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On Deconstruction and Seeing/Hearing the International Zone (Auroville)

Author: Rod Hemsell

Last Updated: February 14, 2008

On Deconstruction and Seeing/Hearing the International Zone (IZ) in Auroville
Rod Hemsell

January 2008

I have volunteered to prepare a sort of introduction to the idea of deconstruction a term that has cropped up frequently in the UHU seminars. The term was coined by Jacques Derrida, following the examinations of language and meaning in the phenomenological writings of Husserl and Heidegger. It is therefore primarily a philosophical/linguistic usage of the term that we are trying to understand. And here, already, we get a clue about deconstruction. There is the term, there is the meaning of the term, and there is also, presumably, an experience of thought, action, form, or some reality to which the term refers, as a signifier pointing to a signified. In this linguistic sense, the signified here is a process of the mind or thought which perceives a traditional and well-understood relationship between the mental concept of a thing, or knowledge, the thing known, and the language that symbolizes the thing and formulates the knowledge. In Western philosophy, this idea has been repeatedly analyzed and explained, and in classical thought it was presumed that language is closely associated with meaning and meaning with the object. The meaning of a thing is known directly by the mind (either through the senses, by intuition, or by analysis, imagination, etc.) and that meaning is translated and symbolized by the mind in speech and writing. The level of conscious intention known as meaning, and truth, has been presumed to be possible because it is of the nature of mind to know; there is a kind of privileged relationship between experience and knowledge and between knowledge and speech. (The basis of this relationship is known as the logos, in Greek, and therefore Derrida calls this point of view logocentrism. In this relationship, the word and concept are generally valued more highly than the object, as we shall see.)

Therefore, when we speak, we believe that we are expressing something that is true to reality and experience. This traditional understanding has been deeply questioned by subjectivist, idealist, and existential philosophies which have found that a given reality may have many different interpretations and meanings and many different languages in which the meanings are expressed. The languages of religion and science are two common examples, and they seem to speak about quite different realities. Derrida points out that when we begin to research the many levels of sedimented expressions of meaning built up over millennia, or even decades, and especially when we apply the scientific techniques of analysis and quantitative description available today, we find that the traditional assumptions and relationships of meaning and truth begin to break down. We find, also, that media and technology are creating new meanings through new forms of language that undermine the traditional grounding of knowledge and experience photography, mathematics and code for example are rolling out new (often virtual) realities. If we deliberately pursue and observe this break down, through an extended or limitless critique, we can discover how particular meanings have been constructed from many points of view; we can discover their historical, psychological, economic, social, literary, and other contexts and interdependencies; and through this process of deconstruction we may be able to re-establish a contact between meaning and reality that is more complete, complex, fresh and direct, or at least less obscured by popular or conventional assumptions.

Lets take the IZ for example. We have now two primary sources of reference for understanding the concept: the Mothers writing on an International Centre of Education (1952) along with various comments she made in the context of AVs early development which indicate that the IZ was to be based on the same concept; and we have many layers of architectural interpretation and iteration of the plan of the IZ as it is to be realized in AV. There are also a few fragments from the writings of Sri Aurobindo concerning the nation soul that are often referred to when interpreting the idea of the IZ; and there are the many discussions and interpretations of AVIs and Aurovilians that have transpired over 40 years in response to the original concept, all of which I would consider secondary sources of information. There may be a few other primary and secondary resources and many tertiary resources that will be important to consider, but lets start with these.

After reviewing the primary sources, can we say that we know the meaning of the IZ? Do we see and understand clearly what the Mother was envisioning and projecting for the township of Auroville? Or do we have only some impressions, thoughts, interpretations, speculations, and questions based on an amalgam of exposures and experiences? Do we believe that what we understand is as realizable and significant as the Mother apparently believed it to be? When we ask these questions, we begin to examine the relationship between language and intention. Does the language in which these concepts are expressed sufficiently convey the intention in the Mothers mind? When we consider these concepts do they awaken in us a similar intention? Clearly we have already entered into a field of spiritual exploration, because the object we are considering is the product of a spiritual vision and knowledge. At the same time, we see artistic and architectural renderings which attempt to interpret and give a practical form to the vision. These are two very different languages. And then we have the reality on the ground, so to speak.

