Bol ki lab āzād hai tere Locating the Counter
It is absolutely unnecessary, and not even desirable, for you to argue in my favour; on the contrary, a dose of curiosity, as if you were looking at an alien plant with distance, would strike me as an incomparably more intelligent attitude toward me. -Fredrick Nietzsche (in a letter to Carl Fuchus, July 29, 1888)
In what follows, the notion of counter is discussed as a probable tendency that can be located in different forms. One must try to have an Apaphantic[i] approach which means to understand something by examining and evaluating it in itself. I do not know whether it is really possible, though. The endeavour, here, is not to reach at a definition of counter but to explore how one can locate it in different forms. The attempt is to discuss the possibility and not the actuality of the concept. There is no claim of an understood discussion (whatever that means) in what is written, for something as counter contains againstness in it thus engenders a counter of its own.
The word, Counter, etymologically means acting in opposition. However, the essence of Counter is more in to the act of defying than denying. The act of counter does not expect suppression of the ‘one’ it opposes rather it merely treats that ‘one’ as equal. There is a dialogue in the form of questions but it is not a polite one. The counter happens on the point of rejecting that which is considered as sacred; it emphasises the human situation in which all the answers are human i.e. formulated in reasonable terms. Therefore, every word, every act, every question, and every moment in the counter-world is word of resistance while in the sacred-world every word is an act of grace.
Thus, counter, though apparently negative, since it has sense of negation in it, is profoundly positive in that it reveals that part of human, which must be defended. “One envies what one does not have while the aim of the counter is (or should be) to defend what it has. The aim is to claim recognition for something that exists and which already been recognized by those who act in ‘counter’ in almost every case[ii]”. There is a certain awareness that leads to the counter: the sudden realization of something in us with which we can identify with.
To remain silent is to give the impression that one has no opinion, that one wants nothing, and in certain cases, it really amounts to wanting nothing. “Liberality” (or let us say “awareness of politics” as falsely assumed) has opinions and desires about everything in general and nothing in particular. Silence expresses this attitude very well. This is not to deny the fact that silence can also be an opinion. Silence is considered a general tendency. It signifies one’s adjustment with the reality principle, sanity, “rationality”, self-control, manners and so on. When you don’t speak up you feel safe and accepted by the majority. This is generally experienced in the classroom set up of school or college. Hesitance/shyness in using one’s voice in public – speaking out, screaming, singing – is probably the most elementary form of self-consciousness. It is as if your voice were as private and vulnerable as your defenceless naked body.
It so happens that one’s own voice seems to hide itself even from its owner. Therefore, discovering one’s own voice is sometimes said to be the task of a lifetime. However, voices, like counter, are destined for other people: you speak, primarily, in order to be heard. We not only hear, but also vocalize, and we can hear ourselves vocalizing too. The idea of being heard, of possessing a voice or having it ignored or supressed coincides with that of human and civil rights. Having a voice is much the same as having a vote. Some languages use the same word for both. For instance, vox (the voice) and votum (vote) in Latin or Stimme (voice) in German, which covers both the meanings. It is in this sense that the relation between counter and voice can be traced down. The voice is never a voice in general; it is always a voice of particular kind. When Faiz writes following lines,
Bol ki lab āzād hai tere बोल की लब आजाद है तेरे
Bol zabān ab tak teri hai बोल जबां अब तक तेरी है
Tera sutvān jism hai tera तेरा सुतवा जिस्म है तेरा
Bol ki jān ab tak teri hai बोल, की जाँ अब तक तेरी है
the appeal to vocalize in them is, in a way, also an appeal to exercise one’s freedom. The lines appeal for a counter that promotes the act of raising one’s voice. Voices that break prolonged silence often offend, disturb and question the powers who want to sustain the imposed quietness. Between prolonged silence and imposed quietness often, the earlier provides agency for the implementation of latter. Faiz’s appeal is to realize the freedom of having a voice, freedom to be heard and freedom to exercise that freedom. The act of vocalizing symbolizes freedom (against un-freedom/quietness) for we open our mouth to utter something. Vocalizing one’s opinions[iii] builds a strong counter for purveying and expected regime of quietness.
