The question of politics as far as an artist or a litterateur is concerned is usually posed in terms of what position the artist or the litterateur in question strikes as an individual with regard to the political situation of his day. Those terms often also extend to what such an artist or writer says about politics in his works of art or literature. That is mostly how the question of an artist or a writer’s politics is approached and framed. We could call this the question of literature in politics or politics in literature – the problematic of art/literature about politics, or the problematic of political art. Now that, most certainly, is a valid approach in dealing with the question of art and politics, and their relationship. The attempt here, however, is to engage with the works of Bangladeshi writer Akhtaruzzaman Elias by way of another approach. One that has arguably come down to us from Marx — evident in his engagement with the literature of Classical Hellenic Antiquity – through, primarily, Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht. (There have, of course, been others like Adorno and Ernst Bloch, and such Althusserians and post-Althusserians as Pierre Macherey and Jacques Ranciere respectively, not to forget Fredric Jameson, who have adopted one or another variant of this approach in their engagement with art and literature.) This approach seeks to deal with the question of art and politics in terms of what we ought to call ‘the politics of art’.
What does this approach entail? It seeks to deal with art and literature not principally in terms of what artistic or literary works have to say on or about politics, but what is the politics they pose by virtue of being the works of art or literature they are. More precisely, this approach attempts to grasp the politics posed by the aesthetics of the works in question. That is, it tries to grasp the politics of a work of art or literature by figuring out the organisation of space constitutive of that work. This approach attempts to unearth the politics of art in terms of how the question of relationality has been embodied by the text of a work of art or literature, and envisaged in its production. For, it is the logic of relationality that is constitutive of the organisation and structure of space thus giving that structure and organisation a specific character, whether in our so-called real, social life or the life of the world that is a novel, a story, a poem, a painting or a film. It is this character of the structure or organisation of space of a work of art that is its economy, while that which founds this character or economy and/or renders it manifest is its politics.
Politics of Literature And Elias’s Savage Mind
The two approaches of dealing with the question of art and politics delineated above are not mutually exclusive. They are interdependent. However, the stress here, in dealing with the question of politics with regard to Elias’s literature, will fall principally on the latter approach. That is not to say one intends to evade engaging with Elias’s works in terms of the former but one certainly wishes to understand how what Elias says about politics in and through his literary works derives from the politics his literature as such speaks. That is, how it is actually the politics of Elias’s literature which renders what that literature says on or about his contemporary political situation, and on politics in general, complete and effective. It might be a repetition to once again explain and explicate the terms of the approach and concept of politics of literature. But it might not be a bad idea to do so, perhaps at some length, before we begin engaging our determinate object – that is, the literary works of Elias. On that score, Ranciere (2011, pp.3-4) provides us with an apposite conceptual compass:
“The politics of literature is not the same thing as the politics of writers. It does not concern the personal engagements of writers in the social or political struggles of their times. Neither does it concern the way writers represent social structures, political movements or various identities in their books. The expression ‘politics of literature’ implies that literature does politics simply by being literature. It assumes that we don’t need to worry about whether writers should go in for politics or stick to the purity of their art instead, but that this very purity has something to do with politics. It assumes that there is an essential connection between politics as a specific forms of collective practice and literature as a well-defined practice of the art of writing.
“….Politics is the construction of a specific sphere of experience in which certain objects are posited as shared and certain subjects regarded as capable of designating these objects and of arguing about them. But such a construction is not a fixed given resting on an anthropological invariable. The given on which politics rests is always litigious. A celebrated Aristotelian formula declares that men are political beings because they have speech, which allows them to share the just and the unjust, whereas animals only have a voice that expresses pleasure or pain. But the whole issue lies in knowing who is qualified to judge what is deliberative speech and what is expression of displeasure. In a sense, all political activity is a conflict aimed at retracing the perceptible boundaries by means of which political capacity is demonstrated. Plato’s Republic shows at the outset that artisans don’t have the time to do anything other than their work: their occupation, their timetable and their capabilities that adapt them to it prohibit them from acceding to this supplement that political activity constitutes. Now, politics begins precisely when this impossibility is challenged, when those men and women who don’t have the time to do anything other than their work take the time they don’t have to prove that they are indeed speaking beings, participating in a shared world and not furious or suffering animals. This distribution and this redistribution of space and time, place and identity, speech and noise, the visible and the invisible, form what I call the distribution of the perceptible. Political activity reconfigures the distribution of the perceptible. It introduces new objects and subjects onto the common stage. It makes visible what was invisible, it makes audible as speaking beings those who were previously heard only as noisy animals.(1)
“The expression ‘politics of literature’ thereby implies that literature intervenes as literature in this carving up of space and time, the visible and the invisible, speech and noise. It intervenes in the relationship between practices and forms of visibility and modes of saying that carves up one or more common worlds.”
Now the question is: what is the politics of Elias’s literature? It is, we ought to contend, insurrectionary. And that is exactly what this essay intends to demonstrate. To be more accurate, it must be said the politics posed by Elias’s literary aesthetic is insurrectionary. In fact, one should further qualify one’s take on Elias by contending the politics that the aesthetic — or more precisely the aesthetic economy — of his literature renders evident is insurrectionary, as opposed to being merely insurgent.
Before we proceed any further we would do well to clarify what insurrectionary politics is and how exactly is it to be distinguished from what one has chosen to term insurgent politics. Insurrection is generalisation of the emergent logic of a localised moment of insurgency – which is doubtless its constitutive moment – through the overcoming of that localisation into multiple insurgent moments that erupt uninterruptedly and simultaneously.
But how does this politics of insurrection manifest itself in aesthetics, the aesthetics of literature to be precise? Elias’s literature – his two novels [Chilekotar Sepai (Soldier in the Attic) and Khowabnama (Dream Chronicle)] and over two dozen stories – is an apposite instantiation of the same. The organisation of the space of his literature – which is its aesthetic – is constitutive of what Levi-Strauss terms “the savage mind”. It is on account of such constitutivity that the politics of Elias’s literary aesthetic becomes insurrectionary. According to Levi-Strauss (1966, p.245), “The savage mind totalizes” and “it is in (the) intransigent refusal on the part of the savage mind to allow anything human (or even living) to remain alien to it, that the real principle of dialectical reason is to be found”.
The French anthropologist further clarifies the principle of dialectical reason – and thus the savage mind – when he takes issue with Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason to explain and explicate the relationship between analytical reason and dialectical reason. He writes (1966, p.246): “…the opposition between the two sorts of reason (analytical and dialectical) is relative, not absolute. It corresponds to a tension within human thought which may persist indefinitely de facto, but which has no basis de jure. In my view dialectical reason is always constitutive: it is the bridge, forever extended and improved, which analytical reason throws out over an abyss; it is unable to see the further shore but it knows that it is there, even should it be constantly receding. The term dialectical reason thus covers the perpetual efforts analytical reason must make to reform itself if it aspires to account for language, society, and thought; and the distinction between the two forms of reason in my view rests only on the temporary gap separating analytical reason from the understanding of life. Sartre calls analytical reason reason in repose; I call the same reason dialectical when it is roused to action, tensed by its efforts to transcend itself.”
After all, a new analytic of thinking emerges as the subjectivity of an object to critically overcome externalised determination, and the meaning imposed on it through representation by an already existing analytic subjectivity so that the object can free itself from the violence done to it by the latter analytic, which is nothing but the abstraction of its own prior subjectivity. This, in order to assert itself in its concreteness. That is, to affirm itself as its own subject: Badiou’s “subjective-materiality”.(2) (2009, p.-198)
As a result, the unconscious of the analytical mode of reason is to overcome all analytic abstractions, including itself. The savage mind is the generalisation or awakening of this unconscious of analytical reason with the latter self-reflexively grasping itself as the former.
Therefore, the savage mind is activation of dialectical reason, which is analytical reason constantly overcoming itself by grasping its own logic of emerging to actualise it. The logic of emerging of analytical reason is, it must be stated at the risk of some repetition, also its unconscious when it exists as itself, which is dialectical reason in “repose”. Clearly, the savage mind is constitutive of the process of the self being transfigured into its beyondness. Therefore, as the actuality of the principle of dialectical reason it is de-identitarianising and cannot, therefore, have its locus ontically fixed in a self. Levi-Strauss puts that across quite succinctly when he writes: “I do not regard dialectical reason as something other than analytical reason, upon which the absolute originality of a human order would be based, but as something additional in analytical reason: the necessary condition for it to venture to undertake the resolution of the human into the non-human.”
And insofar as the savage mind is constitutive of the critical overcoming of externalised determination and analytical abstraction, it posits a critique of duality and relationality on one hand and identity principle on the other. The savage mind can, therefore, also be envisaged in terms of affirmation of singularity and non-identity. It could be construed as a figure of the actuality or historicity of singularisation or counter-totalisation of infinitely different space-times. A historicity of singularity as it were.
