaning of being can never be posed outside or prior to existence. and must take into account the properly ontological repetition of his thinking of the near and far. Da-sein is never “free-floating” (Heidegger 1996: 312). Being attuned. 13 It is noteworthy that Derrida says that Heidegger was one of those rare thinkers never to have used the word metaphor. or some other feature that constitutes a mere part of Da-sein’s existence. although Heidegger argues that the “average comprehensibility [of being] only demonstrates its incomprehensibility. surely not in the sense of representing it in terms of (Cartesian) “attributes” or metaphoric features prior to it.” He wants to think about how being may become a “question. which is nothing. In existing. emphasis added).” . Being attuned (or being religious in a disciplined life) is not an “attribute” or metaphor or trope. Heidegger says that the assumption—from Plato and Aristotle onwards—that “the concept of ‘being’ is indefinable [undefinierbar]” is a “prejudice.e.” “near” and “far. among other things.” As Derrida (1985: 131) contends.” if it ever can be.. that being is indefinable) takes the “question of being” as something that is already settled. So if pressed 12 Note that Heidegger would likely object to using the word “life” as a cognate for existence because of the biological sense of it. except in the ontic metaphor. Rather.” he does not seek to grasp being through a renewed definition of being. Indeed what life gives (es gibt) is only existence. Da-sein.” So. What Heidegger does do is to “retrieve” and “formulate” “the question of being. for Heidegger “proximity is not ontic proximity.” This is why Heidegger [1996: 290] reversed the Cartesian dictum when he said that “the substance of life is existence. he would say that being could be defined—if it could be defined at all—only in terms of “existence. only from existence—to put it quite badly and imprecisely. such a question can come. if it comes. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 275 As we know. If you were to press Heidegger. as something no longer a “problem.’ ”) But one is surely mistaken to think that to say being is existence is to define it in such a way as to (better) understand and interpret it.” He says so not to provide a definition of being but to note that the claim (i. But Heidegger himself could not escape the problem of metaphoricity. is not a being. 582] too said: “Being—we have no other way of imaging it apart from ‘living. cannot say itself. as he tried to think of the relation between “Da” and “Sein” (Da-sein) in terms of divisions like “proximity” and “distance.
I stress. we may note that Da-sein is always and already a historical being. to turn it into a kind of life. legacy.14 This does not mean that each one of us may fancy our own interpretation/definition of life. to qualify life. If this is so. and future.” He writes: 14 As a result. in that Da-sein is already its past. its attuned life. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 again. present. To historicize Da-sein is to always and already redeem and release Da-sein from Da-sein. the history of a thing—so long as it “comes into existence” by way of interpretations—always marks a certain “death” or “loss. the very questions of Da-sein’s self-knowledge—may be asked. life—is to ask questions of life’s “meaning” prior to Da-sein’s constitution. its history.276 A. before. the very historicity of Da-sein is not available for historicization. separating one life in one time from another life in another time. But one of the important things to note about Heidegger’s argument is that Da-sein cannot be merely historicized. and memory—that is to say. in its care in the world. remarkably Nietzsche too sees the very history of something—in terms of interpretations and reinterpretations of it by way of the utilization of it by “forces superior” to it—as ultimately defying definition and meaning itself.’ standing outside of it. Da-sein is history/time. in terms of supposed historical changes. It is to resist this presumption that Heidegger argues that interpretation already belongs to Da-sein and so Da-sein needs no interpretation. Indeed if interpretation belongs to Da-sein. Even though Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s understandings of history diverge. life/living itself. In other words.) In a crude sense. Heidegger 1996: 298-299). the history of Christianity. at least the interpretation/representation of it. Da-sein defies historicization in that to historicize Da-sein—say. as it takes care of things that concern its existence. It is within the (limits of ) attuned life—again. Heidegger may grant that ultimately Da-sein defies definition or interpretation in that the questions of meaning of being is available only within a life in which “one is what one does. the question of its meaning. Heidegger keeps saying that interpretation of Da-sein is existential and not categorical. one does not have any (theoretical) access to the very life one lives. . as we note below. (cf. ahead of. To think otherwise is to assume that life. is available a priori. For Nietzsche. cannot ever be given to an a priori representation of its ‘meaning. Da-sein is not available for interpretation or reinterpretation. note the remarkable convergences between Heidegger’s attuned life and Asad’s disciplined life— that questions of Da-sein. to release life from life. Paradoxically.” This is why. (This is so for Asad as well. Da-sein as projected in its existence.” is history of such interpretations and separations of life from life itself. For Nietzsche. Heidegger (1996: 299) is also claiming the impossibility of such meaning. in the way I have already described. which is its own “misunderstanding.
