The Politics of Hallucination

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By: Zamwa Muhammad

‘’ Nali is no one’s ally, he is no one’s analogous

His verses are no one’s synonyms; he is superficial, a joker ’’

  • Nali
Author: Zamwa Muhammad

Above the gate of Sulaymaniyah city’s Mawlawy Street hangs a placard with the motto ‘’Sulaymaniyah–Capital of Culture’’ written on it. A few days ago, an artist placed a placard with the word ‘’hallucination’’ on the word ‘’culture’’ and thus the slogan became: ‘’Sulaymaniyah–Capital of Hallucination”.

This kind of awareness that rejects Sulaymaniyah as a capital of culture is not a new thing. Rather, like a spectre, for many years it has been haunting our public and intellectual spheres, both from within the Sulaymaniyah area and beyond it. I think it is obvious that Sulaymaniyah is no longer the proper, or rightful, bearer of this title. It is rather a vestige that reflects both the nationalist rhetoric of Kurdish political parties and the illusions of some politicians, pseudo-intellectuals and opportunists. Defence of this title is either due to naivety–being fooled by the illusions used to sustain those in power–or to an expired nationalist, partisan mentality that since the 1991 uprisings desperately needs to cling to such titles as ‘’Capital of Culture”, “Capital of Tourism”, or “Capital of Peace’’ to mask its administrative, ethical and cultural crises.

What does substituting ‘hallucination’ for ‘culture’ accomplish? One explanation posits that it is a visualisation of the kind of awareness I mentioned earlier, a temporal transference of that awareness from the public sphere–from the realm of daily discussion–to the realm of visuals, namely, a representation of that awareness. Another explanation sees this act as a form of scepticism towards Sulaymaniyah as a capital of culture, while a third interprets it as antagonism, a protest against the established motto.

All these explanations and judgments are nothing more than an acceptance or rejection of the edited motto. Therefore, the act and its reactions, though they are critical to authority and the present status of the city, indirectly cover some crucial possible meanings inherent in the word ‘’hallucination’’ itself, and thus have the effect of presenting ‘’hallucination’’ only as a libel and a tool for blame.

This essay, with the help of Michel Foucault’s reflections on fiction, power, truth and resistance, represents an effort to discuss these possibilities latent in ‘’hallucination’’. Hallucination, in addition to its weaponization as a mechanism of social marginalization of those who are disconnected from reality–the delusional or ‘fools’–we can perceive it as a tool for opposition and resistance against the status quo, as a form of politics for opposing that which is named ‘truth’.

Beside its deep contradiction to ‘’reality’’ and ‘’truth’’, what is interesting in ‘’hallucination–something heard or seen, but not really present–is its relationship to words like ‘’fiction”–something created or envisioned but not real–and ‘’falsehood’’.

But what is real and what is fiction, hallucination or imagination? What determines this? One of the most important intellectuals who explored this is Michel Foucault. For Foucault, truth is not a stable and absolute being; truth is a social and historic production. There is a ‘’regime of truth’’ in every society, an effect of the actions and reactions in relations of power and those of knowledge. For Foucault, modern power is not only in the hands of a sovereign or a monarch; it doesn’t hierarchically come from the top to the bottom. Power climbs up from the bottom, from the smallest units in a society, and it spreads like a net: ‘’Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere’’(Foucault 1978: 93). For Foucault, ‘’power is diffused rather than concentrated, embodied and enacted rather than possessed…’’ ( Gaventa 2003: 1).

Power in the modern world, or ‘’disciplinary power’’, doesn’t work through execution or torture anymore. It constitutes interventions in the daily life of the individual and her relations. The functions of this kind of power aren’t just prevention, punishment and killing; its functions go beyond that to include production, organization and alteration: ‘’We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’. In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production’’ (Foucault 1995: 194). This power inextricably enters a relationship with knowledge. Under the dominion of this power/knowledge, truth is not an empirical and objective discovery anymore; it is not a fixed substance within history anymore. Truth is an outcome of the constant actions and reactions of the relations of power/knowledge and the discourses of a society in a specific historical period: ‘’Truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements’’ (Foucault, 1980: 131).

In circumstances where truthfulness and falsehood, hallucination and factuality, are not objectively defined, and an authority is always involved in their signification; in a reality which is fabricated and produced, and always shortens language and horizons in its fabrication, we are compelled to utilize those mechanisms which are not yet present, to hear those voices which are yet to come, to see those images which are invisible. In other words, to ‘hallucinate’ and create fiction. In an interview on the history of sexuality, Foucault says: ‘’I am well aware that I have never written anything but fictions. I do not mean to say, however, that truth is therefore absent. It seems to me that the possibility exists for fiction to function in truth, for a fictional discourse to induce effects of truth, and for bringing it about that a true discourse engenders or “manufactures’ something that does not as yet exist, that is, ‘fictions’ it. One ‘fictions’ history on the basis of a political reality that makes it true, one ‘fictions’ a politics not yet in existence on the basis of a historical truth’’ (Foucault, 1980: 193). To fiction a history, to hallucinate a history, can change all the meanings and significations of the past in relation to our present. To hallucinate in the present, to fiction in the present, can open many doors leading to other possibilities and circumstances different from that which is called ‘reality’. Hallucination is difference when it relates to reality by means of difference itself.

