Re-discovery of the original self

September 19, 2021

Post-colonial theorists are bound to employ a modernist modus vivendi even to seek access to the autochthonic sensibility

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The quest for ascertaining the authentic self, unadulterated by colonial influences manifests itself every now and then among the perceptive members of academia in every post-colonial society.

Lately such debates have had resonance in the Pakistani milieu. A great deal of interest is being shown by scholars to sift their original being from the one that supposedly was arbitrarily constructed by employing the tools of Western modernity.

Obviously, the bid to define the self stems from the question of identity. The question concerning identity is as old as the human civilisation itself but the colonial rubric accorded an entirely different connotation to it. Is it possible to determine, when it comes to the interface between the colonial and the colonised, how much of its original self the colonised could conserve?

The process of identity formation is markedly different under the colonial dispensation.

In the pre-colonial era, identity appeared to be plural and composite in its characterisation, making it a far more complex phenomenon. The British in India, for instance, employed a classificatory mode to unravel the complexity underlying the epistemic formulation ‘identity’ and gave it an ahistorical twist.

Thus, numerous sub-identities sprouted from a singular identity, which was imagined and constructed by the element that had been exogenous (colonial). Hence, in the process of the construction of identity the role of autochthony was conspicuously absent.

Before taking up the question of autochthony and the way academics are engaged with it, that ‘hard to pronounce’ phrase needs explanation to put things in perspective.

Autochthony is a sense of belonging originating from historical native-ness. When put to phrase, autochthony could be exemplified by “my grandparents and the generations before lived on this land. I belong. You, who have immigrated in your lifetime, do not belong.”

Autochthony is a key concept in debates on immigration and multiculturalism among the right wing political parties in Europe. But in the post-colonial context, this phrase has a ring of positivity, as we will see in the coming paragraph. Here it is significant to mention the source of autochthony that is in the Greek word that is translated as ‘springing from the land’. It usually means the assertion of not just the concept of autonomy, but also the concept that the constitution (or any regulatory framework or conventions/ customs) derived from the native traditions.

Athenians of the 5th and 4th Centuries claimed with pride that their ancestors had always lived in Attica because they had literally ‘sprung from the earth’. This concept of springing from the land (or earth) validated their self-belief in their being authentic and also patriotic.

Leading thinkers of the 20th Century have used autochthony in very different ways. Levi-Strauss gave it a central place in his analysis of the Oedipus myth. Heidegger proposed the term Bodenstandigkeit as a translation of autochthony and used it to promote a more communitarian form of nationalism for Germany, as a contrast to the very individualistic Anglo-Saxon and French versions of nationalism. (However, Heidegger developed these ideas in the days that he made overtures to the Nazis.)

On the contrary, Derrida criticised autochthony as a mark of too limited a form of democracy, which countries urgently need to surpass for a more universalistic version of democracy. In the context of the post-colonial subcontinent, a slight deviation from Derrida’s assertion is warranted.

In any post-colonial epistemic setting, autochthony acquires positive connotation. It is a bid of re-discovery of the original-real self that is not soiled by the colonial impact that had been instrumentalised by coercion.

Colonial arbitrary rule transposed Western modernity in the colonised land(s), modernity, which had come to fruition entirely as a result of a historical process that transpired in the West. That modernity was super-imposed on the colonised and their identity was re-configured. That could only happen if the colonised were torn away from their socio-historical (autochthonic) context.

The colonised were offered a context that was alien (exogenous) to them, thus the original self, embedded in their own history and culture was wrested from them.

From here springs another niggling question up that merits intense deliberation. After the lapse of almost 200 years, can the authentic/ original self be retrieved? Can we generate a discourse that has a purely autochthonous reference point, without any reference to the West? Is it at all possible without erasing our colonial past?

Even the method of articulating our traditions, stories, qissas and poetry have become so inescapably modern that the Punjabi literary genres like akhan, dohras, dholas and mahayas are no longer composed. To my limited knowledge, kafi is the only traditional genre that has survives (if barely).

The big names in Punjabi literature, like Saeed Bhutta, Zahid Hassan, Mushtaq Sufi, Iqbal Qaiser and Mazhar Tirmazi express their creative impulse in modern forms. Not only that, their content, too, is modern. Even Najm Hosain Syed’s creative genius gets tangled betwixt modernity and autochthony both in the form and the content of his literary articulations.

Dastan and epic have also conceded ground to novel, short story and nazm, respectively. The same holds for other languages and cultures because none of them could go unscathed from the colonial impact that infused modernity in them and redefined the tradition in the light of values having their basis in enlightenment.

Simply put, the tradition was de-historicised by the colonialists. Therefore, post-colonial theorists are bound to employ a modernist modus vivendi even to seek access to the autochthonic sensibility. It is ironic that post-colonial theorists and scholars still operate either in an imitative or a reactive mode. For them to have their own reference point, they have to be proactive. To do that, they must develop their own theoretical framework. That will be the decisive step to be independent in the realm of knowledge production.

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