is a death that brings about a redemption by releasing and translating—Nietzsche’s word is subsuming or integrating or ordering (Einordnung)—the actual use of a thing into something useful. partial loss. or even death. constitutes the “development” or “progress. we may say that for him to deny the possibility of translation and death of life is to preempt the very redemption of the death of a thing. emphasis added). thatsächlich Verwendung] and its integration (Einordnung) into a system of goals [purposes. schliessliche Nützlichkeit] to which it is put.” The obscurity of reinterpretation produces the “partial loss” or “death. once it has somehow come into being. withering [Verkümmern]. can be reinterpreted in the service of new intentions. True to what Nietzsche says about the Gospel’s subsuming and translating Jesus’ existence into a symbol. in the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche says this is what happens to the “use” of punishment in the history of reinterpretations of it that make possible “mastering and overpowering it. Zurechtmachen). The history of the reinterpretations of the use of a thing obscures and effaces its “meaning. manipulation. . loss [Verlustiggehn] of meaning and expediency—in short death—belongs to the condition of true progressus” (Nietzsche 1996a: 59. verdunkelt) or completely effaced ( ganz ausgelöscht)” (Nietzsche 1996: 55-58). emphasis on death added). So the usefulness of a thing (for a purpose) produces a death of its “actual use. the death of the origin/emergence (Entstehung) of it and its actual use. .A. Nietzsche wants to deny this possibility of a death of a thing made possible by the “force” of Einordnung. a custom may take the form of an extended [ fortgesetzt] chain of signs. “the entire history of a ‘thing.” This history of reinterpretation is “a manipulation.’” As many may know now. its actual application [or actual use.” of a thing! As Nietzsche writes. In such obscurity. from its own redemption. the extended chain of signs. of evernew interpretations and manipulations” (Nietzsche 1996a: 58. Zwecken].” which.” which.’ . degeneration [Entarten]. which is its “form. definition. in the course of which previous meaning and aim must necessarily be obscured (or eclipsed.” the “extended chain of ‘meanings. that which “previously had another meaning and use” assumes “a synthesis of . repeatedly modified to a new use (Nietzsche 1996: 57). as we discussed. repossessed. to Nietzsche. This death is not just death in that what death gives is the reinterpretation of a certain thing. and adjustment (or grooming or tidying up. As the history of a thing assumes this form. That anything which exists [etwas Vorhandenes]. By arguing that the history of a thing ultimately defies definition. we may say. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 277 There is a world of difference between the reason for something coming into existence and the ultimate use [ultimate usefulness. Einordnung would be Nietzsche’s word for the force of decision that constitutes the translation of life. “the partial loss of [its] use [theilweis Unnützlichwerden]. This happens by way of reinterpretation.
The challenge with Nietzsche is that one cannot think the question of the undefinability of something historical by being more “historical. leaving us to think the question of disciplined life itself. and separated. and ultimately explained. Ultimately. Concluding Remarks: Asad’s Refusal to Historicize Life Asad’s argument about the indefinability of religion makes impossible such divisions and separations of life. However. distinguished. Nietzsche’s emphasis on undefinierbar). V. life itself can eventually be graded. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 ‘meanings’” and “crystallizes in a sort of unity” (Nietzsche 1996a: 58-60). This is what happens when life (as in the case of Jesus’ life) becomes a metaphor/eternal fact removed from time/history. by its being defined and redefined over the course. one life in and at one time. which would. emphasis added). a point which must be emphasized—is completely beyond definition” (or entirely or altogether indefinable. separable from life in and at another time. in this historicization. Now all this may sound familiar enough to some of us today. To historicize life. Then Nietzsche puts it arrestingly: “all concepts in which a whole process is summarized in signs escape definition. in that life/existence is not a (historical) “thing” or a “concept.278 A. becomes ultimately and ironically undefinable for Nietzsche. However.” Life/existence cannot be such a concept because living/existing cannot be a thing (of Einordnung) that be integrated into some “system” of usefulness. that is. is to turn it into a concept that can be defined. After all.” by historicizing it more. Surely one cannot historicize life. have we already forgotten what Nietzsche (2002) says about concepts: concepts seek only to “describe” and “communicate. it is because scholars have begun to think life (and now what we call religion) itself as a concept or a category that they have ignored this point and have come to assume that life can be historicized. interpreted. Only that which is without history can be defined ” (Nietzsche 1996a: 60. however. Godlove 2010). be all those things that amount to a redemption of life by its own “death. differentiated.” This is how today religious life itself comes to be seen as a concept waiting explanation. what may not be so familiar is what Nietzsche says next: the crystallized unity of the synthesis of meaning—which “is difficult to unravel. ganz und gar undefinierbar ist. difficult to analyze.” but they do not “explain”? Life is not a concept that either describes or explains anything (cf. which. Note carefully that Nietzsche ultimately denies the possibility of historicizing even a concept. Here the “form is fluid but the ‘meaning’ even more so” (Nietzsche 1996a: 58). according to Nietzsche. I have argued that how we think such disciplined life—if it ever .