The problems and illnesses of the Kurdish reality, whatever they may be–from ethical rottenness to political-intellectual-artistic-governmental failure, from women’s rights and their repression to political-economic corruption and perversion, from structural faults to historic misrepresentations and distortions–cannot be described or resolved with a language and terminology that are produced within the same reality, just like the capitalist and post-orientalist condition on the worldwide scale. This too cannot be expressed with a language and a logic belonging to the same history; reality cannot be destroyed by the bombs that you get from reality itself. One must think the unthinkable, say the unsayable, represent the un-representable; that is, under the hegemony of a certain power, named hallucination or fiction. Beyond the common meaning of hallucination, which is a mental illness and a disconnection with reality, we must not forget that it is also one of reality’s antitheses, that it is always in opposition with the status quo, that it is always an exit and a different possibility for a breakthrough from reality. A reality, that as long as we stay inside the limits and borders of which, will always define, signify and evaluate its opposites by itself, and always will hide, change and distort those opposites.

 Although truth and knowledge are not objective, and even meaning and reality are constantly fabricated, we must not make the mistake of seeing the relations of power/knowledge as a Cartesian evil demon that only controls our mind and limits our thoughts, because where there is power, there is resistance too. We must not make the mistake of seeing the discourses–which are the complex whole of religious, philosophic, political, and scientific texts, as well as daily speech, in a specific era–like a cage for our language and selfhood, for ‘’discourses are not once and for all subservient to power or raised up against it, any more than silences are. We must make allowance for the complex and unstable process whereby discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling-block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy’’ (Foucault 1978: 100). A particular dimension of ‘’hallucination’’ which is antireal and outside of the regimes of truth makes it a kind of resistance against what is dominant in Sulaimaniyah or any other city; every exit from reality, every exit from present in any time, every escape from a historic condition, every literary or intellectual jump, every radical dreaming, will be called hallucination by its era, by power. Hallucination can be resistance against everything that is old or dominant, against every circumstance that is defined as reality. Hallucination can be an entrance for all those possibilities, events and images that cannot happen (or be realized) and become reality within a history.

In fact, this sense of hallucination is not something totally new to this territory. One of the greatest poets in Sulaimaniyah’s historic landscape is also our most hallucinatory figure. When the domination of the Turkish, Persian and Arabic languages were at their peak, when the culture of this territory was dissolving in that of its oppressors, in a time when even grammar and typography were possessed, Nali produced a kind of ‘’superficiality’’ and jocularity that later become known as the Sulaimaniyah form in Kurdish. His poetry is a splendid hallucination in that reality of the Baban principality, in a reality that is Arabic in terms of religion and worldview, and Turkish or Persian in terms of politics and administration. Nali’s glory is not in defining him as the first poet who wrote in Kurdish in this area (not to mention that this first is not yet settled between Nali and Mustafa bag). It is rather in his deep consciousness of his language and its political dimension, of the political possibility that this use of language holds: ‘’Persian, Kurds and Arabs, I have conquered them all by jotter’’. The structure of writing, poetic vision and linguistic relating are not mere poetic gestures; they can make way for new possibilities. When one extracts a language from its reality and opposes that language to its reality, when one detaches a language from its reality and alienates it, hallucinates with it, the language will no longer be only a part of regimes of truth. It will not only be an effect of the dominant self-exercises of power/knowledge. It becomes a point of resistance too. Therefore, its intention is not simply the desire of demonstrating language and engaging in pure poetry, for its own sake; the ‘’self-examination’’ and ‘’intentionality’’ of Nali is a kind of hallucination, a kind of resistance, a kind of self-reacquisition.

It’s a strange irony that this area’s literary history starts with a hallucination and, in the past few days, for a very short while, its motto has become ‘’Capital of Hallucination’’. Beyond its critical objective, I think that a ‘’capital of hallucination’’ is not a hell we must flee from. Rather, it is a utopia that we must seek. Today, more than any time, we need to hallucinate, we need to negate that political-intellectual-social history that is attached to us. Hallucination is resistance against the myths of mountain revolutions and today’s governing sectarians, against authors and pseudo-intellectuals who are a part of this state, against the whole of this present. My intention is not to defend Sulaymaniyah or any other city. I intend to drive attention to our understanding of ‘’hallucination’’, to the deep relations that this word has with important terms like truth, creation, representation, and negation. After loading hallucination with these meanings, relating to the motto of Sulaymaniyah, and relating to our history, I would like to leave the reader with some questions: Who are the true hallucinators in our history? How can we mobilize our hallucinations against the power of institutions, discourses and disciplines? And finally, can Sulaimaniyah, or any other Kurdish city, truly embody a capital of hallucination?


1-         Foucault, Michel (1978). The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, New York, Pantheon Books.

2-         Gaventa, John (2003). Power after Lukes: a review of the literature, Brighton: Institute of Development Studies.

3-         Foucault, Michel (1995). Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison. New York, Vintage Books.

4-         Foucault, Michel (1980). POWER/KNOWLEDGE: Selected Interviews and Other Writings. New York, Pantheon Books.

5- Abdulkarim Modarris & Fatih Abdulkarim (1378), Nali’s poetry collection, Sanandaj-Kurdistan publishing.