It must, however, be stated here as an aside that one has absolutely no intention of upholding the methodological structuralism of Levi-Strauss’s anthropology. In horizontalising various historical phenomena into an ethnography of relativised laissez-faire in terms of the universality of the deep structure that, according to the French anthropologist, constitutes them, this structuralism shares a methodological affinity with a kind of ahistorical Kantianism. This problem, it must be stated here in passing, stems from the theoretical level of abstraction being collapsed on to the practical or existentially-lived level of determination. A move that conceptually renders the subjective operation of dialectical thinking directly correspondent to and fully commensurate with the dialectical constitutivity of the structure (structural dialectic) in its objectiveness.
What the argument here takes from Levi-Strauss is basically his conceptualisation of the “savage mind” as a mode of social being animated by, and constitutive of, the operation of dialectical thinking. That not only serves to explicate the singularising and insurrectionary politics of Elias’s literature, it also arguably enables one to find the resources, from within Levi-Strauss’ anthropological discourse itself, to critically break with the twin-crises of structuralism and relativism of his ethnological method and discourse. That becomes possible on account of this conceptualisation of the “savage mind” being premised on the explicit recognition of the dialectic between history and structure (or logic). One that, in Benjamin’s words, enables us to brush history (as in its historical analytic) against its own grain (the dialectical logic of its emerging).
This counter-totalising savage mind, which both singularises infinitely diverse spatio-temporalities and is thus simultaneously also their singularity, is rendered rather explicitly evident in a constellation of different space-times of resistance that Elias constructs in his Chilekotar Sepai (2000, pp.187-188). Those different spatio-temporalities come together in and as the unity of their moments of insurgent, and thus evental, emerging to palpably inhabit, in the eyes of protagonist Osman Gani, a protest march on the streets of Dhaka against Pakistani occupation of East Bengal:
“Yesterday Ayub Khan’s police killed a boy from the university, such a huge protest happens, Anwar can’t get to see any of it! …Osman’s heart skips a few beats: so many people here, are they all breathing, fish-rice-eating normal human beings like him? This human flood here, he finds the attire, demenaour of many of them unfamiliar? Who are they? Does it mean, people from eras long gone by have also joined the procession? Here see, smack in the middle of the procession are short dhoti-clad denizens of Dhaka from the time of Islam Khan’s reign! In fact, those who would, in an even earlier time, travel to Sonargaon and back in boats full of sacks of rice have come too. Inhabitants of Bangla Baajar and Tantibaajar (weavers’ market) have emerged from the frozen heart of the vanished canal to come here? Here are the turbaned soldiers, from the time of Ibrahim Khan’s reign, who were killed in a skirmish with Prince Khusro. Osman gets a start on seeing those who died of hunger in Shaiyasta Khan’s Dhaka of the time of eight-maunds of rice for a taka. They have had nothing to eat for 300 years, — their steps in harmony, they march ahead with their black hair fluttering in the breeze like a wave. People battered by the Mughals, people battered by the Mogs, people battered by the Company’s merchants — could this procession have been this big had everyone not turned up? The Maratha priest has emerged from the dry layers of bricks of the Racecourse Kali Temple to come down here swinging the falchion, Majnu Shah’s fakirs are here too, here go the Muslin weavers throwing and waving their thumb-torn fists in the air, their eternally black bare bodies roast in the sun. Today, the naked, starving, skeletal bodies of weavers who weave taka 4,000- worth jamdanis walk an erect walk. The imams, muezzins, musullis of Babubajar Mosque riddled with bullets by the British are marching ahead, instead of muttering verses from the Quran they roar today, ‘We shall not let it go in vain!’ Here come the soldiers of Lalbagh Fort, mangled by the beastly bites of insatiable desire of Nabab Abdul Gani, Ruplal, Mohinimohon, let loose by the red-faced sahibs. Sepoys of Merrut have torn away the nooses around their necks to come down from the palm trees of Victoria Park, sepoys of Bareilly, sepoys of Swandeep-Sirajganj-Goaland. No dear, even that doesn’t suffice. The mother-worshipping youths of Jugantar and Anushilan in their dhoti and vests are coming, in their midst the two murdered boys of Kaltabajaar can be separately identified. From below the Naarinda bridge comes Somen Chanda, the bloody wave of Dolai canal on his head. There, that is Barkat! His skull has been blown off. That, at first sight, frightens Osman a little but he quickly takes hold of himself. So many people! In the high tide of a new water Dhaka’s past and present are today overflowing and dissolving into one another, today its morning-afternoon-evening-night are forgotten and stand dissolved, today the city is without its east-west-north-south, all the signs that divide and distinguish the seventeenth-eighteenth-nineteenth-twentieth centuries stand erased. Today, the city of Dhaka is fully intent on occupying this limitless time and space. Osman’s heart trembles: how far will he be able to go with this massive deluge? How far? Like a quaking pitcher under the running tap at the mouth of Golok Pal Lane becomes still once it is full to the brim, our Osman Gani’s heart too has gradually become full and complete, by becoming one of the smallest molecules of this uninterrupted tidal surge he is experiencing a warmth in his heart. That is no mean recompense? With his heart full he throws his fist in the air and roars, ‘Will not let it go in vain.’” (My translation.)
Clearly, what the historical-sociological specifications or mediations of those struggles are – that is, their identities – do not seem to matter in this novelistic depiction. At any rate, it is a secondary concern. Instead, what the discourse of the novel seeks to bring to the fore is the universality that each of those struggles in their mediational specificity posit. Each of those struggles in the specificity of being ranged against their respectively particular historical domination posit the unconscious of overcoming the general condition of externalised determination, and thus duality and relationality. It is this singularising unconscious, which can also be called the unconscious of universal-singularity, that is actualised in this passage from Chilekotar Sepai through the construction of this constellation that is accorded the reality of an existentially-lived world or space-time. This constellation is, therefore, nothing but the world of the savage mind – the savage mind in its own space and time.
Insurrection as Popular Culture, or from the Subaltern to the Oppressed
This example – typical of Elias’s literary aesthetic of the savage mind, and thus its insurrectionary politics – is, among other things, the enactment of popular culture. The discourse constitutive of such an aesthetic enables us to discern in it a conception of culture that is the singularising and singular configuration of space-times. It affirms a politics of culture that can, following Raymond Williams, be termed “cultural materialism”. Following his literary aesthetic, we could say that Elias, not unlike Williams, envisages culture as the materiality of life, wherein this materiality of life is not the positivist abstraction of that empirically-lived life. Instead, real materiality of life, for militant-intellectuals like him and Williams, emerges only when the living of life is a mode of struggle and self-critique. This aesthetic seems to suggest that popular culture, as Elias would grasp it, is not the symbolicness or discursivity of forms of subaltern expression that identitarianises culture. Rather, it would, for him, be precisely the expression of an impulse – of course made possible as that expression through the mediation of forms and their historically and sociologically given discursive resources – that tends to overcome the identitarian logic and politics of culture. On the other hand, culture is an embodiment of identitarian logic and politics when it is grasped in terms of its formal stability and discursive abstraction. This latter sort of culture should – following the insurrectionary aesthetic vision embodied in and by the discourse of Elias’s novels and stories – be comprehended as nothing but culture as the logic of representation, identitarianisation and domination. This, for us, is, clearly, culture as a commodity and ideology, and thus culture as capital and the politics of capitalism.
In the Eliasian scheme, which can be discerned from the nature of the writer’s literary aesthetic, popular culture would be the flow and flux beyond the abstraction of forms — which are nevertheless its constitutive moments because they serve to determinately actualise the de-formalising or de-identitarianising flux. It would be the force of the flow that unravels its own formal fetishes, which are tendentially inevitable, to overcome the centripetalising regimentation that compels it to turn into culture as bourgeois domination, and thus also into an embodiment of its politics of hegemony (in a precise Gramscian sense). Thus popular culture would, for Elias, be the expression of the generalisation of the tendency of de-representation, de-identitarianisation and centrifugalisation. Insurrection is nothing but the generalised expression of such a tendency, which in and as that generalisation is the actuality or historicity of non-identity and singularity. Clearly, for Elias, culture is truly popular only when it seeks to instantiate the tendency of the minor.
In the novel Khowabnama, for instance, the actuality of the centrifugalising force in its singularity is broached through the opposition posed by the mediations of the paganised-heretical Islamic discursivities of wandering mendicant and minstrel Cherag Ali’s traditional canon of mythic stories and anonymous Delphic dream-reading riddles, songs, limericks and doggerels to the sociology and discursivities of the culture, with a relatively more orthodox Islamic religious dimension, of the dominant class of rich kulaks such as Sharafat Mandal. The historical sociology of this opposition, more precisely contradistinction, is envisaged in the novel to reveal the unconscious of the heretical cultural discursivity and its concomitant subaltern sociology. And that unconscious of the sociology and discursivity of the subaltern culture, by virtue of it being constituted thus in its bid to overcome the domination and externalised determination by the dominant culture, is to obtain to the condition of singularity. After all, the sociologically relational existence of those two discursivities of culture proves the discursivity and sociology of the subaltern culture has constituted itself as what it is – that is, in its difference from the discursivity and sociology of the dominant culture – to thwart being represented, determined and thus dominated by the latter. By that same token of its constitutive or emergent logic, therefore, it must also overcome itself as that culture of subalternised discursivity and sociology, which renders it an identity precisely and simultaneously in being the difference it is.
