Caution and Excitement in Early Modern Studies

Prasanta Chakravarty

Who would have thought that Stanley Fish’s most prescient pronouncement about discourses of theory would emerge not in a fat tome but in the form of an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In July 2005, Fish had proposed rather accurately that following the death of Jacques Derrida, religion would be “where the action is”. Fish’s speculations were based on his observations of how certain variants of poststructuralism and new historicism were working rearward against disenchantment and the critical secularisation thesis. But more prophetically, he foresaw how religion was supplanting “the triumvirate of race, gender and class”. All kinds of sceptics seemed to him to be on one side — and a resurgent fideism on the other.

The map of early modern western cultural criticism is indeed being recast. The struggle between the historicising and textual scholars of early modernity that marked much of the later decades of the twentieth century is getting reshaped again. Some of the developments are very exciting and innovative.  Even as we are living through these stages, it would not be a bad idea to take stock of the theoretical predicament. A stock-taking is also necessary in order to assess what it means if we indeed depose/supplant (or radically modify) certain motifs, themes and framings so that we may think afresh. Most importantly, a survey of the current engagements with the early modern world gives us some vital clues about our own times.

Much of what is new in early modern English studies actually overlaps. So, it is not wise to generalise too quickly about their discursive frameworks in isolation.  For instance, post-phenomenology and affect often work in tandem with animal theory or ecocriticism. Likewise, new ways of looking into subject formation relates to radical communicative theories.  Then there are breakthroughs in genre theory, aesthetics and poetics: no doubt the return of philology (in considering early modern texts, editorial practices, translation and new media) remains an important mode of scholarship. The spectacular rise and consolidation of a whole field called the ‘history of the book’ shows how resilient and robust philology (with able assistance from New Historicism) has been in the bastions of early modern establishment. But it is also being confronted.

The Transcendental Turn

Let me continue with religion, however. Because since, paradoxically, framing a text or a problem through religion also challenges philology and the agonistic world of studia humanitatis along with Enlightenment projects like Marxism, race theory and other historicist ventures, it is important to understand its underpinnings.  When one questions the secularisation of our worldview (with Gadamer or Charles Taylor), or addresses ethics (with Levinas and Eagleton), considers poetics (with Hawkes and Schwartz) or theologises politics (Zizek, Agamben or Kantorowicz) — one brings in certain concerns that would fundamentally unsettle Edward Said’s powerful distinction between secular and religious criticism. When he made that distinction, Said was not only questioning the dangers of getting into fideism, but was making a crucial methodological point: that secular philology is rigorous, diligent, open and invested in its subject matter the way religious criticism is not. Religious criticism seeks premature closure, supplication and always operates contingently and schematically. If we note carefully, we see that all the above thinkers are contravening this very claim of Said, putting his neat binary to test. They are saying in their collective weight: look, do not convert the struggle against what the Enlightenment designates as ‘fanaticism’ into a project of moralisation. Secular criticism can never understand possibilities of radical communitas, sublimity, trauma, radical risk, quiescent anarchism, spirits, fortuitousness and so on — numinous ruptures all. This is because secular criticism condemns fanaticism in the name of practical-ethical consequences, not in the name of any definitive falsity of its contents. They are saying that scholarship is not about mastering this techne or that archive. It is not about turning oneself into Chaucer’s gaunt clerk — like a Friar in the Lent. It is rather about generosity and relatedness to life. To learn to think beyond texts and evidences if you are to appreciate the texture of the early modern sensibility. Most of all — to abandon scepticism (also known as criticality).

One of the better secular humanist responses to this challenge is that humanism has always considered the irrational element without assuring its retrieval and recovery; that the secular world itself is a product of the religious cosmos: saecula and salvation go hand in hand. The sacred and the profane are experienced in historical time with neither side getting any logical priority. Humanists would put the issue differently: that since it was impossible to think outside of religion in early modernity, the philologists concentrated on recovering the pagan, secular and ancient texts. Such scholars gave attention to the specificities of the ancient world. In a beautiful passage, William N. West has recently summed up the humanist response thus:

Divinitio is something like the philologist’s last resort, a best guess at a reading of a text in the absence of decisive evidence. It is also, despite its name and because it proceeds ‘not by the authority of antiquity but by conjecture’, something like the mixed art of philology at its purest…where certain knowledge cannot proceed, the philologist makes a choice based on whatever signs he can. But unlike the revelatory promise that marks the advent of the religious, these signs originate within the horizons of the text. Philological divinitio relies on human intuition rather than on divine intervention…”.

The secular endeavour then comes to the aid of the sacred in order to restore the text. Religion stands beside the recorded and interpretative texts and not beyond them. Humanism, in spite of its many debts to the religious, does not venture into the revelatory and the incommunicative.  It continues to tread scholarship with the likes of Said and Gentile.

What philological humanism resists is the acknowledgement of the tremendous power and force created — often deeply conceptual — when historicism and the theological temperament come together. Consequently it does not confront religious fundamentalism or theological radicalism.  Since they pay lip service to divinitio proper, the motivations behind evangelism and forms of radical heresy — so central to understanding the early modern world — completely evade them or are at best filtered through the safe and detached world of textual parsing. There have been some fine studies of core and canonical Renaissance texts (even if we leave aside pamphlets, broadsides, history and modes of prophecy) taking head-on the questions of the revelatory, the intangible or the divinely authoritarian. The historically positioned studies are also deeply invested in the close study of the texts themselves and other cultural artefacts, but not ever in a disinterested manner. Cynthia Marshall, David Norbrook, Ken Jackson, Julia Lupton, Sarah Beckwith — to name a few, have come out of the humanist shell and have confronted the religious questions squarely. With religion, other intangibles have again become part of scholarship: imagination, sublimity, or wrath, for example.

For the theoretical world, this creates a curious problem. On the one hand, it seems vitally important to confront religion afresh in order to have a surer handle on the period, while on the other if religion assumes a certain genetic persistence, a name for totalising the early modern world, it becomes a high-fidelity replicator unto itself. In other words, its historicising and analytical potential gets engulfed by its own fervour.  It will then tend to replace the very historicity that it espouses — contra textual criticism. The core question is whether as interpreters we can and ought to transcend modern forms of scepticism and evade the anthropologist’s gaze while getting into things theological? As long as we remain professional and detached even as we cultivate a faux theological sensibility, intangibles like love or religion are perhaps better left alone. On the other hand, if we are able to traverse the ground of realising the temperament of the evangelical, the fanatic, the communal or the radical heretic in actuality even as we delve into the early modern cosmos, we run the risk/potential of turning our institutions into seminaries or secret societies, into hotbeds of non-secular experiments; our research projects into single-minded programmes of conversion, fanatical and/or radical. Perhaps that risk is worth taking, without compromising on scholarly rigour. But let there be no mistake: the price has to be paid too — the price of principled partisanship.

Mind, Matter, Metaphors

In some ways a very contrary spirit suffuses the conceptual world of the early modern, one that is actually bridging the two-culture debate: the challenge of cognitive and functionalist science on the claims of social constructivism. Steven Pinker says that culture is a part of human phenotype — a distinct design that permits us to survive and perpetuate our lineages. Are we returning to behaviourism or social Darwinism? Not really. Far more sophisticated variations are making the rounds.

One argument is that in order to do good cultural studies one must consider the aggregate creativity of minds that gives rise to the cultural contexts. Only by understanding such detailed patterning can one more minutely observe trade histories, rise and fall of literacy, economic changes and art production and circulation. The smarter cognitive theorists are trying to combine the realist (say Marxist) and the relativist (say postmodernist) positions: reality exists but humans can access it contingently because experience is mediated through bodies, brains, minds. An aggregate of minds means society or culture. The important change from old-school behaviourism or pure memetic studies (which believes cultural broadcast expresses genetic transmission) is an acknowledegment that forms emerge from the subject’s material situatedness. But only if such situatedness is mediated through a dynamic semantic system, which germinates from within the human conceptual apparatus.  This approach in early modern scholarship has been christened the dual-inheritance theory.

A typical manoeuvre to enact such cognitive patterns in literary criticism is to choose a conceptual metaphor from a text and instead of going into a formalistic, new-critical exposition of that metaphor, to find the motives of the ‘embodied mind’ in forming the metaphoricity of that textual utterance. Such cognitive metaphors then become image schemas. For example, suppose you zero in on the metaphor — “Love is Money” from The Merchant of Venice and then instead of the typical new historicist move of perorating on the semantics of usury, contractual bonds, credit system or accounting practices, you simply concentrate on the elisions of ‘love’ and ‘flesh’ in that metaphor and work on these two different aspects of human experience — modes of affection and financial obligations. By doing this, you avoid the projection of such metaphors into the cultural field and yet keep clear of philological preoccupations and hermeneutic questions of intentionality. Instead, what you bring together is a curious coupling of semantic frameworks and cognitive science terminologies in deciphering the text. I am using the word text (or author) in the singular because there is often an inherent Kantian-individualist bias in these critical moves. The critics working in these areas like to believe that characterological  and textual unity was as important to early modern writers as they ought to be to us — and that this should inform our textual theory. Here is Gabriel Egan, a familiar voice in Shakespearean scholarship, taking on New Historicism:

“It is true that we do not possess a manuscript recipe for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, only three copies of it that differ markedly. But we are entitled to treat these at three approximations of one thing, the Platonic Ideal of Hamlet as it existed (in material form, as configurations of neurons) in the mind of Shakespeare. If, over time, Shakespeare changed his mind about Hamlet, it is still conceptually Hamlet even if a text closely representing the conceptual state of time T1 is quite different from a text closely representing the conceptual state of time T2.”

The philologist will have to decide what to make of such a claim. While it gives intentionality, a key philological concern, a positive tack (though coming from genetics rather than hermeneutics), the approach squarely seems to challenge some key motives behind the whole enterprise of book history and archiving as it has developed — another major preoccupation with the philologist. The historicist — realist or radical — on the other hand has much to worry about with this new phenomenon.

