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Roland Barthes on Kashmir

Roland Barthes on Kashmir

Ghulam Mohammad Khan

From the Editor:
Roland Barthes, in full Roland Gérard Barthes, (born November 12, 1915, Cherbourg, France—died March 25, 1980, Paris), French essayist and social and literary critic whose writings on semiotics, the formal study of symbols and signs pioneered by Ferdinand de Saussure, helped establish structuralism and the New Criticism as leading intellectual movements.

Barthes’s literary style, which was always stimulating though sometimes eccentric and needlessly obscure, was widely imitated and parodied. Some thought his theories contained brilliant insights, while others regarded them simply as perverse contrivances. But by the late 1970s Barthes’s intellectual stature was virtually unchallenged, and his theories had become extremely influential not only in France but throughout Europe and in the United States. Other leading radical French thinkers who influenced or were influenced by him included the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, socio-historian Michel Foucault, and philosopher Jacques Derrida.



From the curious academic debates in contemporary socio-cultural theories, we have learned that our society is like a meta-text in which diverse territorial or generic mental sets intricately inform the production, consumption, falsification, and reproduction of meanings. This whole process is essentially unconscious, for it slowly and silently puts on a seemingly irrefutable ‘naturalness.’ In the profoundly elaborate process, spreading over hundreds of years, of acquiring this naturalness, these meanings are indispensably attached to a diverse range of, to use a Barthes’ phrase, ‘falsely obvious’ lexical constructs, myths, images, signs, and symbols. However, this overarching symbolic order is inherently subversive, for it unmasks the much-hidden meanings and ideologies that implicitly affect our collective thought and behavior.

Roland Barthes is a French literary theorist and semiotician who feels deeply ‘impatient at the sight of (this) naturalness’ of meanings, tightly dressed up by the diverse socio-cultural and cognitive factors. Below, I make a crude attempt to expound how Roland Barthes would have meditated over different symbols, cultural constructs, and metonymic conceptualizations, profoundly influencing the making and functioning of collective Kashmiri behavior or the territorial consciousness. In other words, it is an endeavor to explain how Barthes would have disemboweled these symbolic fixities in Kashmiri culture and shown us the concealed software of ideology installed there. This software of ideology forms the significant constituents of our ‘social action’.

Beauty Plus

Given its powerful symbolic representation of a common crazy fetish for the fantastic ideals of beauty, it would be rather parochial to limit the semantics of this phrase ‘beauty plus’ merely to an image editing application. Since our thought and behavior work within a historically complex structured field of meanings, the need for any factual immediacy to challenge any culturally pervasive or internalized unit of meaning appears irrelevant. Maybe the noble ideal of the beauty archetype may change the passage of time. Still, the one bestriding our territorial consciousness for many years has never been achieved. However, people continue to aspire for the false ideals of beauty. By erasing blemishes and whitening their images, Beauty Plus doesn’t make them beautiful. Instead, it exposes a dark, repressed world of desire where one wants to be something else that it can never become. It also points out the social processing or categorizing of colors and their cultural associations. It may sound a universal tendency; however, its regional implications can’t be ignored. In Kashmir, it has gone to another level. It has created a parallel hyper-real space of social relationships where we continuously disown our real identities.

Hartal (Strike)

This term, recently incorporated into the latest edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, actually represents a collective territorial (willing) submission to an insuperable boredom, despair, and a sense of overbearing nothingness. It means a complete erasure of the normal. Translating the deeply sensitive cultural associations of the term into a foreign language for a different readership would amount to a lexical deculturation. On a ‘hartal’ day, people in Kashmir don’t intentionally suspend all activities, but (now) spontaneously adjust themselves to a powerful societal mechanism whereby they are tractably convinced to abandon the whole social business. The continued perpetuation of this cultural construct highlights the very temporal gaps of nothingness in our collective existence. It symbolically reflects on our life, which, like Schopenhauer’s pendulum of life, only swings backward and forward between ‘pain and boredom.’

Naukri (Employment)

This new cultural archetype deconstructs the so-called sacred discourses spun around the institution of marriage and implicitly propagates economic disparity and class consciousness. It proves the great Karl Marx ever-relevant that it is the socio-economic factors that shape human consciousness and not the reverse. Seemingly denounced in the popular commonsense discourse, the ‘Naukri’ archetype influences our earnest opinion-making when it comes to marriage or establishing new social relationships. It exposes the deeply internalized social behavior of the denial of human essences in favor of the material superiority of a small class. Its conditioning of our thought process has been phenomenal in the recent past.

VPN (Virtual Private Networks)

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These newly adopted letters in Kashmiri culture symbolize the same old acculturation of protestation and the mixture of satisfaction and excitement at the helplessness of the oppressor. However, the full form of these letters could mitigate their cultural relevance or significance. Ask a common Kashmiri to define VPN, and he/she will undoubtedly define it, without any prior knowledge of this virtual private network, as a working tool against the abounding political arrogance of the state. Only inside the political derelict of Kashmir, one could trace both the methodological and semantic similarities between stone-pelting and the VPN. The one is as much dissentious for the political establishment as the other. As witnessed from the recent shocking political developments, VPN users have not only been physically trounced but also threatened that its use could incur sedition charges.

Sonam Lotus

This highly dependable weatherman, recently described as ‘Saint Lotus’ by a regional daily for his accurate weather forecasting, has become an institution in himself. The bittersweet public reaction to his forecasts is motivated or governed more by an embedded conventional thought process than an unprejudiced rational approach. In regular public discourses, his projections are mostly treated as the Tiresias clairvoyance, and no clairvoyance is welcome to the rigid existing generic mental set. Any slightest error in the estimates earns him the ire of the majority. This indirectly explores our (collective) latent unyielding faith in some supreme celestial power as the epitome of all perfection while sentimentally negating everything else, even the scientific inquiry, which attempts to get closer to this archetypal perfection. His forecasts are interpreted as the metaphorical interventions to defy that supreme celestial power. Therefore, his failed predictions bring some strange satisfaction to the majority. Overall, Sonam Lotus symbolizes a broader thought process affecting our collective behavior for a very long time now.

This list may go on. However, it should suffice to help us understand the intricate pattern of meanings underlying the normal lexical usage and different cultural codes. It is the perennial interplay of these codes and usages that produces definitions. These meanings, in turn, shape human consciousness.

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View Comments (3)
  • Does it suggests that, symbols of militant rebellion ,such as a mujaheed holding an automatic gun and grenades on chest Or at times metaphors of radical Islam (sloganeering n elsewhere) is now being shifted more towards civic codes (beauty plus and naukri n even hartaal to some extent , if no stone pelting) of learnt behavior of mainstream elements than passionate following of the aazaadi spirit?

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