Destinies of difference
Destinies of difference
Looking at raw real
If we gathered together human beings and undressed them completely, one would realize some would have a rather long-limbed look to them, while others would be of a rounder type. Between their legs, of course, one would find obviously very different things.
If one were to maintain these humans in such nakedness in a great cold, sufficiently undisturbed for a long period of time, one would easily realize that the movement which usually characterizes these human beings is gradually replaced by an irreversible immobility.
Such is at the bottom the raw “real,” or the brutal real that our ancestors had to face. To understand their circumstances, they did not have substantial concepts as the Bible claims, such as those in which Adam is introduced to us as he names the beings found within nature that surround him. The human mind is unable to comprehend reality by naming it as if it consisted of various entities. It must initially understand it through differences which our senses enable us to locate: hot and cold, obvious and hidden, day and night, etc.
Our ancestors thus created something which has continued to flower: The notion of difference, which has the most important property of holding one’s attention and especially of leaving memory traces.
In the bases of mind
In the situation that we have just described, the differences are: the difference between man and woman, the difference between life and death, and the difference between that which is obvious and that which is hidden. To make these differences easier to handle, oppositional signifiers was invented, i.e. the concept of negation. Oppositional signifiers are characterized by this negation. If we have an opposition between X and Y, it will be stated as “X is not equal to Y,” or “Y is not equal to X,” which is the same thing. This is what it comes down to for the three negations with which we are concerned, namely: “man is equal to not-woman,” “life is equal to not-death,” and “obvious is equal to not-hidden.”
With the help of this subterfuge X and not X, people will partially succeed in understanding the relatively complex real of their existence. This powerful system, however, has a disadvantage in that the oppositions will tend to disappear. With time, X will have a tendency to merge back again with Y. It is a quite a problem because to find this opposition again, perhaps one will have to re-experience the situation of origin as it was, which will be no guaranty in itself.
With the passing of centuries, however, we ended up finding a solution which is as follows. We invented a term “Z” whose interest, so to speak, is maintaining the difference between X and Y. But of what does this interest consist? It consists in Z contributing toward creating and maintaining the difference between X and Y by deducting for himself the whole or part of that difference.
The master makes the difference
The story of the Master and the slave, as brought to us by Hegel, precisely describes how the confrontation for prestige speaks to something impossible because it implies equality. The two protagonists fight until one of them, because of fear of death, ends up yielding and recognizing the other as his or her Master. The impossible equality of the fight for prestige leads to the difference between master and slave. This stable and manifest difference in reality only incarnates or represents a more subtle and ephemeral difference. One that is briefly and acutely felt by the future slave: the difference between life and death.
The future slave, by being afraid of dying, becomes suddenly aware of the difference between life and death, but must have someone to help him keep this difference alive. This someone is found very well in the person of the Master, who will be all the more interested in maintaining this difference, if only because it will fall entirely into his purse. The difference between life and death here is, as we saw it earlier, movement itself. The Master will profit from all the movements of the slave, i.e. from his work.
Yahweh, like Hegel’s master, asks Abraham to sacrifice his two sons. The myth is interpretable as a sacrifice of this premise: It emphasizes the difference between the fact of having and keeping for oneself a child and the fact of losing that child, as if we had never had it. This difference accentuates the fact of reproduction. Having acutely felt the danger of losing his child, Abraham is going to submit to Yahweh. He will keep this threat indefinitely in his memory. Abraham will thus become the slave of Yahweh and will indefinitely give Him the fruit of his procreation.
The humiliation of the limit
Remarkably, death in this myth, as well as in Hegel’s, is absent as a visible or audible fact. Death seems to be a real fact (in the Lacanian sense), that is to say, an impossible fact, i.e., a kind of limit that can never be reached. And if by misfortune, fate leads us to it, we must as quickly as possible divert ourselves away from it by veiling it in a shroud of modesty. Life is as impossible as death, and equally as absent. And when life happens to appear in the guise of a child, for example, it is necessary to bind it, threaten it, control it; in summary, to moderate its insolence. Life and death must remain narrowly overlapping without ever appearing separately from one another.