The Mood: Anti Historicist

At one level, this new-found interest in matter (sometimes drawing justification from the likes of Democritus, Lucretius and Epicurus) is hardly new. The scientific and sensory empiricism of Gassendi, Bacon, Hartlib and later Hobbes had strongly contested varieties of Platonic idealism and Puritanical forms of Christianity. Mandeville, Ricardo and Adam Smith gradually gave the same tendency a more rational economic dimension. Darwin and Gregor Mendel gave the impulse an evolutionary imprint. These are the most powerful scientific essentialists in the rational sense. Matter is a given to them, timeless and ever present in order to help maximise our inherent economic and biological hierarchies.

It is in this context that radical historicists and cultural materialists brought a gauchiste historicism into the picture and politicised the field. Matter meant paying attention to class, gender, race, colonialism and sexuality. They were/are interested in social relations. The spectacular rise of sociology as discipline that took on diachronic philological-historical concerns reflected a shift in studying early modern materialism: the works of Keith Wrightson or David Underdown, for instance, opened before us the world of sociological stratification and power struggles in the English society. Important and powerful historians of the Catholic world like Eamon Duffy or John Bossy had to tackle this left liberal historicism. But even they were not arguing for any surpassing transcendence; they were historicising the domain too in their own way, looking closely at the lay popular culture. The inheritors of Lawrence Stone and Christopher Hill took many hues, but the debates were richly contextual, analysing textual claims minutely. Never in a speculative vacuum. Forces of disorder always vied with disciplining possibilities — even in the most inward genres like the psalm or meditative poetry. One glance at the works of some of the most defining non-ideological early modern scholarship in late twentieth century authenticates to this rumbunctious rough and tumble, the attention paid to the difficult give and take between the public and the private realms: reflected, say, in the oeuvre of Nigel Smith or Catherine Belsey or Peter Lake. Postcolonial studies too had an oblique impact on this area—for instance, one was forced to acknowledge that John Milton and Andrew Marvell had little positive to say about the Irish struggle and viewpoints during the English Civil War. Republicanism did have a strong imperialistic side to it.

Mainstream liberals finished that job. That mood has now given way to the more ameliorating travel technologies and experiences — say, in the contemporary works of Allison Games. This agonistic reaching-out gesture is a top-down and faux cosmopolitan globalising venture — something that reminds us of the old commonwealth in new disguise. To merely highlight maritime and navigational advances and leave it all hanging is to suppress the blood and grime of the early modern world, its conflicts and contestations.

The fact of the matter is that the benefits of cultural or left-wing radicalism in early modern studies were derived not from materialism, but rather from historicism. Idealist history could also locate its objects of study within their contingent circumstances, as could materialist history. But such idealism was not festishising matter for its own sake or championing evolutionary psychology. It had an old-world political agenda. What has altered right now in discussions on cognition, matter or objects is the philosophic underpinning of what constitutes matter.  Matter is dehistoricised in most accounts now. And therefore, formulations on matter now seem closer to disinterested rationalism and finally suspiciously chummy with newer modes of capitalism. No wonder there is next to nothing from the new materialists on early modern underground prose, sermons, pamphleteering, news-books — the whole public sphere, so to say. It is simply impossible to get into the civic and underground world of urban polemics and itinerant preaching without getting into the ‘old’ cultural questions of class, gender, colonialism and sexuality.

Some variations of cognitive studies of early modernity do wish to reconceive the study of the mind within a relational, dynamic nature of culture but that is mostly an afterthought. It does not really work. Even the most powerful of the philosophical new (speculative) materialists — like Quentin Meillassoux, who has truly and successfully taken on an earlier generation of French theorists — have not been able to historicise his project or rather does not wish to do so. He argues instead for the timelessness of materiality. And it is here that the most regressive potential of the new conceptual moves lies: transcendental piety and matter/mind are being essentialised and ossified in new forms. They are apparently the perfect antagonists — spirit and matter — but scholars in both areas are getting into speculative tropisms in their own ways. The antagonists seem to have a strange affinity as only antagonists can have.

So also with theorists of object like Michel Serres or Levi Bryant. Objects are made incandescent. They are often aestheticised beautifully. But what next? Disinterested scholarship? To highlight the subject/object division afresh? It is a sort of revenge on half a century of realism and relativism in the world of ideas. True, sometimes such materialists make the radical Spinozian/Bergsonian move, a position that might sit well with heresy studies, for instance, if historicised properly. But if scholars carry on arguing for heterogeneous temporalities within material objects and use Bergson and Nietzsche for actually driving home a Kantian cosmopolitan mobile network in the early modern context, it loses zing. Such framing does serious disservice to the spirit and politics of the robust and hedonistic Nietzschean imagination.

The resurgent schools of thought — theological transcendental, cognitive metaphorical or object-oriented rematerialisms – are significant new developments in the conceptual world of early modernity. They have to be noted. With due caution. In other words, in our romance with faith and matter or any such ‘hot topic’ — let us not, ever, abandon the excitement and rigour of the sceptical spirit.

Select Bibliography:

Fish, Stanley, ‘One University, Under God?’, Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 July, 2005

Jackson, Ken and Arthur F. Marotti, ‘The Turn to Religion in Early Modern Studies’, Criticism 46 (2004), 167-190.

Lupton, Julia R. ‘The Religious Turn (to Theory) in Shakespeare Studies’, English Language Notes 44:1 (2006), 145-149.

West, William N., ‘Humanism and the Resistance to Theology’, The Return of Theory in Early Modern English Studies: Tarrying with the Subjunctive (ed. Paul Cefalu and Bryan Reynolds, Hampshire and NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Victoria Kahn, ‘Early Modern Secularism: Introduction’, Representations, Special Issue, Winter 2009.

Pinker, Steven, The Blank State: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).

Blackmore, Susan, The Meme Machine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Lakoff, George and Marc Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

Jowett, John, Shakespeare and Text (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Reynolds, Bryan and William West (eds), Rematerializing Shakespeare: Authority and Representation on the Early Modern Stage (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

Carroll, Joseph, ‘Evolution and Literary Theory’, Human Nature 6 (1995), 119.

Hawkes, David, ‘Against Materialism in Literary Theory’, The Return of Theory in Early Modern English Studies: Tarrying with the Subjunctive (ed. Paul Cefalu and Bryan Reynolds, Hampshire and NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Smith, Nigel, Perfection Proclaimed: Language and Literature in English Radical Religion 1640-1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

Games, Allison, The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitanism in an Age of Expansion 1560-1660 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Meillassoux , Quentin, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (London: Continuum, 2008).

Prasanta Chakravarty is the author of Like Parchment in the Fire: Literature and Radicalism in the English Civil War (London and New York: Routledge, 2006). He teaches early modern literature and culture at the University of Delhi.

The Political Aesthetic in the Works of Adorno and Benjamin

 Yasser Shams Khan

This paper deals with the dilemma concerning the relationship between politics and aesthetics. The following analysis will consider the concept of the political aesthetic and its expression in the works of art by interrogating the related but contrasting theoretical frameworks offered by Adorno and Benjamin: while Benjamin conceptualises the revolutionary potential of technically advanced popular forms of art, Adorno is in favour of the artistically advanced but elitist avant-garde literature. The polarities of these two perspectives, as Adorno puts it, are but “torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up” (Adorno and Benjamin, 2007: 123). It is this concept of freedom and the struggle for freedom that will raise the question of the relationship between revolutionary praxis and aesthetic contemplation, within which is embedded the question of how the ‘political’ is represented in the aesthetic domain, and conversely, whether the concept of aesthetics itself is an expression within the socio-economic and political domain.

The ‘political’ and the ‘aesthetic’ are two antithetical concepts conflated together in the expression of the ‘political aesthetic’. The ‘political’ is commonly associated with the immediate, socio-economic i.e. historical reality (1): not just what we see and observe from a phenomenological perspective, but the dynamic distribution of space and time (2) within which individuals associate into collectives engaging in praxis, commitment and transformation of existing forces of production and their concomitant relations of production. The ‘aesthetic’ is understood in the Kantian sense as a “system of a priori forms of determining what presents itself in sense experience” (Ranciere, 2006: 13). In other words, ‘aesthetics’ is the realm of forms, the spiritual realm of ideas, of a priori categories which help us in understanding (verstehen) the sense perceptions of reality as it is. Within this framework ‘politics’ and ‘aesthetics’ can be seen as antithetical concepts: where one is the realm of commitment and praxis, the other is the realm of contemplation, as well as distraction. How then do we explain what is the ‘political aesthetic’? Is it the reconciliation (versöhnung) of contradictory concepts? Or, is it the reflection of the political (understood as the social structures and relations of society) as content within the work of art? I will attempt to deal with these two questions in detail below taking the latter as my initiating point of interrogation of the works of Adorno and Benjamin.

If we consider art as a reflection of society we come across certain theoretical dilemmas. Firstly how do we explain the form of mediation between society and its aesthetic representation in the work of art? To use the socio-economic background instrumentally as an apparatus of explanation of aesthetic content is to take too reductive a view of the aesthetic object, completely removing any subjective element (subjectivity which is objectively determined(3) which forms the basis of the emancipatory potential of the speculative and autonomous domain of the aesthetic. The first thing to recognise here is the autonomous nature of aesthetics and politics as “two incommensurable realities, two independent codes or systems of signs, two heterogeneous or asymmetrical terms” (Jameson, 1974: 6).

The second thing to bring up is the purpose this autonomy of aesthetics is put to serve, which interestingly enough also functions as its premise: freedom of mankind from historical determinism and, more importantly, necessity. The purpose of the political aesthetic in the present, for Adorno, serves as a critique of what is: the contemporary state of society, or more precisely, late capitalism. But a critique of what is, implicitly or explicitly, presupposes the possibility of the expression of the new, the Other or negative of present society, the utopia against which the present is judged and criticised. But the conceptualisation of the new poses a philosophical paradox: how do we imagine the ‘new’ when we are caught within ‘identity’, which does not offer us the possibility to go beyond that identity; or how do we conceptualise the ‘new’, the other of what is, by using the concepts and theoretical tools which are themselves a product of the epistemology of the present?

