Book Review

A poetic and political approach to philosophy

Raihan Rahman | Published: 00:00, Mar 10,2019 | Updated: 13:33, May 12,2019

Raihan Rahman, Darshanakhyan, Azfar Hussain, Karl Marx, Sabyasachi Hazra, Azfar Hussain’s Darshanakhyan,

Azfar Hussain's Darshanakhyan, published in 2019, is a collection of micronarratives on philosophy where he presents his ideas in the form of small theses. His approach to philosophy is guided by political commitment to revolutionary change which would free humankind from the shackles of exploitation, writes Raihan Rahman

THE practice of philosophy, as we understand philosophy in the western tradition, is not very common in our part of the land. The books on philosophy are also infrequent. Of course, there is a tradition of philosophical thinking in Bengal too that can be traced back to the Sahajiya thoughts of Charyapadas. Besides, Vaishnav Padabalis and Sufi poetry of the medieval era, volumes of folk materials, songs of Lalon, the works of Rabindranath Tagore — they all contain philosophical ideas.

However, philosophy is found there in poetic forms, not in the logical and analytical elaboration like western philosophy. Even today, books on philosophy published in Bangla are a handful, most of them being translated works. Amidst this poverty of philosophical books, Azfar Hussain’s Darshanakhyan (Philosophical Narratives), a collection of micronarratives on philosophy, is one of the gems that came out in Ekushey Book Fair 2019.

Published by Samhati Publication, in this book of 151 pages Azfar Hussain presents his ideas in the form of small theses, a style he borrowed from Karl Marx (like in ‘Theses on Feuerbach’) and Walter Benjamin that he acknowledges in the preface of the book. The style also reminds me of Theodor Adorno’s book Minima Moralia.

However, Hussain’s use of language is very poetic which corresponds to the philosophical tradition of Bengal. The book has eight chapters, each one dedicated to a single topic. The chapters come by the title ‘Language’ (Bhasha), ‘Silence’ (Noishondo), ‘Place’ (Sthan), ‘Map’ (Manchitro), ‘Soap’ (Shaban), ‘Narrative’ (Akkhyan), ‘Smell’ (Gondho) and ‘Point’ (Bindu). This nicely shaped book is adorned with a beautiful cover, designed by Sabyasachi Hazra. This book cannot be labelled as a book of philosophy only. With a philosophical insight of exploring things, it embraces other branches of knowledge such as history, political economy, geography, even mathematics and music and countless references to literature makes this book a true site of interdisciplinarity.

The first chapter ‘Language’ contains ideas on language in the form of twenty-six theses accompanied by the translation of two prose-poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé and a poem of Vicente Aleixandre. Hussain employs a Marxist approach to understand language. He states that language exists amidst the social production-relation and we must make sense of language by placing it in that matrix. The body of language is strained with the filths of production-relation. However, he also cautions that the idea of production-relation must not be understood in a narrow sense. The horizon of production-relation, as Hussain states, encompasses the totality of human practices. Besides, language performs the functions mediation too, particularly a three-dimensional one that mediates between the self and the consciousness, the consciousness and the material world, and the material world and the self. Within this triad of mediation, humankind reproduces themselves with the reproduction of everyday life. Hussain also mentions that language is burdened by the material world as hinted by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology. Hussain then expounds his ideas on language in the later theses which include the issues like pure language, language and the body, standard language and the power-relation associated with it, language and culture, the exchange, distribution and consumption of language, language’s intrinsic, use and exchange value, the role of language in the production of ideology and hegemony, language as a site of oppression and resistance and language in poetics among others.

The next chapter is on ‘Silence’. Here, the philosophically mysterious notion of silence gets a political reading. How the instruments of capital and power silence the exploited class is of paramount importance here. Hussain identifies silence as a product of the forces of exploitation — capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy and racism. He presents different sensory dimensions of silence and elaborates on how silence can be seen, heard, smelled, touched and tasted. Hussain examines the representations of silence in the works of two medieval poets as well as Lalon and Jibananda Das. He explores the implications of silence with respect to language, meaning, music, space and body. Hussain thinks body too as a reservoir of silence just as it is to language. Like Audre Lorde, this Marxist thinker also strongly calls for a praxis of silence to fight the forces of exploitation and makes an audacious comment that Karl Marx is a theorist of visible silence.