The patriarch master of desire
But now what happens to the difference between the sexes? How will the human mind come to grasp this difference at its most primitive stages? On this subject Freud offered us a myth, that of the primitive horde. Within the community structure the father of the horde, according to Freud, has all the women and consequently deprives all of his sons of jouissance. This is, let’s say it, a radical and very Western way of making sense of the difference between man and woman, in all probability under the threat of death.
There could be a « softer” version of this myth, one that is more Eastern, which would be as follows: The father of the horde does not take all the women, but only threatens to take them by matching his threat to a danger of death. The sons of the horde, by fear of death, are submitted to the father and are committed to giving him the fruits of their jouissance of the woman, a woman who no longer belongs to them. By submitting themselves and by being deprived of property, and by not having the fruitful use of all the women, the sons constantly feel the existing difference between man and woman.
Once the sons are submitted to the father of the horde, the latter will enjoy the fruits of their procreative labor, i.e. their children.
Certainly, the women are possessed by the father. But this does not at all prevent the sons from sleeping with these women. Simply, when they do it, it is in the name of, and for, this father. The brothers screw, in the name of the father, all of the women who belong to this same father. As such, he will be able to take as many children as he wants for waging war or for sacrificing them to his God.
The jouissance of the sons will be perceived by the father of the horde (or the father of the community) like a kind of wage for his worry or trouble taken with actively maintaining the sexual difference.
The sexual difference must be absolutely maintained so that desire is maintained. At the time of the consummation of the sex act, this difference temporarily disappears in the fusion of the sexes but reappears thereafter. It cannot, on the other hand, be radicalized to become an essential difference. From an Eastern perspective, the two sexes do not have different essences. It will then be increasingly necessary to exert social and cultural pressure in order to distinguish the two sexes from their fundamental similarity.
A necessary mixture
Thus, on the level of the sexual organs, the vulva and the phallus do not have the right to become substantial entities. It is undoubtedly for this reason that their differences are minimized and that they are subjected to rituals of submission. Circumcision, the loss of virginity, and excision are rituals that aim at decreasing the claims of autonomy by both sexes. The relative character of gender differences is imperative. In mathematical language, this could be described as an open group not containing its two limits, the feminine sex and the phallus. Between these two extremes, continuity is necessary. The sexual difference becomes a question of proportioning the feminine and masculine.
What Freud calls the phallic phase would have been called, in the Eastern version, the vagino-phallic phase, i.e. the phase where only the sexual difference prevails. This phase is only phallic in its appearance. Actually this phase is bisexual, corresponding very well to Freud’s basic hypothesis. The fact that the vagina, as well as the phallus, is subjected to specific rituals of submission appears to be a decisive argument in favor of this idea. Both vagina and phallus hold the same title in that they are both constitutive to their blending.
Only social constraints become a means of proportioning this blending; man will veil his femininity with macho airs, which he will be able to show off with a certain benevolence, while woman will make use of the veil for hiding that which of the feminine is too masculine, in particular hairiness, or just the hair, these natural outgrowths which simulate almost too well the flexibility of the male genital organ. If women must hide and shave their hair, especially the night of their weddings, men must, on the other hand, let their sideburns and beards grow, as well as literally let ropes dangle and hang, expressing thusly quite a bit about their sexual organs.
To blend the seeing
And this brings us to a third difference, namely a difference between that which is apparent and that which is hidden. Here too, a careful proportioning must remain and the attractiveness of a woman will be measured by her skill in veiling that which she wishes to show. Similar to the difference between life and death as well as the sexual difference, the proportion of apparent and of hidden excludes its own limits, these being that which is completely hidden and that which is completely apparent, i.e. the pornographic
On this topic, in the East one can observe a very remarkable phenomenon, a kind of shift between two paradigms. For a very long historical period, a blending of the hidden and the apparent prevailed. Historically, women wore clothing which, while veiling them, exposed their curves making them all the more attractive as can be eloquently seen with the famous « melaya laf » of Egyptian women, which is used with remarkable skill to reveal one’s charms.