The extension of counter as voice or vice versa becomes more vivid in the Greek notion of Parrhesia. Parrhesia is translated in English by ‘free speech’. Etymologically the word Parrhesiazesthai means ‘to say everything’ – from pan (everything) and rhema (that which is said). Parrhesiastes are those who use Parrhesia: one who says everything he/she[iv] has in mind. The speaker is supposed to give a complete and exact account of what he has in mind so that the audience is able to comprehend exactly what the speaker thinks. The concept of Parrhesia also refers a type of relationship between the speaker and what he/she says. The speaker makes it manifestly clear and obvious that what he/she says is his/her OWN opinion. Parrhesiastes says what he/she knows to be true. There is always an exact coincidence between belief and truth. For Greeks this coincidence does not take place in mental experience[v] but in verbal activity.
The sincerity of the Parrhesiastes lies in the courage. He/she says something dangerous, different from what the majority believes. Therefore, someone is said to use Parrehesia and merits consideration only if there is a risk or danger for him/her in telling the truth[vi]. Parrhesia is linked to dauntlessness in the face of danger. It demands the courage to speak the truth in spite of some danger. A king, tyrant, or monarch cannot use Parrhesia for he occupies the power-space and the danger as discussed above is absent in such context. Parrhesiastes’ life is exposed, he/she takes up a specific relationship with self: he chooses voice over silence and death over life and security. The act of Parrhesia does not demonstrate truth to someone else but has the function of criticising the interlocutor. Its task is to criticise the working institutions including itself. No one forces the speaker to speak; he/she takes it as necessity. Prometheus[vii] knew he would be punished but he still chose to help people with fire. Sisyphus[viii] was punished of meaninglessness for his demanding attitude but he accepted and chose to live through it: an absurd form of counter. Same with Socrates who chose to die for speaking up his mind. Thus, Parrhesia is a kind of verbal activity where the speaker has specific relation to truth through frankness, a certain relationship to his own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself or other people through criticism and a specific relation to frankness through freedom.
Such idea of Parrhesiaas as form of counter prefers dialogue through question and answers rather than the rhetorical art of persuasion (generally used by those who rule). There is no space for intensification of the emotions. It rejects to compromise but accepts the dejection that follows rejection. In ancient Greek democracy, it was considered an important characteristic of a good citizen. Athenian democracy consisted of Poletia (Constitution), Demokratia (Democracy), Isegoria (the equal right to speak), Insomia (the equal participation of all the citizens in the exercise of power), and Parrhesia which would take place in Agora. In Hellenistic period, it became limited to the monarch’s court where advisors used Parrhesia to help the king with his decisions and to prevent him from abusing his power. In the times of representative democracy, there is hardly any space for the act of Parrhesia given its constitutional apparatus that has a hazy distinction between ‘moral duties’ (towards the state) and rights of the citizens[ix]. It also contains layers of discursive power structure that makes it difficult – not impossible – to detect the target of questioning. Neverthless, if we imagine and wish to counter the establishment, it is important to find and nourish the Parrhesiastes in every possible form.
Recently I experienced a play, at Vinod Doshi Theatre Festival, Pune, directed by Sunil Shanbag, entitled Words Have Been Uttered, in which the team performed counter-words. The play revisited voices that have – at different point of time, in different forms – practiced Parrhesia (as described above). There was recital of Landays by Rahila Muska, teenage poet who lived in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold. The recital highlighted the feelings of love, contempt, anguish and restlessness in her poetry. In Afghan culture, landay is an oral and often anonymous scrap of song created by and for mostly illiterate people: mostly Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Fearing that Muska would be kidnapped or raped by warlords, her father pulled her out of school after the fifth grade. Poetry, which she learned from other women and on the radio, became her only form of education (another form of Counter).
