You Are What You Read, With Steven Ramey (Part 1)

A man standing on a ledge in a library looking for a book

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books — either academic or non-academic — that have been important or influential on us.

A book called Asia Before Europe1. Name a book you read early on that shaped the trajectory of your career.

My current interest in alternative ways of discussing identifications and labels builds on my early consideration of the tension between the complexity of practices in India and the language of religious studies that assumes clearly bounded religions and religious identification. The book in graduate school that first provided an alternative way to discuss this tension was not a book that directly addressed the issues that interested me. K. N. Chaudhuri’s book Asia Before Europe opened up the possibilities of reconfiguring the ways we talk about the world, as Chaudhuri shifts the paradigm by acknowledging the different choices that people make when they construct historical narratives, even when they do not acknowledge those choices. He writes, “The analysis shows that historical events, structures, or phenomena can be grouped into different classes of time which have different qualitative properties, different ‘frequencies’, and unequal power’.” While such a notion is not unique to Chaudhuri, reading this book that attempts to chart cultural histories in a more complicated fashion awakened me to the possibilities of developing alternative ways of discussing religions that acknowledge the constructive nature of discourse.

Chaudhuri’s application of set theory to the discussion of cultural history itself became an important early model for me. Georg Cantor developed set theory in mathematics and proceeded to reflect on the problems of conceptualizing infinities (e.g., can one infinity be bigger than another?). While the problem of infinities is not central to Chaudhuri, the conception that someone chooses how to construct each set is important. Even sets (like prime numbers) that appear to have a rational, logical basis often have somewhat arbitrary limits set on them (e.g., is 1 a prime number?).

Chaudhuri sees cultural units, whether broad continental units such as Asia, Africa, and Europe, or more specific units, as sets that the speaker constructs in ways that are ostensibly different from the ways another speaker constructs the same labels. He continues,

We can see that the term ‘Indian Ocean’ is nothing more than a name given to a set of principles which form not one but an infinity of sets, none of which is separable from its arguments. The problem is exactly the same as the one raised by Cantor in his continuum question: ‘how many points are there on a straight line in Euclidean space?’, for which we substitute, ‘how many interpretation are there of the Indian Ocean as a set of historical relationship?’

Thus set theory became my first heuristic device to discuss the competing understandings of what counted as Hinduism, Sikhism, or Islam in contemporary India and to make space for the various ways that individuals constructed their own set of practices that, in many instances, combined elements that others might put into separate sets. Much of my ongoing work individually and with Culture on the Edge focuses on the constructed nature of these labels and the alternative ways to discuss them that highlights their constructed nature.

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