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Poetics, politics, praxis

By Githa Hariharan

Between the homogenisation wrought by globalisation on the one hand and cultural nationalism on the other, we are witnessing more violent religious and ethnic conflict, more conservatism, more censorship. In short, shrinking spaces in which to think, read, write, and express ourselves artistically. In times of such siege, all significant art becomes offensive, striking against, opposing, revealing, resisting

This world that refuses to go away even if you are locked up in a well-heated or air-conditioned room reading, analysing, fantasising, understanding, writing. This world is the only background we have against which to examine our terms for the day: poetics, politics, praxis. I suspect the specific background we have will give us some terms and realities we have to deal with if we are to talk of poetics, politics and praxis in any meaningful way. And the specific background we have: a background in which the faultlines of religious/ethnic violence are opening up in many countries. Where the concept of belonging to a community, and the concept of citizenship, are subject to distortions driven by ignorance, chauvinism and bigotry. Perhaps our situation is, fundamentally, not unlike what many others in many places in the past have faced. But still, this is our world, our times, and the contemporary faces of violence, hatred and exclusion are, unfortunately, unique to our times. There are wars against terrorism, there is jihad, there is Hindutva. There are all the modern andpseudo-modern versions of a medieval battle of good against evil. And there are terms and phenomena we cannot ignore, as students and as chroniclers, in some form or the other, of our times: globalisation, nationalism, terrorism, jingoism, obscurantism and communalism. 

We spend a great deal of time commenting on the context of the texts we create and read and write about. We spend a lot of energy working out, consciously or otherwise, the diverse (I use the word diverse in preference to the local) and universal frameworks of a text. The complex co-existence of the particular and diverse and the universals, not only allows our texts to travel and endure, they also give rise to a range of criteria that help us judge the value of a text. So I would like to talk a little first about the so-called universals, then come down to the specifics of our particular and diverse experiences as readers and writers. 

The first question seems to be: this globalisation we hear of ad nauseam, the globalisation that is already upon us in the heart of our commercial existence, can it infuse common global values? On the face of it, globalisation, for us word-wallas, should mean the free flow of people and ideas, allowing advances taking place anywhere -- anywhere at all -- to be shared by others. Even we non-historians know about different times in history when ideas, numerals, technological innovations, and stories and story-forms, have transmitted and disseminated themselves in different parts of the world, undergoing multiple mutations in the course of their movement. Some years ago, when I began writing my novel When Dreams Travel, I wanted to refresh my memory of the framework story of Shahrzad in Thousand and One Nights. As I read different translations and different annotated editions, I also came across the same story in all kinds of places quite far away from Thousand and One Nights. They were variations: Greek, Chinese, you name it, all of these places had variations of the same story as part of their story-bank. By the time I began writing the novel, I was left in very little doubt that there is such a thing as universal motifs. A universal framework for looking at power struggles, with a diversity at the heart of the universal motif -- and the values this motif seeks to establish and examine. 

So innovations -- and strategies to understand reality -- have travelled and continue to travel in multiple directions. We are not just talking about the obvious fact that there is no one-way transaction; or that the transaction has had its source in parts of the world that have, it seems, very little that is original or new to offer. (Of course I say this with a qualifier -- there is no real difference between those who now believe some of our parts of the world were never the source of any of these advances, and those who believe most of these advances only came from us simply because we have been around longer.) What is really important is that all of us have given; and all of us have received. That all art and ideas and knowledge itself has been the sum total of not just two-way transactions, but multiple transactions, so that it would not be too far-fetched to say that many of these ideas and breakthroughs, if looked at internationally, are the result of teamwork.  

To get back to our own globalisation though: it should mean a free flow of advances and breakthroughs; all of us get to draw interest on this huge interest-earning deposit. If globalisation is to encourage healthy competition, competition should mean more choices for the consumer and free trade should make it easier for producers to get a better deal. But the reality makes a mockery of these hopeful definitions: globalisation today is founded on an economic system to which the key is held by internationally mobile finance capital. We have global markets, global stages constructed by the new and rapidly transmitted information technologies; a kind of illusory global law and order, a global sense of values that seeks international human rights, international justice and so on. But if we look closer at this part of the scene before us, we perceive that all these fair-sounding motives are only so much background. The scene itself is driven by the market; the primacy of the market means that above all values and truths is the worship of the market. ‘Global’ then becomes a word that has to be understood as merger: we have numerous examples, and in just the media and publishing spheres we have instances of multimedia giants carving up the global cultural area among them and turning cultural transactions into a fully commercial enterprise.   

