Enlightenment, Reason, Rationality: The Other Side

A consideration on Enlightenment, reason, and rationality in the context of Malaysia – or rather the lack of it.

Immanuel Kant says hello

Immanuel Kant says hello

It is not unusual to think deeply when it comes to matters concerning ourselves and society. That has been the primary preoccupation of man for nearly 2500 years. More so if one is situated in an epoch of decline, characterised by the phenomena of a failed state and the hopelessness of a failed society.

The state of Malaysia and Malaysian society is one example. The nostalgic reminiscing of the Enlightenment and the turn to reason and rational is understandable.

Kant And The History Of Reason

It is said that the arrival of the Enlightenment was first announced by Immanuel Kant, and from him the inauguration of modern philosophy.

In his essay to the question “Was ist Aufklarung?” he argued for the free and universal use of reason in the public sphere, but more importantly he also laid down the limits of reason and its boundaries.

Additionally, the Enlightenment marked the high point of epistemological development where man not only became a human subject capable of acquiring knowledge, but become himself an object of knowledge.

The critique of rationality and reason is hence confined to(and takes off from these two points): (i) the need to firstly explore, identify, and define the limits of rationality and reason; and (ii) to show how, by man becoming an object of knowledge, the process of the construction of the self has taken place.

Rationality And The Nation-State

The nation-state is a manifestation of modern rationality and the personification of the highest form of human rationality.

It is concerned with the rational organisation of society and human life. This takes place in two forms.

In the classical juridical model, the vertical relationship of the State and society is managed through the law. The outcome of which entails the formation of State positivism.

Law, conceived within the paradigm of State positivism, is only concerned with one thing: the protection and maintainance of the State, and the disposal of anything that threatens its existence.

However the protection and maintenance of the State cannot be conceptualised only within the classical juridical model. In modern times the regulation of society does not only take place through the law, but through new techniques of power by way of discipline, performed by the perceived neutral and independent sites and economies of power; that of the bureaucracy, universities, hospitals, knowledge and medicine, among others. Here instead of law, procedures and normalisation provide the tools in which individuals and groups are defined, segregated, unified, controlled and punished.

It thus maximizes the economic utility of the individual while ensuring political obedience; disciplinary regimes creating a disciplined society.

Man as Object of Knowledge

One of the presumptions underlying the elevating of human rationality and reason is that humans are free and autonomous beings with possessed universal and transcendent values. Such presumption is the golden child of Enlightenment thought and a hallmark of modernity.

Far from being autonomous and free, the concept of man is constructed by power, knowledge, social conditions, institutions, and episteme. The idea that men have rationale and reason, and thus capable of making objective decisions is inaccurate. To understand the concept of man, it has to be placed in discursive formations so that a discourse on man can be undertaken.

Similarly the notion of transcendent and universal values is also highly misleading. Values are intelligible in so far as they are situated in specific periods of historical events. They are outcomes of particular struggles, revolutions and consciousness defined and confined to a particular society at a particular time.

Enlightenment, Rationality, Reason and Malaysia

Locating this narration within the context of Malaysia and returning to the critique of rationality and reason, the following can be summarised;

Rationality has not necessarily resulted in greater freedom for society, but in fact strengthens the hold of the State over society. The usage of the ISA, penal law, sedition law – the criminal justice system – serves to remove all dissent and to reinforce the position of this enigmatic rational entity called the State.

The regulating/disciplining of society by the rational State does not only occur in a one dimensional, top down course, but by the extension of control through multiple horizontal discursive techniques of power. They comprise of structures and knowledge. Instead of law, principles of procedure and normalisation are used. Universities function to observe and regulate youths through procedures and norms. They include administrative processes that one must conform to; the permission to use lecture halls, the permission to take part in politics, and norms; what one must wear, how one must think, the prohibition of questioning and requiring of obedience. Power thus ceases to be coercive or repressive and becomes creative or productive.

The discursive construction of the self – the concept of man – must not be overlooked. The persona of “Lina Joy” did not exist 40 to 50 years ago. It is only a recent invention. Similarly the concept of the student – as one that needed permission to think, and consent to take part in politics – did not exist 40-50 years ago. Both are recent inventions. To think of man as autonomous and capable of change, without first outlining the genealogy of the self, is dangerous.

Likewise, the cherished belief in transcendent and universal values must be abandoned. Alternatively they must be situated specifically and analysed to expose the interplay of the dynamics of power, knowledge, social conditions, institutions, and episteme. To show that values are not universal, but actually outcomes of the different discourses of truth taking place in different periods of time. Perhaps then there can be a critical understanding of why the relation between secular law, the Constitution and religion has changed significantly throughout our history.

Lingswaran Singh has been an active loyar burok since he was 5 years old. He speaks an open and disinterested language, dictated by no passion but that of humanity. Independence is his happiness, and he views things as they are, without regard to place or person; his country is the world, and his religion is to do good with compassion. He is a self proclaimed artist with an imagination beyond imagination. He finds pleasure in deconstructing and challenging social norms, he is paradoxical . He works towards educating Malaysian youths about justice, freedom, equality, human rights, and nation building. He too is an emissary of Lord Bobo Barnabus, tasked to enlighten Malaysians through www.loyarburok.com, the blawg leading the quest for world domination.

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Lingswaran Singh has been a LoyarBurokker since he was 5. He speaks an open but disinterested language, dictated not by passion but that of humanity. Independence is his happiness. His country is the world, and his religion is to do good. He too is an emissary of Lord Bobo Barnabus, tasked to enlighten Malaysians through loyarburok.com, this awesome blawg leading the quest for world domination.

Posted on 30 October 2010. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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