“While life needs the services of history, it must just as clearly be comprehended that an excess measure of history will do harm to the living.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche
Tahir Kamran is one of the few scholars in Pakistan who provides a window to the world of ideas by keeping us abreast of the latest debates and discourses occurring in the field of knowledge. His column ‘Universality and historical dynamism’ published in The News on Sunday (March 4, 2018) provides a glimpse into the dialectics of history in Pakistan by showing differing views of eminent scholars of Pakistan regarding relevance of Michel Foucault’s philosophy to Pakistani society. Kamran has rightly identified the relationship between imperviousness of society towards philosophical postulates and increasing superfluity of people entrusted with the task of imparting knowledge in Pakistan.
The discipline of history is one of the victims of apathetic attitude of society towards knowledge. As a result, the conceptual issues surrounding historiography have not been explored philosophically in Pakistan. Kamran’s article broaches an important topic related to the interface between universal, national and local histories. This article tries to explore the relevance of philosophical postulates for the study of history in Pakistan, and unearth the genealogy and archeology of peripheral histories and experiences buried under the national historical narrative.
In the context of Pakistan, different historical trajectories and processes of the past converge in the present. So it can be said that we are experiencing the past not in a congealed form, but in a diffused form. Future is the name given to tension of making sense of existence suspended between the past and present. Hence, the past can be seen as a potent force determining the contours of present.
What the dominant views of history do is that they show necessity of how past is organised and how it determines our present. However, such views of history have debilitating effect on the people when interpretation of the past exceeds the empathetic understanding (German verstehen) of experiences in the present.
Like other states in the world, Pakistan tries to create a history that can fuse diverse histories under the monolithic narrative of state. However, the heterogeneity of historical contexts of different regions and people in the country make it difficult for the state to negotiate diversity. The fractured past and its repercussions on historical narrative in Pakistan denote fissures within the discourse propounded by the state. It also shows a disconnect between the project of nation building including constructing national history and different cultural groups who have different historical memories and experiences but inhabit the same political structure.
The fractured past and fissiparous narrative of history makes Michel Foucault’s philosophy relevant to Pakistani society and discourse of history because he rejects inevitability of influence of processes of the past on present by demonstrating epistemological breaks in the history. Unlike other schools of thoughts that try to be coherent and universal/global in their theoretical approach towards the discipline of history, Foucault attempts to widen the fissures and cracks in the universality of theory so that more space can be created for suppressed and micro-histories.
In his book Society Must be Defended, Foucault rejects universal/global theories for they cannot provide tools that can be used at local level. He employs violent vocabulary to drive his message home by enjoining historians to suspend theoretical unity of universal/global theories “or at least cut, ripped up, torn to shreds, turned inside out, displaced, caricatured, dramatized, theatricalised, and so on.”
The conceptual architecture of universal theories of history is further strengthened by modernity and capitalism that creates homogeneous, empty time. It is homogeneous and empty time that propels societies or nations to create seamless narratives of history. The existence of fissures in the narratives provides space for counter narrative against modernity and capitalism.
To counter the emerging antithesis of the prevalent thesis, proponents of universality and liberalism espouse a view of history that flattens time and makes movement of history homogeneous by pronouncing the end of history in late modernity. German philosopher Walter Benjamin in his paper Thesis on History rejects linear, homogeneous movement of time. By this he refers to dominant modes of history claiming universality. Such modes of history see time as sequential and treats the past as “static data, static text awaiting a neutral discoverer to decode “causal nexus”.
The homogenous view of time resurfaces in the natural impulse of nation states for homogeneity. This impulse is not only confined to ideological states like Pakistan, but also influences political ideologies of all persuasions. For instance, liberalism’s drive to collapse time into linear historical path basically devours histories and societies on the fringes of universal histories. It holds true for ideologies of socialism, Hindutva and Islamism. In its extreme form, the global ideologies themselves turn into prison houses in the shape of Gulags, world wars, concentration camps, cold war, religious fundamentalism, and terrorism and neo-liberal wars in the end of history.
When an ideology weds with power it either suppresses diversity of perspectives or compels discordant ways of seeing to relinquish those parts of worldview that does not resonate with its overarching conceptual architecture of dominant narrative. As a result, local histories and minor knowledge disintegrate, and assume fragmentary form in new intellectual and institutional arrangements.