This naive period, if I my say, is now long gone. Since the Eighties, the way to relate to the veil, consequent to fundamentalism, is much more severe. The veil must now erase feminine curves by replacing them with austere straight lines. The blending of that which is veiled and that which is apparent is replaced by a radical distinction between what might be termed a perfect veil (completely hiding all curves or hints of curves), which ceaselessly confronts an irreducible pornographic; a pornographic that is persistent and insistent despite the accumulation of veils.
In the East, one approaches religions as one approaches sexuality. Communities coexist with one another and share the festivals of their religious calendars. Each one partakes in the other’s festivals without a second thought. The ethnic purifications of Nation States have occurred with many difficulties. Decades of colonial violence, of provocations, of resulting anger, of being pushed to the extreme by ceaseless humiliations have been required to lead these communities to fall into the breakdown of signifiers through which life and death, the hidden and the apparent, and these very communities have come to be torn from one another.
In this cultural universe, one will readily cultivate the art of the difference from one self to another. To the famous “A is equal to A” which founds Western science, one will prefer “A is not equal A.” In common language, protections against the danger of self-identity will be introduced. The most beautiful example can be seen in the 99 names given to God which, if adequately inserted into a discourse, will always allow the framing, and limiting, of any possible boastfulness. Thusly, it will be easier to say that God is « larger » and « wiser » rather than the « largest » or the « wisest ». Even though it is restrictive, one cannot wish that even God Himself be the limit.
In this way, if god is wiser or larger, there is really no chance for me to cross this limit inadvertently. This is very much like some infinity of small circumcisions framing my identity, albeit a non identical identity.
One can find comparable processes in all aspects of daily life, including in the network of signifiers specifying one’s self-presentation. This is characterized by a kind of phobia of completeness or perfection of such a self-presentation. One will often justify this phobia by claiming a fear of the evil eye, but truly this is a fear of reaching perfection and therefore one’s identity with oneself (identical identity or self-referential identity).
Letters and pictures
The fear of human representation by images is of the same order. What characterizes this dread is the imaginary completeness which brings one dangerously closer to one’s identity with oneself, i.e., one’s identical identity. The letter is then a good means of thwarting this completeness. The letter and the image can be combined together, both blending and being opposed to one another. In hieroglyphic murals as well as on Byzantine icons, Letter and Image constitute a couple of signifiers, which will come to be superimposed on the couple of signifiers hidden/revealed. Thus, we can say that both the Letter and the Image also have real limits which are not to be transgressed. On one side there is the non-cursive and soulless writing and on the other, the pure image without sign.
One finds the same fear of self-identity to oneself at the sexual level. In the East the sexual form probably most prohibited is certainly masturbation because it indeed represents the utmost self relationship to oneself. It is then preferable to enjoy others’ company and to not show significant preference for being alone.
It is also equally not recommended to have a particular sexual orientation to the exclusion of another orientation; it is even less recommended to assert this orientation as the spring of one’s identity. One will be able, on the other hand, to be indifferently homosexual and heterosexual or to hold any other sexual orientation and to publicly express such tendencies provided that they are not mutually exclusive. Couples of the same gender, as well as those of different genders, will be thus seen holding hands or arms or else embracing each other in moments of emotion, but one will never see more sexually explicit affective demonstrations in either same or different gender couples. Such erotic exchanges, by the way, will not be recognized as being of a sexual nature, although they are legitimized by the intimate frames of the community and familial dimension.
One will be able to observe a very intense intergenerational eroticism within families or communities but pedophilia and incest will be severely prohibited. All forms of “softcore” eroticism will be covered up with the legitimizing veil of family bonds or else community solidarity, whereas the hardcore forms will simply remain quite unthinkable.