Rahila Muska, became part of a women’s literary group called Mirman Baheer. The group met in the capital of Kabul every Saturday afternoon and also ran a phone hotline for girls from the provinces. Muska, often, recited Landays over the phone to the group members. She alluded to family problems that she refused to discuss. One day in the spring of 2010, Muska phoned her fellow poets from a hospital bed in the south-eastern city of Kandahar to say that she’d set herself on fire. She had burned herself in protest. Her brothers had beaten her badly after discovering her writing poems. Poetry — especially love poetry — is forbidden to many of Afghanistan’s women: it implies dishonour and free will. “This is common of the tens of thousands of landays in circulation, remembered by the handful a women who relate to her life. Landays survive because they belong to no one”[x].
The counter, here, becomes creative act of voicing one’s desires. Like landays, the notion of counter belongs to no one and is particularly general. It carries certain extravagancy (a wandering from usual course) that offends and bothers the majority. It means to be where one is not expected to be, something beyond norm. To be outside the norm is to question, to speak up, and to see and that would become counter in itself. Galileo, Luther, Bhakti Poets, Phule, Ambedkar, Manto, Chughtai, Dhasal, Pansare, Dabholkar, Kalburgi Gauri Lankesh, Sachin Mali, Vemula and there are thousands of voices that had stirred history in various forms. As students, citizens, thinking beings, we should endeavour to create base for a counter that is Genealogical (as Foucault describes it): coupling together of scholarly erudition and local memories that allow us to constitute a historical knowledge of struggle and to make use of that knowledge in contemporary tactics. We should not forget what Lal Singh Dil says,
‘Words have been uttered
long before us,
and will be
long after we are gone[xi]
One more interesting form of counter can be seen in two of, Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago’s, remarkable fictional works: Blindness (1995) and Seeing (2006).The story of Blindness revolves around a city suffering from a strange epidemic that makes people unexpectedly turn blind. There is one specific feature of this blindness that it is not black/dark. All the infected people experience white block in their eyes. It is described as “white blindness” in the novel. In order to control the epidemic, government creates a camp for blind people in a wrecked mental asylum and confines them under military surveillance. Gradually, whole city along with the government becomes blind. The story reveals how humanity deteriorates during the blindness. All become mutual enemies during the Epidemic. Everyone tries to take benefit of one another’s blindness. Few of them become experts in dealing with the blinds and achieve dominance over others. One person who still has sight regrets having it. She has to bear the ability to see how inhuman power destroys humans. How people after losing their ability to ‘see’ become bodies without mind. The novel highlights indifference on the state’s side. The state is more concerned about sustaining the power than helping people (as far as my reading is concern).
The story of Seeing takes place in a Capital city during the state elections. Majority of the voters do not go for voting. The state decides to conduct elections again and realizes that more than 80% votes in the ballot box are blank (It is equal to NOTA we have in India). The government tries all kind of resources to find out the ‘organizations’ behind this ‘conspiracy’. However, as readers we get to know that it is a collective decision taken by citizens. As punishment, the state moves police and all relevant administrative offices to the new capital except municipality. The state abandons civilians expecting that they will struggle to survive and that will teach them a lesson. It is also anticipated that there will be riots, robberies, rivalries after which troubled citizens would seek help from the state. Surprisingly, nothing of that sort happens. The state instigates municipality employees to go on strike. In response, common people gather and clean streets. The cleaning staff, who is told to go on strike, also comes on the street and works without uniform saying “the uniform is on strike, not us”. Citizens continue to live in peace and harmony, without any state/government, diffusing all the plans of disruption. The story goes on like this and readers get to know that the story is set in the same city where the strange epidemic (of blindness) had spread four years back. Furthermore, the character who could see during blindness is suspected to be the mastermind behind the revolt in Seeing. (better if you read the end on your own).