The novel in question reveals that unconscious, or incipience, of the heretical-subaltern sociology and discursivity of Cherag Ali’s culture by actualising it, precisely by having that culture-as-difference (or difference-as-identity) overcome and transfigure itself. The constitutivity of mystic-mendicant Cherag Ali’s culture, which is subtractive and singular, is shown in the novel to actualise itself through its unfolding by overcoming, and in the process transfiguring, the discursively specified discourse of Cherag Ali. Such overcoming and transfiguration sustains the actuality of the centrifugalising force in its singularity, which is popular culture, by preventing its hypostatisation into a sociology or artefact of so-called popular culture. And that happens through the reconstitution of the centrifugalising force, which was constitutive of Cherag Ali’s discourse in its moment of emerging, as and in the new songs of social criticism and revolutionary transformation composed and performed by his self-appointed disciple Keramat Ali in the high-noon of the Tebhaga movement. What is at stake here is clearly not the actuality of the two cultural or discursive forms. It is not about the difference registered by the latter form with regard to the former in mutating from it either. What is, instead, at stake, as far as the emphasis of the novel at this point is concerned, is the actuality of the mutation itself. In other words, what is being staked out here through the two discursive, cultural or sociological forms and their difference is the actuality of the simultaneity of difference and the deployment of that difference. The novel demands that we focus here not on the actuality of difference but on the actuality of deployment of difference that the emergence of difference registers.
The break constitutive of the transfiguration of the figure of Cherag Ali into that of Keramat Ali produces, to talk in an Althusserian language, two different forms of “historical individuality” (Balibar; 1999, p. 252). But these two historical individualities, or figures of discourse, are different not merely in terms of the two sociologically different ontic positions, and historical situations, they occupy. Nor, therefore, is the difference between the two limited to the different discursive appearances of their respective discourses: anonymous mythic doggerels on one hand, and avowedly self-composed songs of social transformation on the other. Rather, what sets the two individualities radically apart is the break between their respective modalities of discourse, which marks an epistemological rupture in the qualities of the orientation of their respective subject-positions. Something that makes them inhabitants of not only two different historical situations but two radically different historicities or epochs. It is precisely on account of this difference that the two figures faithfully bear out the Althusserian concept of “historical individuality”.
The novel in having Keramat Ali assert that he is a disciple of Fakir Cherag Ali, even while he explicitly abandons the discursive pattern of the latter’s discourse, makes him into an active subject of his own invention as the singular centrifugalising force by reconstituting it through and as the new discursivity of songs of social transformation. It reveals that Keramat Ali is aware he is reclaiming the singular centrifugalising force, constitutive of the subalternised sociology and discursivity of Cherag Ali’s discourse in its moment of emerging, in precisely abandoning the discursive tradition of that discourse. This, therefore, also implies that, unlike the sociological figure of Cherag Ali, the sociological figure of Keramat Ali is self-reflexive in his awareness of the unconscious of the discursively-specified discourse he produces. The way he has been envisaged in the novel implicitly indicates his awareness of the need to also overcome the discursivity and sociology of his own discourse – which he has produced in the process of overcoming the sociology and discursivity of Cherag Ali’s discourse – in order to maintain his fidelity to the reconstitution of the singularity of the centrifugalising force.
So, while the historicity and sociality constitutive of the sociological figure of Fakir Cherag Ali are respectively that of duality and identity, the historicity and sociality constitutive of the figure of Keramat Ali, which are also the historicity and sociality posited by the novel, go beyond the historical sociology of Keramat Ali to be the historicity and sociality of singularity and non-identity. The former is a figure of anti-capitalism that is constitutive of the epoch of capital. The latter, on the other hand, is a figure of the communist epoch. It must, however, be stated here that precisely because the historicity that Elias’s novel Khowabnama constitutes is singular, do we encounter Cherag Ali not only as the sociological self he is, but also as a figure beyond that sociologically specified, existential self of his. That figure is animated by the character of the spectre of Cherag Ali, who appears after the death/disappearance of his sociologically-specified existential self. This clearly instantiates the radicalisation of the empirically-lived, sociologised finitude of a character such as Cherag Ali by transfiguring his existentially-limited and sociologically-specified present into a perpetually open present by stretching that existentially-lived finitude in its very moment to that of infinite beyondness. The doubling, or tripling, of the figure of Cherag Ali – in and as the characters of existentially-lived Fakir, his spectre and his self-appointed disciple Keramat Ali – symptomatises his finitude in its inhumanly monstrous radicalisation. This savagely insurrectionary spatio-temporality is the novelistic space of Khowabnama, insofar as that novelistic space is constitutive of the inhumanity of such monstrous radicalisation of the existentially-limited human finitude.
The transcending of the self-other binary – by bringing the self and the other into a constellated synchrony of, what Badiou would term, “the singular-multiple” (2010, p.82) by abolishing the dualising relationality among them – is precisely what such doubling (or repetition or twinning) of character-figures accomplishes. Such constellated transcending of that binary is a recurrent motif in Elias’s literature. It is echoed, for instance, by most of his stories that are enactments of the singularising interplay of different, psychotically estranged alterities of otherwise consolidated selves. The devices and registers of subtraction,(3) which are so integral to Elias’s literary discourse, enable the enactment of such singularising interplay of alterities. They are dream [Laalmiya and Bullet in ‘Jaal Sopno, Sopner Jaal’(The Dream-web and Counterfeit Dreams’)]; violently idiosyncratic reverie [Osman in ‘Pratishodh’ (Revenge), Romij Ali in ‘Keetnashoker Kirti’ (The Pesticide Magic)]; eccentric recalcitrance [Mobarok Ali in ‘Apaghat’ (Mishap), psychotic break [Haddi Khijir and Osman Gani in Chilekotar Sepai, Abbas Pagla and Mili in ‘Miliir Haatey Stengun’ (Mili and Her Stengun), Nurul Huda in ‘Raincoat’]; intoxication [Samarjeet in ‘Khonwari’ (The Alcoholic Stupor)]; and schizophrenic meditation on self and history [Ronju in ‘Nirrudesh Jatra’ (The Unknown Journey)].
These examples – and especially Khowabnama – serve to demonstrate that in Elias’s creative prose the practice and discourse of the subalternised and marginal subject-positions are not championed as such in terms of their sociology and discursive abstractions. Rather, they are affirmed in terms of their singular/singularising logic of emerging. This is indicated and indexed by the discursivity and sociology characterising their subaltern/marginal culture in its difference from the identitarianised discursivity and sociology of the dominant culture. Such affirmation is, as the example from Khowabnama demonstrates, integral to the reclamation of the singularity by critically overcoming precisely the identified discursivity and sociology of subaltern culture. This, among other things, implies that for Elias subaltern cultures in the mere finitude of their difference do not denote popular culture. The former do not amount to the latter in its uninterrupted and infinite openness. Subaltern culture as difference instantiates, at best, the repetition of the succession of infinite finitudes, wherein finite freedom as withdrawal from the horizon of infinite totalisation is really no more than subjective illumination that only serves to accelerate, at the objective level, the reproduction of that identitarian horizon of infinite totalisation.
A subalternised culture is objectively coeval with popular culture only in its evental moment or moment of emergent constitutivity. And in that moment the culture in question is neither subaltern nor an identity but precisely the determinate instantiation of the nonidentitarian excess of their ontological structure. This nonidentitarian excess, needless to say, immobilises the metaphysical dynamic of that ontological structure, while simultaneously also interrupting the differentiating flight from it that only serves to return and reproduce that structure.
To grasp the sociologies and discursivities of the cultures of the subalterns and the marginals in such terms is to realise that justice can be done to the popular grain of those cultures only by critically overcoming them in their subalternised/marginalised existence. Grasping and actualising such internal critique posited by those subaltern/marginal cultures due to the fact of their differentiating and differential existence vis-à-vis the identity of dominant culture, is considered indispensable by Gramsci for an effective and meaningful project of Marxist sociology.