This obviously unattractive view of globalisation has to be balanced by the attractive guise of the mission it most often espouses: many proponents of globalisation equate it with modernisation. It is touted as the process of breaking down the restrictive barriers of the nation-state and establishing cosmopolitan, progressive values. Close up, this modernity is a rather frail and deceitful creature. It is highly exclusive and restrictive; its principal targets are those who have buying capacity or the capacity to join the speculating exercise. The same anxiety is uppermost in the cultural programmes generated by this system: something has to be sold.  

This merger-loving finance capital generally originates in the West; and of course the same finance capital also exerts tremendous control over cultural channels. With the result that globalisation also affects the area we are particularly interested in, the free flow of ideas. This free flow has come up against a much harsher regime. There is more than enough evidence that what we write, publish and read is indeed vulnerable to the dictates of globalisation. What does globalisation do to texts once they are published? Indeed, how does it affect what is published, or even what is written?  

First, and most important, the ‘universal’ now, in the post-globalisation sense, is increasingly identified with “western civilisation”. There is the need to confront the perception, for those of us who have learnt, for historical reasons, to straddle two cultures, two pasts, that there is an assault by forces of backwardness on a civilised ‘West’. We need to confront another fact: that even those supposedly against this western civilisation are only inverting its categories, not challenging them by posing a more inclusive or universal globalisation.  

Globalisation, rather than infusing ‘global frameworks’ -- what I prefer to call universal frameworks -- is actually interested in merging, homogenising, creating a monolithic framework -- so that it is as if a Bush can tell us what our human values are, and, by extension, what our artistic frameworks are. In short, the global we are looking at in our world is simply not the ‘universals’ that do exist, and that we want to aspire towards. I have been using ‘universals’ in the plural in the same spirit as that which makes us anxious to clarify that we do not have an Indian literature but Indian literatures. The abuse of the word universal by the powerful who have been defining the universal for many of us -- just as they have been defining our classics for us -- has to be dealt with not by giving up the word or the reality it stands for, but by searching for and engaging in debate about universal frameworks from our own varied and particular experience. Just as those of us educated to believe that our classics consist exclusively of the European canon have to work to reconstruct a list of classics, so we have to reconstruct a more inclusive and fairly represented set of universal frameworks, values, and qualifiers and nuances that hold them in place.   

But lest we paint globalisation as a villain all by itself, side by side with the merging kind of globalisation we have been looking at there is another scene it has all too often been accompanied by: more violent religious and ethnic conflicts, more conservatism, more censorship. In short, shrinking spaces. At the heart of this shrinkage, of course, is shrinking economic spaces, especially for those parts of the world where cultural, linguistic, ethnic and religious identities are all that is left to prop nationalism on, having ceded economic space to neo-colonial regimes. Quite naturally, the spaces in which we think, read, write, and express ourselves artistically are reducing all the time too.  

Let’s look at these two scenes again; two apparently contrasting scenes that we see side by side in our own country. As globalisation brings in radical changes in the cultural scenario and promotes a ‘free market’ ethos, we also witness the growing power of the concept of cultural nationalism. Here, in India, it is in the sense of the predominance of Hindu culture, used by the majority fundamentalists, even while they allow the market a free hand. The globalised model of ‘modernity’ can apparently coexist with the worst kind of parochial and obscurantist views.  

The cultural nationalists seem quite agreeable to ceding their beloved country’s economic independence. But is there really no opposition to globalisation from them? There is, and it is the obvious, predictable variety: “our culture is endangered by western influence”; as if culture is something static and should remain so. With the cultural nationalists in the ascendant, all other opposition, anything that may want to go beyond mere inversion of the categories of the present globalisation, and affirm more positive universals, is reduced to a state of invisibility. In fact, just as the global-wallas impose their merging universal on us, the cultural nationalists growing in strength impose on us their monolithic, homogenised version of what is Indian. 

There are two simultaneous -- and apparently not very differently driven -- forces then, acting on the new reader/writer’s spaces. Dissent is discouraged; opposition is censored; and above all, alternative perspectives are rendered completely invisible and mute. The result is pretty obvious: shrinking spaces for the reader and writer to go about their business; spaces that are not only shrinking all the time, but spaces that are besieged.  

Obviously, writers and readers have a vocation in times of siege. Siege makes writers (and readers) more, not less necessary. A few qualifiers: there is a wide difference between what a work is and what it does or what can be done with it or to it. We all know that literature has been used and abused in many ways by authors and readers alike. Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja, exposing one brand of fundamentalism, can, and has been used by another brand of fundamentalists in the games played by competing fundamentalisms. In the same vein, Rushdie suddenly received the offer of a visa to visit India some years back, mainly, we suspect, because the minority fundamentalists are supportive of the fatwa against him. Books have been used to flatter tyrants or to contribute to their fall. And, too, authors’ intentions can be irrelevant -- they can be erratic, unpredictable and, on the whole, most unreliable.  