Then we have a chapter on ‘Place’, with thirty-one theses. In the very beginning, the writer distinguishes place from space as its subset. Like Henri Lefebvre, he thinks of place as the site where everyday life reproduces itself. However, for Hussain, space does not always appear as a complete ‘being’. It is both a ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ depending on the context. He reads place in the context of four major forces of exploitation mentioned earlier. The question of place, especially the question of land in the context of capitalism and colonialism is emphasised here. He invokes the works Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and Akhtaruzzaman Elias to study how they encountered the question of land. He also looks at the works of James Joyce and Elias to make sense of place in urban space.

Azfar Hussain’s geographic inquiry does not end in the exploration of space. It is further extended into the twenty-one theses on ‘Map’. Along with the epistemological and ontological implications of map, how cartography was used historically in the discourse of imperialism and nationalism are presented here. Here, this passionate Marxist intellectual also offers a reading of map from the lens of political economy. Keeping true to his political commitment, Hussain insists on developing a cartography that is conducive to revolutionary emancipation.

‘Soap’ is the most interesting chapter considering its title. Hussain makes an ordinary day-to-day product a topic of philosophical investigation. The content does not betray the riveting title. The theses of this chapter reflect on the colonisation of the body by the major forces of exploitation. From the very first chapter, it is evident that the body is of crucial concern for Hussain. In fact, he identifies land, labour, language and body as the major sites where the relations of power, domination and exploitation work.

The question of exploitation never appears in an abstract manner in Hussain’s writings. He explicitly sketches the sufferings of the body. Here, a phenomenological approach is discernable in Hussain’s work, a revolutionary phenomenology like that of Frantz Fanon but with a distinctive Marxist approach. There stands Hussain brilliance and uniqueness that he always directs us to a revolutionary understanding of the self and the world. In ‘Soap’, he vehemently critiques some of the colonial tendencies that still lurk in our culture and continue to shape our aesthetics. Needless to say, his mission is to inspire the decolonisation of our mind.

‘Narrative’ contains a single narrative where the writer recalls his experience of attending a conference that featured the likes of Frederic Jameson, Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and most importantly Jacques Derrida who delivered a lecture titled ‘Typewriter Ribbon: Limited Ink’. Here, Hussain critiques the textual fetishism ruling over academia, a propensity which can be roughly traced back to the advent of poststructuralism. Hussain points out that in the course of textualising everything, many celebrated thinkers often escape or abstract the real and the material. He also offers his own interpretation of that lecture of Derrida.

In ‘Smell’, Hussain is more poetic than philosophical. In literature, the visual dimension of our sensory perception overrides other sensory dimensions like the olfactory, the auditory and the senses of touch and taste. History too is narrated in a way which offers us an account that corresponds to the visual perspective. This over-reliance on a single sense has handicapped us from a more comprehensive understanding of the world. Hussain’s take on smell is an attempt to re-establish the importance of other senses.

‘Point’, apparently a geometric concept is the last chapter of Hussain book but it goes beyond its mathematical boundary to reveal its philosophical and poetic manifestation. He looks at Hafiz, Kabir, Neruda and Jibananada to elaborate his ideas on point. In classical geometry, point has been considered as space with no materiality inherent to it but Hussain emphasises one the material property of point. The implications of point in political economy and in digital culture are not left either. Lastly, he ends this chapter with a translation of Federico García Lorca’s poem on point.

In both form and content, Azfar Hussain’s Darshanakhyan certainly marks a unique approach to philosophical thinking in our intellectual tradition. The language is nowhere dry or riddled with complex discursive ghurnification (a word Hussain himself frequently uses) like most of the contemporary theoretical works. Hussian consistently reminds the readers that he is also a poet. Although a few theses sound like a poetic statement than a philosophical thesis, what stands glaring is the constant politicisation of philosophy.

He exactly follows Marx’s famous declaration that ‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’. His approach to philosophy is guided by this political commitment of revolutionary change which would free humankind from the shackles of exploitation. Readers must not deprive them of experiencing this phenomenal work.

Raihan Rahman is a young writer and critic.

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