Through his criticism of Nikolai Bukharin’sTheory of Historical Materialism: A Manual of Marxist Sociology, which is shown to be lacking on that score, Gramsci (1996, pp.419-420) demonstrates why and how the sociological discursivities of subaltern cultures must be grasped in terms of their own singular constitutivity of emerging, and thus their own internal critique. This they themselves mediately posit as their own unconscious or negativity. He articulates his criticism of Bukharin thus:
“The first mistake of the Popular Manual is that it starts, at least implicitly, from the assumption that the elaboration of an original philosophy of the popular masses is to be opposed to the great systems of traditional philosophy and the religion of the leaders of the clergy – i.e. the conception of the world of the intellectuals and of high culture. In reality these systems are unknown to the multitude and have no direct influence on its way of thinking and acting. This does not mean of course that they are altogether without influence but it is influence of a different kind. These systems influence the popular masses as an external political force, an element of cohesive force exercised by the ruling classes and therefore an element of subordination to an external hegemony. This limits the original thought of the popular masses in a negative direction, without having the positive effect of a vital ferment of interior transformation of what the masses think in an embryonic and chaotic form about the world and life. The principal elements of common sense are provided by religion, and consequently the relationship between common sense and religion is much more intimate than that between common sense and the philosophical systems of intellectuals…. In common sense it is the “realistic”, materialistic elements which are predominant, the immediate product of crude sensation. This is by no means in contradiction with the religious element, far from it. But here these elements are “superstitious” and acritical….”
It, therefore, follows that the sociological specificity of subaltern culture establishes its own specific identity precisely in the moment it tends to differentiate itself from the sociology and discursivity of dominant culture in its identified and identitarianised specificity. The assertion of discursive specificity of a subaltern culture to differentiate itself with regard to the particular identity of a dominant culture is intrinsic to its attempt to obviate its representation and domination by the latter. However, the assertion of such differentiating identity presupposes the condition of duality – for, difference, in order to affirm itself, needs to assert and exist in its discursive particularity with regard to a specific identity from which such assertion is meant to affirmatively distinguish it. And this condition of duality and relationality is constitutive of competition, domination and representation. This condition is the condition of possibility of the mutually interdependent existence of domination and competition. Hence, a particular form of domination cannot be truly abolished without simultaneously abolishing competition and the condition of possibility of their mutually constitutive existence in general. It is precisely for this reason that a subaltern culture, even when it exists as such through the assertion of its difference vis-à-vis the identity of a dominant culture, continues to be dominated, marginalised, and even represented – in terms of the very discursivity it asserts to affirm its specified difference – by the dominant classes and their cultural systems. Clearly, the assertion of a subaltern culture as the index of affirmation of difference vis-à-vis a dominant culture spells the abolition of neither the latter as the specific identity it is nor the relationality of domination it co-founds.
In that context, the attempt by a subalternised people to rid themselves of their subordination by the dominant class through the assertion of their culture – that is, their specified way of life – reveals itself to be governed by the very condition of possibility of domination. For, the assertion of such difference with regard to identity, as we have seen, posits the structure of duality that is this condition of possibility of identitarianisation and domination. In such circumstances, this struggle of the subaltern and the marginalised against their subordination through the assertion of the differentiating specificities objectively amounts to no more than competition, which co-founds domination and is thus simultaneously co-constitutive of duality as their condition of possibility. That is exactly what Gramsci implies when he writes about “the popular masses” and their “original thought” being subordinated “to an external hegemony” of “the great systems of traditional philosophy and the religion of the leaders of the clergy”, even as such “conception of the world of the intellectuals and of high culture…are unknown to the multitude and have no direct influence on its way of thinking and acting”.
What this suggests is that the existence of a way of thinking and culture specific to the subalterns and the marginals (“original thought of the popular masses” in Gramsci’s words) in spite and because of its particular difference, which sets it apart from the specified identity of the thought of the dominant classes by differentiating it from the latter, is still determined or articulated by its structuring logic. Being subjected to such hegemony means that not only does the subordination of the differentiating specificity of subaltern culture by the culture that has identified and established itself as dominant not cease in spite of the affirmation of the former as difference, but also that this difference in being affirmed as such is rendered a subordinate cultural form or identity. The latter itself then turns into a dominant material force with regard to other strata that it simultaneously produces through its own internal differentiation. The production of such strata, through that process of internal differentiation of the ‘original’ subalternity, is coeval with the variation of the discursive resources constitutive of that culture-as-difference-turned-identity so that those strata come to acquire the discursive markers of their respective cultural specificities that also serve to designate their respective social status.
Gramsci (1996, p.420) lays this process bare in this note on Bukharin: “The principal elements of common sense are provided by religion, and consequently the relationship between common sense and religion is much more intimate than that between common sense and the philosophical systems of intellectuals. But even within religion some critical distinctions should be made. Every religion, even Catholicism…, is in reality a multiplicity of distinct and often contradictory religions: there is one Catholicism for the peasants, one for the petits-bourgeois and town workers, one for women, and one for the intellectuals which is itself variegated and disconnected.” Khowabnama further elucidates this process when it shows how Islam, which is the religious-cultural, and eventually also political, expression of the subordinate social status of rich kulaks such as Mandal and his Muslim Leaguer son Abdul Qader, vis-à-vis the upper-caste Hindu absentee landlords and their Congress backers, is itself internally differentiated into a paganised-heretical Islam of landless peasants, poor sharecroppers and fisherfolk. That is so because the relatively more orthodox Islam – which is doubtless a marker of both subordination of kulaks like Mandal by the upper-caste Hindu culture of the absentee landlords, and thus also the competitive struggle of the former against the latter – is, however, in relation to the social stratum of those believers of paganised-heretical Islam, a discursive cultural marker of the material force of domination that is constitutive of such differentiation of the Muslim identity in that part of East Bengal where the novel is set.
There should, however, be no doubt that the orthodox variant of a kulak’s Islam would instrumentalise the heretical Islam of the poor and the landless if the latter fail to grasp the self-critique unconsciously posited by the particularity of their religio-cultural differentiality. A self-critique whose actualisation would lead to that heretical religio-cultural difference overcoming both itself as the identity it becomes in asserting itself as that difference, and thus also the social differentiation and the politics of competition that are its conditions of possibility. It is through such overcoming of itself that a subalternity grasps and transforms itself into a figure of the oppressed as it occurs in Marx. This process of transformation of a subalternity into the Marxian figure of the oppressed, through the critical unraveling and supersession of itself as the identity it becomes in asserting its difference, entails that this identity self-transformatively grasp the domination it experiences in the particularity of its historical situation as the operation of political force as simultaneously both dominance and hegemony. Such an operation of political force tends to repress, distort and decimate singularity. This is the fact of oppression that subalternity conceals and which the figure of the oppressed, constitutive of self-realisation and transfiguration of such subalternity, brings to light.
As a consequence, it envisages its struggle against the historical particularity of the domination it experiences as the universal affirmation of singularity in the very finitude of that historically and sociologically particular domination. It is this that makes such struggle, at once, both world- and self-transforming. Thus the struggle of a dominated people who grasp themselves as the figure of the oppressed is a dialectically articulated struggle that is simultaneously directed both against their domination in its immediate historical particularity, and exploitation and duality, which comprise the mediated generalised condition of possibility of such domination. The figure of the oppressed in its self-realisation and concomitant struggle is, therefore, a figure of the critique of political economy in its actualisation. It is, by that same token, also the figure of revolutionary politics that Marx designates as “class-for-itself”.
But the problem is the bearers of particular and particularised subordinate cultural identities do not experience the specific relationships of domination, which results in them acquiring those identities, as part of a larger, totalising historical-social process. Marx (1986, p.817) says as much while criticising “vulgar economy” for affirming and “feel(ing) particularly at home in the estranged outward appearances of economic relations”. That, according to him, “does no more than interpret, systematise and defend in doctrinaire fashion the conceptions of the agents of bourgeois production who are entrapped in bourgeois production relations”. This impels him to conclude that “all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided”.
Nevertheless, implicit in this otherwise sound formulation of Marx is the fact that the science of general and generalised essence of exploitation is the synthesis of the infinitely open totality of historical experiences of different dominations. In such circumstances, the oppressed in its self-realisation would be the embodied concentration of that science of generalised exploitation into the finiteness of a particular experience of domination. It would be the realisation of the general and generalised infinity of different historically specific experiences in the finitude of that experiential particularity. Clearly, through such self-realisation of the oppressed the Marxist science of revolution fulfils itself by being restored to and dissolved into experience. It is this restoration of science to experience, which accords to science the hallmark of Nietzschean gaiety, that the generality of science and the particularity of experience are short-circuited to be transfigured into the universal-singularity of praxis. Elias seeks to accomplish precisely that in his literature. The constitutive deployment of the affective registers and tropes of psychotic break as subtraction — either as characters or situations, or both – in almost all his novels and stories serve to manifest the critical science of generalised singularity in and as the affectivity of experience. We could call this literary discourse of Elias his gay science.
