Apr 6, 2009

Idelber Avelar's Commentary on Jorge Luis Borges

Apr 6, 2009
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Idelber Avelar, in the second chapter of "The Letter of Violence", firstly points at the debate between analytic philosophy and critical theory in contemporary intellectual environment. According to Avelar, this debate is now outdated because critical theory has been victorious. However, Avelar affirms that this victory has neither transformed U.S philosophical establishments nor made their arguments obsolete. On the contrary, these philosophical establishments are highly influenced by primarily analytic orthodoxy. Nevertheless, Avelar points out that “the inadequacy of that philosophical establishment to understand the world around it has become so obvious that Derridas, de Mans and Butlers are no longer needed to make it visible.” (p. 51). Avelar implies that these philosophical claims that emphasize the notions such as “humanity”, “freedom”, “reason”, “morality” strengthened “the trademark ethnocentric combination of U.S nationalism and universalism” (p. 52). Besides, liberally inspired Bush administration’s claims were basically relied on these arguments and introduced by linguistic strategies that were similar to U.S moral philosophers’. What Avelar suggests in particular are the ways in which language is manipulated and displaced during the course of propaganda in recent political environment of U.S. In this respect, critical theory became prominent in terms of tracking down and deconstructing the concepts which were set forth by moral philosophy’s orthodoxy. Consequently, a battleground occurred between these two theoretical approaches about humanity in general. U.S analytic philosophy establishment has criticized deconstruction and other forms of literary criticism about reducing everything to language and therefore creating a catastrophy which would lead youth to relativism. Avelar states that there were even philosophers who described deconstruction as a “perilous form of neo-Heidegerrian Nazism” which is more like an accusation and not simply criticism.
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Avelar criticizes U.S analytic philosophy establishment for misunderstanding Derrida. One of the common accusations is that Derridean understanding of deconstruction has abandoned ethics, which for Avelar is never the case. On the contrary, Derrida was interested in ethics, but he attempts to pose critical questions on ethics and present a fresh angle from which we could rethink of ethics. At this point, Avelar regards it crucial to fully understand Derrida’s notion of “undecidability” which is a deconstructive notion. Derrida’s undecidability points out that if a decision which is supposed to be rational and explainable, and determined by a set of rules, then it wouldn’t be a decision, but an application of that set of rules which were predetermined even before that decision was to be made. A decision would exist when it rests upon the undecidable. In other words, Avelar explains it in a way that “the more rigorously grounded in law a decision is, the less of a decision it is” (p. 53). Therefore, instead of a set of rules and laws, the choices which would lead its way to a decision, should follow the path of the undecidable. From now on, in order to elaborate his argument better, Avelar concentrates on Borges’ story, the Ethnographer.
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He divides the story into two parts; Murdock the ethnographer and Murdock the indigenous. Murdock lives among indigenous people for two years, and by the help of his academic study, he accomplishes to be one of the “other”, which in fact proves that methods of ethnography and anthropology are successful. At this point of the story, Murdock accomplishes to become one of the “other”, and here ethnography serves a great purpose, on the possibility of communication and integration across neo-colonial borders. Anthropology in this sense seems to actualize an intercultural interaction possible, when Murdock leaves to encounter with the other. However, the following of the story depicts anthropology’s success as its failure, when Murdock was expected to write his dissertation, and thus retranslate his encounter with the other to what Avelar calls “the language of sameness” (p. 54). The moment when Murdock decides not to write the secret doctrine in his thesis, according to Avelar, Borges displays anthropology’s perfection together with its voidness and collapse. That is why he suggests that anthropology needs some amount of imperfection in order to continue its existence.
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Avelar underlines that Borges’ story is not a parable although it definitely is about ethics. Moreover, Borges doesn’t suggest a particular choice or lesson in this story, which as Avelar suggests, is the implosion of the common association between ethics and morality (p. 56). In this regard, the story refuses to answer several questions such as the content of the secret, the exact reason why Murdock doesn’t write his dissertation and his becoming a librarian after marriage and divorce. Eventually, Borges’ story comes up with the idea of ethics, without morality. Avelar indicates another crucial relation in this story, which is simply the primacy of experience over knowledge. In Murdock’s case this relation between experience and knowledge signifies a kind of a disconnection between experience and narrative, which Avelar puts simply as the “incompassibility between experience and narrative” (p. 56). Avelar argues that this incompassibility between experience and narrative, on which Murdock the ethnographer and Murdock the indigenous stay separated, can be explained by Derrida’s understanding of “undecidability”, which would make sense of the gap between these two distinct behaviors. Here is the dilemma; Murdock wouldn’t be a worthy ethnographer unless he becomes one of the “other”, and his excellent ethnographic attitude as an indigenous, eventually invalidates ethnography. From this point of view, undecidability does not suggest that a decision is impossible or unnecessary; but contrarily a decision is required on this undecidable ground. In this respect, for Avelar, undecidability means “first of all, there is no guarantee behind Murdock’s choice and second, the choice of remaining true to the indigenous lesson exists, but it implies breaking with the ethnography that originally allowed him to approach that lesson to begin with.” (p. 56). Avelar’s commentary suggests not only that Borges’ portrayal of anthropology in “The Ethnographer” is a clear cut critique of anthropology, (which is actually constructed upon the asymmetrical relationship between societies) but also a highlighting of this academic discipline, which provides a space for interrogation for its existence. The asymmetrical relationship which is depicted in The Ethnographer has mainly two components: The ones who study, and the ones who are studied. The ones who study like Fred Murdock can become one of the “other”, while the only thing that the ones who are studied know is that the “other” has become one of “them” and began to live on their land. Murdock’s succession to know the tribe’s secret doctrine reveals that, although the indigenous people assume that the secret may be possessed and performed only in their language, it is universal. Seen from a Derridean perspective, let us say if one writes or tells the secret, he or she tells everything, but the secret. However, Borges tells us that the tribe’s teacher revealed him the tribe’s secret doctrine. Eventually, might we argue that the teacher revealed everything to Murdock, but the secret? We cannot answer this question, because we don’t know what the secret that Murdock claims to possess is, or was, before he managed to know it. But in any case, the indigenous becomes a source which Avelar names as “producers for objects for thought” which is the opposite of “producers of thought” on a global scheme which he proposes in terms of “international division of intellectual labor” (p. 59-60). Afterwards, Avelar points at the relation between philosophy and literature in third world national traditions. In these peripheral societies, literature fills in the gap that grew out of the lack of philosophical intellectual production. Avelar comes up with the idea of distinction between experience and knowledge, before which he announced as the binarism between experience and narrative on the basis of Borges’ story. Within this binarism that Avelar suggests, for the producers of objects of thoughts, philosophical activity is just applying several techniques which were originated from different languages elsewhere. Avelar argues that the absence of philosophy is the most philosophical moment of these traditions (p. 60). Furthermore, Murdock becomes one of the indigenous people, when he consolidates his knowledge with his experience. Avelar displays the distinction between the producers of thoughts and the producers of objects of thoughts in international division of intellectual labor, by referring to The Ethnographer: In the tribe, there is no separation between ethos and episteme (p.61). In this respect, on one hand, the knowledge enables Murdock to advance and on the other, encounters its wholly other. Eventually, it is reshaped with experience and no longer belongs to that knowledge (p. 62). All in all, “The Ethnographer” offers an allegory of silent violence across cultural and political borders, and it was Borges’ great contribution to postcolonial literature (p. 15).
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