Homosexuality allows for a caricaturish representation of the difference between the two worlds. In the East, “softcore” forms of homosexuality are tolerated, and even recommended; while claimed and asserted homosexuality, as such, is prohibited. In the West it is, word for word, the other way around. Despite this, even though being gay is completely conceivable, for a man to hold another man’s hand publicly is completely aberrant.
We have just explored the basement, so to speak, of the human psyche. The notion of difference is absolutely universal, as it can be found in all human communities, from the most primitive to the most advanced. The ways of expressing and dealing with this difference, however, vary from one people to another and from one geographical region to another.
We will now address another aspect of these issues, and move from genotype to phenotype. We are now going to explore how the East manages this difference and look at what Easterners do when, through migrating, they encounter the very particular Western way of dealing with these differences.
So, let us start with the easiest, namely the West, which is easier to understand, if only because the West speaks openly about itself. The foundation of Western civilization, this is no secret and is even a reason of pride, is the principle of equality. Rich or poor, all are equal in the eyes of the Law. Similarly, men and women must be equal from every possible perspective. People who have an appointment must arrive on time and, preferably at the same time, in order to not have the other person wait. Couples must reach orgasm at the same time and everybody goes “Dutch” when it is time to pay for a meal. Homosexual individuals must have a marriage of equal value to that of heterosexuals. Merchants post the same price for all their customers and have determined the price for their goods before hand, a price which will not be subject to change. Children of the same family should not be jealous of one another since they are all treated the same and even in school such jealousy should not occur since pupils are not given grades that would risk providing an opportunity to distinguish them from one another.
Goods sold in stores have to be identical to the hundredth of an inch. Even singular objects, or beings, are held to be constant over time. An individual or a company providing a given service cannot allow for quality variations. Human beings have to be equal to themselves both at work and within their family life. Spaces cannot fulfill multiple functions. Each surface is intended exclusively for a single function, unless of course the opposite is specified in which case, one will have to explain such functions in excluding others. Spaces are defined as functional and standardized. We can summarily say that every being must be equal to itself and, all in all, “A is equal to A.”
In short, if this equality, “A is equal to A,” were a god, the West would be monotheist. This equality is drilled into our heads, as deeply as our reptilian brain. Either by some verbose or else demanded equality, every aspect of our lives must go through the filter of an obsessive equality, unceasingly trying to denounce that which could escape its grasp.
In opposition to this overly present and impossible to miss equality, the East, since the dawn of time, has had a passion for distinction and difference. Men and women, in the context of their relationships, must exhibit their differences so as to eliminate any doubts that could apply. To differentiate one self (from this other) or to entertain appropriate relationships (i.e. differentiated) is the best way to feel secure and to value oneself socially. It is absolutely impossible for individuals who have an appointment, for instance, to arrive on time. The demand of an appointment will lead the individual to much internal negotiation in anticipation of who will be there first or who will make the other or others wait. Very little information is available regarding sexuality but it is possible to claim that the satisfaction of the male organs wins over the concern of simultaneous pleasures. Similarly, sharing the bill after a meal in a restaurant is completely unthinkable. Someone must pay for everyone present, thus expressing the difference from those who will not pay.
The Sheep festival among Muslims, Passover among Jews, and Easter among Christians, as well as any kind of premised sacrifices, are also signs of the difference between the offspring or the harvest anticipated and that which will have been sacrificed to God and therefore continuously missing. Neither harvest nor offspring can be equal to themselves. The formula “A is not equal to A,” applies particularly well here.
To arrive on time for an appointment implies that one remains true to one’s wish. This is unthinkable. To produce a perfect work implies that it will have to remain so, without changes, which is also unthinkable. To make to a pictorial representation of somebody is to fixate this permanently. All these are considered aberrant in the East. One cannot be identical with oneself.