And the above example from Khowabnama, which reveals precisely that, is no exception to the gay scientificity of his discourse. It attempts to show how the Tebhaga movement, by virtue of being a movement of radical transformation of inegalitarian agrarian production relations, is enabling the margin of margins to grasp this differentially particularised identity of theirs in terms of the unconscious self-critique it posits. The actualisation of such self-critique begins to enable, as the novel demonstrates, the identity of the margin of margins (not in the Derridean deconstructive sense ascribed to it by Ajit Chaudhury but in a literal sense) to overcome and transfigure itself and, therefore, in the same movement also move towards abolishing the stratified and differentiated socio-economic order that is its condition of possibility. But the novel also shows how the retreat and eventual collapse of that movement — thanks to the withdrawal of its Communist leadership for the sake of Hindu-Muslim amity in undivided Bengal and the rest of India — leads to the instrumentalisation of the pagan-heretical Islamic cultural identity of the landless peasants by the relatively more orthodox Islamic identity of the kulaks such as Mandal and his son Qader in the service of the Muslim League demand for the partition of undivided Bengal. An indisputable example of hegemony-reinforcing competitive politics of a subordinate people – Islam being the identity of the common struggle of landless, middle and rich peasants — against the dominant absentee landlords, whose specifying cultural identity is by and large upper-caste Hindu.
Yet, the fact remains that it is precisely such competitive struggle of the subalternised people against the particular form of their subordination by the dominant classes that posits the unconscious will of such competition to overcome itself and its constitutive condition of possibility (duality). This unconscious is posited by virtue of its striving to stop being dominated, and thus represented and identified, in its immediate particularity. That is clearly symptomatised by its exertion to establish its own particular identity – in the process of differentiating itself from the dominant cultural, and thus political, identity as a move to beat the latter’s representative imposition – through the assertion of a specifying discursivity and sociology to affirm its difference. But as long as this unconscious is not grasped for what it is, and generalised – which would lead to the creation of a qualitatively new historical and social actuality; the insurrectionary historicity and sociality of the savage mind – the struggle of the subordinated against the dominant is doomed to remain a struggle against the particular kind of domination the former directly encounters and experiences. This would obviously amount to no more than the assertion of a specific cultural and political identity by the subordinated against the cultural and political identity of the dominant in the particularity of their historical and sociological situation. As a result, it would, precisely in being the struggle that it is against domination, cancel itself out by being the vehicle of the very hegemony of the logic of domination, and its identitarianising and dualising condition of possibility that it is implicitly directed against. It must be said here that this perpetuation of hegemony by the struggle of the subordinated masses against their domination is not on account of the fact that it wages such a struggle – which is clearly inescapable and necessary – but it is so because of how that struggle is waged in its limited particularity.
Gramsci indicates that when he says the “external hegemony” of “the great systems of traditional philosophy and the religion of the leaders of the clergy” to which “the original thought of the popular masses” are subject to “limit” that thought “in a negative direction, without having the positive effect of a vital ferment of interior transformation of what the masses think in an embryonic and chaotic form about the world and life”. Hence, the only way for the subordinated masses to rid their culture and its politics of the hegemony they are subjected to is through their reflexive grasping of the unconscious will of such culture to non-representation, non-identity and singularity. Something that subjection of such culture to hegemony prevents, leading it to simply assert itself as a ‘differential identity’ vis-à-vis the discursively-specified identity of the dominant without simultaneously critiquing its own assertion as that differentiating identity in order to actualise the essential grain – or unconscious — of such an assertion. It is this grasping of its unconscious will to singularity and non-identity by a discursive specificity of subaltern culture that Gramsci terms the “interior transformation of what the masses think in an embryonic and chaotic form about the world and life”.
Therefore, when the Italian militant and philosopher states that in “common sense it is the “realistic”, materialistic elements which are predominant, the immediate product of crude sensation”, he is effectively arguing that common sense is an analytic of thinking that emerges as the subjectivity of an object to critically overcome externalised determination, and the meaning imposed on it through representation, by an already existing analytic subjectivity. This subjective emerging occurs, as has been observed earlier, for the object to free itself from the violence of abstraction perpetrated on it by an already existing analytic, and assert itself in its concreteness. But precisely because it does not self-reflexively grasp this logic of its own emerging it ends up replacing one analytic abstraction, that of great systems of traditional philosophy and high culture, with another, that of common sense. And that is precisely why, according to him, the elements of common sense “are here ‘superstitious’ and acritical”.
While criticising Croce and Gentile’s understanding of common sense in this note on Bukharin, Gramsci (1996, pp.422-423) characterises the same as “…the naïve philosophy of the people, which revolts against any form of subjectivist idealism, or… (it is) good sense and a contemptuous attitude to the abstruseness, ingenuities and obscurity of certain forms of scientific and philosophical exposition”.
That, however, does not suffice for Gramsci. He knows that common sense – which is the cultural system of thought of the “popular” or subaltern, masses – fails to engage in its own critical overcoming. A self-critique posited as its unconscious, which can be discerned from the discursively indicated fact of it having been constituted in opposition and difference to the traditional philosophy of the leading classes. For him, common sense is the necessary but not sufficient condition of possibility for the emergence of popular culture. He clarifies that by claiming his “methodological” emphasis on “starting from a critique of common sense…(does) not mean that the critique of the systematic philosophies of the intellectuals is to be neglected”. He also adds, “Indeed, because by its very nature it tends towards being a mass philosophy, the philosophy of praxis can only be conceived in a polemical form and in the form of a perpetual struggle.” He then qualifies that by arguing that “none the less the starting point must always be that common sense which is the spontaneous philosophy of the multitude and which has to be made ideologically coherent”. Gramsci clearly demonstrates that something more than sheer common sense is needed for popular culture to be actualised in its full insurrectionary glory. It means that common sense, or whatever other identified and identitarianised forms and sociologies of culture of the subalternised masses there are, must simultaneously seek to critically overcome themselves even as they constitute themselves as those discursively-specified forms in their difference and/or opposition to the identities of cultures that are dominant in relation to them.
The Gramscian Moment in Elias and His Crude Thinking
A similar critical spirit and approach with regard to the sociologies and discursively-specified forms of cultures of the subordinated, the marginals and the subalterns is evident in Elias too. Like the Gramsci we have just encountered, Elias is also not at all concerned with such sociologies and discursivised cultural forms as such and in themselves. He, in striking contrast to many petty-bourgeois radical intellectuals and artists of his modern South Asian and Bengali milieu, is arguably not enamoured of such sociologies and forms of subaltern and marginal cultures. Hence, unlike them, he also does not believe in romanticising such sociologies and forms of marginal and subaltern cultures. He is, instead, interested in those sociologies and discursive forms, and is drawn to them, precisely because they – by virtue of being characteristic of particularisingly ‘differential identities’ of subaltern/marginal cultures vis-à-vis identified cultures of the elite and the dominant – posit their unconscious will to singularity and non-identity by tending to critically unravel, supersede and transfigure themselves as those cultural discursivities and sociologies of marginality and subalternity. Such an approach is not only rendered evident by his literary aesthetic – something that we have already seen through examples from his novels, especially Khowabnama – but is also evident in his theorisation of culture and its politics. In an essay, Elias (2000, pp.12-13) writes:
“The community of lower-class working masses has been the home of some of the recent Bangla novels. Some writings have even managed to effectively bring out their misery and deprivation. In poetry, exploitation of the lower classes has been dealt with, and resolutions to participate in the struggle for emancipating them from such exploitation have been declared. Such literary and artistic productions have conscientised many boys from lower-middle-class and middle-class families. They have shed middle-class beliefs and petty aspirations to walk the rough road of leftist politics. But in none of these literary and artistic productions is the culture of the lower classes brought to fruition. Then how can I, in these cases, accord anything more than the prestige of still photographs to the reflections of lower-class life found in them.” (My translation.)
This excerpt is representative of the deep aversion he nurses for the petty-bourgeois radical propensity to valorise sociologies and historical forms of subaltern and marginalised cultures as such. Sociologically and discursively specified forms of culture of the marginal and the subordinated are, for Elias, no more than hypostatised artefacts of popular culture. It is for this reason that he critically designates such cultural forms — which he finds manifest in the representation of the lives of subalternised people in much of contemporary Bangla art and literature — “still photographs of lower-class life”. According to him, such congealed and abstracted moments – still shots — of the life of the popular masses do not manifest and realise popular culture. What he implies here is that the existence of the artefacts of subaltern culture, which are nothing but abstracted and hypostatised moments of popular culture, symptomatises the failure of the singular constitutivity of those artefacts in their moments of emerging (which is thus also their singularising unconscious) to generalise and actualise itself by overcoming and unraveling precisely those artefacts.
The conception of popular culture posed by this Elias essay is one that moves uninterruptedly from localised insurgency to generalised insurrection in the process of preserving and actualising the singular constitutivity of the former in its evental moment of eruption by cancelling the abstracted fetish of the form into which such eruption from social mediation has lapsed precisely in being determinately actualised by it.
This, therefore, means that Elias has no intention of jettisoning those artefacts of discursively-specified practices and discourses of subalternity – which is cultural difference-as-identity. However, he does not consider them significant in themselves either. For him, their only significance is their potential capacity to accomplish precisely what those artefacts of subordinated culture have failed to do on account of their romanticised identitarianised existence. For Elias, the importance of those identitarianised artefacts of subaltern culture lies in the self-historicising and self-critical unconscious they posit by virtue of their specific historical situation and position, which is highlighted through their discursive specificities. And they become, as we have already seen through some examples, indispensable resources of Elias’s literary discourse precisely by actualising their self-historicising, self-critical potential or unconscious. It is on account of such radical functioning of those artefacts and discursive forms of subaltern culture in Elias’s literary discourse as its constituent elements that the discourse is an instantiation of the aesthetic of the savage mind and its politics of insurrection.
