– Gopalan Mullick
No one fully understands the meaning of the term, “postmodernism”. All that one knows is that it is a kind of reaction against modernism and its extensions. Therefore, since the meaning of modernism itself is confused, one is in a double bind to explain postmodernism (Harvey 7). The confusion surrounding these two important terms perhaps tells us about the phase of knowledge we are currently situated in. This is a phase where the certainty of knowledge is undermined by uncertainty, determinacy by indeterminacy, where truth is undermined by its clones, and closure by its lines of flight and escape. The Enlightenment Project had taken it as an axiomatic truth that there is only one ideal answer to a question. Consequently, the world could be controlled and rationally ordered if only one understood the right answer (Harvey 27). However, this intense search for absolute knowledge has ultimately brought us face to face with its opposite: a kind of knowledge that carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.
It was the German sociologist Georg Simmel who had proposed that meaning or direction in human life is possible only within certain ‘boundaries’, where a boundary meant a fixed identity that provided a stable reference point. In order to be located in the infinite space of our own world, man invented certain concepts like, “society”, “history”, “causality”, “space”, “time”, etc., within the confines of which mankind’s “progress” was possible and knowledge “certain”. With the passage of time, these boundaries tend to become so fixed and essential that they are taken as natural. With the arrival of modernity in eighteenth-century Europe, these boundary conditions were re-examined and found to be wanting. Modernity thus changed our thinking about the world: to be modern is to be part of a world in which, as Marx said, “all that is solid melts into air”. However, modernity didn’t erase the need for boundaries altogether. In a tendency that some called the modernity’s nostalgia for the past, it tried to replace one set of boundaries for another (Banerjee 1995). In modernity, we thus have two contrary desires: the desire for a fixed identity, and the desire to go beyond one. Baudelaire (Harvey 10) captures this inherent contradiction of modernity in art as follows:
“Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent, it is the other half of art; the other half being the eternal and immutable.”
Postmodernity, however, rejects all fixed boundaries. It thus represents a state of being boundless. However, this state is only possible when one knows the position of the boundary. The extent postmodernity builds on a modernist foundation might render the impression that postmodernism naturally grows out of modernism through a progressive modification of its elements. In reality, however, it harbours a radical break from modernity as at its core lies the metaphysical concept of difference in contrast to the concept of same and other that underlies modernity. While this concept of difference arose in Western thought only during the nineteenth century, the Aristolean concept of same and other has been overwhelmingly dominant in Western thought for almost two millennia. For Aristotle, something is different from another only when they operate within a common boundary. In other words, things are different only when referenced to a common identity. For example, rice is different from a banana only in terms of their common identity as food. However, rice is an ‘other’ to a book or a screwdriver since they have no common characteristics and are completely heterogeneous. For Aristotle therefore, sameness and not dissimilarity are essential to identity. Aristotle defined the world in terms of identities alone, without much considering the notion of the “other”. With the disintegration of boundaries in modern times, many Western thinkers, starting perhaps with Nietzsche (Gianni Vattimo, in his work, “The End of Modernity”, p. 164, says ‘It could be legitimately argued that philosophical postmodernity is born with Nietzsche’s work’) proposed to replace the principle of identity with that of difference, where, by difference, they understood heterogeneity in terms of the Aristotelian “other”. They declared that differences that cannot be theorized into a unity are fundamental to entities, while their identities are only illusory. What this revolutionary change of perspective meant was that the notion of the identity of an entity, so far considered to be the bedrock of all our understanding, is ultimately caught up in an endless chain of differences made up of displacements and deferrals that cannot have any final closure in the form of a fixed identity. In this sense, postmodern identities are merely “moments” that arise and disappear in the endless cauldron of differences that lie underneath any apparently stable surface (Protevi 151-153).
When we talk about Indian influences on postmodernism, one needs to start from structuralism: as one needs to understand the boundary to be able to go beyond it. Structuralism will very briefly be discussed under these three headings: the incorporation and appropriation of Sanskrit studies in European academics and its lasting influence on Saussure ; the concepts that underlie structuralism, and the concepts that underlie postmodernism.