If two events following one another seem to resemble each other, it is a completely fortuitous and even misleading occurrence. Because one of those who was present at the origin of the event cannot be sure at all, up to the last minute, of the capacity of their desire to reproduce and therefore to produce such an event. The event is sui generis, always singular and purely fortuitous, not supporting any comparison with another event, either preceding or following it. Even chronologically, two successive events cannot be identical. Infinitely repetitive rituals will, in fact, be celebrated. For instance, the five daily prayers of Islam will not lead to the boredom characteristic of repetition. Each reiteration of the rite is sui generis and will not exhaust its meaningfulness despite its repeated external form. Always repetitive, the ritual is different each and every time.
I could quote examples ad infinitum. Each minute in the Easterners’ daily life is determined by the need to produce some difference. This does not mean that they are aware of this. Indeed, this is a deep, unconscious, atavistic phenomenon. In the few instances when I did mention this in my encounters with such individuals, they felt ridiculed, even insulted. Not so much because I exposed one their best kept secrets, but rather because revealing it would likely make it inoperative. This propensity to differentiation might no longer function if it had to operate under the gaze of an observer. Fixated by the other’s gaze, it would be condemned to repeat itself, identical to itself, and would probably lose the essential freedom to be, each and every time, both the same and different. The West, on the other hand, does not have any difficulty with such issues. It can claim its love for equality; it can shout it high and low without risking compromising it. In being openly asserted, equality comes out only stronger.
Given this framework, what effect would it have on immigrants of Eastern origin? As we have seen above, these immigrants come from a cultural atmosphere in which it is of the utmost importance to create and to maintain differences. These differences constitute, for them, the very structure of their civilization, one of its fundamental conquests.
This means that the absence of these differences, or the absence of their possible elaboration, would have devastating consequences. It would be as if suddenly all the cultural acquisitions of their civilization came to be lost. A human being can be reduced to the status of animal, the free man to that of the slave. The differences between man and woman would disappear and with it the very possibility of desiring and reproducing. Unable to negotiate the value of merchandise (a value variation), trade would also disappear. It is in this order of magnitude, in the dimension of a catastrophe, that Eastern individuals come to experience the disappearance of differences.
In his country of origin, the immigrant could already feel how closed in, how sclerotic his life was, and how ready he was to sacrifice everything in order to preserve the right and the capacity to build differences. One could say that for the Eastern immigrant, of all non western immigrants, maintaining differences matters most.
Unfortunately in the West, the immigrant meets a quite unfamiliar phenomenon, namely the Western obsession with equality. In this encounter, he immediately locates the danger equality represents to his own concerns in maintaining differences. The West’s preoccupation is certainly antithetic, since it mostly purports the elimination of differences. At this point the immigrant will become torn between the feeling that he is simply dealing with barbarians ready to destroy all forms of civilization and a feeling of admiration in the face of the incredible achievements of such a “barbaric” western civilization.
Whereas originally, prior to leaving his country, the West represented the very source of uncertainty and “newness” and as such offered itself as a paternal figure, once the immigrant arrived at his destination, he discovers a universe that could have both a powerful as well as a devastating impact upon him; namely, it could be as dangerous as a maternal figure is without a paternal alternative. The immigrant left home in the hope of meeting a father but in his stead finds, upon arrival, a phallic mother.
He will feel intellectually powerless when confronted with a triumphing West tirelessly clamoring its virtuous egalitarianism. He will constantly fall short in his arguments if only because those at his disposal are religious arguments and therefore obsolete or useless in the West.
Thus he will be introduced to his trauma. He will find himself confronted with a power which is overwhelming and admirable; requiring from him an abolishment of differences, which for him corresponds to death. Confronted with this power, he feels he has absolutely no recourse other than feeling that his chances are as good as anybody else. This is an argument which of course he cannot accept. He ends up feeling completely tied down while confronted with a phallic mother dedicated to his death.