This self-historicising, self-critical radical functioning of discursivities and forms of subordinate cultures in Elias’s literary discourse as its indispensable constitutivity is nothing but the singularising mode of “crude thinking” at work. Brecht seeks to propound this mode of thinking — which he calls dialectical as opposed to the undialectical modalities of high philosophical thinking – by affirming such non-conceptual registers of commonsensical mass discourse as adages, proverbs, folklore, fairytales, rhymes and doggerels. He was once supposed to have famously remarked: “Nothing is more important than learning to think crudely. Crude thinking is the thinking of great men.” But what Brecht hails, when he affirms those non-conceptual, commonsensical discourses, is not those discourses in their immediate discursive appearances or identities, but the modality of thinking constitutive of those discourses that their discursive appearances render mediately accessible.
Such discourses emerge in and as the articulation of resistance of non-specialist thinking of the common masses against the abstruse modality of high-philosophical thinking, and its esoterically specialised and thus conceptually systematised discourse that tends to dominate, objectify, identify and identitarianise. The specifying discursive patterns of the former discourse, in indicating its difference with regard to the latter, reveal that. It follows, therefore, that the logical tendency of thinking constitutive of such commonsensical mass discourses in their emerging is de-identitarianising and de-representational. Hence, the modality of thinking constitutive of such common and mass discourses in their crude, non-systematic and non-systemic registers militates against the tendency of representation, discursive abstraction, identitarianisation and domination. To that extent, the mode of crude thinking is also the self-critique its constitutive common, non-systemic discourses posit as the unconscious of their own discursive abstractions. It is this that makes crude thinking — cognate with Levi-Strauss’s savage mind as analytical reason “tensed by its efforts to transcend itself”, or Gramsci’s philosophy of praxis as common sense in autocritique — a dialectical, singularising and singular modality of thought.
Elias, not unlike the crude-thinking Brecht, disdains the high-philosophical modality of thinking, constitutive of conceptually systematised registers of discourse, for its propensity to produce dead abstractions estranged from feelings, emotions and the affectivity of experience. He (2000, pp.14-15) writes:
“Man is not merely an ingredient of history. Or, man is not merely an equipment to establish some theory. The working people are makers of history. Their lives cannot be explained and understood in theory….” (My translation.)
And this disregard for high theory, especially the conceptually articulated theoriations of revolution and socialism, figure continually in his literary discourse. Such scorn for the mode of high philosophical thinking arises off and on in both his novels, especially Chilekotar Sepai, and many of his stories, as unsparing statements of ridicule directed at the register of high theory and culture and their mostly upper-middle-class and middle-class social location. Often, this ridiculing of high theory, especially its radical variant, is realised in his literary discourse through ironical descriptions of, or sarcastic comments on, the sociological detail of the lives of its upper-middle-class and middle-class purveyors. In Elias’s accurate estimation, that is a phenomenon symptomatic of the alienation of the culture and idea of radical politics from the experiential affectivity of the subalternised working people. The following excerpt from his (2000, pp.211-212) story ‘Utsob’ (‘Festivity’) makes for a telling example:
“When either Muntasir, or Ishtiaq, or Aaharaar come, conversations on socialism in soft dulcet tones ensue even as they play Kanika Bandyopadhyay’s LP. Again, amid all this what sweet pain of loneliness is suffered. And when that happens there is nothing to be done save listening to Duke Ellington for full two hours with the air-conditioner running while the ceiling fan is turned on at its fullest.
“And see here! In the dead of night eight-nine dogs are running around – from this end of the alley to that. Aren’t there dogs there? They are there too. There was one, a gentleman, at the wedding reception. What a solemn expression the gentleman had, what physique! With what majesty he stood there mildly wagging his tail. It seemed as if a gentlemanly landlord, just like in a Bangla film, is sitting on his balcony in a deck-chair rocking himself while enjoying the sunset. When you see such dogs a feeling of devotion is bound to be aroused in the soul.” (My translation.)
Such examples seem to suggest that Elias’s politics of discourse is anti-theory. And that he, like most other modern radical petty-bourgeois intellectuals and artists from South Asia, is in the business of degrading and rejecting theory to romanticise and sociologise the life of the common masses in the name of some authenticity of experince. Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. If we do a close reading of the essay, which has been cited here in bits and pieces, we will realise the folly of such an inference. The last cited passage itself, when read in its entirety, reveals that. Even as Elias argues that man is “not merely a useful ingredient for the establishment of a theory”, and “that the way of life of the working people cannot be explained with the aid of theory”, he also makes it a point to state that the meaningfulness of art is derived from it being the search for the deep truth of life amid the working people’s way of living and practice of culture. He (2000, p.15) goes on to add:
“Only through such a process of inquiry can the truth immanent in theory be revealed. Art and literature is not about proving things, in there inquiry and ideology move together, they are contiguous with one another, it does not do to show one by tearing it away from the other.” (My translation.)
This declarative statement by Elias implies that like a classical crude thinker, he is also equally negatively disposed to the practice of experiences estranging their registers of emotion and feeling from thinking thus becoming hypostatised and reified in their discursivities into discourses and practices – i.e. cultures – of common sense and massified belief.
It also indicates that Elias’s rejection of the modality of high philosophical thinking is certainly not meant to spell a romanticised celebration of discursive abstractions of discourses and practices of the so-called common people dwelling in their massified passivity as popular culture. He is, after all, as averse to theory alienating itself from the consciousness of felt living, as the practice of affectively-experienced living alienating itself from thought to be reduced to custom and belief. The following excerpt from the essay (2000, p.9) in question bears that out:
“…the cultural practice of the lower classes is not witnessing any development, after having reached a particular stage its evolution has virtually come to a halt…. Their practice of culture has, in trying to move from its current stage to a new level, been stumbling.” (My translation.)
What this reveals is that Elias does not consider sociologies and discursivities of the culture of marginals and the subordinated to be popular. For him they were popular culture in their respective moments of insurgent emerging and will once again be so when their insurgent constitutivity or tendency of their emerging is generalised and actualised into the insurrectionary historicity of singularity.
Therefore, his rejection of the culture of high philosophical thinking is meant to be an affirmation of, what can, following Benjamin (1998, pp.159-235), be called the allegorical principle of theory, and its politics. And it is this allegorical principle of theory that Elias enacts as the authorial subject of his literary discourse.
The Literature of Practical Consciousness and Its Allegories of Command
As a writer of creative prose, he faithfully adheres to this allegorical principle of theorising. That is evident in his desire — symptomatised by the operation of his literary discourse – to grasp theories and concepts in and as the affectivity of the respectively different experiences of living them in their formation and thus grasp the singularity in those affects and feelings of experiencing the formation of theoretical discourses in their emerging. This affective living of discourses in their formation is to experience, what Williams calls, their “practical consciousness” (2010, pp.130-131). Such consciousness, Williams (2010, p.131) writes, is “…what is actually being lived, and not only what it is thought is being lived”. What is, however, even more crucial for us is what the British literary thinker (2010, p.131) says by way of further elaboration of that concept: “Yet the actual alternative to the received and produced fixed forms is not silence: not the absence, the unconscious, which bourgeois culture has mythicized. It is a kind of feeling and thinking which is indeed social and material, but each in an embryonic phase before it can become fully articulate and defined exchange. Its relations with the already articulate and defined are then exceptionally complex.”
Clearly then, to experience that affect of living a discourse in and as the moment of its pre-discursive formation and emergence is not to contemplatively grasp it but to grasp the singularity of living it as it is being formed through the affective experience of such living. The singularity thus grasped is — by virtue of its modality of grasping through living the grasped – a command concept and not discursively encoded knowledge. We must call it so because it is a concept that commands us to recommence the practical living of singularity, and affectively experiencing it as such, by overcoming precisely that discourse, whose formation one lived and experienced affectively to cognitively grasp the command of singularity. It must be added here that this singularity, which is cognitively grasped by experiencing the affectivity of living discourses, ideas and practices in their emergent formation, is what Williams (2010, p.132) conceptualises as “structures of feeling”. He (2010, p.132) explains: “The term is difficult, but ‘feeling’ is chosen to emphasize a distinction from more formal concepts of ‘world-view’ or ‘ideology’. It is not only that we must go beyond formally held and systematic beliefs, though of course we have always to include them. It is that we are concerned with meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt, and the relations between these and formal or systematic beliefs are in practice variable (including historically variable), over a range from formal assent with private dissent to the more nuanced interaction between selected and interpreted beliefs and acted and justified experienced.” He (2010, p.132) then goes on to add, “We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as feeling and feeling as thought….”
