Looking for history in all the wrong places

By Zia Ahmad

Notable scholar Frederic Jameson famously put forward the idea of the disappearance of a sense of history in his indictment of postmodernism, fitfully titled Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). The idea briefly referred to the way in which the entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past consequently refusing to learn any lessons from it. In forming a critique of the postmodern condition, Jameson essentially pointed out the disconnection with history and the subsequent fascination with the present.

This broad interpretation holds true for the collective human experience and rings ever so true for Pakistan. It is interesting to note how seamlessly the above mentioned idea blends in with the rhetorical whining knowledgeable Pakistanis indulge in, whenever given the chance, something to the tune of we have forgotten our ways, we have lost our identity, etc, etc.

The loss of a sense of history and identity just may as well be a cultural condition where local indigenous identity is forsaken for a more influential one. A dominant cultural exposure informs another society’s buying habits, the way they conduct themselves socially, usage of language and take on social and cultural notions that are borrowed from elsewhere. The social system begins to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind which all early social formations have had in one way or the other attempted to preserve.

Taking India and Pakistan as an example, 200 years of direct and indirect British rule has severely handicapped a diverse and rich legacy of tradition and culture. For generations now both the nations have been struggling with the question of identity. Cultural contact with the West has disproportionately been one sided. Hollywood films and actors, Elvis and the Beatles (the recently departed Michael Jackson yielded considerbale popularity and influence) , the latest accessory and clothing fads have received partial acceptance in urban parts of this region. Schooling in private sector makes use of world history books that are mostly written from a Western point of view. It’s only when regional history is presented that there’s an overwhelming local tinge, that borders on an almost propagandist variety to it and the variations between what is taught across the nations that make up the subcontinent is understandably drastic.

In the wake of information explosion and cable TV there is considerably more exposure to Western media and culture. There are already Indian and Pakistani franchises to MTV and HBO along with KFC, McDonald’s, Coca Cola and other huge multinational concerns as well as local variations of Pop Idol and other mass appeal TV phenomena. Jameson viewed postmodernism as a cultural formation that accompanied globalization and multinational capitalism. This particular facet of postmodernism is criticized for promoting an unthinking, slavish consumerist culture that glosses over the surface and fixated with an “emptied out, stylized present”.

Valentine and Halloween is marked with as much enthusiasm by spatially disoriented parts of the society, as in the west, fully banked by local corporate concerns.  Narrowing down to Pakistan, the case for cultural identity is sketchier for the model of the perpetual present as given above is only applicable for those who are informed by Western culture. Those in the shadows take up to Indian influences, massively informed by years upon years of Bollywood adulation and cultural exposure through TV. Hindi terms are used for easily interchangeable Urdu counterparts and Holi is rumored to be an annual event sponsored by a handful of local colleges and schools.

Though for the unflinching custodians of traditional values, this much should be said: Not all tradition and customs can be expected to pass the test of time. Quiet a few are rendered obsolete and in changing times, with the lack of a proper indigenous substitute or revision and evaluation of any number of age old customs, the obsolete model is stubbornly followed in parts of the region. In this cultural version of antiquated tradition and custom, fostering of Western progressive social practices (universal education, health, advanced communication and organized public transport system, jurisprudence, the works) have proven to be justified and has provided grounds for developing nations for international convergence. But then again the need to follow a set of progressive and humane ideals from another culture only became possible because previous indigenous models were not allowed to grow and evolve, either through internal ineptitude or external duplicity and exploitation.

Fredric Jameson’s theory on the disappearance of a sense of history works fittingly well with contemporary media glued target audiences in Pakistan and India. But surely he had the Western society itself in mind when he speaks of retention of the past in a more actively postmodern context. It fits in that context as well as lots of younger people wouldn’t know of actors from the 1950s and before or would have a working knowledge of their own history other than what has been taught at schools. Each successive generation gets caught up with its own existent cultural web and grows distant from its past.

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