a new context for the communal production, appropriation and distribution of critical knowledge

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

1, 2, 3...40 and tada!

Is it possible to appropriate “folk wisdom” for high theory? Let’s take a look at an example of folk wisdom as encapsulated in a Turkish proverb: “If you say something 40 times over, it will come about the 41st time” or its more commonly used shortened version “If you say something 40 times over, it will come about”. I could never quite put my finger on it but this saying has always intrigued me. Obviously, there are figures involved, which is always interesting. But the real intrigue of it is that even though at first hearing it sounds very superstitious/religious, at a closer look you can tell it is not necessarily so. It is not praying that you do 40 times over (that would be too truistic even for a proverb); you “say”, “speak”, “utter” something. OK, this might be a more secular interpretation but it doesn’t make much sense, either…Saying something over and over again to bring it about…Sheer discursive repetition inducing a material effect…Hmmm….I think we have a name for that in our circles: performativity.

Seen in this light, the saying in question begins to sound more like Pascal’s motto “even if you don't believe, kneel down and pray, act as if you believe, and the belief will come by itself”, another religious sounding saying which need not be so. The reason why both examples are typically treated as metaphysical injunctions has, in my opinion, less to do with their religious overtones (or contexts as in the latter case) than the denial, obliteration of the materiality of language/discourse. That is, absent an understanding of language/discourse as a sui generis formative force in our universe, it is possible to make sense of these kinds of maxims only in a non-materialist, metaphysical way. With the recognition of the materiality of language, however, comes also the possibility of appropriating such wisdom for materialism. In hindsight, maybe the opening question needs to be rephrased to better capture the purpose of this thought exercise. Is it possible to appropriate ostensibly metaphysical folk wisdom for materialist theory (high or not)? Apparently, it is : )

This is just one example. I’m sure there are many others out there. For example, “evil eye”. Again, on the surface, this is yet another arcane belief in the ability of supernatural powers to bring about something, misfortune in this particular case. Equipped, however, with the conceptual tools of psychoanalysis (e.g. gaze, big Other, etc), it is possible, I believe, to cast evil eye (yes, pun intended) in a materialist light. Anybody want to venture a try?


Blogger maliha said...

I have always connected the 'evil eye' to performativity as well. Evil eye is different than the other two proverbs though because of the involvement of a second party- in ‘kneel down and pray’ and ‘If you say something 40 times over, it will come about the 41st time,’ there is one person who is engaging in a discursive practice- the utterer. In ‘nazhar’ or ‘evil eye’ – it is usually a second party, a stranger, of whom we are most fearful. It is in fact the gaze of that second party that we are afraid of, that gaze capable of turning into shit that which is precious or beautiful. If you examine the old Asian practice of proclaiming to the ‘world’ loudly that one has an ugly baby girl, to ward off the nazhar of the Other who may be jealous of a healthy baby boy, we can see this most clearly.

But the most important player in nazhar is the person who is afraid of it (even if that person attributes all agency to a jealous stranger); it is that person who is capable of performativity. For example, someone and I were about to eat lunch at a sidewalk café. He did not want to eat outside, for fear of the ‘nazhar’ of hungry people; performativity in this case, would be having a stomach-ache, literally self-producing it, and attributing it to the nebulous gaze of a jealous Other.

The other interesting thing I have noted about nazhar (I’ll admit to belief), is that we require the observance of those surrounding us as well. I am uneasy when someone doesn’t say ‘thoba thoba’ when he should, and it doesn’t help if I say it, he needs to utter it as well.

In that sense, evil eye is very close to belief. Isn’t it a case of ‘I know well, but all the same I believe…’? I know well that God/gods will not strike down in jealousy at my baby, but all the same…I am afraid you wanted a materialist explanation, though.


8:00 PM


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