It is, therefore, not surprising that dreaming is one of the principal registers of thinking and theorising history in Elias’s literary discourse. The experience of dreaming, as opposed to the knowledge of dream one acquires after waking up from dream, is one of the key devices of psychotic break constitutive of Elias’s literary discourse. His literary discourse represents the working of this allegorical principle of theorisation through the psychotic disposition of the characters and the organisation of the literary space such dispositions are constitutive of in his novels and stories. Thereby, the discourse itself also becomes a performative demonstration of the allegorical principle of thinking. In being what it represents within itself, Elias’s literature becomes an allegory itself.
In Elias’s literary discourse, dream, not unlike the other registers and devices of psychotic break, is not its discursivised form or identity. Rather, it is the experience of dreaming as subtraction from, or overcoming of, the determination by wakefulness. For, when one dreams one does not know one is dreaming but experiences the dreamworld as the only reality that follows no rule of human wakefulness and normalcy and is completely free of the governance by such rules. Dream gets made sense of and identified as dream only when one wakes up. The cognition of singularity — which this dream experience enables through the end of the affectivity of living it as reality in waking up from it into its identified knowledge – gets posed as a command for reclamation of singularity. It is a command that can be followed only through the generalisation of singularity beyond the existentially-limited discursivity or identity that mediated the pre-wakeful dream-experience into being. This would be the practice of being singular by becoming it and thus also concomitantly living the affective experience of such being and becoming.
Dream experience ends, as we have seen, in wakefulness to inhabit its horizon of duality or binary as a constitutively alienated and subordinated identity. Similarly, experiences of insurgent (or evental) experiences of popular culture end with the beginning of history, or more precisely the historical, to inhabit it as myths. The project articulated by Elias’s literary discourse is to transfigure wakefulness, sanity and history into the singularity posed in cognition by the dreaming-experience, the experience internal to what is identified and seen from its outside as madness, and the pre-mythic insurgent moment of formation of what will eventually become myth. Such experiences are singular because in subtracting from or overcoming the externalised determination of wakefulness, sanity and history, and in concomitantly being their own ground and meaning, they reject duality and relationality. By that same token, they also pose the critical overcoming of their own discursively-specified and/or sociologically-identified mediating forms. Such allegorised actuality of the experiences of dreaming, insanity and popular pre-mythic insurgency would, in being generalised, be constitutive of its own historicity, which is historicity of singularity. Revolution is nothing but this condition and situation of singularty as its own historicity.
Let us now return to Khowabnama as an example of how the device and affective register of dream enables the allegorical articulation of Elias’s literary discourse with regard to history. Let us, for instance, look at how he (1998, p.9) begins the novel:
“The place where Tamijer Baap (Tamij’s Father) had planted his feet a little and had been waving his coal-black hands to chase away the ashen-grey clouds by standing erect to look up as much as was possible by stretching the veins of his neck, that place must be carefully considered. Once upon a time when, forget Tamijer Baap, even his father had not yet been born, it would even be a long time before his grandfather Baaghaad Majhi came into the world, one is not even sure whether Baaghaad Majhi’s grandfather or the father of his grandfather had been born or not, and even if he were born he would be merely crawling around on the freshly-laid mud floor of the yet-to-be constructed house whose foundation had just been laid after clearing off the forest. On an evening of one of those days Munshi Barkatullah Shah, in order to be part of Majnu Shah’s entourage of innumerable fakirs headed for the Mahasthan Fort, was headed towards Korotowa when he was killed by a bullet from the gun of Taylor, the chief of the White soldiers, and fell from his horse. The hole the bullet had made in his neck did not ever close. Once he had died, he, with chains around his neck and with his ash-smeared body, climbed on to the top of the pankur tree on the northern head of the Katlahaar marsh, and sat there with a pair of iron tongs, which had a fish engraved on it, in his hands. Ever since, during the day, he is spread out all over the marsh as sunlight within the sunlight, and all through the night he rules the marsh from the top of that pankur tree. Only if a glimpse of his could be caught – that is the hope with which Tamijer Baap waves his hands to chase away the clouds in the sky.” (My translation.)
The ashen-grey clouds that Tamijer Baap tries to chase away are his historical present, which is the eve of the Tebhaga movement, within which lives its past – the defeated Fakir-Sanyasi rebellions of 18th-19th century among others, for instance. This past lives within his historical present as its constitutively subordinated and contradictory identity (or difference-as-identity). This is the past-as-defeat — experienced and lived as myths and beliefs by poor landless peasants and fisherfolk like Tamijer Baap, who are the bearers of this past in the dominant historical present as its difference. And precisely for that reason is this subalternised difference simultaneously also a subordinated identity. Tamijer Baap attempts to chase away those clouds of his historical present because that present obscures the experiencing of its past, when it was its own present, by dominating and identifying the past as past. By chasing away those clouds of his historical present he wants to experience that past when it was its own present. That is, before it became identified as past. He wants to experience and live the past before it became identified as such through its subjection by the historical present. This chasing away of the clouds by Tamijer Baap is, therefore, a gesture to be in an open present, which is a present that does not itself become or produce a past. Following Derrida (1994, pp.xix-xx) we would do well to term this present present without presence.(4)
And since his existential self inhabits the historical present, Taamijer Baap can access past-when-it-was-present through his dreaming self that in subtracting itself from the governance of wakefulness of the reality of the historical present becomes an allegorical figure of its own singularity and thus a command-giving concept to generalise that experience of living the singularity beyond the empirical threshold of that past as it exists in its identified form determined by the historical present in question.(5) What this simply means is that Tamijer Baap is an allegorical figure, whose existence functions as a command for reconstituting the evental experience of insurgency — as lived, for instance, during the Fakir-Sanyasi rebellion against the oppression of British colonialism — in and through the new historically mediating experience of oppressive agrarian production relations of 1940s Bengal. Not unlike Benjamin’s (2003, p.395) Robespierre, who cited Ancient Rome for French Revolution by blasting it out of the linearly hierarchised continuum of history to grasp it simultaneously in its own present and his, Tamijer Baap is envisaged as a similar figure who cites the 18th-19th century Fakir-Sanyasi rebellions against British colonial oppression for the Tebhaga movement in 1940s Bengal. As a matter of fact, he not only cites but is also simultaneously the citation of those rebellions for his own existentially-lived historical present to generalise the evental singularity of those rebellions in their moment of lived emerging. Here is an example (Elias; 1998, p.178) of how Tamijer Baap functions as an allegorical figure of singularity, and thus a command-giving concept for the generalisation of singularity by tearing the historical present asunder:
“Tamijer Baap is, however, completely quiet. He looks towards Cherag Ali with the same sleepy eyes, his eyes give Kulsum an eerie feeling, does this man sleep with his eyes open, is he seeing grandfather’s face in his sleep? But sleep gets the better of Kulsum’s fear and prevents it from congealing, is the man smearing Kulsum’s eyes with sleep from where he sits at the other end of the mat? When Cherag Ali starts singing, Kaalaam Majhi says, ‘Hey you, Tamijer Baap, why the hell are you drowsing? Go home’. Yet, the man continues to sit where he is. The way his still eyes are stuck on Cherag Kulsum feels as if that man is seeing her grandfather in a dream. What kind of a man is this man? Unmoved, he sits dreaming amid so many people? Or is it that Kulsum herself is dreaming? That may be so. Otherwise how come iron chains dangle from grandfather’s neck? He gave up wearing those iron chains quite a few years ago, at the behest of the new khadim at the dargahsharif (shrine of a Muslim mystic.) For that matter, how is there a black turban on his head? But if Kulsum is, indeed, dreaming how can she hear the shopkeeper say, ‘Hey Baikuntha, you are here listening to songs? Let Shaha come, he’ll give you a piece of his mind?’, loud and clear.” (My translation.)
This encounter between Kulsum and a psychotic Tamijer Baap is an instance of the past-ised subalternity of the historical present – or the past in its subalternised identity within the historical present – encountering itself as past without presence. That is, it is an encounter between past, as the subalternised identity of and within the historical present, with itself when it was its own present and thus an evental insurgency. This singularising encounter is staged in the novel to depict how that encounter is a command that tends to induce the historical present – as both a dominating identity and a dualising horizon with its metaphysics of presence – to become an open, and thus non-identitarian and singular, present. One that, therefore, will neither itself lapse into nor produce the identity of past. Such a simultaneity of encounter with, living of, command for and transfiguration into the singular time of open present is constitutive of Benjamin’s (2003, p.395) “now-time” of revolution in its allegoricality-becoming-actuality. There is no doubt that the insurrectionary, or revolutionary, actuality can only be allegorical. But precisely because allegory is a command-giving concept — which arises precisely due to and through the punctuation of the actual – for reconstituting or re-commencing the truncated actuality, it stands validated as such only when allegory is itself sought to be practically actualised by overcoming the historical-discursive confines that mediate its experiential cognition. Clearly, allegory and practical actuality of revolution are dialectically bound to each other, and one cannot be itself without the other.