But persuasive passion, commitment, can make the writing more compelling, so that ‘anger’ can enlarge the scope of the work. In times of siege, a writer becomes an offender. Andre Brink puts it eloquently: all significant art, he says, is offensive; offensive in the sense of striking against; opposing; revealing; resisting. Not just resisting the siege, but also breaking down the resistance in the reader. The writer’s opposition exists in a peculiarly agonising form in times of siege: awareness of the intolerable condition of his world. John Berger says: “Our torture is the existence of others as unequals.” And with our information technology, no one, and certainly not a writer, can claim s/he has not seen the intolerable condition of his world. The besieged writer has no option but to continue making maps of the world; not duplicating the world itself, but creating one map after the other of what she sees must be exposed, understood and/or changed.   

What is at stake, Brink says, is not just the individual writer’s grasp of reality, or his/her freedom to write, but by implication an entire community’s access to reality and truth. This is the major argument of Julio Cortazar in ‘Something More Than Words’: 

“It is true that we writers always find a way of writing and even publishing; but on the other side of the wall there are readers who cannot read without taking risks; on the other side are people whose only source of information is the official one; on the other side there is a generation of children and adolescents who… are ‘educated’ to become perfect fascists, automatic defenders of the big words that disguise reality: fatherland, national security, discipline, God…” 

The curators of these lying profundities are those in power. A power that works hard to perpetuate itself and to get closer and closer to a state of utter homogeneity. To do this, everything that seems foreign and deviant must be cast out; everything, till all the parts become interchangeable and reflect perfectly the whole.

(From the keynote address delivered at the IACLALS Conference, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, January 23, 2003)

(Githa Hariharan is an award-winning novelist and short story writer) 

Five conjectures on art and politics 

Ramu Ramanathan, playwright and creator of Cotton 56 Polyester 84, on the displaced mill workers of Mumbai, explores the relationship between politics and art and describes how the arts can create awareness and provoke meaningful dialogue across economic and political boundaries

Conjecture 1: To be an apolitical artist in the world is to be either a fool or a stooge. There are a lot of apolitical artists out there. Is it the same with scientists, engineers, tradesmen? 

Conjecture 2: Of course we first must define what is meant by “political”. One has heard the following cliché so many times I truly think it’s lost any meaning. To wit: “Art, by its very nature, is political.” I never know what that means. I personally would prefer to think that art, by its very nature, is beautiful, which, in my universe, is much more important than any political relevance it may hold. Of course, beauty, you can argue, is a political determination.  

Conjecture 3: Of course art is beautiful -- well, good art is beautiful -- but the artist and his/her art do not live in a vacuum. Artists, like everyone else, live within society. They have social responsibilities, moral obligations, personal commitments. To deny this (and I don’t think you would) is to live in an Ayn Randean world of hyper-individualism. This does not mean that their art must be political, but it does mean that they must create art while aware of political realities. An extreme example would be an artist asked to paint a mural upon the wall of a fascist dictatorship’s building; to do so while only thinking of beauty is to be ignoring his/her responsibility to humanity. Shakespeare himself did not just tell pretty stories: he delved into the nature of the human soul, and part of that nature is political.  

Conjecture 4: When one hears of politics in conjunction with art, one sees rallies, political agendas, solutions to social problems which art can never achieve. All right, you can’t make a work of art in a vacuum. You’re drawing material from the world that surrounds you, people, places, ideas. However, when politics enters the picture, you have immediately indicated that you’re willing to take sides on an issue, which is the death of art. Or rather, the agenda is the death of art. Because if an artist makes a play or novel or song for the purpose of improving the condition of coal miners or office workers, then someone else can come along and just as easily make a play or novel or song in defence of the status quo of that coal miner, office worker, whatever. Art with a social purpose: where does it get us? The artist who paints a mural for a fascist dictator is finally no better or worse than an agit-prop play. Why? Because no matter what political agenda you pursue you will always be oppressing someone, running over somebody’s idea of rights.  

Conjecture 5: Let’s get down to basics. Artists are human. Humans are social animals. Society functions through politics. (If you think pure anarchy can work, I wash my hands of you.) Even in the olden days, when Krishna and Balarama were discussing what to do with the Kansas and Sisupalas they killed, there was politics. We have a moral obligation to help our fellow humans. The artist does not live outside this moral order. To say that “the artist who paints a mural for a fascist dictator is finally no better or worse than an agit-prop play” because all political agendas oppress someone is silly (to be kind). Nazi camp guards, police squads armed with POTA, TADA, and freedom fighters in Manipur and Kashmir are pursuing an agenda which oppressed people; the International Red Cross, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King were not. Political differences are usually not so stark, but they exist, and they are not all the same. 

Infochange News & Features, August 2009