What is reality? How do we perceive it? Where does it exist? Does it exist outside or inside or in the interface of both worlds? What is the role of language in the perception and formation of reality?
Though these are perennial philosophical questions, they concern more or less all of us, consciously or unconsciously. We are prone to take everything that comes to our mind as real and that can be expressed in words. Yagana Changezi, the famous Urdu poet, says in one of his couplet:
(Nobody exactly knows what knowledge or reality of knowledge is. What one surmises as an individual becomes his reality.)
As we surmise something, we enter into the perplexed world of language. We rarely notice that there always work some beliefs about the relation of language and reality. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Austrian-British philosopher, said “limits of my language means the limits of my world’’. This means language not only defines reality but delimits it too.
We believe that language is one of the most authentic means of perceiving reality. But this belief gets shattered as we go deep into the actual working of language. We come to know that words are made not only to ‘say’ something but they can ‘do’ a lot of things too. A word not only intends, but it achieves. Words can ‘do’ illustrious as well as disastrous things. They impose, inculcate and instill values, structures and system of hierarchies of society into our deep down terrains of psyche.
Sooner or later, it occurs shockingly to us that what we had been describing as ‘reality’ was in reality an illusion; it was actually a work of power structure of the society. In simple terms, we can say that ‘limits of language’ are drawn by power structure. Duality and binary opposites are the linguistic tools that effectively draw our ‘limits of language’.
Ironically, it seems natural to identify things in relation to their opposites. The vocabulary of our daily life abounds with a great numbers of binary opposites. Reality and illusion, right and wrong, nature and culture, life and death, high and low, West and East, white and black, us and they, man and woman, love and hate, light and dark, urban and rural, fact and fiction, depth and surface, believer and non-believer, loyal and traitor are just a few of the large number of binary opposites that nestle in our subconscious and shape our concepts of reality.
The belief that binary opposites in language are ‘natural’ is based on an obsolete concept of language which propounded it as a mirror. A mirror only reflects what already exists. A mirror doesn’t mediate or intrude between an object and its reflection. At best, it is an objective medium. But modern theories of linguistics state that language mediates, intrudes and in the end does construct the reality instead of reflecting some outside real events.
In reality, language has never been a transparent medium. It is evident from the news we watch daily on TV which doesn’t reflect the actual events in a transparent way — the media builds, fabricates and constructs news stories. If language were transparent, every event would have been mirrored in a monotonically similar manner. It is not difficult to know how language is used to mutilate, distort and disfigure facts. Ironically, facts are distorted so that a new reality can be fabricated. And language helps in both distorting and fabricating facts.
As language is itself a social and cultural construct, so construction of its reality is decisively swayed by social, cultural and ideological forces. Swiss linguist Ferdinand Saussure said there are only differences in language. He put forward the idea that the whole process of creating meaning in language is based on differences. It was Jacques Derrida who later discovered that there are not only differences but hierarchies too. Interestingly, hierarchies find their way into the very process of meaning effectuated by differences. But hierarchies are borrowed from the society.
The two things are not only different semantically; they are loaded with a different value system. When we distinguish one thing from the other, we unconsciously ascribe a particular kind of value to one at the cost of the other. Life, West, Man, Love, Light, Urban, Fact, Depth, Loyal are not only different from their opposites but are considerably distinct from Death, East, Woman, Hate, Dark, Rural, Fiction, Surface and Traitor respectively.
Right from this point starts the process of Othering. What is different becomes the Other. The Other is excluded, deprived, disproved, ostracised and pushed to the margin. The term Othering was coined by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in the postcolonial perspective but the concept — of Othering — exists with slight but fine differences in classical poetry of Urdu and in Tassawuf too. There is a triangle of love in classical Urdu poetry comprising Ashiq (lover), Mashooq (beloved) and Raqeeb (rival). Raqeeb and Ashiq forge a binary opposite. Raqeeb has been portrayed as the other of Ashiq possessing major characteristics of otherness. Ashiq tries his best to exclude and bar him from the world of love by declaring him Hawas Paisha (lusty).