As an answer to the above question Adorno proposes Negative Dialectics as a method in which the concept (a product of the contemporary epistemology) is retained, but through a process of dereification and constellative critique, the non-identity of the concept is brought into play with its identity, which is then reinserted into totality or the master narrative of capitalism. Thus within this mode of thinking, the external reference, the socio-economic background (late capitalism) is “less to interpret… than to rebuke interpretation as such and to include within the thought the reminder that it is itself inevitably the result of a system that escapes it and which it perpetuates” (Jameson, 2007: 30). However, Adorno posits the experience of the ‘new’ not as a temporal category which implicitly debunks all that is prior to it as obsolete or negated as traditional, reactionary and conventional; the “[new] is at one with aesthetic experience, it is itself in some deeper way the work’s ‘truth content'” (Jameson, 2007: 163). I will briefly return to what Adorno means by the work’s truth content, but what needs to be emphasised here in order to grasp the concept of the ‘new’ is the doctrine of nominalism inherent in Adorno’s negative dialectics and his theory of aesthetics.

Nominalism is a philosophical tendency that denies the existence of abstract universals in favour of particulars. Universal concepts exist subsequent to particular things and not as generalities which subsume particular works. Negative dialectics then is not an objective, general method in the traditional sense but an approach which considers the particularity of each object. Similarly Adorno considers the individual work of art as the ‘windowless monad’ which in itself contains the truth-content, which, paradoxically, is unavailable in the general concept of Art as such. The universal tends to subsume the particulars within it as mere manifestations of the same identity, thus when the very concept of the ‘universal’ is debunked, then every particular becomes unique and unlike any other and so can be said to be ‘new’ in this fundamental sense.

What becomes evident from the above discussion is the incommensurability between the universal and the particular. The relationship between the universal and the particular is contradictory yet indispensable and related, retaining the Hegelian dialectical framework of the identity of identity and non-identity. ‘Contradiction’ itself becomes the very framework of Adorno’s aesthetics. What we need to emphasise then is not only the contradiction between concepts (say between aesthetics and politics) but also within those concepts themselves.

‘Politics’ being the realm of the everyday, commitment and praxis is in this sense the realm of freedom, where one acts according to one’s whims; but our actions, our thoughts, and the very form of praxis is itself socially and historically determined. The antithesis between freedom and historical determinism is best expressed by Kant’s third antinomy. Praxis, the will to act, becomes circumscribed by the objective conditions of historical determinism. What we posited as contradictory to ‘politics’ is ‘aesthetics’, which itself has contradiction as its principle of construction: the contradiction between form and content, between subject and object as well as between the particular (individual work of art) and the universal (Art in general). Adorno considers ‘form’ as ‘determinate negation’ i.e. the consciousness of contradiction which enables us to think about art as aesthetic and anti-aesthetic simultaneously. Art is autonomous (aesthetic) yet it is also social (anti-aesthetic):

Art becomes something through its in-itself [autonomy], and it becomes in-itself by means of the social force of production effective in it. The dialectic of the social and of the in-itself of the artwork is the dialectic of its own constitution to the extent that it tolerates nothing interior that does not externalise itself, nothing external that is not the bearer of the inward, the truth content. (Adorno, 1997: 248)

The nature of this contradiction between art as autonomous and art as social necessarily brings us to the dichotomy in modern society between contemplation and manual labour/work which obviously introduces the class relations existing within society in the form of division of labour. The producers and consumers of art are people from a privileged class, whereas the workers are either disinterested, or if interested at all, then only in the products of the culture industry (which Adorno does not consider as genuine art but an industry) which provides gratification and recuperation between work hours.

This dichotomy between contemplation and work can also be reformulated as one between aesthetics and praxis in which the profound guilt of art can be identified. The pessimism of Adorno’s aesthetics is owing to its “commitment to a social perspective in which the inconsequentiality of the aesthetic is an inescapable fact of life” (Jameson, 2007: 132). The guilt of art (its inconsequentiality) is an expression of its ultimate failure, the ultimate dissatisfaction of the promise of happiness that it offers and it is this dissatisfaction that is the truth-content of the individual work of art. The most authentic works reveal the incommensurability of contradictory terms: the projected harmony in the symbolic realm of the aesthetic is historically unrealizable in a time when there are actual existing contradictions inherent within the capitalist mode of production. Utopia is then the projected harmony of contradictions: the freedom from the instinct of self-preservation, from the necessity of dominating nature for the purpose of survival. Adorno stresses this point in his study of the dialectic of enlightenment. Enlightenment is identified as a tendency to construct the new in terms of a projected past stigmatized as archaic, traditional and obsolete. Adorno and Horkheimer identify this tendency as the always-already in myth as well. Myth and magic were means to dominate nature for the sake of self-preservation; myth thus forms the ur-history of rationalism which is the contemporary means to dominate nature for the same purpose. Utopia then is the absence for the need of self-preservation, the need for sociality and concomitant repression of inner nature. Work in late capitalism becomes the means of self-preservation and its privilege over contemplation is the ideology of the system to reproduce itself. Adorno’s aesthetics then repudiates the work and fallen praxis of the business community of the present age and turns towards the higher form of praxis, not in the effect of the work of art but in its truth-content:

Contrary to the Kantian and Freudian interpretation of art, art-works imply in themselves a relation between interest and its renunciation. Even the contemplative attitude to artworks, wrested from objects of action, is felt as the announcement of an immediate praxis and … as a refusal to play along … Art is not only the plenipotentiary of a better praxis than that which has to date predominated, but is equally the critique of praxis as the rule of brutal self-preservation at the heart of the status quo and in its service. (Adorno, 1997: 12)

If we consider the political aesthetic in terms of the affirmation of the present and one which valorises the function of work/praxis of art in situations of immediacy and in the realm of day to day struggle, then for Adorno, this is merely a dogmatic attempt to subsume individual works of art for political motifs. The truth content of the work of art is better grasped within individual works of art exposing the contradictions within the aesthetic form as determinate negation rather than the expression of content and bluntly stated polemical politics. The autonomy of the work of art which separates it from the social but also endows it “with its capacity to be profoundly historical and social as history and society itself” (Jameson, 2007: 187) through negation also limits its political potential within the field of commitment and praxis in the hope of revolutionary transformation of the social order. Praxis is not a part of the aesthetic and that is the ultimate failure of art, which results in the guilt of art.(4)

If for Adorno the political aesthetic is not a possibility of praxis in the world but a form of higher praxis through ‘second reflection’ and negation, then for Benjamin, the aesthetic holds the political potential to form a link of class solidarity between the modernist artist and the industrial proletariat. We will now explore the other side of the coin, the political aesthetic in the technically advanced popular forms of art.

In the epilogue of his 1936 ‘Work of Art’ essay, Benjamin elaborates the way the practice of politics has been aestheticised; he ends enigmatically by stating that “Communism responds by politicising art”. I will return to the question of the relationship between technology and art which becomes the vehicle for the expression of the political aesthetic, but after circumscribing briefly the theoretical framework which Benjamin occupies.

We will take the statement about the “politicising of the aesthetic” as our point of initiation. Benjamin claims that aesthetics, despite being autonomous, needs grounding in one form of praxis or another(5). He begins the first section of the “Work of Art” essay by stating that “[in] principle a work of art has always been reproducible” (Benjamin, 1969: 218). Earlier the work of art was grounded in ritual and so it was reproduced for ritualistic purposes; but with the subsequent decline of the aura, the work of art shifts its position entirely, especially in the age of technical reproducibility:

At the very moment in which the criterion of genuineness fails to apply to the production of art, the entire social function of art rolls over. Into the place of its founding in ritual, its founding in another praxis has to step [hat zu tritt]: namely, its founding in politics.” (GS 7.1:357, quoted in Fenves, 2006: 67)

When the “criterion of genuineness fails to apply to the production of art” means that in the age of technical reproducibility authenticity and uniqueness are no longer qualities of the artwork. Benjamin’s central preoccupation, despite his varied interests has been the decline of the aura and of authentic experience. Whether it’s his work on Leskov in The Storyteller, or on Baudelaire (Some Motifs in Baudelaire, Paris-Capital of the Nineteenth Century), his ‘Work of Art’ essay or his essays on language (The Task of the Translator, On Language as Such and on the Language of Man) and history (Theses on the Philosophy of History, Theologico-Politico Fragment), Benjamin’s main concern has been the loss of experience of man in the modern urban city. When politics has been aestheticised, that is, when man has become so alienated from himself that he no longer experiences his own destruction with dread, rather, caught in the phantasmagoria of aesthetics, he willingly pursues his own end; that is when aesthetics, through its autonomy and alternate mode of praxis offered by its politicization, is proposed as a solution. Benjamin mourns the decline of the aura(6) in art but it is a necessity for the politicization of technically advanced, mechanically reproduced art which has the revolutionary potential for the arousal of critical class consciousness in the masses. Jameson (1974: 82) writes about the dialectic of nostalgia at work in Benjamin, where “nostalgia as a political motivation is most frequently associated with Fascism”, but it also expresses a deep dissatisfaction with the present “on the grounds of some remembered plenitude” and can be used as a weapon to furnish an adequate revolutionary stimulus.

We will refer to Benjamin’s writings on Baudelaire to explicate what we have said above, but before doing so it is crucial that we understand the significance of the concept of ‘allegory’ as an interpretative tool of analysis. Allegory can be considered a legacy of the medieval exegesis of the Old Testament in the light of the fulfilled prophecies in the New Testament (Jameson, 1981). Within the medieval system four levels of interpretation are identified which allow for a comprehensive approach to the text: the literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical. The allegorical provides not only a deeper meaning, but an opening of the literal historical meaning of the text to multiple meanings and symbolic references. The moral refers to the personal while the anagogical returns us full circle to a collective, historical dimension; the relationship between the moral and anagogical is mediated by the allegorical. Allegory becomes significant especially in Benjamin for whom the relationship to the past becomes a potent weapon in relation to the present. We return to the dilemma concerning the thinking of the ‘new’ in the present. For Benjamin, the present is subject to the ruin of time, and the future, or the ‘new’ is inconceivable with concepts and tools derived from the present epistemology. The past then offers potent critical tools because of its disjunction with the present. As Hannah Arendt notes in her ‘Introduction’ to Illuminations, “[W]hat guides [Benjamin’s] thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization”, from which what was once living suffers a sea-change which can be brought to the surface of the present as “thought fragments”. Allegory thus becomes a kind of experience and an apprehension of the world in decay after the fall; a recognition not of its overflowing fullness but its lack (Cowan, 1981). When something is allegorical, then it means that its true meaning is elsewhere distinct from its supposed ‘proper meaning’. The first precondition of allegory is the existence of truth, and the second is its absence. Truth in modern society, for Benjamin, exists only in absence. In fact Benjamin draws the distinction between factual knowledge (Erkenntnis) and truth (Wahirheit) stating that the former is possessable and available for presentation, whereas the latter can only be re-presented (Darstellung); thus the significance of constellation as an allegorical mode of representation of truth, truth which is present but inaccessible directly.

