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Namaste: a contrary reading in which, with advance apologies to lovers of yoga, thoughts are offered about Walter Benjamin, caste, untouchability, civilization, barbarism, and radical politics (all in the space of a brief blog)

The German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin famously observed, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Namaste, linked inextricably to the hands-pressed-together gesture that accompanies it, might be an excellent illustration of this thesis. Of course, to enter with me into an exploration of what I mean here you first have to consent to an expanded definition of “document,” where the term refers not just to something written, or even to a text in the way a film is a text, but rather to any unit in any system of signification or meaning-making. Thus, to arrange your body in a particular manner (as in placing your hands together in the gesture of namaste) is to produce a “text” full of meaning that must then be “read” by your interlocutor (the addressee of your greeting). It is in this way that I term namaste a “document.”

So much for a breezy review of cultural theory. The verbal text of namaste is generally translated as “I bow to you,” and in this sense, accompanied by the aforementioned pressed hands placed before the heart, is indeed a wonderful Indian greeting of humility, vulnerability, and open-ness to the other. But is that all it is? Let me play the provocateur here. Consider this. Europeans shake hands in greeting, Arabs embrace each other, Maori touch foreheads and let their breath mingle. And then we have Hindus, who namaste each other from a safe distance.

What’s going on here? How do we “read” this discrepancy? Is it possible there is an aversion to physical contact in namaste? To cut to the chase: can we separate this long-distance civility that Hindus engage in from the culture of untouchability that pervades India?

As is well known, untouchability, or rather strict rules about who may touch whom under what circumstances, is a fundamental feature of caste. It is associated with notions of impurity and is one of the most obnoxious features of caste prejudice. Is it not perfectly reasonable, then, to speculate that namaste is exactly the kind of greeting that a culture of untouchability would produce? Is it not probable that the civilized document of namaste hides within itself the barbaric code of caste prejudice?

Civilization and barbarism—scratch the surface of one and find the dark depths of the other. How tragically fitting that a man who died fleeing the horrors of Nazism should have (perhaps much too presciently) provided us with such potent insight into the relationship between the two.

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” wrote Benjamin. What barbarism do you find in your cherished documents of civilization? Confronting that question might be the first step in a radical politics.

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Fred Ho, Bandung, and the Idea of Afro-Asia (the Time for Remembering is Now)

I did not know Fred Ho well, but I knew him enough to mourn his passing. Fred, like the clothes he often wore, was bold and unforgettable in life and I have no doubt he will remain so in death through his music and his writings. The handful of times I heard him on his saxophone I was blown away by his virtuosity, though certainly a technical appreciation of his music is best left to those better qualified. What I know to value more deliberately is Fred’s politics, an exhilarating mix of this, that and the other radicalism—matriarchy meets ecosocialism meets Black Power meets Asian Pride. Did these diverse subversive strains of thought coexist in Fred’s thinking in coherent harmony? At one level, that is the wrong question. What matters is Fred’s impetus in bringing these ways of being in the world together.

To understand this impetus you might have to go back to an idea of Afro-Asian solidarity traceable to Bandung. Bandung is a town in Indonesia where leaders of countries from across what we would now call the postcolonial world or the Global South gathered in 1952. The meeting was a ringing declaration of decolonizing intent. Leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Zhao Enlai of China, Sukarno of Indonesia and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt met to carve out a geopolitical space free of the influence of the great colonial powers. No matter the actual achievements of the non-aligned movement that followed (or for that matter these leaders), Bandung represents a pivotal moment in the cultural history of radicalism. Recognizing its importance, Richard Wright, the great African American novelist, traveled from his exile in Paris to Bandung as an observer, entitling his subsequent report The Color Curtain in order to draw a parallel with the Iron Curtain separating the capitalist First World and the socialist Second World. He went on to famously describe Bandung as a “meeting of the rejected [that] was in itself a kind of judgment upon the Western world!”

Bandung echoed through the Sixties and the Seventies, exerting enormous cultural influence by offering a global vision for the wretched of the earth. This is the vision Fred too claimed, upheld in his inimitable way, and worked to grow into a movement (go here for an upcoming Fred Ho event: https://www.facebook.com/events/677215905667784/). I fear its passing in our solipsistic times. The time for remembering and preserving is now.