As a society, we humans both consciously and unconsciously draw upon an indefinite, already existing cultural repertoire of knowledge for making meanings. Making meanings is only possible when we temporarily halt the otherwise ever-flowing and elusive system of signification. It is the complex cohesion within the perpetual inter-textual deferral of the absolute connotations of signs that enables, constrains and constitutes our collective behavioural normality. Every idea or the constitutive discursive formation within this repertoire has a memory or history, corroborating its existence within the system. However, long after the idea is divested of its memory and history, it puts on the definite colour of naturalness. This is a rather subtle silent process of nature replacing history. Nowhere is this shift more evident than in the cultural performance of age-old mutually antagonistic binaries.
The connotative significance of the term ‘white’ not only invents a problematic of inclusion and exclusion, but also allows us to naturally perform different roles. However, my point here is not to reflect on the formation of binaries in culture, but rather the subversive or interchanging connotative nature of binaries. In my opinion, due to an inevitable unbalanced mechanism of power relations, the fixed connotative nature of binaries can undergo a semantic transmutation anytime. For example; the binary of civilized and uncivilized or truth and untruth can seriously challenge their own historically assumed meanings at the secondary level of connotation. We have seen ‘regimes of truth’ in different cultures turning into regimes of untruth. We have seen the tolerance and normalizing of ‘evil’ until it safely changes places with its binary ‘good’, leaving little or no scope for categorization.
Now let’s try to understand the present condition of journalism in Kashmir in light of the above argument. Kashmir, like Barthes’ myth and Althusser’s problematic, is a fairly organized body of knowledge, chiefly known for its blighted political past and present. The contagious panoptic machine of the political has infected our culture to the core. Its blatant ‘repressive hierarchy’ has intruded into our culture and almost normalized capitulation as a collective behavior. Our parole, the present political despair, is largely influenced by the langue of our discursive, contentious political past. Within the length and breadth of this langue and parole of our culture, we have witnessed a perennial contestation between the binaries of truth and untruth. However, we may have missed the mark where these binaries overlap each other at the connotative level, thereby reversing their traditional consumption in practice.
Let’s consider the case of Kashmiri journalists Gowher Geelani, Masrat Zahra and Peerzada Ashiq who recently faced intimidation, harassment and detention. Within the problematic of Kashmir, their voice represents truth. Their voice, drawing upon the already exiting repertoire of knowledge, attempts to foreground a domain where it could dominate its binary ‘untruth’ like it does in the embedded tradition of binaries across cultures. One such judicious, concentrated attempt to foreground this domain has won other Kashmiri photojournalists the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. When these journalists speak or demonstrate, they actually refer to a mechanism of metonymic cultural codes which in practice shape the ‘truth’ of our existence. Therefore, they represent truth for the regional majority and not something like an unfounded theoretical meditation, but something that we live in practice.
However, the binary of untruth, represented by the overbearing political establishment, doesn’t allow itself to be victimized forever by a traditional definitional solidity for the weaker binaries. In the complex system of signification, the presumably weaker binary has the power to overthrow the privileged binary from its coveted position and accordingly influence the adjustment in public behaviour. Not only do the binaries defer in the process of interplay but also interchange positions along with culturally sanctioned hierarchy of power and dominance. The privileged binary of ‘truth’, envisaged by the dedicated journalists is countered by its opposite by relegating it as something ‘unlawful, glorifying terrorism, prejudicial to national integrity and causing disaffection against the country’.
This way, by invoking a more immediate binary of ‘national’ and ‘anti-national’, the definitional solidity of ‘truth’ crumbles with the emergence of its binary ‘untruth’. In the process of countering, the binaries not only swap positions but accordingly reshape the structure of cultural practices. This contestation of binaries, in our case the panopticon of ‘untruth’ emerging as the privileged binary, in the long run confuses history with nature. This is similar to the journey of a government employee, who finds it initially difficult adhering to the stringent rules and policies. However, growing under the perennial subjection to these rules, the employee begins to breathe, eat and live these rules. The employee, in fact, becomes an embodiment of these rules. Ironically, the process of consumption is so subtly silent that at one point the employee mistakes the rules as natural.
However, this apparently debilitating function of the binaries should not be thought of as something that suspends or sabotages reality. In fact, this indefinite interplay is productive. It always offers newer possibilities to approach reality. Furthermore, it teaches us how the problematic of meaning works in practice across cultures. It also teaches us how the inter-textual deferral of meanings makes us relevant even when our voice is suppressed. No matter how skillfully the panoptic machine disciplines us to silence or condemns our voice to an unprivileged binary, it will continue to exist in the diversity of the (cultural) system of signification. The winning of Pulitzer Prize validates this existence.
*(The author is Assistant Professor in Higher Education, J&K and can be reached at: email@example.com)