For Benjamin, Baudelaire was the last allegorist, the last poet in whom one could find remnants of baroque allegory. He was a lyricist in an age when the writing of lyrics was becoming all the more difficult and impossible because of the decay in experience. For him, living in contemporary Paris was nothing less than an alienating experience best expressed in his poem Le Cynge (The Swan):

Paris changes… But in sadness like mine
Nothing stirs – new buildings, old
Neighbourhoods turn to allegory,
And memories weigh more than stone. (Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal: 91)

Here allegory as intuition in the form of the poet’s nostalgic persona searches for a Paris no longer present, except in allegorical fashion in the image of the swan, or in the relics of an age long past. Allegory transforms things (new buildings, old neighbourhoods) into signs directing us towards the truth beyond itself. Paris becomes the allegory for hell from which it is necessary for mankind to be salvaged and the means for salvation lies in the messianic moment.

The idea of the political aesthetic in Benjamin’s work can best be described in terms of his concept of Messianism (Hamacher, 2005). According to Benjamin historical time is directed towards the attainment of happiness, but the pursuit of happiness is always a non-actualised possibility, a possibility missed in the past which then becomes a possibility for the future: “The further the mind goes back into the past, the more the mass of that increases which has not yet become history at all” (quoted in Hamacher, 2005). The Messianic power offers redemption of the non-actualised possibilities in the hope of realising them. The ‘new’ then refers to the missed possibilities in the past, which precisely by virtue of being missed never became a part of the past and so remain an open possibility of the present:

“To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it “the way it really was” (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger… In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” (Benjamin, 1969: 255)

In the above passage, Hamacher (2005: 46) notes, Benjamin combines “historical cognition and historical action because… they both point towards the same goal, namely the seizure in the present of the missed possibilities of happiness of the past”. Here we recapitulate Adorno’s assertion of the impossibility of the reconciliation of contemplation and action in the modern state because of the internal contradictions of capitalism. But in Benjamin’s notion of Messianism, the Messianic is precisely that which “consummates all history” (Benjamin, 1978: 312). The now-time (jetszeit) of the messianic fulfilment of happiness is an arresting of the moment of history, “where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions” (Benjamin, 1969: 262). What this configuration refers to is the constellation, formed in stasis, in the now-time. The uniqueness of the possibility of actualisation of every missed possibility of happiness forms a monadic image, more popularly described as the dialectical image:

“The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognised and is never seen again… For every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.” (Benjamin, 1969: 255)

The dialectical image offers this possible correspondence between the “the image of the past” and the moment of its recognisability: “between a time that offers itself to cognition and a time in which this time becomes accessible” (Hamacher, 2005: 56), or in other words, the possible reconciliation of contemplation and praxis in the Messianic monad.

What then is the relation between technology and art, which for Benjamin, holds the potential for a truly revolutionary aesthetics? I surmise from the above discussion that technology holds the potential to not only revolutionise techniques in artistic production but also in artistic perception. The mass appeal and reception of popular forms of art like films which deploy advance technology to shock the viewer holds the potential to develop in them the appreciative sensorium which would enable them to recognise in past images what earlier went unnoticed. The revolutionary techniques of zooming in, slow motion and montage offer the shock of the unfamiliar in the familiar, the estrangement from what was recognisable, similar to the shocks one experienced in the modern city as ‘a man of the crowd’ (7) or the nostalgia and sense of alienation experienced in Baudelaire’s lyrics, including the effects of surrealism on realism itself.

What then can we conclude about the ‘political aesthetic’? From the above discussion it becomes clear that there are certain assumptions which both Adorno and Benjamin take for granted despite their varying positions. Firstly their approach to the Marxian contradictions in capitalist society is based on the traditional interpretation of Marxian categories.(8) The dialectic of forces of production and relations of production gave rise to the possibility of a new social order (by the development of technology, instrumental reason and bureaucracy) based on a centrally planned economy which was not necessarily socialist. Even according to Benjamin, it is private property that binds technology due to which the proletariat revolution becomes difficult and war becomes the pretext for the exploitation of these productive forces.(9) It is, after all, the idle, distracted proletariat, that will rise in revolution. The origin of the discourse of revolutionary potential in Adorno and Benjamin also can be located within the romantic tradition (10) which “invests aesthetic experience with emanicipatory potential” (McBride, 1998: 465). Where for Benjamin, the film created mass subjectivity thus allowing for the possibility of critical judgment grounded in social subjectivity; Adorno’s autonomous artworks would provoke reactionary responses from subjectively alienated viewers. What remains unclear is that why the critical faculty of the collective subject is inherently progressive (ibid, 469).

For me, the problem of the ‘political aesthetic’ remains a conundrum as neither possibility (that of technically advanced mass art or abstrusely difficult and convoluted avant-garde art) has shown itself potent enough to follow through what both Adorno and Benjamin theorised as the culmination of the authentic aesthetic experience. Where for Adorno the consciousness of the contradictions in form was the representation of the work’s truth-content, for Benjamin, truth itself was never within the work but was present in absence, to which we could only approach through allegory in the constellation generated by dynamic allegorical meaning of the work. I think both theorists offered us the insights from which to recognise the third element which would mediate the relationship between aesthetics and politics: and that third element is interpretation. It is the political and critically conscious interpretation that could mediate, not necessarily reconcile, the two contradictory concepts. Interpretation, as Benjamin identifies philosophical writing to be, is a form of representation (Darstellung) itself, motivated by its own historical contingency and nominalistic approach, but distinguished from poststructuralist pluralism as it is determined by a periodisation of history. This interpretive allegory allows us to relate the aesthetic-political dilemma in the present age to the dichotomy between private and public and the psychological and the social. Without this interpretive allegory, praxis is reduced to work for the system and not against it, and so, maybe for a genuine praxis, one that is collectively mobilised (but not one in which the individual succumbs to the collective losing his qualitative, authentic sense of being and experience) we need to go through the experience of the aesthetic, to come out of it through the other side, equipped with a critical consciousness and gestalt view of totality within which our collective praxis would be circumscribed.


(1)  According to Aristotle, “Man is by nature a political animal” where politics, related to the polis, refers to all aspects of a citizen’s life, and not just the institutions of government, and other related ideological programmes.

(2) Look at the idea of the ‘distribution of the sensible’ in Jacques Rancière (2006).

(3) “Only the subject is an adequate instrument of expression however much, though it imagines itself unmediated, it is itself mediated. However much the expressed resembles the subject, however much the impulses are those of the subject, they are at the same time apersonal, participating in the integrative power of the ego without ever becoming identical with it” (Adorno, 1997: 113). Also see Jameson, “This is a defense of the objectivity of the subjective which clearly holds fully as much for artistic production as for its reception… the ideological vested interests of a group [the personal] also… expressed the objective tendencies of the social system itself.” (Jameson, 2007: 126)

(4) Adorno’s position is strictly in opposition to the Brechtian as well as the Marcusean sense of the political potential of the aesthetic where it is “commodification, and the consumption desires awakened by late capitalism, that are themselves paradoxically identified as the motive power for some deeper dissatisfaction capable of undermining the system itself.” (Jameson, 2007: 142)

(5) This position has been taken by Peter Fenves (2006).

(6) Particularly in ‘The Storyteller’ (in Benjamin, 1969).

(7) See, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’ (Benjamin, 1969: 155-200)

(8) For a very insightful critique of Critical Theory, see Postone (2003).

(9) “If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for the unnatural utilization, and this is found in war.” (Benjamin, 1969: 242)

(10) See, McBride (1998), who locates, both, Adorno’s view of autonomous art and Benjamin’s views on mass art, within the romantic tradition and its reflection on the role of subjectivity in politics and art.


Adorno, Theodor . Aesthetic Theory. Ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. London: Continuum, 1997.

Adorno, Theodor. Negative Dialectics. Trans. Dennis Redmond. 2001.

Adorno, Theodor. The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Ed. J. M. Bernstein. Trans. J. M. Bernstein. London: Routledge, 2001.

Adorno, Theodor. Lectures on Negative Dialectics: Fragments of a Lecture Course. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008.

Adorno, Theodor and Walter Benjamin. “Presentation III.” Aesthetics and Politics. Trans. Harry Zohn. London: Verso, 2007. 100-141.

Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Cultural Memory in the Present. Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Baudelaire, Charles. Les Fleurs du Mal. Trans. Richard Howard. Boston: David R. Godine Publishers, 1983.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

Benjamin, Walter. Reflections. Ed. Peter Demetz. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Schocken Books, 1978.

Benjamin, Walter. Charles Baudelaire. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Verso, 1999.

Cowan, Bainard. “Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Allegory.” New German Critique 22 (1981): 109-122.

Fenves, Peter. “Is there an Answer to the Aestheticising of Politics?.” Walter Benjamin and Art. Ed. Andrew Benjamin. Continuum, 2006. 60-72.

Hamacher, Werner. “‘Now’: Walter Benjamin on Historical Time.” Walter Benjamin and History. Ed. Andrew Benjamin. New York: Continuum, 2005. 38-68.

Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. 1981.

Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism: Adorno or The Persistence of the Dialectic. London: Verso, 2007.

McBride, Douglas Brent. “Romantic Phantasms: Benjamin and Adorno on the Subject of Critique.” Monatshefte 90.4 (1998): 465-487.

Postone, Moishe. Time, labour and Social Domination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Ranciere, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics. Trans. Gabriel Rockhill. London: Continuum, 2006.