Before attempting to analyze these approaches: spiritual knowledge, architecture, and the current sociological/physical/cultural expressions, I would like to point out a fundamental difference that strikes me as an essential distinction. The Mother used the term genius and not soul in her characterization of what the national pavilions would embody, each one in accordance with its own genius. Sri Aurobindo speaks of the nation soul as a unity which precedes and descends into manifestation, while the genius of the nation, as described by the Mother, is its actual forms of diversity: the habits of the country, its most representative products, the things that express its intellectual and artistic genius, a lodging for students, etc. There is a difference as there will always be in each and every relation between soul and genius: one is the ever present unity, the other is its manifold temporal diversity. The ideal spirit or soul, as will be understood in accordance with the pattern of logocentrism, is often given more value than the practical details of its expression. We may find it easier and superior to believe in the soul of the nation, or in the idea, than to appreciate its manifold expressions. And then there is another important observation that Derrida makes regarding language and writing: the development of the pavilions and their expression of the national genius would itself be a kind of writing, a symbolic language that slowly unfolds the meaning of the essential spirit or soul of the nation which, as it were, is not something that exists in a tangible way apart from its modes of expression. We cant really know the soul, or realize its unity with others, until they have been written out in living symbols. This is the reason to go beyond logocentrisms hierarchy of knowledge.

For the Mother, the purpose or function of the pavilions is to make humanity ready to work for the progressive unification of the race and to accustom children not just to the idea but to the practice, and to help individuals become conscious of the genius of their nation. These are primarily educational functions not spiritual or social! The expressions of genius of each nation are already plentiful, incredibly diverse and wonderful, through which the unity of all nations may be realized - when that becomes their common intention in Auroville. How close, we might now ask, are the many current architectural iterations to revealing this concept of the IZ? Can we read this intention in their graphic language that has occupied so many people for so long, or is it somehow concealed there? Or has this abstract language become quite divorced from the intention? And how integral physical, vital, mental, spiritual - is the expression of the national genius of India, Tibet and America in the existing pavilions? There are physical structures, there is a modicum of life, there are periodic exhibitions of art and other cultural expressions; there is a beginning. But are they truly educational? Wouldnt it be wonderful if the philosophical, social, cultural, linguistic, spiritual, physical and environmental qualities of these nations were actually present in their manifestations, along with all of the other cultures from the point of view of experiential education? Then perhaps this integral writing would become the new language of revelation, and the classical world of ideal truth and value would indeed be overturned on the soil of Auroville, where the physical, vital, and mental manifestation would take precedence over or at least become equal to the eternal soul.

Meanwhile there are many associated explorations and deconstructions to be undertaken, such as the relationship of Auroville to the earlier attempts to realize human unity that the Mother mentions, which she says have all lamentably failed ( the historical approach); the necessity of progress in the collective life in order for the individual to leap forward in the evolution of consciousness (the psycho-social approach); the prerequisite disappearance of struggle and domination and their replacement by clear-sighted collaboration among diverse value systems (the sociological approach); educational preparation of the community and nation(s) to accept the priority, and techniques, of education for the realization of human unity (the linguistic approach), and so on. Deconstruction, as a methodology, has not explicitly sought an integral approach to knowledge; it is primarily a philosophical and linguistic approach, mostly preoccupied with textual criticism. But because its fundamental aim is truth and its procedure requires a thorough interrogation of the processes of consciousness psychological, social, artistic, scientific, philosophical, linguistic, theological, etc., it presents itself as a tool that can be applied to the discovery of an integral learning paradigm, as well as to the focusing of intention on what is most meaningful to us as researchers the realization of an actual human unity.