Reflections on Formative Influence
word. Have y'all ever heard of Baba Rampuri? He is an interesting cat. He traveled to India in 1969 and never came back, instead joined up with a group of ascetics called the Naga Babas, whose ancient order has since inducted him as their first international member. He has written a book about it, and maintains a pretty active online correspondence via his website, facebook, twitter, etc.
The name of Rampuri's order of Naga Babas (literally 'naked yogis', for their ceremonial habit of dressing only in the ash from their ritual fires) is Juna Akhara, which, judging by Rampuri's accounts, appears to represent a very ancient, very influential, orally-based, traditional esoteric (philosophical) lineage, whose hidden influence might account for some of the strange, seemingly random continuities (structural, analogical) that seem to underly the superficial transit of philosophical and cultural fashions that dominates written history.
So I looked at Baba Rampuri's website , and found some very interesting things there. The latest post on his blog discusses the yoga sutras. I've been practicing a traditional form of Ashtanga Yoga for about 10 years now, and I'm only now really beginning to dig into this traditional text (the foundational text for all schools of yoga), so I was very interested to get Rampuri's take on it. I was not disappointed. He begins by focusing on the fact that were composed by an extremely brilliant and influential Sanskrit grammarian (Patanjali; ca. 2nd C. B.C.E.). Because of the intricacy and subtlety of the Sanskrit language (its phonemic structure is believed to be sacred, meaning it is thought to model what we could call, following Goethe, urphenomenal patterns pervading all natural systems and structures), this means that each sutra (a sutra -literally 'thread'- is like a short poem) supports a plurality of meanings accompanying each syllable (intentionally!). Rampuri explains that the composition of this text was no mere act of storytelling, but rather an act of encryption:
- "...he was not a philosopher, his compositions were not expository, he wasn’t writing non-fiction, he was writing CODE." 
Rampuri compare the sutra form to that of a "zip file", making the point that sutras are generally incomprehensible without the proper 'software' (oral-traditional interpretive apparata) to "unzip" them. Rampuri is warning contemporary readers of this ancient text against the conceit of a facile approach. These notions (encryption & compression) indicate that each compositional element in the text -not only each sutra, but also each syllable, as well as each pada, or book (of which there are four)- is governed by a methodological elegance that supercedes particular interpretive 'expansions', in favor of a comprehensive inclusion of multi-interpretive 'layers'.
I was excited to find these ideas in Rampuri's writing, because they carry strong resonance for me, and permeate some of my favorite areas of scholarship in the philosophy of language; not just (although perhaps especially) in its so-called 'postmodern' manifestations, but also in its roots in the foundations of mathematics and the sciences. Not to mention the rather influential contemporary areas of computational theory, complexity theories, network theory, etc...
Here's a quote from a comment that Rampuri appended to this same post:
- "Indian culture has known for many millenia that knowledge corresponds to arrangement of phonemes, what they call the "indestructibles," or syllables, "akshars." And the sum of all knowledge corresponds with all the possible combinations of these indestructibles. These combinations are not random, however, but reflect and resemble other natural matrices, such as the night sky, the topography of the Earth, the kingdom of plants, and the human body. But the syllables are not (just) sounds - they are articulations, which is different. These matrices resemble each other in very specific ways. The Law of Speech behaves the same whether in the human throat or in the sky or even among plants. But the human articulation of Speech is convenient, meaning it's close. In fact so close that it's too close, and as our attention is drawn into the world for knowledge, we fail to understand that the greatest access is inside your own mouth!!
Elsewhere on his blog , evidently in response to a comment on his facebook page (!), Rampuri describes numbers as reflections of her [Maya's] manifestation, not with specific meanings, but as reflections of many different things that bear RESEMBLANCE to each other." He goes on to say that:
- "we are observing and witnessing, and we notice RESEMBLANCE in the world. The more we observe resemblance, the more we see that it is Speech. A sacred Speech. Not just us in India, anywhere one can see the sky. It’s a speech that may require interpretation, but has no connection with fickle ideologies of man. Ideology, in fact, stands in the way of observation, it replaces observation. In effect ideology says: 'Don’t believe what you see, believe what we tell you. Think about this with linear reasoning.' So we incorporate this “speech” in our Theater of Analogy, in our cloning of the world on our little stage, what the world categorizes as Ritual."