Taking the Jajabor’s Journey Forward: Remembering Bhupen Hazarika

Mayur Chetia and Nayanjyoti

Mourning people from across Assam assemble in miles and miles of roads leading up to Bhupen Hazarika’s funeral. He’s a restless jajabor/wanderer no more. Paeans after paeans are being sung now after the ‘great cultural hero’, the ‘greatest Assamese’, the believer in ‘the power of the nation’ (the ‘nation’ being ‘Akhand Bharat’ or ‘Brihottor Axom’, depending on whichever variety of nationalists sing). Bhupenda is dead. Assam is in despair.

Despair and tears are nothing new to be offered by the people of the region, daily humiliated by their exploited, displaced existence. These intricacies of social existence lie shining sharply or muffled in Hazarika’s songs and journey over the years. The music is everywhere, even at the funeral, where of the reported 100,000 people, more were singing than crying. There is arguably no one in Assam who has not known, loved, hated, listened and sung Hazarika, and whom he has not sung of. And this is much before mass media as we know today existed.

In this fractured land where ‘identity’ is supposed to be the reigning logic of existence, of unity or separation, Hazarika touched, sung and wove a rich and ambiguous cultural fabric. And because of it, we find ourselves confronting a troubled legacy, a serpentine history. Absolute ‘consistency’ is perhaps not a desirable quality and much more so with questions and figures of culture. But Bhupen Hazarika’s jajabor/nomadic inconsistency, and so perhaps the ups and downs of the journey of those whom he sang for and about, is historic. Riding on the energy of the communist-led peasant uprisings which lasted up to the mid 1950s in Assam, Hazarika’s radicalism borrowed directly from the ‘people’s singer’, the communist legacy of Comrade Bishnu Rabha and Jyoti Prasad Agarwala. Thus Hazarika would declare ‘kasi khonot aji bor suk’ (‘my sickle is too sharp today’). When the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA) had its dynamic heyday, Bhupen Hazarika was its president. He was a socialist when South Asia was gripped by its promise. He sang of hearing its echoes, of the energy of the masses, of the red sun on his black hair, from the depths of the night- ‘mur gaon’ore xeema’re, paharor xipare, nixar siyortir protidhoni xunu’ (‘from the end of the horizon of my village, from across the hills, echoes come to me of the cry of the night’). He was then ‘prothom nohoi, dritiyo nohoi, tritiyo srenir jatri’ (‘not of the first, not of the second- we are travelers of the third class’). Celebrating the vitality of the working masses, he identified himself as a co-traveler chugging ‘towards the destination together’.

But as the peasant uprisings were contained, this radicalism which was in identification with the stirrings of the tiller-of-the-land turned into the jingoist one of the son-of-the-soil, and come the Indo-China war of 1962, Hazarika turned into a ‘patriotic’ nationalist. He would discover terror and bloodshed committed on the hapless (sic) Indian Army soldiers by the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army, and demand a strong defense against the ‘violent marauders’ along the Himalayas (‘aji kameng ximanta dekhilu, dekhi xotrur poxuttva sinilu’ (‘today I saw Kameng border, and recognized the enemy’s bestiality’). However, this hatred for the Chinese proved to be short-lived. For Hazarika, the jajabor/internationalist, who loved to talk of Gorky and his tales sitting at the tomb of Mark Twain’, it could have been hardly otherwise. Nonetheless, this contradictory pull between a rabid form of nationalism and the spirit of internationalism continued to haunt him his entire life.

Contradictions and ambiguities also followed his engagement with the six year long anti-immigrant Assam movement which started in 1979. On the one hand Hazarika would, supporting the mass character of the movement, also attest to its principal aim of the expulsion of peasant migrants from Bangladesh led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU). And on the other, it was precisely during its heydays, when sentiments were sharpening against ‘migrants’ conflated with Muslims as a whole, that he composed and sang ‘Mohabahu Brahmaputra’ where he painted the long history of migration and assimilation of diverse people which built a composite culture in the region, singing ‘podda nodir dhumuhat pori, koto xotojon aahiley; luit’or duyu parote kotona atithik adoriley … kisu lobo lagey, kisu dibo lagey, jin jaboloi holey…Robindranatheo koley’ (‘caught on the storm of river Podda, hundreds came, and the banks of the Brahmaputra welcomed them as guests … take some, give some, to melt into each other…also said Rabindranath’). Though often interpreted as a liberal plea, this can be read as a warning of the danger of a sectarian politics of essentialising, of the aggressive upper-caste Assamese Hindu colour of the movement, which sought to violently erase this myriad history into extinction. His assertion that ‘we all have a history of migration and thus we (including the migrants from the erstwhile East-Bengal, now Bangladesh) must strive to live together’, baffled both the supporters as well as the opponents of the movement. Many within AASU began to suspect his support for the movement, as despite his apparent avowal that the Assamese people are in the danger of becoming homeless in their own land (the official AASU line), all he had to offer as a solution was a narrative of migration- hardly a satisfactory answer to the requirements of a sharp anti-immigrant tenor.

Then with the rise of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) in the late 1980s-early 1990s, he sings of the countless blood-drenched sacrifices and the new meaning of the coming sunrise in the east (ULFA’s symbol is a rising sun). Ever enthusiastic of the potential of collective action and need for self-determination by the people, many would say, the sharpness of an anti-Indian state position and a critique of ‘Operation Bajrang’ brand of military domination, expected of a bard of a subjugated population was never there in him. A systemic critique would then be a muffled echo in his songs, as he would even turn the battle cries of the working class into abstract liberal appeals for humanity. Thus though the pathos of loss and ceaseless motion are captured Hazarika’s memorable voice in ‘bistirno parore’, his translation of the melancholy and anger of the worker with capitalist and racist exploitation in Paul Robeson’s Ol’ Man River becomes a mere petty bourgeois radical angst with the erosion of vague societal values in modern times.

With the ever more naked rightist turn in the political life of Assam’s middle classes in the late 1990s, Hazarika followed suit. With the formation of the NDA government (Asom Gana Parishad or AGP was part of the coalition) in 1998, his political journey came to its culmination with viewing the rabidly communal RSS as the authentic agent of social transformation. He even contested a Lok Sabha seat from Guwahati (which he fortunately lost) on a BJP ticket in 2004, with its cadres blaring his humanist plea ‘mahuhe manuhor babey, jodihe okonu nabhabey…bhabibo kunenu kuwa, xomonia’ (‘if man doesn’t think of man … who will?’) on their election vans. Under the pressure of RSS, he even tried to replace the word Axom with Bharat (as Axom is only to be subsumed within the larger Indian national discourse) in some of his old compositions, but these modifications never became popular. Hazarika’s use of rhetorical forms, like of the ‘virgin earth’ and ‘nation as the mother’ and thus someone to be protected, have been used by patriarchal chauvinists, and this tinge in his content had itself perhaps led to his ‘straying’ into the right wing fold who today find it easy to appropriate him as their own.

Similar turns can also be read in celebrated cultural figures like Bob Dylan who went from being the anthem singer of the radical 1960s generation in the United States to a controversial tryst with a particularly devout form of Christianity. His twists and turns apart, Hazarika did give creative expression to a whole range of feelings of the people of the region, hardly ever discovered by those who had officially avowed ‘art for the sake of society’. Establishing such a chord with people is hardly possible for the crass careerist, and Hazarika, to be sure, was not among them. His compositions blurred the lines between the classical and the folk, between ‘high culture’ and the popular. If he was skilled in composing highly sanskritised Assamese poetry, he was equally at ease in giving voice to the joyous melody of the elephant hunter from Xibaxagor who seduces the gabhoru of Gauripur with his rustic Bihu songs. He was perhaps also the first one to bring the qawwali genre into Assamese (‘samma thakile jarur jarur’). And his songs of love and longing are almost always permeated with a high bout of subversive eroticism, a taboo in the caste Hindu households of the Assamese Shreejuts (‘sikmik bijuli, kije tumar xongo priya’). Thus he declares, ‘xomajor niti niyom bhongatu notun niyom’ (‘breaking old rules is the rule of today’). Since the late 1990s (along with the rightist turn in his politics), Hazarika’s creativity was in rapid decline. He wrote very little in these years and though he composed a few songs for some Bollywood films, they were far inferior, in content and form, to his earlier compositions.

With Hazarika, the only ‘consistency’ then is of the love for wandering, a constant restless flux. A joyous yet troubled sense of celebration with the changing current and flows of the Brahmaputra being the womb and funeral of the numberless cultures melting into each other, led him also to the Podda, the Mississippi and the Volga. In ‘moi eti jajabor’, after the first two stanzas of such wanderings, he reflects on his peripatetic musings, saying ‘bohu jajabor lokhyo bihin, mur pise ase pon’ (‘many wanderers are directionless, but not me’) and in the next stanza goes on to specify why this is so. He pauses a while, saddened and wondering, at the immense inequality between ‘the rows of skyscrapers and the homeless in their shadows’. In his own jajaboria way he identifies the atrocities, loud or silent, stemming from the interstices of the world, and joining voice with the joyous songs of the people struggling against them, moves on again.

For some time now and at his death, when various varieties of nationalists are vying to uphold him as their hero, it would perhaps be more appropriate to read him at best as a signifier of changing times, wound up with the fortunes of various strata of the people of the region. He was never, as the nationalists would have us believe, a poster boy for ‘Akhand Bharat’ or ‘Brihottor Axom’, consistent with belief in the power of the nation. His belief in people and their creative collectivity at times borrowed from the liberal language and metaphors, and the chauvinist turn of his politics can probably be read in this, but a stress on isolated parochial history and/or pre-critical sense of superiority was never his agenda. Even while acquiescing at times with the linguistic Assamese nationalism of AASU which was based on closure, Hazarika nonetheless also continued singing in Bengali and Hindi as also in many other languages, ever in search for the continuities (a friend from Bangladesh just called yesterday to say that many in Bangladesh will probably only now know that he was an Assamese, and not a Bengali!). This also cannot be read (as the triumphant Indian nationalist would have it) as agreeing uncritically to the idea of a homogeneous ‘great Indian nation’. This search is a continuous one which goes beyond the nation. His repeated stress on the metaphor of the ‘river’ and of migration histories brings this out. The song of the young female worker in the tea plantation, who distinguishes herself from the mainstream caste Hindu culture, singing ‘Laxmi nohoi, mure naam saameli’(‘No, my name is not Laxmi; I am Saameli’), also brings this is a case in point where the pathos of the displaced journey of indentured labour and the conditions of bondage under which she worked is brought to life.