The lectures eulogizing Sanskrit delivered by Sir William Jones of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal during 1786 to 1788 is considered to be the beginning of linguistic study in Western universities. During this period, linguistics came to be understood as comparative linguistics, which essentially meant the study of Indo-European languages. Sanskrit soon took pride of place in this study as it gradually replaced Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian from the curriculum. Though a Sanskrit chair was first established at Copenhagen in 1794, it was the Sanskrit chairs of German universities such as the University of Leipzig that became the model for future studies. Since then, there has been a long list of renowned European linguistic scholars who have been deeply versed in Sanskrit such as Friedrich Schlegel, William von Humboldt, Franz Bopp, Jacob Grimm, Angus Schleicher, Karl Brugmann, Georges Cuvier, etc. They form the first, second, and third generation of western linguists who were steeped in Sanskrit studies. Indeed, all their major works are on Indo-European languages with special reference to Sanskrit (Telegdi 2008). When Saussure was studying linguistics at the University of Leipzig in 1876, his teachers, like GeorgCurtius (1820-85), August Leskien (1840-1916), KarlBrugmann (1849-1919), etc were all Sanskrit scholars teaching Indo-European languages at the university. The two works that Saussure published under his own name are his PhD thesis titled, “Genitive Case in Sanskrit” and a work on Sanskrit poetics called “The Concept of Kavi”, and he taught Sanskrit, Indo-European Languages, and General Linguistics at Sorbonne and the University of Geneva from 1881 to1913. Indeed, Indian influence on Saussure was so pervasive that in his later life he was called the “Hindoo”. His immediate disciples – Roman Jakobson, the father of phonological theory; and Nikolay Trubetzkoy, the father of structural phonology, were both associated with the Prague School of Sanskrit Studies and Louis Hjelmslev of the CopenhagenSchool, and therefore deeply influenced by Sanskrit. In fact, Trubetzkoy’s PhD was on the Rig Veda. Must we say more on these influences? When we add to this list the names of Schiller, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Max Muller, Hegel, Voltaire, J. S. Mill, and Martin Heideggar, who either supported or critiqued Sanskrit culture in their time, then there can be no denying the extent of Indian influences penetrating the formation of the modern Western mind.
There are specific Indian concepts that influenced Western theories. Saussure’s theory of structural linguistics is influenced by the Astadhyayi of Panini, which states that no unit has an inherent meaning but rather is meaningful only in a two-dimensional system of a network of opposites, from which the meaning of the word arises from the cross-section. This Sanskrit idea of “unity via relations” was adopted by Buddhist linguistics as well, and used in their idea of the token and the type. With the help of these ideas, Saussure formulated his concept of the “syntagmatic-paradigmatic axis” in structural linguistics. Moreover, Saussure’s idea of meaning through difference, including his idea that there are no positive terms in a language, is taken from the Buddhist linguistic theory of “apohavad“.
To conclude, therefore, the idea of heterogeneity that underlies postmodernism arose in the ancient West, as is observed from the atomic theories of Leucippus and Democritus and the theory of flux advanced by Heraclitus. However, these ideas were completely eradicated after the conception by Aristotelianism in western thought. If Nietzsche is the father figure of the idea of dissimilarity in western postmodernism, then Buddhist theory, rather than ancient Greek thoughts on plurality, is his foundation. Not only does the Buddhist theory of heterogeneity of instantly mutating ultimates, none of which are equal to each other, provide the most radical theory of heterogeneity available till date, it is also supplemented with the solid theoretical foundation that is lacking in the Greek theories of plurality. The Buddhist ultimates, each of which are fundamentally different from the other, cannot really be unified. More importantly, unlike the Indian schools of thought that describe all entities as having three moments of existence, (origination, duration, cessation) the Buddhists depict their ultimates as having only two moments in the form of origination and decay. Thus, as an ultimate is originates, it is ceases to exist as well. In this context, even the use of the word “momentary” therefore becomes problematic. In fact, for the Buddhists, there is absolutely nothing that can have even a momentary stability in this world (Shaw 224). All these ideas therefore radically discount all that is said to be unchanging, a stable identity being the most prominent casualty of them all. To paraphrase Heraclitus’s comments that no body could step into the same river twice, the Buddhists believe that no body can ever step into the same river even once (Matilal 43).