Michel Foucault’s archeological exploration of histories of different domains of life endeavours to rehabilitate marginal knowledge and suppressed voices drowned in the march of universal histories buttressed by nexus of knowledge and power. The rehabilitation of marginal people on the pages of history can be done by disrupting existing epistemic structures, and by replacing objectivity with perspective. This upending problematises the very conception of truth.
Traditionally, truth is treated as a manifestation of the absolute conceptual framework or metaphysics. What are ignored in the traditional and modern ways of search for truth are operations of system of thinking on the thoughts itself. Unlike system builders like Plato, Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx, Michel Foucault was an adherent of anti-system thinker like Frederic Nietzsche who according to Foucault reproached critical history “for sacrificing the very movement of life to the exclusive concern for truth.”
Nietzsche explains the processes whereby truth is produced in human context and then internalised and ultimately viewed as immutable and transcendental. He himself asks the question: “What then is truth?” Nietzsche then answers in an exquisite poetic language that truth is “A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding.” Here Nietzsche points to the yawning gap between truth and experience created by operation of time.
If one analyses the interface between truth and experience at epistemic level, it becomes clear that experience is always begotten by facing a new situation and sensation, whereas truth is the product of interplay of particular social, political and economic dynamics and power relations in a given time. It can be said that the experience of present feeds our sense and sensibilities. With the passage of time, experience, sense and sensibilities mutate, but our understanding of the changes in the very structure of experiencing remains frozen in time. So it can be said that historical truth is an outcome of the settled ways of seeing.
A Persian poet warns against settling of truth through the metaphor of bridge by enjoining rational people not to make bridge their permanent abode (ahle tameezkhanan asajand bar puli). Metaphorically speaking, truth is the abode on a bridge over the flowing river of time to enable the historian to witness the flux. By making bridge his permanent abode, the historian fixes his gaze on the flux beneath. While doing so he fails to follow the meandering path the river takes and unable to see how it carves her path down the stream. In other words, experience remains in flux and the eyes of historian remains static. The yawning gap between the historian’s place of standing (locus standi) and flux of time makes his observations redundant and established truth dogma.
Once established, truth congeals into absolute truth, and consequently turns into dry dogma. The dogma not only influences the present but also alters the past and influences our perception to cater to its regime of truth. Michel Foucault’s archeology basically restores experience instead of restoring truth. Taking cue from Foucault’s reflections on universal vis-à-vis local history, and truth and lived experience, the suppressed histories can break the dominant epistemological structures and historical narratives.
Tahir Kamran has rightly identified people of Gilgit-Baltistan, Waziristan and regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as the ones who have been relegated to the peripheries of national historical discourse. Although Kamran tends to see fissures and fractures in the national narrative of history as a major flaw in nation building process, it can be at the same a great opportunity for the regions in subaltern position to assert their agency in history. For instance, Gilgit-Baltistan has different historical context and experiences than other parts of Pakistan. Though the region lived under similar rulers in colonial and postcolonial period, its experience is at variance with what is stated by historical narrative of the state.
The discordant interface of the lived experience of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and the established narrative of the state creates a disconnect between the two. The subaltern regions and people in the national historical narrative of Pakistan ought to create a discourse that enables them to restore their lived experience against the truth formed by discursive operations functioning in diffused forms.
The espousal of local and suppressed histories does not intend to rejuvenate nativism or to invent romanticised past disrupted by modernity and universal discourses, rather its purpose is to employ genealogical methods not to trace a single origin, but to identify multiple and complex origins. Instead of rejecting multiple origins in favour of an elusive essence, the genealogical approach restores human experience in history. This non-essentialised outlook will enable us to negotiate multiplicity of experiences in a highly interconnected world inaugurated by solid modernity, and rarified in the form of virtual identities in the postmodern age.
The narrative of history manufactured by power should be seen as selective amnesia presented as the truth to be imposed upon the consciousness of people on the margins. Owing to this, our historical page is continuously written, erased and overwritten. More than creating memories, history creates selective amnesia in the society.
Michel Foucault’s archaeological method traces the signs of writings, erasers and over writings on the social body, consciousness and history. Instead of totally rejecting theoretical insights of archeology of Foucault, it would be better to explore the possibilities offered by his framework of seeing the order of things. It would help us broaden intellectual horizons of our closed mind and society, and enable us to develop an open society.
The writer is a social scientist based in Gilgit. Email: email@example.com