We look at this legacy of Hazarika today, when the ashes of countless revolts of the people of the region lie scattered over its plains and hills. As we enter a new phase of capitalist exploitation and uncertainty, the brutalized people search for new forms of organization and collectivity, its new voice. It mourns its singer at this hour, critically appraising him, seeking to wrench him free from the violence of the right wing nationalists, and sing anew the songs of the people. Just days before his death, Hazarika expressed a desire to be cremated near the tomb of his communist mentor, his dear Bistuda or Comrade Bishnu Rabha. Perhaps he wanted to return where he really belonged: to the theatre of creation rumbling in the hearth of the working people. We must fulfill this last wish of his while evaluating his life, taking his songs and journey forward. This year itself, two radical peoples’ theatre personalities, Badal Sircar and Gursharan Singh, who sung with and of the vitality and creativity of the working classes passed away. With Hazarika, even with his troubled legacy, we need to reclaim the voice which once spoke of and inspired the working masses, with whom he sought to melt, singing…

Xitore xemeka rati…
Bostro bihin kunu khetiyokor,
Bhagi pora pojatir tunh jui ekurat,
Umi umi joli thoka,
Raktim jen eti uttap hou

Xemeka xemeka rati…
Khadyo bihin kunu din majoor’or,
Prano’te lukai thoka xudha agoni’r,
Hotathe bhomoki utha prosondo jen, eti pratap hau

Kontho rudho kunu xu gayokor
Probhat anibo pora,
Othoso nuguwa, kunu somor gitor babey,
Moi jen eti sudha kontho hou

(On a wilting winter night, may I be,
in a clothless peasant’s broken hut,
of the slowly burning ember from the hay,
the red glowing warmth. .

Wilting winter night, and may I be,
from the fire of the empty-stomach of a daily labourer,
the suddenly erupting power,
burning bright …

Of a voiceless singer’s unsung war song,
which can wrench out the dawn,
may I be, the music …)

‘The popular must redistribute the classic’: An interview with Prasanta Chakravarty

Paramita Ghosh talks to Prasanta Chakravarty, who teaches in the Department of English, University of Delhi, on the current state and dynamic of the Indian publishing industry, contemporary fiction and the culture of reading.

Paramita Ghosh (PG): Your project Humanities Underground is an attempt to rescue the Humanities from the skill-oriented courses that university education is slowly turning into. One would have thought this is more rampant in professional courses like management and so forth. But we see publishing, which is supposed to promote literature, is also going the same way with the birth of categories like chick-lit, books to be read in the metro, page-turners to be gobbled at the airport-lounge. How does one explain this attack or shift in emphasis in the arts/humanities/publishing?

Prasanta Chakravarty (PC): First of all, Humanities Underground is a collective umbrella and much will depend on the enthusiasm of a large number of people who are in their own little ways being affected by this onslaught on the varied and nuanced world. It is also about nurturing a critical, oppositional edge that humanities provide. But we are not trying to rescue anything. No one can and should get in that kind of a saviour mode. It is an online forum for sharing ideas at this point, a venture to see whether there is enough interest in facing the variegated and uncertain world that we live in. The initial signs are quite encouraging. We are receiving a collective surge of questions and commentaries and from different parts of the country and the world too. Debates are happening. Our aim is modest at this stage: to create a space where interested people can share ideas and imagination and work out strategies in order to take on the rapid watering down of reading habits and writing styles, without being self-congratulatory.

The shift you are referring to is interesting. Now I think this dichotomy between classical and popular is often fallacious. The idea of taste is often constructed. In that sense the emergence of the genre of novel itself in the 19th century was a popular venture, or the genre of ‘essay’, which started even earlier as a modest attempt to reflect and ruminate, is now solidly mainstream. So, in that sense this rush for chick-lit or graphic novels show an interesting shift and may become important markers of our times. But the point is about homogenisation. Young and old are often looking to merge in with the available, with the herd rather than look for possibilities. There indeed are publishers, often in regional literatures, who are still taking chances with the subtleties and criticality that literature, art and performance provide us. We have a generation of students who are not even bilingual though they routinely learn French or Sanskrit as a second language in school. What is this strange phenomenon? In Delhi University we are noticing with intrigue that some of our best students who receive astronomical grades in schools and colleges often cannot even write correct English, and notions of style have disappeared from the canvas all together. Humor, for instance, as an art, is a rare commodity. Something strange is happening which Humanities Underground is trying to fathom and explore.

PG: Writing and being a writer is such a glamorous profession these days. Why does everyone want to be a writer? Has the increase in number of publishing houses, the volume of publishing, the appearance of so many literary ‘forms’ contributed to the sense that everyone has a story to tell, everybody can tell stories? Why has this particular approach to ‘form’ become so important in literature now?

PC: There is this democratisation of writing in New India, which is great. This is not unlike the phenomenon that now our best cricketers and popular singers are coming from every region of the nation. Quizzards need not gruel in a Siddhartha Basu type format; KBC will and have replaced that kind of prime-time investment in the esoteric and variegated sense of trivia sharing. Literature likewise has become more user-friendly and accessible: from the potential authors’ standpoint as well as from the reader’s perspective. But this logic of massification, instead of democratisation and freeing literature from its shackles, is actually narrowing down possibilities. Shelf life has diminished and that is fine by the author and the publisher as long as they can fill it up with the next miraculous uproar. In actuality, forms are always changing, they evolve. The logic of this kind of assembly line plays safe and is often brilliantly finessed to homogenise forms. The argument is always democratic and making a quick buck for everyone, which is a formidable one to surpass. This is what we are witnessing in non-vernacular writing at this point. How many of us routinely read poetry or plays? The glamorous always stood out and reserved a maverick space at one point. That idea is being overturned by playing onto the logic of reaching out and by hammering accessibility.

PG: Do you see this phenomenon as a lack? Does it have to do with our culture of reading, which is changing or is India really turning into a nation of writers?

PC: Again, this is not a story of crisis. I would see it as a shift in sensibility as we, as a nation, accommodate to a more conservative and individualised time. I believe Indians still read a lot and a variety of things too. It is a truism that we are an extremely conscious people, politically and aesthetically. Good or hard-hitting artistic production will be appreciated at the end of the day. But that is not coming into focus because people who matter are actively interested in suppressing these factors. Some of our best minds are thus missing on the variety and depth and criticality that even contemporary literature provides. The popular always helps to redistribute the classic. The habit of being in touch with the enduring also means you are in touch with pulse of the everyday life. One is not opposed to the other.

PG: Has the thin dividing line between popular/commercial and ‘high’ fiction confused Indians? A couple of decades ago, for example, a James Hadley Chase pulp story and a Graham Greene novel would not have the same production value, imprint and publishing hype—as they now do if we draw equivalences in current writings. Chick-lit space is eating into, say the shelf space that could accommodate the likes of Amitav Ghosh or Rohinton Mistry. We are producing more of the Chetan Bhagats than Vikram Seths.

PC: Yes, it has perhaps. The confusion, as you call it, is deliberate and well worked out, as I said, but we cannot afford to be judgemental on the buyer and clamp down with the Seths and the Ghoshs of the world onto him. That will be an enormous exercise in misplaced condescension. And besides we all grew up on Hadley Chase and the likes! But we also read voraciously—all kinds of other stuff. That is the more difficult but sure-shot way of tackling the blundering homogeneity that we see in the marquee these days. The idea of choice is quite narrow, if seen closely. All conscious Indians must push each other to carry on with the habit of greedy reading. Old book stores and the newest one on the street are equally important institutions. Variety fosters thinking, and thinking, in turn, breeds criticality and opposition to our herd-instincts.

PG: If one is to push a bit further, one notices two kinds of writers that are getting rejected—those who obviously can’t write, but also those who can ( I am thinking of radical/avant-garde) have little scope to be noticed. I guess I am making this claim because I find it really hard to believe that in 25-30 years of mainstream English language and fiction publishing we have few exemplary writers, and even those whom we can’t really claim as ours often. Why do you think ‘serious literature’ is no longer coming out of our publishing houses? Is the logic that no one is interested in more reflective stuff valid? What do your students in Delhi University, for example, read outside of their course work?

PC: Yes, it is selective usage of the radical that the market prefers. Some writers are pegged as radical and hence their saleability. But I do not see much of avant garde writing in the modernist sense of the term in English langauge writing from India at least. Avant garde does not necessarily mean radical or let us say, such a kind of radicalism is much more bohemian (not busy and straightforwardly progressive) and experimental in form and style. I mean, G.V. Desani’s All about H. Hatter was truly avant garde. Not very often now in fiction we see that kind of devil-may-care approach, at least. You still see that, but in vernacular writings. Serious literature does come out of certain English press too but the problem is reverse: they are but too self-consciously serious. People who subscribe to them, missionaries of sorts, are likely to create a false dichotomy of the classic and the popular and wallow in their cocooned world.

True, many of my students do think in terms of course work but a large section of them in fact indulge in all kinds of readings too: from philosophy to history to various forms of contemporary literature. Writings from Latin America, parts of Asia and Africa are extremely popular with many of my students, which I see as a continuity of sorts with the earlier generation. There is a fair investment in Urdu and Hindi, which is wonderful. Some of them invest in translated works. Many participate in a variety of literary and analytical activities on the internet. But as I said, reading habits often need some kind of jumpstart from time to time; the milieu has to be fostered. That could be done possibly by sharing and exchanging ideas, by deepening debates.

PG: There has been a similar publishing culture in the West—similar turbulence and shifts, one would think. But why is it that in India there is no space or culture for promotion of independent, parallel publishing like, say, Zubaan and Katha? The US does, for instance, have a publishing house like poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights, does it not?