This notion of resemblance as sacred speech is a potent one. Also interesting is Rampuri's identification of ideology with "linear reasoning". Researching the history of science -its explosive 'origins' in the Mediterranean Renaissance and its development via the insightful work of its sages, its lineage-holders, mystics and seers like Spinoza, Descartes, Leibniz, and Newton, not to mention Cantor, Riemann, Einstein, Bohr, Pauli, Schrodinger, Bohm, etc. etc. etc...- led me to identify this animating principle there as well. From the 'book of nature' metaphors employed by Galileo and Newton (although the difference between the written and the spoken is a fundamental one for Rampuri!), to the notion of an 'ineffability' that seems to integrate many of the 20th C.'s great discoveries: randomness, undecidability, incompleteness, uncertainty, complementarity, etc... Much more could be said about this problem, but "however the topic is considered", Derrida put it in Of Grammatology, "the problem of language has never been simply one problem among others..." (p.6) 
So perhaps despite its early and continued reliance on alchemical models that bear such uncanny resemblance to the ideas that Rampuri expresses about grammatical metastructures, science is quintessentially a culture of the book. Justifications for this view could include:
a) the calculus in which it built its models grew out of geometrical techniques (algebraic modifications were gradually alloyed in), and required the construction of figures (arithmetic is still sometimes called 'figuring');
b) the experimentally-produced data needed to be kept somewhere so that it could be referred back to in the event that the 'laws' of its mathematical figuration demonstrated their incorrectness (by failing to furnish accurate predictions), in which case the 'old' data would have to be reorganized to produce a new law that also accounted for the otherwise-anomalous 'new' data;
c) printing (as opposed to the hand-copying techniques of the monastic scribes) allowed for the rigorous representation (exact resemblance) of the schematic documents and blueprints used in engineering and architecture; the same principle (an immense reduction of noise) would have benefitted every subject in which the scribal copyists would not have been experts; i.e. anything but the church doctrines.
This shift of the locus of production from the scriptorium to the printing press is often overlooked as a crucial transition, but it bears recalling (particularly in the context of today's complex mixture of these technologies from different archaeological 'depths' as it were) that the scientific revolution that accompanied the advent of the book emerged into the great medieval empires associated with the monotheistic religious orders, which were themselves evidence of an uneasy alliance between speech and scripture. Money was a technology of the letter, avant la lettre, before the 'culture of the book' properly imputed to it its most abstract formulation as what we have come to call capital. The first (written, artifactually-evidenced) uses of numerical figuration are therefore suspected to be economic (tabulation, accounting), and/or legislative (as in Michel Serres' account of the Babylonian surveyors in The Natural Contract). Science changed the game by taking what was an epiphenomenon ('figuring' as an administrative appendage) and making of it the central mechanism in a system of empirically-established, democratically-guaranteed 'truths'.
Today we seem to be witnessing an evolutionary transition in which the culture of the book is being recontextualized by an emerging culture of the screen, what McLuhan called 'the electric media'. The process is reminiscent of the way in which the culture of the book, at its inauguration, subsumed and recontextualized the culture(s) of speech; the traditional cultures among whom the Naga Babas may be some of the most powerful and coherent remaining representatives. It's easy to denigrate the culture of the book in the hopeful (and fearful) atmosphere of its immanent supercession and on the grounds of its historical excesses. Contemporary critiques of scientism, mechanism, hierarchism, egoism, and etc. have been hundreds of years in the making. These 'negative' aspects of the culture of the book, deriving from its tendencies to overemphasize ideological 'certainties', and to ignore or 'bracket out' experiences that don't fit these ideal models by defining them as 'externalities' and 'noise' (Robbie, in Educational Emergence, refers to the age of enclosure) has been amplified beyond critical levels with the advent of instantaneous (electric) communications, massive industrial parallelism, and etc., such that in the past century, we've seen the unethical colonial enterprises of a few proto-industrial European empires metastasize into a global catastrophe at geological scales (unprecedentedly massive rates of extinction and consequent loss of biodiversity due to habitat loss, pollution, ethnocidal warfare, etc.).