Therefore, the “now-time” of revolution, seen from the vantage point of a historically identified present that is enclosed within the continuum of history, is a spectral temporality. Such a temporality is the space-time constitutive of how things are, for instance, in dream or when one is under the influence of hallucinogens. The dimensions of such a time are inhuman and monstrous. The spectral and ghost-figures that populate Elias’s literary discourse, together with the eerie world they compose, are meant precisely to represent such non-human dimensions of space-time in his literature. For, it is through such representation that the affectivity and experience of living such savage and monstrous dimensions of a space and time animated, as it were, by an insurrectionary mind, can be communicated to be induced.
Clearly, the allegorical mode of theorising is continuing the insurrectionary unfolding of life, when that has stalled at the level of practical living, in the register of discourse, and thereby be a lived command – a Dionysian didacticism of desire, so to speak – for the reconstitution and resumption of the insurrection in the empirical practicality of existential living. It would not be an exaggeration to say that such reclamation of the insurrection involves the radicalisation and transfiguration of that empiricality of historically determinate existential living. Elias wants art to perform that allegorical function with regard to stalled unfolding of insurrection. For him that is the only way art can become meaningful. He (2000, p.5) writes:
“Bengali culture and artistic practice today has been transformed into a monotonous and lifeless habit because of its alienation from the large majority of lower-class Bengalis….
“What is drummed about as Bengali culture, if that fails to take inspiration from the lives and livelihoods of the majority of the country’s people then it too is bound to become as outlandish and groundless as that which is called degenerate culture.” (My translation.)
Elias’s creative prose, in its fidelity to its constitutive allegorical modality of thinking and discoursing, performs precisely that gay-scientific function of Dionysian didacticism. What such kind of didacticism amounts to is best explicated by Adorno’s (1997, pp.321-322) reflections on Brecht when the philosopher, while critically engaging with the politico-aesthetic positions of the poet-dramatist, sees the role of the latter’s theory inside his creative works. Elias’ literary discourse, especially his two novels, end as open texts that give commands precisely through that fact of being open. And their command is to practically live the singularity those texts have grasped and posed in and through the discursive specifications of the determinate existential finitude of their represented world by going beyond it. That is, have the discursive world they represent – or textually constitute – brush against its own constitutive or formational singular grain.
In Khowabnama, for instance, the fabulistic-spectral figure of Tamij, which climbs into the moon with its bullet-riddled neck after the life of existentially-lived, sociologically-specified and historically-limited character of Tamij has been ended by the paramilitary shooters, is nothing but an allegory. It is, therefore, a figure whose existence is a command to reclaim it as the singular and singularising constitutivity of Tebhaga in its moment of eruption by continuing to live it beyond its discursively-specified historical and existential finitude by stretching that humanly, and thus historically, finite moment to its savage, inhuman, monstrous beyond.
(1) Politics as an abstraction is against drawing up of boundaries of the perceptible, so it is singularity that in challenging certain historically-given boundaries of the perceptible, and posing other boundaries for that is how singularity can actualise itself through the mediation of the specificity of a historical situation, redraw boundaries of the perceptible and yield political situations. Thus the political is never singular, it is instead the historically specific situation that mediates the singularity of politics into actuality even while, in the same movement, limiting it.
(2) To read Levi-Strauss’s conception of the “savage mind”, as a principle of the interminable process of dialectical reason, through the prism of Badiou’s (2009, p.189) “a materialism centred upon a theory of the subject” would take that conception to its radical conclusion by setting it free from its original conceptual matrix of structuralism. Such a reading, arguably, renders the conception of the process of dialectical reason – which in Levi-Strauss is a linear, punctuated and bounded interminability – uninterrupted in its interminability, and thus non-linear and unbounded. The two citations below from Badiou (2009, p.186, p.189) indicate how inflecting Levi-Strauss’s “savage mind” with Badiou’s conception of “subjective materiality” would radicalise the former:
“Materialism stands in internal division to its targets. It is not inexact to see in it a pile of polemical scorn. Its internal makeup is never pacified. Materialism most often disgusts the subtle mind.
“The history of materialism finds the principle of its periodization in its adversary. Making a system out of nothing else than what it seeks to bring down and destroy, puffed up in latent fits of rage, this aim is barely philosophical. It gives colour, in often barbarous inflections, to the impatience of destruction….
“However, this time of offensive subjectivization produces no stability. We see this as early as in the French Revolution, when the anti-Christian excess of the provisory allies, the plebeians of the cities, is broken by Hebert’s execution on the guillotine, whereas the regeneration of spiritualism of the great idealist systems connotes the possibility of a universal concordat. Bourgeois secularism, established through the State, will sometimes be anticlerical, never materialist.”
“Neither God nor Man, in modern idealism, has the function of the organizer of being. The constituent function of language, which excentres every subject-effect, deactivates the materialist operator of the inversion—of the inversion in the sense in which Marx spoke of putting Hegel back on his feet.
“To claim, by a ‘materialist’ inversion, to go from the real to the subject means to fall short of modern dialectical criticism, which separates the two terms—subject and real—so that a third, the symbolic or discourse, comes in to operate as a nodal point without for this reason becoming a centre.
“Barred from the path of a simple inversion and summoned to hold onto the scission in which the subject of idealinguistery comes into being as an effect of the chain, we Marxists find ourselves on the dire road of a procedure of destruction-recomposition.
“To pierce through the adversary’s line of defence requires this heavy ramrod whose idolatrized head bears our subjective emblems.
“That a conceptual black sheep—a materialism centred upon a theory of the subject—is equally necessary for our most pressing political needs…no doubt proves something….”
(3) Subtraction is a concept of politics that comes from Badiou. It is not constitutive of a political move or struggle against power and domination in order to withdraw from or disengage with them. In that, Badiou’s concept of subtraction is quite unlike the conception of withdrawal in Martin Heidegger that is concomitant with his concept of “ontological difference” in particular, and difference-thinking in general. Rather, subtraction is constitutive of the political manoeuvre – or struggle – to break with the horizon constitutive of domination and competition and its dualised and dualising structure, in the process unraveling and destroying it. Subtraction is a conceptual figure of singularity that is the science of revolutionary politics or praxis as ontology.
(4) Derrida’s “Present without presence” is present that does not pose itself in a manner so as to have its existential affirmation as itself produce an identified past of itself. “Present without presence” is present that does not become past and thus has no past. It is not present as a historical identity, something which as that historical identity produces its constitutively contradictory identity of past (as the present that has become absent).
(5) The conception of allegory as command — which is premised here on the asymmetrical dialectic, and thus torsion, between the particularity of the sensuous and affective (“beauty”, “material”, “individual”) on one hand, and the generality of the cognitive (“divine”, “transcendental”, “moral”, “ethical) on the other – is derived from a reading of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Allegory and Trauerspiel’, the last chapter of his The Origin of German Tragic Drama. It is precisely this asymmetrical dialectic, and the concomitant torsion, that Benjamin reveals to be the defining characteristic of the Baroque allegory when he (2003, p.160) affirmatively explicates the Baroque allegorical principle through his criticism of the classicist, as also the romantic, “symbol” for effacing this dialectical asymmetry between those aspects in order to present them as an organic harmony: “The unity of the material and the transcendental object, which constitutes the paradox of the theological symbol, is distorted into a relationship between appearance and essence. The introduction of this distorted conception of the symbol into aesthetics was a romantic and destructive extravagance which preceded the desolation of modern art criticism. As a symbolic construct, the beautiful is supposed to merge with the divine in an unbroken whole. The idea of the unlimited immanence of the moral world in the world of beauty is derived from the theosophical aesthetics of the romantics. But the foundations of this idea were laid long before. In classicism the tendency to the apotheosis of existence in the individual who is perfect, in more than an ethical sense, is clear enough…. But once the ethical subject has become absorbed in the individual, then no rigorism – not even Kantian rigorism – can save it and preserve its masculine profile. Its heart is lost in the beautiful soul. And the radius of action – no, only the radius of the culture – of the thus perfected beautiful individual is what describes the circle of the ‘symbolic’. In contrast the baroque apotheosis is a dialectical one. It is accomplished in the movement between extremes.”
It must also be stated here as an aside that the principle of baroque allegory bears, in Benjamin’s affirmative exposition of it, a strong conceptual affinity with the conception of philosophy of history that comes from Marx. The latter (dialectical materialism) is, clearly, not an epistemology of history as a presence-at-hand or identitarian existence. Hence, it is also not a code of moral, or conventional, directive to live (or live in) that empirical history as such. Rather, it is a philosophy of the moment of formation or making of history that is logically prior to the moment of history as such. Clearly, the Marxian philosophy of history – or dialectical materialism – is a philosophy that seeks its own realisation in and as the practicality of politics precisely by abolishing itself as the discursivised concept it is. It is “philosophy” only when it is, to cite Badiou’s Althusserian maxim, “under the condition of politics”. Such a philosophy of (more accurately, for) the making of history is, to once again resort to Benjamin, the grain of history against which history must be brushed.
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