The Othering has serious social, political and psychological repercussions. Not surprisingly, one of the major reasons of enmity between nations, sects and genders lies in Othering. What grows to be ‘the other’ is supposed to acquire ghastly, grim, hateful, detestable characteristics. With the passage of time, the Other turns into a stereotype. Nineteenth century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, said “Once you label me you negate me’’. All stereotypes are labels and they negate those configured as the Other, wiping out their true, discrete attributes. A destructive kind of dehumanisation occurs ultimately. Stereotyping of the Other leaves us desensitised to all types of violence against them.
West, Man, Fact etc are desired and valued at the cost of East, Woman, and Fiction respectively. We desire what power or stereotype of the Other wants us to desire. In this way, means of communication become the means of control. Saleem Ahmad in his famous Urdu poem Mashriq Har Gia (East got defeated ) has captured the moment of Othering, though in simple manner.
East is East
And West is West
And both can’t meet”
But West has entered the compound of East
My servant listens to news on BBC
Instead of Bedil and Hafiz
I read Shakespeare and Rilke
These lines underscore two major stages of Othering. First, the East is declared different from the West by an influential author of colonial power. This unbridgeable differentiation is nothing more than a construct, and need of colonialism. New-fangled and mutually exclusive attributes were easy to be associated with ‘East’ and ‘West’ after proclaiming a gulf between them. East was made ‘the other’ of the West. If the first phase of Othering possesses epistemological character, the second one is inundated with a kind of ‘act’, i.e., replacing Eastern things with Western ones, pushing Eastern authors and their texts to the margin, depriving them of their centuries’ old cultural status. This happens on canonical and psychological levels alike.
Shakespeare, Rilke, Bedil and Hafiz are, undoubtedly, great world poets but here Shakespeare and Rilke are portrayed as literary cannons of the West that have gained a kind of doctrinal power to leave Eastern Bedil and Hafiz redundant and pushing them to the margin. The latter became the Other of the great Western authors. The same happens with ‘women’, ‘non-believers’ etc.
It seems rather obligatory to raise the question whether we can relieve ourselves of the baggage of Othering or not? The answer is: yes, of course — love and interrogative voice can do it.
Othering is based on the duality we find in ‘I and It’. Martin Buber, an Austrian philosopher, proffered two word-pairs that designate two concepts of relations and two modes of existence: I and It; I and Thou. I and It pair is almost similar to that of White and Black, West and East, a stereotype. ‘I’ conquers, suppresses, and excludes ‘It’, reducing it to non-being. But the second pair’s ‘I’ loves Thou; bridges the differences, ending the duality. I becomes Thou (Man Tu Shudam Tu Man Shudi, in the words of Amir Khusrau). Faiz Ahmad Faiz wrote a poem Raqeeb Say (To the Rival) in which he forcefully refutes the long-lasting classical concept of the Othering of Raqeeb. Raqeeb and Ashiq share the pangs of love.
(We, the lover and the rival, share the pangs of love. I can’t count the benefactions of love and beloved. What we have lost or gained in love, that can only be shared with you)
Now the interrogative voice. This voice dares to question the validity of perceiving reality through binary opposites. As mentioned above, the binary opposites are ingrained in language but the hierarchies attached with them are the work of power. As all hierarchies are arbitrary, they can be interrogated, reinterpreted, shifted and replaced. Once the interrogative process to challenge hierarchies begins, the suppression engendered by Othering starts going into recession. Interrogative margin attains a ‘position’ to subvert the centre; margin strips the label of marginality off. ‘The other’ finds itself in a ‘position’ to detach itself from the attributes imposed upon it by power.
We find an interrogative voice in Azra Abbas’s poem Hath Khol Diay Jain (If My Hands Were Untied) that seems emerging out of the abyss of marginality, and violently seeks to topple the centre.
(If my hands are unbound, I can blacken the walls of the world by the streaks of dreams. I can squeeze the globe by putting it into my palm.)
Once the old, horrific world of binary opposites with its terrible hierarchies gets squeezed, exhaustively interrogated, the illusions borne out of Othering fade into new, discrete, humane reality.
The author is a critic and short story writer of Urdu who teaches Urdu at Punjab University and writer of Mabaad Nauabadiat and Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel e Jadeed pioneer works on post colonial study of Urdu published by OUP.