Faced with this trauma which radically abolishes differences, the Eastern immigrant will be very tempted to convert to a new and quite modern religion called Fundamentalism. Whatever his religion of origin, he will find a fit. For every religion one will find a fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism has a significant advantage on all other religions, hence its seducing power. This advantage lies in the fact that it establishes a mythology in which major signifiers are completely distinct. I will not go into details for all signifiers and will only address the most, if I may say significant couple of signifiers, namely life and death.
In Abrahamic religions, Abraham must become very threatening and raise the knife against his son so that the latter will truly feel the difference between life and death. This sacrifice must be repeated tirelessly by all believers each year so that each and every one of them remains sensitive to this difference.
In Islamic fundamentalism, the human sacrifice of Chahid (a martyr) establishes a radical difference between life and death. The martyr is dead, but at the same time, alive in paradise. The difference between life and death is now obvious and can no longer be disputed. Signifiers that were formerly differential are, from now on, substantive. Each signifier exists as itself and is independent from the other. A complex ritualistic system of differentiation is no longer needed.
Islamic fundamentalism preserves one from fear of death, a death which would be consequent to a lack of differences. It accomplishes this by establishing life and death as two things radically distinguished from one another. Therein, the immigrant, who is witnessing a disappearance of his cultural points of reference, can find stability and constancy, things to which he cannot fail being sensitive.
Traditional monotheistic religions are comparable – for those who are familiar with the physics of electricity – with electrostatic charges. One struggles to separate the positive charges from the negative charges but, if the force field distinguishing them disappears, each charge finds the other, the positive finds the negative, and they fall back into neutrality. On the other hand, Islamic Fundamentalism can be compared to an electric circuit with a key difference of potentials. Even if the negative charges join together with the positive charges, the potential difference remains unchanged.
What applies to the emigrant could apply equally as well to the East itself. Changes undergone by the emigrant also apply to large groups of Easterners in the East. The East is changing under the pressure of a global media. The success of Islamic fundamentalism results from these major cultural changes, which essentially incarnate the breakdown of a dialectical relationship between the signifiers of life and death. The sacrifice of the kamikaze brings up this point often. From now on, death will be on one side while eternal life will be on the other. The co-existence within a living being of both life and the danger of death becomes almost incongruous. A constant pressure seems to be exerted leading towards a tearing of this co-existence.
Are these mutations irreversible? It is difficult to say. Some changes of this type have been definitively established with dire consequences as a result. Others, however, have disappeared and have been thusly much more discrete. This must, undoubtedly, vary with the advantages these changes can provide (or not) to a civilization that is being transformed.
Two logics seem to be from now on in opposition within the East, namely a religious tradition and a fundamentalist reformation. These two logics reflect or transmit the kind of disagreement, not to say conflict that we can observe between the East and the West.
Throughout this text, I have certainly exaggerated the differences found between the two worlds of East and West for the sake of clarity. We must say, however, that all these differences can be reduced to only one difference, namely the difference of dealing with our ways of addressing signifying oppositions. Therefore, we can say that there is no essential difference between East and West. One can find mixings of signifiers in the west as one can find breakdown of signifiers in the East.
The complexity of the situation must be returned to a discursive field in order to exit from those cleavages in which excess and violence echo our incomprehension of these phenomena. It is absolutely necessary that everyone (both Westerners as well as Easterners) manages to put words, explains and understands, justifies and recognizes a universe in which it is imperative to constantly create differences in order to prevent their disappearance. This universe is continuously assaulted and discredited by an arrogant Western world, as well as by an Eastern world disavowing itself. Although it is as invaluable as life itself, this universe has not developed defensive weapons and seems to be slowly sinking. Perhaps can we say that the only weapon which may save it without crushing it is that of the word.
This is about establishing a discourse that is able to speak the East, a philosophical discourse able to address the West, while detailing with pride all of its cultural particulars. This discourse ought to emphasize that the East does not depend upon a particular religion or even upon several. For the East can mindfully transcend all religions and put itself into words. Then will a basis for a true dialogue with the West be established. A burden that will fall upon those in the East is that of embracing the labor in coming to an understanding of what they say and what they are.