Wednesday, May 22, 2013

On the Necessity to Subvert

This came out in the blog On the Plum Tree run by Dr. Niamh Clune. The chief inspiration behind this comes from an anti-intellectual school of post-colonial literary thought that emerged in Calcutta in the late 90s. The school, propounded by a group of scholars referred to as the Margin Theorists, were harshly repressed by the mainstream intelligentsia because it went against their establishment and was detrimental to the "Culture Industry" (a coinage of Adorno & Horkheimer of the famed Frankfurt School) of Bengal. An article in which the Margin Theorists, prominent among them being Ajit Choudhury, Dipankar Das and Tridib Sengupta, expound their thoughts, can be found here

The original piece which I had written was a tad bigger in length than the version that came out in the blog. It is as follows:

On the Necessity to Subvert


A Tale of Two Knights

Let’s start from a single point and its apparent positive and apparent negative.

The Point – A vast majority of people who write want their writings to be read by many people and Internet, especially Facebook, satisfies this urge to reach out.

The Apparent Positive – The easy flow and ready availability of poetry and poetic expressions: there’s no monstrous publishing house with its clouts, touts, pimps, agents and other sharks standing in the way, minimal censorship hassles, no need to put any extra effort or spend any extra money for publicity, marketing and pitch.

The Apparent Negative – There’s nothing stopping poetry we find lousy from hitting us. Bad poetry, as the consensus goes, is worse than bad whiskey.


 The above is an instance of underdetermination – the banner which social networking, as the new white-knight of globalization, upholds. Have we not united under that very banner? The purpose, as skeptics of the world would agree, is to dissipate and dilute the clamour for more – because ‘more’ is still the exclusive jurisdiction of the dark knight – power, with its several tentacles such as money, connections and other blahs. 

Simply speaking, you don’t have enough money or power to approach a literary agent of a big publishing house, to spend for publishing and publicity, you don’t have enough money or power to lobby at the corridors of the award-givers, so you are pissed, and there are many like you who are similarly pissed. And then the Gods said, “Let there be Social Networks!” Now, you are happy because you can make your work read by a lot of people, and the big brothers of publishing are happy because you are not mad at them anymore.

What? Are you asking for more? Good, there is self-publishing! Spend a lump and here we go. Now, now, are you asking for even more?  Hmm, now you are entering a rarified zone. You need to spend a bigger lump this time, but it’s not just about money. You have dared to enter the territory of the dark knight. Absolute obedience is necessary. What happens to our hero after this will be determined by so many factors that if I dare to spell them out, I will be accused of giving flowers to the corpse of the demon essentialism, whom, as I have been told, our great hero and saviour whom we lovingly call postmodernism, had slain.

These two knights serve their master who currently goes by the name ‘globalization’ and who rules over the castles our socially conditioned existence. One such castle was christened as the ‘culture industry’ by a couple of scholars in 1944[1].      


Language of the Globalizer, Language of the Globalized

The language of the globalizer is one which would not lead to a red underline when you type it over on any virtual counterpart of pen and paper without installing/activating any language-pack. The script of the globalizer is one which can be typed on any of these virtual counterparts without installing or activating any script pack. Whatever you express through waves and particles needs to be comprehended by the globalizer – who has fed and clothed our cognition, enabled us to open our windows (not sure whether pun unintended or not), given us our bridges and platforms. Making “at least some sense” has been the first criteria of reaching out, ever since cavepeople learned to convert their grunts to speeches. Given that we have learned to give the devil his due, and we have learned about justice equity and good conscwhatever, we don’t have any “reason” at our disposal to rebel against the need for passwords to cross the bridges. (Of course, unreason lurks, repressed as symptom[2], in the deep folds of our carefully cultivated reason; however, unlike our reason, it (unreason) sees no daylight of our conscious mind, which, thus, sees no reason to rebel against the taught need for passwords and other rules of the game.) If you need to play the game, you have to play by the rules as shaped by history. The picture is clear up to this point. After that, the waters start getting murky.


Of Masterpiece and Masterpisses

We turn to the twentieth century Greats, especially to Saussure and Barthes, to learn that one need not learn great things and get great literary aspirations only from the greats. Here we are stuck in a loop with another late twentieth century Great. Lyotard has given us the ‘differend’ which implies confrontations pertaining to language in which the ends are left open.