PC: I am not an expert on publishing but there may be a variety of reasons. One, as always, it is really difficult to survive in India on a small publishing space even if you are idealistically motivated. In Kolkata, in the past few years, a wonderful independent publishing house has emerged: Gangchil. But they do not even have a temporary space to work on and distribution is a perennial headache. This is a pretty standard story all around the nation. City Lights has evolved over a period of time. It could have sputtered but for the brilliant editorial and marketing intervention of Nancy Peters in 1971. The point is independent publishing too must innovate and professionalise within its ideal and radical space. In India sometimes independent publishers have tried to come under a common umbrella for distribution and so forth. For instance, The Independent Publishers’ Group (IPG) is a partnership of 10 small/medium publishers and publisher-distributors based in Delhi that started a few years ago. Daanish, LeftWord, Samskriti, Social Science Press, The Book Review Literary Trust, The Little Magazine, Three Essays Collective, Tulika, Women Unlimited, Zubaan and Kali for Women comprise the IPG.

Often more upcoming mainstream houses like Yoda, Navayana or Seagull are also publishing interesting and tantalising stuff. Or sometimes motivated zeal make things happen, where financial worries could be handled in other ways: as the Writers Workshop experiment has successfully depicted.

The other side is readership. It is often difficult to build up a loyal and solid base of readers who would be interested in the forms of writings that independent press have often traditionally supported: poetry, pamphlets, non-fiction, plays and so forth. It takes time and energy for such a long haul. The investment is thankless. It is really a culture around the variegated that I return to, which one tries to develop and inculcate. Oppositional and critical publishing houses are fewer, as you say, but that space is more alive in the vernacular. It is possible to conceive such locales in the English speaking world too. I am hopeful.

A Fabulist among Communists: José Saramago

Manash Bhattacharjee

The death of José Saramago (1922-2010) doesn’t escape its sombre irony. It is a final punctuation mark in the life of a writer who wrote unpunctuated, seamless sentences. The man who designated the writer as an apprentice and his characters as masters, was ultimately forced to quit his training at the ripe age of eighty-seven. Nevertheless, in tune with his working class roots, Saramago kept his tryst with productivity as diligently as his respiratory illness worked against him.

In his meditative, 1998 Nobel Prize speech, Saramago began by paying tribute to his illiterate grandfather, Jerónimo Meirinho, calling him the wisest man he ever knew. Why was the grandfather so wise? Because he could tell stories endlessly, recounting, what Saramago called, “an untiring rumour of memories”.

This early exposure to oral storytelling helped Saramago incorporate its skills in his writing. He urged the reader to “hear” his novels by reading them aloud, rather than silently. His prose demanded the recognition of the oral as much as the written techniques of language. Saramago himself used the term “written orality” to signify the language he deployed. It opens up an interesting horizon in our understanding of writing’s aural character, apart from the visual. It also grants a twofold meaning to the narrator: as a voice and as a signature.

This must have immediate repercussions on Roland Barthes’ contentions regarding the death of the author.

Unlike what Barthes pointed out, in Saramago’s writing, the “hand” is not “cut off from any voice”. Saramago makes hand and voice work together, where the voice feeds the hand, the way hearing precedes (hence, dictates) writing. The author (in) Saramago thus exists between two disparate credentials, that of the writer and of the oral narrator. The dissemination of language occurs through this process of reciprocal translation between voice and hand, body and mind, memory and invention.

The other contention of Barthes, about the difference between reader and writer, gets blurred as Saramago’s writing itself emerges as a kind of reading. Saramago is infamous for committing mischief with religious and historical narratives. A task he owes to both, a reading and a counter-reading of canonical texts to produce new, critical versions by a reader. The author (in) Saramago is a reader beyond recognition.

For example, in The History of the Siege of Lisbon, Saramago reads between the lines of history and legend, to produce a counter tale. Raimundo Silva, a proofreader, tampers with a vital fact about the Christian re-conquest of Lisbon, by making the Crusaders refuse to help the Portuguese king, hence by default siding with the Moors. Such a move mocks and disturbs Portugal’s nationalist imaginary.

Saramago also spoke of inviting the reader (speculatively, including himself) to “accept a pact”, where he would transform an “absurd idea” into a “logical” stream of thought. He called this “the possibility of the impossible”.

This is particularly evident in novels like Blindness, Seeing and Death with Interruptions, where improbable events take place in a believable language. The events serve as an allegorical device by Saramago to bring to focus his deepest concerns about the human world. The language is believable because Saramago’s plots exaggerate on the oldest anxieties of human beings. He reworks old questions in the light of contemporary concerns, where the bizarre clashes against the everyday. This rupture between the bizarre and the everyday is the key secret of Saramago’s power to both enthral and disturb his audience. Whenever Saramago delves into the theme of political decadence, as he does in Seeing, he traps the reader at the psychological level, but keeps him marvelling at the ingenuity of the plot. The question of plot in Saramago works in an insidious manner: to highlight a particular crisis in the world which the writer finds to be going out of hand, and therefore in need of a radical sub-version of vision. It is a critical subversion of reality, where uncanny events emerge from the heart of the mundane. There is a constant tendency in Saramago to fuse the surreal with the pragmatic. Born to landless peasants, and brought up in a working class neighbourhood, the writer was vigilant about the contradictions of life.

Saramago spent his formative years under Salazar’s fascist dictatorship. This had a deep impact on his working class sensibilities. Saramago became a card carrying member of the Communist Party of Portugal from 1969, when the party was illegal. His relationship with the movement was, however, always critical.

In the 1980s, Saramago sided with the reformist rebellion within the party. Except him, everyone else was expelled. Fidel Castro was a friend who invited him many times to Cuba. Yet in 2003, despite and because of his love for Cuba, Saramago disowned Castro by saying, he “has lost my confidence, damaged my hopes, cheated my dreams”. In 2004, during his visit to Columbia, Saramago designated the two rebel guerrilla groups in that country as “armed gangs”.

There have been polemical attacks by communist intellectuals against Saramago on these issues. It includes sociologist James Petras’ open letter to Saramago regarding the comments on the Columbian guerrilla in the American newsletter Counterpunch, where he accused the writer of “bizarre historical amnesia”.

What is, however, missing in these attacks is the old question post-Stalinist, communist politics needs to ask itself: How does the movement and the party understand the relationship between writers and politics?

For Saramago, like Garcia Marquez, being a writer and being part of politics sometimes uncomfortably came to mean torn loyalties. This rupture of loyalty however doesn’t take place under any relativistic prism. It is not a rupture with the political but rather a rupture within the political. It works as an event which always reaffirms the presence of ethics in politics. Am alert writer, free from the burdens of bourgeois/religious morality, may not fail to distinguish and question the difference between politics as such, and what happens in the name of politics. In other words, the writer would question the representative form of politics and probe the justifications of its excesses. Such an intervention, in cases like Saramago’s, steers clear from any individualised conception of both society and politics.

Despite the de-individualised form of such a writer’s identity, involved in the larger dream of historical transformation, clashes can occur with the vagaries of political expediency and its justificatory, ideological logic. Saramago called himself a “hormonal communist” and yet added, he wouldn’t “make excuses for what communist regimes have done”.

This is a post-Sartrean distinction where a writer refuses to follow any diktat which seeks to undermine criticism in the name of ideological commitment. The angst of good faith is privileged over the paranoia of bad faith. To the disgrace of political regimes, such writers have been violently punished by disciplining bosses in the shadow of ideological excuses. Saramago was fortunate to escape, unlike others, in this regard.

Both literary temperament and politics work within certain constraints. The rationalist logic of politics cannot forcibly restrain the intense logic of literary imagination. Imagination is political, but on its own grounds. This issue not only begs a re-reading of the Frankfurt School and other intellectuals, but more importantly a re-reading of the (auto)biographies of poets and writers who were convicted under communist regimes.

What Saramago owed to communist ideas is best exemplified in his novels. A modern fabulist, he set the mythical vis-à-vis the historical, and the moral vis-à-vis the political. The materiality of Saramago’s imagination never failed to assert its concern of how class divisions work in historical contexts.

In Balthazar and Blimunda, Saramago used the baroque style to capture the violent contrasts between the royalty and the Church on the one hand and the common people on the other. His description of elaborate grandeur surrounding royal and religious formalities gets constantly tampered by his sense of bitter irony and irreverence. The story pays homage to the courage of marginal but talented heroes and heretics who don’t give up the audacity to dream and love in the midst of an impending auto-da-fé.

In novels like The History and All the Names, Saramago also showed his keenness towards certain minor figures like the proofreader and the clerk. These figures, alluding to Saramago’s own journey through these crafts and positions, gain extraordinary prominence due to their idiosyncratic insights into history and society.

Once when asked to specify his identity, Saramago said: “First of all I’m Portuguese, then Iberian, and then, if I feel like it, I’m European.” To prefer linguistic and geographical specificities about oneself over an occidental frame of reference shows how Saramago understood political contexts without taking the rhetoric of grand, cultural narratives too seriously. His understanding of communist politics can also be read through this register.

In 2002, Saramago enraged Jews by comparing Israel’s barbarities with the Holocaust. Saramago’s interest in the Middle East and his siding with the Palestinians is an illuminating shift from a writer who was whimsical about his European identity.

In his last published book of essays, The Notebook, Saramago severely criticised the new global economic order. He called George Bush “the high priest of all liars” and severely took the United States to task.

In a world besieged by neo-liberal fascism, the populist decadence of democracy and the calculated murdering of the poor and the other, Saramago’s voice is a warning from the future. It is very different from the way Hollywood imagines the future in the form of re-colonising, scientific fantasies. Saramago tried to persistently tell us, the future is disappearing before our eyes.

The writer is a poet and a political theorist, living in New Delhi. This article is a slightly improved version of the one by the same title as it appeared in the Literary Review section of The Hindu, 4th July, 2010.

Franklin Rosemont: Herbert Marcuse and Surrealism

Here we link an important essay that explores Marcuse’s engagement with Surrealism. It was written by a prominent American left activist and scholar, co-founder of the Chicago Surrealist Group, Franklin Rosemont, who died last April (12 April, 2009). The essay also contains letters between Rosemont and Marcuse.

During the last twenty-five years of his life, Herbert Marcuse repeatedly affirmed a lively and sympathetic interest in surrealism. His many references to the subject, in Eros and Civilization and in nearly all his subsequent books, as well as in scattered articles and interviews, reveal that this interest was continually expanding and deepening. At least from May ’68 on, as his commentators have conceded, surrealism was central to his vision of revolutionary social transformation.