These were the original observations that led me, as a youth, to the study the sciences and their limits, in the hopes that these phenomena might yield solutions to problems of their own inadvertent making. On closer examination, the most promising leads in this area (both negatively, as correctives of the worst excesses, and positively, as promising the most elegant reorganization) seem to recapitulate some of the most fundamental and profound teachings of the ancient oral traditions, of whom so few remain.
And another thing:
As T.V. pointed out (see below), Michel Foucault's late work on 'technologies of the self' was inspired by the work of this gentleman, Pierre Hadot, who passed away this year. Here is that same link that she provided, to the lovely obituary at the Harvard U. Press' blog: 
One of Hadot's most famous (English-translated) books is called Philosophy as a way of Life (henceforth PL; also attached below!) in which he argues that beneath the superficial differences among classical (and contemporary) philosophical schools there is a profound and general agreement that philosophy consists of a set of practical techniques for the reduction of suffering, and that these techniques have been transmitted fairly consistently all the way 'up' from the Greeks. Obviously this begs the question of where the Greeks might've picked up some of these techne ; ) For example, it is interesting to compare Baba Rampuri's ideas about the primary importance of speech (for spiritual inquiry and practice; he writes about this frequently on his blog) with Plato's approach to the same question, i.e. in the Phaedrus, famously commented on by Derrida, later (less famously) by Foucault... Hadot talks about all this in the intro to PL, especially under the subheading Part 2; Spiritual Exercises, where he defends the Socratic conception of philosophy as dialogue. Here again it is crucial to recognize Rampuri's distinction between speech as vocal 'sounds' and 'speech' as articulation. Recall, from the quote I gave above:
- "the syllables are not (just) sounds - they are articulations, which is different"...
All of this leads to the strange problem whereby the codification (writing down, concretization) of a teaching or tradition leads not only to the 'dumbing down' of the teaching, but peculiarly, more acutely, often to its utter reversal; what I've been calling inversion. Please forgive my longwindedness: I'll try to explain this briefly. It has to do with the distinction between the form of a presentation, a communication, or utterance, and its content. This has been a central concern for philosophy since Plato's doctrines about the eidos (idea, form...). Hadot invokes Wittgenstein on this point, and argues (anticipating Derrida's later, more popular version of this idea) that the form of Wittgenstein's Logical Investigations is indeed necessary to its content; the way in which it is written (and hence also read) comprises a necessary part of the argument that it wishes to make. Quoting Hadot here, paraphrasing W.:
- "It is a therapeutics that is offered to us. Philosophy is an illness of language... The true philosophy will therefore consist in curing itself of philosophy, in making every philosophical problem completely and definitively disappear ... Wittgenstein continues (from the Tractatus to the Investigations) ... to devote himself to the same mission: to bring a radical and definitive peace to metaphysical worry. Such a purpose imposes a certain literary genre: the work cannot be the exposition of a system, a doctrine, a philosophy in the traditional sense ... [Philosophical Investigations] wishes to act, little by little on our spirit, like a cure, like a medical treatment. The work therefore does not have a systematic structure, strictly speaking (pas de plan, a proprement parler)" (quoted on p.17-18 of the intro to PL).
This and similar lines of thinking led to experimental attempts to blend the form and content levels of philosophical and literary works, most of which were hastily categorized as 'postmodern'. At the core of these attempts, the profound ambivalence highlighted by Wittgenstein has remained peculiarly active. Each new 'product' (the book, journal article, film, record, etc.) became/becomes another symptom of the same 'illness' it has been created as an attempt to cure. Perhaps in part because most of these works are now taking place outside of any authentic traditional context, the intentionalities behind them suffer from the usual contemporary symptom of a lack of constraint. Here we can recontextualize Foucault's own interest, toward the end of is life, in ancient philosophy and questions of ethics (although Hadot has articulated an important critique of F.'s approach). What is the goal of the author? How does the philosopher's own life, the practice of philosophy, impact its products, its texts? These questions are in fact wonderfully productive for Foucault, as evidenced by the recent rich translations of his College de France lectures of 1979-1984...
