Ashtanga and Imperialism • 16 August 2008

CP wrote this post yesterday—one that’s difficult for many of us to handle. I’ve been waiting and hoping for just that kind of sacrilege out of him, and he delivered. In the comments (which are a terriffically honest and interesting conversation about the future of ashtanga), someone asked me the following:

For those of us who are long finished school but are still interested in these matters, what theoretical perspective has replaced tired 1990s neo-Marxism [and 1980s post-colonial theory]? I am serious. Please save this practicing lawyer from the tedium of her daily life by discussing some theory!

Ok. Trying to make a short answer. I’m just going to freewrite a bit and post whatever comes up off the cuff. Because if I try to make a coherent I’ll spend hours! It would be so delightful to build a study group or seminar discussing different philosophies’ and social theories’ perspectives on the moral, cultural and spiritual puzzles that the east-west meeting of ashtanga creates. I have a background in philosophy and social-political theory but rarely work in these literatures because they’re disconnected to real life. The mind likes to be bound; and I like the constraints of doing research on the ground—theory can say anything it wants without the discipline of real-world data. Abstract rhetorical wars are too easy.

Anyway, I should clarify that neo-Marxism and post-colonial theory have not effectively been replaced by something called post-modernism. Postmodernism is a disposition rather than a theory, and as much as it’s intellectually dishonest and stupid if taken to extremes it’s also the condition in which we all live. It’s just a suspicion of metanarratives (Lyotard’s line), or an awareness that all knowledge is situated in someone’s perspective and some matrix of power relationships. Postmodernism at its best is a background question of Oh yeah? Says who? It doesn’t stand alone as an interpretation and it explains nothing.

For me, by far the richest node of theory and research about culture and social philosophy now is in the little subfield of the sociology of culture. A lot of the subfield is bad, but the good stuff expresses what to me are the there most important aspects of what is now good theory: (1) non-essentialism, (2) a bit of self-aware empiricism, and (3) an attempt to synthesize all the modernist (Marxist and other) binaries like material/ideal, economic/cultural, structure/agency.

Briefly, non-essentialism (1) means that you don’t think race, nationality, culture, etc have any transcendent reality. They are social phenomena, or ascribed and acquired characteristics. This is huge—it takes the neo-Marxists’ critique of reification and follows it to its logical conclusion that culture itself is socially constructed. It means you don’t buy the idea that someone with brown skin is “naturally” a soulful dancer or the idea that someone with south Asian ancestry has a “natural,” superior claim to yoga. People are just people. Cultural artifacts are just artifacts. Which is not to say culture does not go deep—the ways in which we grew up, for example, determine our understandings of the world perhaps more than previous (non-empirical) theory could recognize! Culture may not be real on an “essential” or transcendent level, but the ways it shapes personal knowledge appear—based on research—to be very deep. As culture becomes increasingly complex and fast-changig globalized, this just becomes all the more interesting.

So (2) empiricism is the sense that social theory that isn’t rooted in examination of the world is probably BS. Seriously, how do we know that cultural traits are socially constructed? Well, for example consider how race works in Brazil vis-à-vis how it works in the US. Totally different ideas of what is blackness and whiteness, what characterizes race, how many races there are, etc. (Yet at the same time, some things are common: racial hierarchies priveliging white skin, the possibility of becoming more white as socio-economic status increases, local beliefs about the essential qualities of different “groups,” etc.) It’s complicated. The sense now is that even universal pronouncements about social construction have to be made in reference to something real. Pure theory is a joke. Even in philosophy, the richest areas of development are empirical—biomedical ethics, philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of science. For me, my hero of empirical social theory is Pierre Bourdieu. He makes me think, first, that pure ideas without social research are boring and, second, that living one’s life as a kind of social theorist—always considering the theoretical presuppositions and implications of action—is a rich and beautiful form of practical self-awareness.

The third characteristic I see in present-day theory, a valuation of synthetic work (3), is both the most interesting and the most difficult to summarize. For a while in the 1980s and 1990s, theory was obsessed with “difference” and “play” between the supposed binaries of male/female, dark/light, material/idea, structure/agency, objective/subjective, inside/outside, etc. etc. etc. And, since Hegel, the idea of the thesis-antithesis dialectic of consciousness has been encrypted within much social theory. To be brief, now there is a sense that theory does not have to be just about structure or agency, not just leftist or rightist, just about material or ideal, just from the subjective or objective point of view. In fact, theoretically insightful empirical work SYTHESIZES these apparent opposites. This is a dangerous idea, because it resonates with the wacky Integral people with their fourfould AQAL framework, and because it sounds an awful lot like eastern mysticism, what with yoga being the “union of apparent opposition” and all that. In my own work, I strive to synthesize whatever oppositions I find in the world, and not just settle to oscillate from one side to the other. Incidentally, this is why I find it difficult to take a hard line either way in the present debate on the regulation and commodification of ashtanga.

I have saved my withering remarks for the ashtanga mercenaries for the end, so hopefully they will be missed by anyone who will find them offensive, and only read by people who understand the lightness of heart— but also the impatience with self-deception —with which I write.

Anon’s critiques of the cultural imperialism of Cody’s market analysis, and righteous indications that Cody has transgressed against Edward Said, indicate little more than that Anon got a fancy western education before s/he went off to India and discovered huself. If Anon and likeminded western practitioners who see themselves as guardians of the Eastern authenticity (oh essentialist modern concept!) are the true guardians of the lineage, it is only because they’ve performed another level of the cultural appropriation of which they accuse others. They are, as Bourdieu would say, the cultural imperialists par excellence, both appropriating the tradition and then pretending to be its owners and protectors.

In case anyone out there didn’t quite catch it… Yes, traveling to India to practice ashtanga yoga is “imperialist” for both ideational and economic reasons, both material and ideal, both personal and collective. If you are actually concerned about “imperialism” because you think (erroneously, I’d say) that culture belongs to particular nationalities and races, than you really have no business traveling to India nor raging against anyone else for being imperialist. Because to the degree that you think you own ashtanga, you are the biggest “imperialist” of all.

The same people who are out to defend the integrity of the tradition are those who are extremely identified with it and fantasize that they own it, through all manner of superficial language study, celebration of holidays they actually know little about, professions of love for certain kinds of cuisine. But do these people really understand the culture they are appropriating? Do they see only light and spirituality in India—do they fantasize (ultimate Imperialist self-deception) that the beggars have equanimity or that Indians themselves are simply “more spiritual.” Do they recognize that they are using India as a playground where their currency and passport buy easy living and implicit international protection? Do they see that they see “spirituality” because it’s an easy life where they don’t have to deal with a more grounded spirituality that comes from their own early experiences, don’t have to deal with the economic pressures that give so much value to their dollars, don’t have to look their own history in the eyes but can instead vacation in an alternate spirituality with rituals that are easy to love because they’re different and new, and seem to offer an escape from all that is too real and too dark and to dirty to examine at home?

I’ve departed from social theory to psychological theory here at the end, but if we are honest with ourselves, isn’t this the terrain for examining this particular war over who owns ashtanga? The “imperialist” slur is a red herring, is it not? I suspect that when we westerners tangle over who owns ashtanga and whether it’s ok to see the practice from a (creepy but not at all irrelevant) marketing perspective, we are fighting at a deep level with ourselves.

Apologies for the incoherence and doubtless typos all over this post. I wanted to respond to Monkey’s question, but also am not going to take the time to make the response shorter.