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Opinion

June 10, 2015

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Sources of the self

Throughout history the self has remained central to human thought. That is why different religions, philosophies, school of thoughts and disciplines have tried to explicate the complex nature of self for the last four millenniums. Despite exploration of the self through different perspectives in history, its sources remain inexhaustible and provide human thought new dimensions.
The self emerges from a particular web of significations, engaging with otherness, operation of discursive practices and power relations in a particular time and space. Interface between these factors radically changes the meaning and way of perceiving self and other.
In the overall timescale of history Pakistan is a nascent entity. Therefore, the project of nation-building in Pakistan entails formation of a new self that conforms to the collective identity. Despite continuous efforts by the state to cast the self at collective and the individual in the mould of unified identity, the self has taken different forms. The dichotomy between the structure and the shape of the self has resulted in disharmony between the self, society and state. This dichotomy is mainly due to historical processes, dominant narratives of identity, religion, local cultures and other factors that intersect in the particular space of post-colonial Pakistani state and society.
The issues surrounding the self and society in the post-colonial context need to be explored by critically and imaginatively engaging with prevalent literary, religious, political, cultural and discursive practices. Any attempt to explore the genealogies of collective and individual identities in post-colonial settings entails examination of rapidly shifting patterns of thoughts, identities and order of things in colonial times and the metamorphosis of these identities with the passage of time under the influence of emerging narratives.
Historically, in India the self was formed through an interface of individuals with an array

of institutional arrangements, creeds, cultural ethos and a particular worldview. Colonialism changed the processes and sources of production of knowledge, and destroyed the institutional arrangements and structures. This was accompanied by introduction of rational institutions in the hitherto enchanted society. During this period heterogeneous cultural groups in colonialised societies were introduced to the idea of the modern state and its monomaniac zeal to create a unitary self, society and state. As a corollary, colonialised societies faced ruptures at personal, epistemic and institutional levels.
At the core of ruptures caused by modernity at epistemic, social and personal level was Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel whose teleological view of history rejuvenated historicism, and gave birth to a stagist view of history. Hegel sees universal history as the way in which the spirit manifests itself in the world. According to his reckoning “Europe is absolutely the end of history, Asia the beginning”. Unfortunately, the nationalist narratives in both India and Pakistan in the post-colonial period have fallen into the trap of a linear view of history and the idea of a single identity of nation-states. It resulted in the closure of multiple sources of self and the inability of the post-colonial societies to construct self and society anew.
Unlike the past, the present offers new possibilities ways of seeing and provides a vantage point to review the past and reorient the future. Therefore, it is imperative to deconstruct the existing discursive and institutional practices. The project of the deconstruction of self and society in post-colonial societies has to counter the regimes of truth. It will equip them with the required conceptual framework to resist the universalising drive of euro-centric discourse and explore diverse paths of history followed by the peripheries. It is a battle in the sphere of knowledge that needs to be fought intellectually. In this battle, it is important for marginal voices to contest Hegelian claims of universality, problematise reason, and dislodge European history and historical categories from the centre of the practice of history.
This is not to propose a total rejection of modernity and reversion to some imaginary golden and idyllic past for the solutions of contemporary age. While exploring the multiplicity of self and society, colonial experience should not be excluded from an alternate narrative because the historical inscriptions of colonialism will remain on the palimpsest of our history. Expunging colonial experience from counter-narrative will deprive the latter of understanding an important source that has radically changed our perception of self and society. Despite attempts of erasure, colonial writing and overwriting cannot be completely erased. They continue to remain an integral part of cultural and historical texts.
The main thrust of the marginal narrative will be to enable colonialised and subjugated people to represent their experiences and subjectivities in their own language and idiom. A possible way to counter epistemic hegemony is to commit violence against the language of representation. This can be done by appropriating the very language, and internalising, twisting, moulding and forcing it to represent meaning that germinates from a not so pure local context.
Shorn of universality and bereft of the support of regimes of truth, modern ideas will become more susceptible to local conceptual forms and strategies of resistance. Such an act of appropriation and reformulation provides space to local narratives in tightly guarded boundaries of the standard épistème of the time. Michel Foucault thinks that all-encompassing theories can be used at a local level only when the theoretical unity of their discourse is “suspended, or at least cut up, ripped up, torn to shreds, turned inside out, displaces, caricatured, dramatized, theatricalised, and so on.”
In the particular context of the Indian subcontinent, attempts to reformulate the Muslim self did not follow the linear path prescribed by the Hegelian philosophy of history. In the post-mutiny period, Indians became subjects of the British Empire. It changed the way rationality of enlightenment, modern institutions, technologies and ethos were perceived, received and deployed the same conceptual categories to articulate sensibilities begotten by modern age.
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s attempt to create a new self through the journal, ‘Tahzib ul-Akhlaq’, and educational institutions like the Aligarh Muslim University, was informed by his overall project of modernisation, whereby he attempted to prove the compatibility of Islamic principles with scientific rationalism.
To be continued
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad. Email: [email protected]

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