a move that will take some time for us to think. Recall that in Genealogies. concept. including the separation between religion and public life/politics. preempts the historicist possibility of qualifying life. needing some difficult and qualified transition into or crossing over.g. as we know now. statement. seemingly two distinct temporal locations. crossing borders or limits that is advocated by liberal-minded scholars as a radical political practice (e. Asad is interested in the question of religious life in premodern and modern times in terms of the disciplinary practices that constituted those lives. as there is nothing to cross. having to cross no temporal limit. or whatnot. to put it quite inadequately. sentence. contemporary Muslims in Saudi 15 Asad’s thinking here points towards the futility of the idea of crossing. in the way temporality/time itself works in it. Time between medieval monastics and modern Muslims is not broken into separate frontiers (of past and present). as if such a sense were an authorized power granting prior official permission to cross such geographical-temporal barriers.. One may of course historicize and even interpret a word. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 279 demands thinking—cannot be a theoretical exercise aimed at interpretation and theorization. aptitudes. But disciplined life constitutive of what Asad calls the cultivation and development of virtues. contemporary Muslim life from Saudi Arabia to England. as if he can easily move back and forth between those supposedly distinct times. authorized by some historicist sense of distance and difference between two worlds. paragraph. and bodily attitudes is not such a “thing” or “concept. made possible by the latinized— and known globalatinized—understanding of religious life in terms of what we call religion. Nonetheless. and qualification of life. Asad’s main focus is on medieval Christian monastic life in Europe and modern.A. far removed from each other in many ways. (This is even as Asad of course acknowledges “changes” in Christian practice in pre-modern and modern times. contemporary or otherwise. The very structure of Asad’s work Genealogies. nothing here is crossed then. to show that this argument essentializes life.15 In other words. To believe in such a historicist possibility of life is to understand life as a historical thing. without always producing the problem of translation. Here. Asad makes almost no separation between European medieval monastics and modern Muslims. let me ask the reader to consider the following. Now if one rushes to adduce examples. By way of concluding the essay. one can only do so by believing in the fallacious historicist possibility of qualifying life in terms of temporal divisions.) In this Asadian thinking about the supposedly distinct worlds of medieval monastic and modern Muslims. discussing the disciplinary practices of such religious life. Tweed’s .” So any attempt to think such life can only think the impossibility of its availability for such historicization and interpretation. historicization.
This is precisely what Asad refuses to do when he says often that. which easily translates itself into a redemption.” Muslims find it hard to accept such modern Christian concepts as the separation between religion and public life.280 A. even as certain “changes” are acknowledged. opposed to democratic demands for Muslims to be “modern. such existence will be so in future Muslim life.” It is precisely the impossibility of such a release. (This may appear as a contradiction to careless readers who seek quick escape from thinking. And this is not because. Mas). if not the same. into an integrated existence that would need be to ensured and made better by the promises of equal rights. as if they occupy one. . world/time. almost every or every other day or week or month. freedom. Now what makes it hard. What makes it impossible to disentangle each from that one world/time is that the religious lives that they live are only possible within such disciplined practices. Asad wants to endorse some “auratic weight of return to tradition. tolerance.) If these were distinguishable. that Asad’s work prods us to think. if not impossible. (And I do not mean this as a metaphor!) In this disciplined life of “one world” (cf. The very idea of a crossing always and already authorizes those limits as they are to be crossed. In other words. present. above life. perhaps passing by. could be historically qualified. or some other political or “ethical” concept. and future cannot be distinguished and differentiated in terms of historical changes.” erasing “the diversity of the social and cultural life in the Muslim world. something that his future readers (and thinkers of what we have idea of “crossing and dwelling”).” This is of course hardly to suggest that medieval European monastics and contemporary Muslims are the same. by way of some (shall we say oxymoronically forceful?) integration or ordering (Einordnung) of their practices into a “system. as some critics (Mufti 2000: 92) have misjudged. each other. as Asad thinks of it. or assimilation of any life into some preexisting system of usefulness or a whole. there is no “integration” (Einordnung). . subsuming.” which I have argued belongs to the secularist presumption that life itself can be historicized. . If this existence is true of present-day Muslim life. They can be separated and translated from that one world/time only by separating—or shall we say “releasing”?—them from such practices. to disentangle (present-day) Muslim life from (past) European monastic life is nothing but disciplined life itself that is not “so easily varied. and even nodding to or winking at. Abeysekara / Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 23 (2011) 257-282 Arabia and England are hardly separate from each other. as there can be no crossing without limits. the temporality of the world of disciplined life in the Genealogies (and I think in Formations as well) is one in which past.” The question of disciplinary life makes impossible “a diversity . justice. Muslim life. of life.
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