Marcuse’s letters to the Chicago surrealist in the early 1970s – published here for the first time – constitute his only sustained discussion of the aims and principles, theory and practice, past and future of surrealism. Adding appreciably to our knowledge of the great critical theorist’s mature thought, these letters should also help stimulate a broader discussion not only of surrealism as such, but of the whole complex interplay of poetry, imagination, revolt and revolution – today and tomorrow.

From one of Marcuse’s letters included in the essay:

“The gap which separates art and the people could be reduced to the degree to which the people cease to be “the people” (=those who are ruled) and become freely associated individuals. The real socialist revolution of the 20th and 21st centuries would be catastrophic transformation not only of the material and cultural institutions but also of the sensibility, imagination and reason of the men and women engaged in this transformation. In this transformation, the esthetic qualities would play a decisive part – not as decoration, ritual, and surface but as the expression of the vital needs of the individuals.”

The complete text


Saswat Pattanayak

No change in sight for women’s rights
No expropriation of privileged mights
Militarists prescribe global peace lies
Working class interests fail to unionize

Organic farming for corporate profits
Healthcare granted for the insured elites
Homeless poor in the glitzy American nights
Hundred twenty-two die in daily medical plights

Twenty-five hundred families each day bankrupt
Subjects of Superpower profoundly distraught
Feed into Afghan, Iran, and warmongering distractions
Collectively throttle international socialist aspirations

The Wars are going to end, say the War Presidents
Monopolist bankers at G-20 make economic precedents
Plutocratic nobility yield from ethical charity claims
Priests abuse children, forgive selves, avoid prison chains

Anticommunist Herta Müller wins Nobel literature
Postmodern Rands follow individualistic scripture
Private properties grow sacred with economic recessions
Consumerism thrives on year around discount seasons

Environmental concerns lip-served by business interests
Mountains ravaged, peoples displaced, plundered forests
Insidious attempts at defining freedom, political liberties
Minorities oppressed amidst democratic Colacracies

Marriages outlawed for all sexual orientations
Intending immigrants still illegal alien notions
Middle strata suffers from pangs of alienation
Trickled money from the rich their sole aspiration

Poor’s crimes are poverty and unemployment
Stealing of breads still law & order assessment
World capitalism is absolved of systemic failures
Of unequal laws, old boys networks, racist cultures

Two Thousand and Ten promises to be more of the same
Let’s not celebrate this arrival of an age old game
Where monopolists continue to be magazine covers
Instead come what be the day, let’s join the class struggles

Revolutions won’t be scheduled for any auspicious occasions
Oligarchs cannot be rescued by their Gods or divine interventions
“Enough already!”, cry Zapatas in Chiapas and Orissa’s Maoists
Poor and wretched shall rise, and the rich ruling classes perish!

Correspondence Pamphlet No 2: Bad Paper

The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble

Edmond Caldwell

In the early days of the current economic crisis, the Treasury Department demanded from the U.S. Congress a 700 billion-dollar bailout to buy up the “bad paper,” a term for all the junk assets owned by the banks and mortgage companies. Bad paper – the phrase was an evocative one, and the next time I found myself walking past a Barnes & Noble Bookseller, looking through the broad front windows at the stacks of unsold “bestsellers” on the display tables, I couldn’t help but imagine the CEOs of the Big Six publishing corporations scurrying to Washington D.C. to demand their own big slice of bailout pie. After all, who could have more bad paper to unload than Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, the Penguin Group, and Macmillan?

For the complete text:
Correspondence Pamphlet No. 2

Habib Tanvir is dead

Bhopal, Jun 8 (PTI) Noted playwright and theatre director Habib Tanvir died at a hospital here today after a brief illness. He was 85.

The theatre legend was admitted to the National Hospital here three weeks back after he complained of breathing problems and was put on a ventilator, family sources said.

His daughter Nageen was at his bedside when the end came.

Born on September 1, 1923 at Raipur, Habib began his career as a journalist and went on to become a highly renowned playwright.

Known for his plays like Agra Bazar and Charandas Chor, Tanvir founded the Naya theatre company here in 1959. He also scripted many films and acted in a few of them.

He was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1969 and Padma Shri in 1983. (Courtesy: PTI)

Ahmed Faraz: A Voice of Dissent

Arjumand Ara

Kisi aur des ki or ko, suna hai Faraz chala gaya.
sabhi dukh samet ke she’hr ke, sabhi qarz utaar ke she’hr ka.

(They say that Faraz has left for some other land,
Taking with him all the sorrows of the city, paying away all its debt.)

The long history of political turbulence in Pakistan produced a long list of writers, poets and artists who raised their voice against oppressive regimes. In exchange, they suffered regular threats, imprisonment, torture and exile. Prominent writers and artists like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Habib Jalib, Ahmed Faraz and Ustad Daman were hunted and haunted by the establishment. Finding the political milieu unbearable, these writers had to go on self-exile as mark of protest. Through their poetry and other writings, Faiz, Jalib, Faraz and others exposed the exploitative and suppressive nature of the Pakistani state, plight of the ordinary citizen, helplessness of writers and artists, imperialist interference and their agencies, and the environment of political suffocation borne out of pruned civil rights, truncated laws and gagging of public opinion.

However, as one may be proud of this legacy of protest and defiance, it is sad to note that there have been writers and poets who accepted positions and power as rewards for keeping silence or lending support to the rulers. But then, this is not a phenomenon unique to Pakistan. Hegemony will always find courtesans and court-poets for legitimacy.

Most of the Urdu poets and writers from Pakistan have always been politically responsive, unlike their counterparts in India who chose to remain apolitical/neutral, especially after independence. This was perhaps because of linguistic-communal introversion that Urdu-speakers suffered in India. On the other hand, the Pakistani writers and artists had to express themselves in a long-term civil war-type situation characterised by a continuous political instability, lack of social reform, a continuing grip of landed oligarchies and tremendous neo-colonial pressure on the Pakistani political economy. Therefore, we see a galaxy of radical writers/poets associated with the Progressive Movement, which included poets like Faiz, Jalib and Faraz. With them the Progressive Movement flourished in Pakistan, while in India we saw a decline with leading poets like Ali Sardar Jafri reciting poem in praise of Lotus (while accepting Gnanpith award) and applauding Atal Bihari Vajpayee as a great poet.

To trace the legacy of anti-hegemonic resistance we see that Faiz was jailed for a year after being implicated in the notorious Rawalpindi conspiracy case. Habib Jalib was imprisoned several times. To silence him, other tactics were also tried, e.g., his name was selected for Adamji Award, the highest literary award of Pakistan. Habib Jalib refused to accept it, saying that he wrote for people, not for Adamji. Ahmed Faraz, best known Progressive poet after Faiz and Jalib, was first jailed in June 1977 during the Zulfiqaar Bhutto government for reciting his poem Peshawar Qatilon (Professional Killers!) in Islamabad in which he challenged the military rulers, saying: Peshawar qatilon tum sipahi nahin (Soldiers you are not, you professional assassins).

As he always found himself at the left of the establishment (right from the Ayub regime, to Yahya’s, Bhutto’s and down to Musharraf’s), Faraz was always viewed by the establishment as a rebel. In 1978 he was exiled from Sindh (by the Zia regime), receiving orders for his exile in a Mushaira where he had just recited his famous poem Muhaasira (The Siege). He felt so greatly dejected and heartbroken that he left the country and did not return for six years. Asked once, when Zia was still in power, why he had left Pakistan, he replied that he was in Karachi when the order expelling him from the province of Sindh was served. ‘I said to myself, ‘What have we come to when a man is exiled from his own land! Today, it is Karachi, tomorrow it will be Peshawar, the day after, Lahore. That is when I decided to leave.’ Faraz also returned the Hilal-i-Imtiaz conferred on him for his literary achievements in 2004. He returned the award in 2006 after becoming disenchanted with the government and its policies. He said in a statement, “My conscience will not forgive me if I remained a silent spectator of the sad happenings around us. The least I can do is to let the dictatorship know where it stands in the eyes of the concerned citizens whose fundamental rights have been usurped. I am doing this by returning the Hilal-e-Imtiaz (civil) forthwith and refuse to associate myself in any way with the regime…”

No one could match the wit of Faraz. When asked why he had kept the Hilal-e Imtiaz for two years, he replied jokingly, “Do you think it laid eggs in those two years?”

He could actually outwit his opponents without losing his sense of humour. An anecdote gained much popularity. One day Faraz heard loud banging at his door. He rose hurriedly to open it, only to see four or five bearded men in white skullcaps. “Can you recite the Kalima?” one of them asked. “Why, has it changed?” Faraz inquired.

These are just a few examples of how he could give a humorous turn to a grave situation or outwit his opponents. Kishwar Naheed, writing a letter to ailing Faraz (in The Hindu, New Delhi on 24 August 2008, just a day earlier when Faraz died), narrates several such incidents. Once at a mushaira held on the occasion of International Women’s Day to honour protesting women. Faraz was the chief guest. When he started reciting his poetry, a fiery Tahira Abdullah objected, saying, ‘we want poetry on women.’ Faraz abruptly replied, “But all my poetry is about women.”

With the passing away of Faraz (August 25, 2008) in Islamabad, a true inheritor of Faiz’s mantle has died. As noted Pakistani journalist Khalid Hasan puts: ‘Like Faiz, he suffered prison and lived in exile during the dark days of military rule in the 1980s. Like Faiz, he is very popular, especially among the youth, and nobody wrote with more intensity about love than Faraz. He gained fame as a young man…. Few poets have had more of their work set to music and performed by the great singers of the age than Faraz.’

Faraz is considered one of the best poets of Pakistan. He was born in Nowshera on January 14, 1931. His real name was Syed Ahmad Shah. The Pashto-speaking Faraz learned and studied Persian and Urdu at the Peshawar University, where he also taught later. He headed the Islamabad-based National Book Foundation for several years. In 1976, he became the founding Director General (Later Chairman) of Pakistan Academy of Letters. He wrote 13 books and all put together came as Shehr-e Sukhan aarasta hai (A City of Poetry is Adorned), his latest publication so far.

Arjumand Ara is a lecturer in the Department of Urdu, Delhi University.