Under these circumstances, the notion of “self” or “I” in Buddhism is a series of flowing momentary ultimates or experiences – a stream of consciousness that give the illusion of a stable ego if one leaves out the “I” (Shaw, 230). Buddhism thus radically decenters the Vedic and Cartesian notions of a centred “I”. An interesting example of this Buddhist notion of the deconstruction of the I occurs in the Tibetan language that grew under Buddhist influence. The language is thematic rather than subjective or individualistic. For instance, in place of the sentence “I am carrying water up the hill to my home”, a Tibetan would say “The water (is being brought up) the hill (to) the house (through) me”. Indeed, the thematic sentence would actually appear to be like this: “The water the hill the house me”. Here, the movement of water is primary while subjective experience of the “I” is greatly decentralized (Lorentz 70-71).
Nietzsche was so brilliant a scholar of comparative linguistics that he was offered the Chair of Classical Philology at the age of twenty-four in 1869 at the University of Basel in Switzerland even without having completed his Doctorate (Protevi 425). Moreover, his mentor was Schopenhauer – Nietzsche’s book ‘Schopenhauer as Educator’ is testimony to that (Payne 373) – who, as everybody knows, was deeply influenced by Vedantic and Buddhist thought. Schopenhauer’s pessimism, which was inherited by Nietzsche, owes its origin to the Buddhist ideas of non-existence (Protevi 523). In fact, one knows that Nietzsche was conversant with the Vedas, Manu’s Laws, and Buddhism as there are multiple references to India in his writings. Given the pervasive Indian influence on the Western mind during the 19th century, it seems more than likely that his ideas of plurality and heterogeneity that initiated postmodernism in Western thought were deeply influenced by Buddhist thought.
India therefore provided the two most dominant paradigms of thought: the paradigm of continuity (of the Vedic school of thought) and the paradigm of heterogeneity (of the Buddhist school of thought). These two major schools argued endlessly about the advantages of their respective paradigms. Since continuity had also been adequately theorized in Greece, the West didn’t need to refer to the Indian perspective except in passing. However, when Western minds started searching for alternatives to Aristotelianism, they were immediately struck by a particular line of Indian thought that cut across all its schools: that meaning is caught up in a cyclical structure defined as “bondage”, and that one needs to go beyond this structure to understand the truth. However, since Buddhism had provided the most comprehensive deconstruction, it seemed to be the most appealing candidate for this line of thought. Moreover, since Greek thoughts on heterogeneity had had no time to develop, Buddhism became the automatic choice as a model for the West. I believe, under the surface, this influence still continues.
The substitution of an essential identity with identities that are merely moments in a discourse leads to a loss of depth in the conventional sense of the term. In the place of a meta-narrative, there are now a number of mini-narratives; in place of a grand theory, there are a number of local discourses (Leotard 1979/1984). Provisional, contingent, temporary, and relative become the watchwords for this new dispensation. The phase in which postmodernism deconstructs earlier parameters in order to reconstruct its own might render the impression of an impending chaos. However, it is about this phase of time that Lyotard (1979/1984) said “working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done”. The question, then, is: is there a rule and, if so, what is the rule of this new construction?