Part of the difficulty can perhaps be attributed to our generally insufficient contemporary understanding of the relationships inhering among the various registers of composition; what Rampuri calls the akshars (above) can perhaps be thought of as being almost-identical to, yet the opposite of Plato's ideas, in that they are not (only) the purely formal objects to whose approximation operations within a given register (or medium) must aspire (like the thoughts that we try to approximate with our languages) but rather (and also) represent something more like spaces; openings, or passages, through which one may exit from the domain of a given register (i.e. an 'objective reality', a universe) and enter into that sacred realm of resemblances, which is itself both formless and necessary for the production of forms and their architectures. Recall (from Derrida, if you like) that any such speculation must take allegorical form. Mythology is not so easily discarded, as those who've been paying attention have known since Plato's terrible experiment in liberating his people from the cruel yoke of their traditional culture. The myth that he created -the story of myth's annhilation at the hands of truth- influenced the evolution of its culture in too many ways to count, along too many lines to trace.
Philosophy, then, can considered as an extension of the great mystery (educational) traditions into (and through) the written medium. Hadot insists that indeed, this is how one should appreciate the philosophical works of the ancients.
- "ancient philosophy, at least beginning from the sophists and Socrates, intended, in the first instance, to form people and to transform souls. That is why, in Antiquity, philosophical teaching is given above all in oral form, because only the living word, in dialogues, in conversations pursued for a long time, can accomplish such an action. The written work, considerable as it is, is therefore most of the time only an echo or a complement of this oral teachings." (p.20, PL)
- "the written philosophical work, precisely because it is a direct or indirect echo of oral teaching, now appears to us as a set of exercises, intended to make one practice a method, rather than as a doctrinal exposition" (p.21, PL).
Today, having been captivated by the abilities of our own technologies (speech and writing) to produce out of themselves yet further technologies (internal combustion, electrical circuitry, computational hardware and software...), humanity has, to a more precipitous degree than ever before, forgotten this essential point: that our technical products have never been intended to be taken as exhaustive models of the world, but rather have been constructed for judicious usage as technologies of self, whereby we can model ourselves heuristically (and notice the recursive structure of this gesture). We are not attempting to arrive at a 'complete' scientific or philosophical description, but rather one which enables us to transform ourselves such that our individual and collective expressions can achieve ever-increasingly harmonious comprehension/compression/interaction/interdependence...
For Hadot, ancient philosophy "always endeavored to be more a living voice than writing and still more a life than a voice." Which isn't to interpret the ancients as simply saying "stop writing" ("stop checking facebook!" lol), but rather to call on the memory (Socrates names the goal and effect of philosophy anamnesis, 'the loss of forgetfulness') that the various media/technologies/registers of communication constitute parts of life (different manifestations of Rampuri's articulation), rather than vice-versa. The latter illusion (that life is part of the medium; that the goal of theory is to include practice) is what I've been referring to loosely as inversion.
Intendtogether 02:38, 20 March 2011 (UTC)
In addition to last Sunday's New York Times Magazine piece by Jonathan Foer titled "Secrets of a Mind Gamer," I recommend for others to read David Lowenthal's article "Past Time, Present Place: Landscape and Memory." Lowenthal notes how nostalgia affects us as humans, and how in our individual and collective realities, we hold on to vestiges of the past, especially when they elicit certain feelings.
Also, a Teachers College library assistant suggested that those interested in memory also read Pierre Hadot's work in addition to Frances A. Yate's Art of Memory.
Finally, did anyone else find it interesting that the idea of having a photographic memory is a myth of sorts?
However, the notion of being able to train your mind and memory is one that is very powerful indeed. In Buddhism, practitioners of meditation maintain that it helps expand the mind. I wonder if they're flexing their brain muscles, and if this has something to do with how reincarnates are able to identify objects and memories of their past (i.e. like with the selecting of the Dalai Lama and other enlightened spiritual beings).
- Thanks TV, for the 'reminder' about Hadot. He's really amazing. His work on ancient philosophy as a set of practical techniques for self-transformation predates Foucault's (and contextualizes it fantastically). Not only with regard to memory, but with regard to communication, collaboration, and inquiry (with oneself and others), thinking of philosophy as a practical activity is for me the only way to make sense of it. Just FYI, I'm going to post this link to Hadot's best known book, Philosophy as a way of Life, in two parts: ; . Cheers! Intendtogether 20:20, 19 March 2011 (UTC)