It is necessary and obvious that a white ‘blindness’ must be followed by a transparent ‘seeing’. Accepting things without questioning and assaying them is equal to an impaired sight. It worsens when one agrees rather promotes such things. In such white blindness, one loses self and self’s identification with humans (a thinking being). The dominant/state/ruler considers people blind or wants to infect them with such blindness. Ideological blindness or blindness towards an ideology paralyzes the sense of commune that would engage in continuous questioning. We must strive to understand this and see (which does not mean blank votes/NOTA only) to counter those who try to sustain dominance. When a society starts raising voice and ‘seeing’ it hardly needs self-proclaimed leaders/guides (autocratic rule).
Parrhesiastes, the ones who speak, the ones who see are not supernatural beings. Their sheer commonality of utilizing courage, voice, and vision makes them a Counter. We, as citizens, must realize that counter/rebel/resistance are not outside or separate entities (just like power effects are not). The act of counter, of thoughtful inquiry, and of reasoning are fundamental elements of human nature. Counter requires active efforts for disintegration of power, socialization and most important participation (in various manners mentioned above). The location of counter, then, is in the intrinsic, hence unmotivated, urge to question. It can be found at the core of what we know as humanness. As the Talmudic saying from Abbot goes, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself only, what am I? If not now–when?”
[i] Being and Time, Martin Heidegger
[ii] The Rebel , Albert Camus, p. 23
[iii] Interchangeability between word vox/the voice and votum/vote is important here.
[iv] Using ‘she’ is anachronistic because in ancient Greek society women could never speak their mind. They did not t have the right to do so and it was very normal/general/common.
[v]Unlike Greeks 16th century French philosopher and mathematician, Rene Descartes emphasised the notion of ‘mental evidential experience’. It would form an important base for the school of rationalists in European philosophy. Arrival of Christianity modified the relation between belief and truth, which reflects in these philosophies.
[vi] Risk is not always the risk of life though. In political context, saying truth may just create scandal.
[vii] Prometheus is one of the Titans in Greek Mythology who defied gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity. An act that enabled progress and civilization. As punishment, Prometheus was bound to a rock where each day an eagle was sent by Zeus, the king of Titan Gods, to feed on his liver.( See Old Greek Tales, by James Baldwin)
[viii] In Greek mythology, Sisyphus revealed one of Zeus’s secrets to Asopus, god of river, in return for causing a spring to flow in his town. Sisyphus was made to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill. The boulder would roll away before it reached the top, which ended up consigning Sisyphus to an eternity of useless efforts and unending frustration. Albert Camus uses the myth to discuss absurdity. (See Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus)
[ix] The constitution of India provides the right to freedom in Article 19 that guarantees “Freedom of speech and expression” as one of the six of its freedoms. Interestingly, it has eight restrictions imposed on free speech, two of them are ‘security of the state’ and ‘decency and morality’. Not to mention it negates offense.
[x] Eliza Griswold in the introduction of translated poetry collection, I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan (2015). Also in Poetry Magazine, URL:https://static.poetryfoundation.org/o/media/landays.html
[xi]Trans. Nirupama Dutt, in Words Have Been Uttered (play) by Sunil Shanbag
Camus, Albert. The Rebel, An Essay on Man in Revolt. Trans. Anthony Bower. Alfred A Knopf Inc., 1956.
Foucault, Michel. Fearless Speech. Ed. Joseph Pearson. USA: Semiotext, 2001.
—. Society Must Be Defended, Lectures at the College De France (1975-78). Ed. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana. Trans. David Mackey. New York: Picador, 2003.
Hegel, G.W.F. Philosophy of Mind. Trans. William Wallace. Blackmask Online, 2001.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Macquiuerie and Edward Robinson. UK: Blackwell, 2000.
Ree, Jonathan. I see a Voice: a Philosohical History . London: Harper Collins, 1999.
Saramago, Jose. The Collected Novels of Jose Saramago. Trans. Giovanni Pontiero and Margaret Jull Costa. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.