According to Deleuze and Guattari (1987), the earlier model of identity could be termed as the tree model, which was vertical and hierarchical in nature- everything was interconnected through higher entities till it reached that one entity that ‘holds’ everything together. This was the essential identity of the object. For example, a leaf would be connected with another leaf through a branch and so on till we reached the essence of the tree. Deleuze and Guattari, in contrast, offered the crabgrass model of identity. In this, everything grew horizontally by (like the crabgrass plant) sending out “runners” to establish new plants. The new plants, in turn, sent out their own runners and so on, forming a discontinuous surface without depth. These new plants, named ‘intensities’, could be likened to the transient identities constructed from discourse to discourse. Thus, in place of one rooted identity, there are a thousand plateaus. By virtue of its very construction, this surface was therefore without a controlling agency or centre.
These two contrasting models may be likened to that of the pilgrim and the nomad. The pilgrim is part of a community and has a structure. Every pilgrimage is teleogically oriented towards a definite goal: salvation. The pilgrim’s progress is therefore linear. The nomad, in contrast, moves from place to place without any clear-cut sense of direction or goal. The nomad is thus without any boundaries and his progress naturally non-linear in nature (Banerjee 1995). But Deleuze and Guattari hold that no structure is ultimately good enough to debar all lines of flight from it and therefore entities will keep escaping from the structure (Taylor 363-364). Since the structure is thus ruptured, generations of meaning through the signifier-signified relationship are also rendered redundant. (Taylor 345-6). Instead, there are ‘empty’ or ‘floating’ signifiers whose signifieds are highly variable, perceived as different things to different people, and ultimately signify to their interpreters intended meanings. (Protevi 536). Under the circumstances, a discontinuous joining of surfaces through a collage/montage becomes the primary form and the free mixing of styles from different forms and periods through hybridity and pastiche the preferred style of postmodern art. This hybridity is without any ulterior meaning and pastiche without satire. Postmodernism liberates signs from their generic elements, i.e. from their conventional base, to forge new connections between diverse elements in a free display of plurality in their form and content. On the surface, this provides for a certain kind of playfulness in postmodern films.
For example, in Joel Coen’s “Raising Arizona” (1987), there is a hybrid medley of genres involving screwball comedy, prison escape thriller; mad max biker gang, bank and shop heist movies, etc. While such an eclectic combination of different genres does create comic release, it also creates anxiety, even terror, in its audiences (Nelmes 136). In place of collage, which aims for a unified reaction, this can be termed as bricolage, which cannot be summed up into an experience of unity.
DVD of Raising Arizona:
Chapter 6, 21΄ – 28΄ – Jail break thriller + Mad Max biker
Chapter 10: 42΄ – 50΄ – Mall hijack
The most revolutionary change that the above inversion of perspective from continuity to heterogeneity brings about is that the idea of the “original” having an essential identity disappears from our conceptual vocabulary. This has, in turn, brought about some radical changes in the way we understand and represent the world. What the age of mechanical, and now electronic, reproduction has done is to make us experience the whole world in terms of images – i.e. ‘copies’ that do not have their originals. The change that Baudrillard (1983) is talking about is apparently this: earlier, object was primary and our concept secondary; presently, image without an object is primary and our concept secondary. This involves a reversal of the relation between an original and its image, or, to put it in another way, between the model and its repetition. In the new schema, the need for the point of origin of the first image is completely rendered superfluous. This is what Baudrillard calls “simulacrum“, an origin-less image since it has no original and hence no entry into reality. Meaning here arises differentially through an endless chain of images which in turn refer to other images. The images close in upon us where, by virtue of possessing no unified original, images become more real than the real. This state is termed as the Baudrillardian state of hyper-reality, where, though presented with the original, individuals understand context by referencing to the images themselves. Thus, we accept the version of reality Anurag Basu’s “Life in a Metro” presents to us about Mumbai, we learn about the values of American society through elaborate arrangements such as Disneyland, and we come to know about the Gulf War in terms of images that may or may not accurately reflect reality. In contrast to Marx’s analysis of a commodity being measured in terms of its use-value, a commodity is now measured in terms of its image-value- i.e., its sign-value. (Lechte 234-235).
