From Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus to circulatory history

This book, extremely rich and diverse in content and vast in scale, is an impressive work on global history and the question of transcendence in facing a global crisis. It encompasses themes of philosophy, history, literature, and art, and the reader feels that he or she is learning something new on every page.

Duara’s ultimate objective, as he elegantly demonstrates, is to reconcile reason and transcendence, history and space. He has done so by introducing “a less radical, dialogical transcendence” (6) that has pervaded most Asian societies in order to come to terms with the looming crisis of planetary sustainability (1), which he recognizes as one of the challenges that the world is currently facing, now that the model for modernity and modernization based on conquest of nature and driven by increasing production is no longer sustainable (279). The other two challenges that Duara identifies are the rise of non-Western powers and the loss of authoritative sources of transcendence (1).

Duara defines “transcendence” not only as a source of nonworldly moral authority that can speak back to power, or a temporality from the present that also has universal applicability, but as “a way of human knowing based upon an inscrutable yearning or calling with several attributes that coexist in varying degrees,” “a critique of existing conditions that draws on non-worldly moral authority” (6). To this extent, he contends that throughout much of human history both tendencies largely coexisted in all religions (9), although he distinguishes monotheistic religions of the Book that are characterized by a powerful dualism of the saved and the damned and an injunction to proselytize (in the later Abrahamic faiths) (8), and traditions of transcendence that coexist with polytheistic, pantheistic, or panentheistic traditions through hierarchical modes of accommodation (9).

This book, then, sets out to address the “hybrid product of circulation” that represents the more transgressive and even challenging dimension of transcendence in contemporary Asia (9). Beginning with Gandhi’s challenge to the Leviathan of modernity and the Gandhian environmental movement in India, the forest monk movements in Thailand, and the Buddhist group Ciji in Taiwan, Duara presents a picture of Asian religious groups opposing to alleviate the devastation being perpetrated on the planet by the combined assault of capitalism and nationalism.

Duara traces this movement to the 1980s, when two types of environmental movements began to emerge across the world. One type was what may be called the postmaterialist or postindustrial movement of the affluent world, for instance, the American ideal of wilderness protection, lifestyle changes, and sacralization of the wilderness. The second type was among more marginal populations struggling to preserve their livelihood (40). Ecological issues, he finds, are associated with decentralized and democratic decision-making (41). Local religions mutated into forms sanctioning the conservation and protection of natural resources and recovered their transcendent role, not necessarily by evoking a universalist view, but by invoking a moral authority that is higher than the worldly powers and their ideal of progress (ibid.).

Religions, then, played a significant role in framing, empowering, and enhancing the solidarity of local environmental movements (42). At the same time, global connections—enabled by historical circumstances—allowed religious ideas from Asia to influence the West, and were then reinterpreted and brought back to Asia as a form of modernity. American transcendentalists Henry Thoreau and Emerson read Raja Rammohun’s translations of the Upanishads and the principal Vedas, and they were familiar with Roy’s exchange with British Unitarians (53); hence they developed the concepts of the self-cultivation of the powers of the mind and the consciousness of ultimate reality (54). Thoreau published Civil Disobedience, which influenced Tolstoy as well as the worldwide spirituality movement, including Gandhi, who adopted the phrase “civil disobedience” as the English term for this own project. This incident demonstrates what Duara refers to as the circulation of the history of ideas and practices.

As he puts it, “histories are not the exclusive property of a single community or entity since questions of sovereignty and identity are closely linked to history” (54). The historical profile of a community is crisscrossed and shaped—for better or worse—by interactions on numerous scales with circulatory networks and forces. Benedict Anderson has popularized Walter Benjamin’s conception of “empty, homogenous time” as the temporality of nations operating in a globally unified time-space (at least for nationalists and nation-makers). In this way, Anderson drew attention to alternative conceptions of temporality. Time is understood not only as a given, linear, abstractly measured and neutral passage filled by activity but also in terms of the ways in which it is constituted through different social practices and by human experience (55).

Here we move toward a crucial concept in this book: time. Paul Ricoeur regards time as it appears to humans, in particular, as apprehended through narratives. In this respect, structuralism contends that historical narratives can also be picked up, developed, or improvised in other spaces and time with real effects. They are thus a political resource by means of which different groups seek to specify which potentials and resources are to be realized by whom and toward what future (56–57). Therefore, as Duara points out, when a history is contested the narrative is often simultaneously altered or inflected. Historicity, conceived as narratives of power, is, among other things, a human mode of responding to this openness to time (59).

Duara next turns to cosmological and historical time in relation to the paradoxical development of time-space, which is relatively unbounded (61). Modern disenchantment and global space-time constitute new regimes of eternity and authenticity, and Duara refers to a painting by Paul Klee and Water Benjamin’s analysis of it to illustrate this point. In Angelus Novus, Klee portrays what Benjamin interpreted as an angel of history who looks backward while a storm is blowing from paradise—the storm that we call progress, as Benjamin famously wrote (68–70). Authenticity may be seen as this same angel telling us that we have salvaged something essential about us that will carry us through to our destiny at the end of history (68). However, this timeless essence produces identity politics, which provides the basis for historical unity and other claims for nationalism. The advent of nationalism as a world ideology from the late nineteenth century onward tended to identify sovereignty solely within the people and culture of the primordial nation. Sustaining such an immanent and internalist conception of sovereignty presupposes a misrecognition of the systemic or wider source and impetus of many national developments, and of the ideas, techniques, and practices of nation formation. Nations have been constituted by norms and practices deriving not only from the system of nation-states but also from a “world-culture” that has accompanied the system since the late nineteenth century (100). In “The Historical Logic of Global Modernity,” Duara proposes a critical dimension of globalization of the nation-state, namely, the relatively unacknowledged or unreflexively adoption of global norms through which nations have been effectively recognized in the system (101).

Duara goes on to elucidate the radical (dualism) and dialogical (plural, polytheistic, and pantheistic) notions of transcendence and the “traffic” between secularism and transcendence in Asia (Sinosphere Indosphere, Japan, Vietnam, and Korea), in contrast to the confessional communities and nation-states of Europe. He also shows how leading thinkers in Asia have sought to create an alternative cosmopolitan drawn from both Asian traditions and universalism to compete with Western, Christian ideologies of civilization and the self (chaps. 5–7).

Overall, this book recognizes transcendence not only as something greater that enables us to do what we do as humans, but also as an awareness that history is not simply the project of human activities but a coproduction with the natural world and with “eternal objects” beyond our understanding (154). Duara urges us to acknowledge these limits not by adopting irrational postures but by cultivating a renewed attitude of humility regarding the limits of human activity (155).

Admittedly, although Duara has done a great job covering the history of politics and religion and the complex religious exchanges in the vast land of Asia, the bulk of his work still focuses on large nations such as China and India. One wonders to what extent the Sinosphere or Indosphere can represent Asia, and to what extent Asia can represent the non-Western world with regard to the question of “global modernity.” However, as Duara calls for an openness to time and a reflexive attitude towards global challenges, readers are invited to ponder these questions during and even after their reading of this book.

About ting

from SHANGHAI to the WORLD

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