How are poetic imagination and material reality related? And what makes this question important in more than a philosophical sense for us? In this talk I explore how one early modern polymath writing in Pashto verse, Khushhal Khan Khattak, explored the question of imagination and the extra-mental world over the course of his career. I propose some tentative factors in Khushhal’s extraordinary attention to the material, concrete, and particular, which make him stand out even while he maintained notions equating reality with universals. Foremost was his position as a very materially-engaged activist, negotiating between several conflicting civilizational projects of Aurangzeb’s increasingly micro-managerial Mughal state on one side, and the full material and sociopolitical texture of everyday Afghan life on the other.
However, what prompts me to ask this question is my engagement with contemporary Pashto poets who operate in similar epistemic spaces. The relevance of asking about theoretical correspondences between poetic imagination and material reality has become particularly stark since 2001, with Karl Rove’s invocation of a post-truth world; the War on Terror’s messianic neoliberalism as a conscious aim of counterinsurgency; and the ontological breakdown experienced by populations contending with apocalyptic material devastation on the sharp edges of globalized violence. Pashto poets of the present era attend to all these questions, of course. Their context is more intimately knowable to us even while their intellectual tools would be more recognizable to Khushhal than to most academic critical theorists.
So, while Khushhal Khan’s politics of imagination and materiality is my main focus in this talk, I underscore several things by maintaining this as its immediate bookend, and as the larger project in which it is situated. The intellectual resources that present-day Afghans have available speak to a long experience of certain kinds of violence, over the course of which questions of linkages between material, epistemic and ontological violence have routinely arisen. The ways Afghan philosophy-poetry has dealt with these allow us to ask new questions about our present in sophisticated ways, while pointing out the longevity of subaltern traditions helps reorient what intellectual history is and where theory is located. Second, this is important in terms of approaches to early modern history. In maintaining the present as a point of reference, I argue that we transform what we do in studying the early modern. We are prompted to engage Khushhal on the level of existential questions rather than from a historicized distance, transforming him into an interlocutor much more than an object of study. This can only improve our understanding of early modern worlds, rather than compromising it.
James Caron is Lecturer in Islamicate South Asia at SOAS University of London. He teaches History, Religions and World Philosophies, and his interests include empire and borderland history and theory; the politics of knowledge; eco- and onto-poetics; and the metaphysics and phenomenology of violence. Whatever he is working on, it usually involves history and poetry, in Pashto, Urdu, Persian, and Punjabi.