The state of hyper-reality has another demonstrative effect on our mode of understanding: the ‘collapse of the opposites.’ Since the opposition between the original and its copy is absent, it is impossible to judge the real and the false in a representation as no test can accurately determine the difference between a model and its repetition. The world of images therefore renders everything as undecidable. Baudrillard (Lechte, 235-6) terms this as reversibility, which assumes that nothing can be placed outside the system and therefore there can be no certainty.
For example, Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982, 1992) depicts a futuristic representation of Los Angeles in November, 2019 where human replicants are copied so exactly that they are indistinguishable from their original sources. These replicants have been constructed by the Tyrell Corporation for slave labour. Detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who has been charged with the duty to search and annihilate “criminal” replicants, inevitably falls in love with one of them called Rachel (Sue Young). The replicants have only one problem: their life-spans are of only four years. When their request for increasing their life span is refused, four replicants rebel. There is only one test, the Voight-Kempff Test that can distinguish between a human and a replicant. Oddly, the first test fails when the person administering the test is killed by a replicant, and, as for the administrator of the second- Deckard turns out to be a replicant himself.
DVD of Blade Runner (Director’s Cut):
Chapter 7: 17΄ – 23΄ – Rachel’s interrogation by Deckard
Chapter 21: 64΄ – 70΄ – Deckard & Rachel fall in love and their first kiss
Chapter 25: 80΄ – 86΄ – Roy strangles Tyrrel
It may be declared that these replicants therefore fully illustrate WalterBenjamin’s notion of mechanical reproduction and advance the process to sustain genetic reproduction in which the copy is even slightly superior to the original. These replicants can be generalized as the natural literary end to the partly malfunctional Frankenstein. Hollywood however, still feels the need to control such creations. Despite its post-modernism, the films retain the modernist nostalgia for unity and authority. Hollywood thus keeps vacillating between modernity and post-modernity in its films.
The detective in Blade Runner is also vastly different from his film predecessors such as Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, ByomkeshBakshi or Sam Spade. While these detectives reconstruct the essential identities of all the characters to climatically reveal perfect knowledge by correctly recalling past events, Deckard is debarred not only from a total recall of his memory but also his identity (Chakravarthy 10-11).
Another important aspect of postmodernism is that it represents a post-industrial state in which utopia has been replaced by a dystopia of urban squalor. For example, in Blade Runner, the cityscape is completely dominated by industrial buildings. In between buildings, there are enormous television screens advertising opportunities to migrate to “off-world” locations. Any semblance of nature is rigorously blocked, decimating the traditional senses of beauty and aesthetics. This claustrophobic existence is a pure symptom of the postmodern condition.
DVD of Blade Runner
Chapter 4: 7΄ – 10΄ – Urban squalor and multi-ethnic population
Chapter 27: 87΄ – 90΄ – Urban squalor
Last Chapter – Deckard discovers that he is also a replicant.
Since postmodern art aspires to only a surface meaning that draws from a hybrid mixing of form and styles from the past and present which aren’t positioned to create a unified vision ( a bricolage ), how can one possibly aspire to and act towards a unified representation of the world? The postmodernist answer to this question is startling: we don’t. For post-modernists, actions can only be local. If an action is taken out of this limited context, it is bound to mutate into a grand oppressive theory that must be discarded (Harvey 52). Jameson however, critiques this state, particularly the occurrence of floating signifiers in postmodern art, as schizophrenia of the linguistic kind that merely represents the “rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers”. (-do- 53). The effect of such a free mixing of unrelated signifiers is to reduce experience to “a series of pure and unrelated presents” which signifies a complete loss of our sense of history (-do- 53). How, then, do we perceive the present situation in the context of the modernist and post-modernist tendency? It is apparent through analysis that we seem to be caught between our apparent psychological requirement for a unified identity and the postmodernist desire for locally constructed ones. Both states signify a kind of nostalgia for the past, but they are of very different kinds. While the modernist nostalgia for Hollywood genres, as for example in Truffaut and Godard, are used as reference points for sites of order, coherence, and stability of the culture that it wants to transform, in postmodernism, it is merely offered as a nostalgic substitute instead of any real exploration of the past and the present. (Nelmes 134-137). In view of this blasé attitude towards history, this recycling of references in postmodernism is considered as a kind of media-consciousness, rather than self-reflexivity of the modernist cinema (Stam 757). In other words, while modernism fragments the surface to show that there is a deeper reality beneath the surface, postmodernism fragments the surface to show that there is nothing underneath it. While modernism thus laments fragmentation, postmodernism celebrates it.
If contemporary Hollywood cinema is any guide, we seem to be currently living in both these worlds. Is there an academic support for such a dual existence? I believe there is. Thomas Kuhn, in his path-breaking work, “Structure of Scientific Revolution” observes that when a paradigm of cognitive perception is being replaced by another, both paradigms tend to coexist in equal measure during a significant part of the process. During this period, individuals tend to adopt both theories, using either one as suited to their purpose. This state of ambivalence continues till irreconcilable differences in one of the paradigms finally cause its extinction. Postmodern Hollywood cinema amply reflects this ambivalent attitude in its movies. While postmodern movies should celebrate the loss of an overarching identity, most conversely exhibit a deep nostalgia and foreboding about this fragmentation. The possibility that one’s identity could be so constructed that the identity-holder might remain completely imprisoned, “within a narrative action which it cannot survey“ (CF 31) remains one of the most common sources of fear in post-modern Hollywood cinema.
A classic film in this category is Peter Wier’s “The Truman Show” (1998). In the movie, Truman is blissfully unaware that the town he has grown up in is in fact a giant studio set and the people he meets are all actually actors. In fact, he is shown to be the main character in a live reality show where his identity is gradually constructed by millions of his viewers. The show is controlled by the omnipotent executive, Christof, who remains hidden behind an artificial moon that is located high above the set (CF 28-29). Truman thus is the character post-modernists are most afraid of: where one’s identity is completely constructed by a manipulative agency. In order to appease this fear, Truman is finally led to understand the truth.
Another typical film of this genre is Andy and Larry Wachowski’s “The Matrix” (1999). In The Matrix, humanity has been enslaved by a race of intelligent machines that use them as batteries. Humans live in a perpetual illusion as a supercomputer feeds them a simulated reality. In an odd repetition of Putnam’s vat in the brain experiment, most humans float in tanks that are hooked up with electrodes that feed them the matrix. Only a handful has escaped. Their leader, Morpheus – significantly named after the Roman God of dream and sleep – asks Neo, the main character a question that is quintessentially Descartian: “Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?” (CF 29-30). When Neo is eventually able to leave the Matrix, he has acquired body reflexes that border on the impossible. It is in this development that prompts a disturbing question: the fast disappearing distinction between man and machine. It is this fear and anxiety that Hollywood manifests in film after film.
As the post-modernism age gradually progresses, what will cinema, particularly Hollywood cinema, be like? There are many futuristic predictions that can be safely made.
Firstly, films would increasingly be a part of image relay, a process connected by television, digital video discs, computer imagery, etc. Secondly, there would be what is known as “cinema without walls” (Corrigan 1991). Not only would Hollywood be moving away from the Fordist mode of assembly-line production to a more postmodernist flexible mode, but it would also be moving towards a stage where cinema would become indistinguishable from all other forms of entertainment. Thirdly, the spirit of cinema (Corrigan 1991) would gradually be moving away from Hollywood to the emergent cinemas of the third world countries, like China, Korea, India, Iran, etc. In a global culture, these films would no longer be politically oppositional but would speak the language of cinema in a new dialect – i.e., cinema in a ‘minor’ key or “minor cinema”. (Taylor 130). Finally, audience empowerment would increase with film reception shifting away from the screen to a more dispersed viewing practice that audiences could control, alter, or modify.
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