He uses the example of a masterpiece in explaining the concept of ‘differend’:

A writer has written a masterpiece. No editor agrees to publish it. Now, how can she prove that it is a masterpiece? We want to extend the question into the zone of the future that is coming but is still unknown. How the writer can sustain as a writer — who knows that she is writing masterpieces and it is the very knowledge that confines her to a solitary cell — no one else is there who knows it too, because the works just do not get published? Her masterpieces do not get known as masterpieces due to the very quality of being masterpieces[3][4]. Let’s keep post-structuralism and Saussure out of the discourse and just stretch this illustration. The writer uploads it on her Facebook profile as a note and on her blog, tags a hundred people on each, copy-pastes the link on all the free platforms available on Internet, including on the Facebook profiles of ten thousand people. It’s not “published” in the traditional sense, but it’s on the public pool, as a free resource. It goes ‘viral’. Thus, it becomes a masterpiece. In this way the Internet, apparently, resolves this particular conflict and it does not remain a differend. Of course, it’s not a free lunch. She has to be in a social-economic-cultural-educational position to have access to the internet, have enough means to pay her internet bills, throw open her Facebook profile for advertisers to infiltrate (how often have you been pissed/ not-pissed at the thumbsized picture of Oscar Wilde with the caption: “Learn to write like the greats. Click to learn more” at the right-hand column of your Facebook profile”?)and make a lot of virtual friends,  socialize with a lot of people on the virtual sphere so that they don’t get pissed or remain indifferent to  her masterpiece. Thus, any scope of her choice of reclusion and/or poverty gets nullified because she wants to make her masterpiece a masterpiece but she hasn’t got enough money or power or contacts to do so. It is this very want that both the white and the dark knight of globalization seek to safeguard and strengthen and this very choice that they seek to deny. It’s a win-win situation for globalization. It’s not a contract between her and globalization but a submission – to the lord and master of the castle named Culture Industry – on her part, one which she has no choice but to make, because she wants to. Her masterpiece won’t be a masterpiece otherwise. Thus, what we see here is not a negation of a differend. Lyotard still gets his last laugh[5] and we are still at square one. We are not back to it because we were always there.     


Civilizing Me: Hegemony[6] and the Melodrama Behind Writing[7] (in case you care)


Calcutta got the enlightenment-pump in the 19th century when it became the capital city of what was then the biggest British colony in terms of population, geographical expanse and the wealth it generated for the British Empire. There’s no documented ethnocultural history from the pre-colonial era of the geographical locus of this place. Calcutta, just like Bombay, was established and developed as a city by the colonizers keeping their colonial needs in mind.  The “Western” perspective, i.e., the perspective of the dominator tells us that Mapping, Documentation and Profiling of culturally identifiable units is necessary. Moreover, the perceived dominant position which those culturally identifiable units that had subjected themselves to such Mapping, Documentation and Profiling for a long span of time hold in the power-play of history has led to a definite inferiority-complex in those ethno-cultural units which have not subjected themselves to similar Mapping, Documentation and Profiling for such a long span of time and are hence are being dominated by those units which had undergone such  Mapping, Documentation and Profiling. This complex is reflected in the way such groups trace and approach their own cultural indentifier-roots. But this inferiority complex causes discomfort to and leads to discomfiture of the ego of the dominated and hence it is only natural that the dominated will try to appease its ego by embracing the perspective and perception of the dominated.  Thus, it is not surprising that the intelligentsia of Bengal has learned to approach its Bengali identity as a group in a “Western” way, i.e., by mimicking the dominators – be it the colonizers or the globalizers. The essay I had referred to in footnotes 3 & 4 terms it as ‘mimicry of overdetermination’. This mimicry can be seen in every discourse the intelligentsia partakes, self-styled avant-garde art and literary being no exception. For example, because of the fact that this city has been a major platform for several artistic and intellectual ventures on the 20th century, a significant chunk of the cultural-elites over here had started terming Calcutta as the Paris of the East. Another example would be the fact that those prominent personalities like Tagore & Ray who had received acclaim from the West got easier access to the culture capital of the ‘Culture Industry’. Thus, when Satyajit Ray went to Cannes in the 1950s, it became a milestone in the cultural scenario of Calcutta, but it certainly did not become so in the cultural scenario of France or Italy when the Renoir, Malle, Antonioni or many other Western cinema-personalities who dealt with the New Wave or Neo-Realism genres of Cinema made multiple visits to the city to meet him and get a hang of the Parallel-Cinema cult of India.    


Allow me to state where and how I stand. Bengali is my ‘native’ language. I read and write both in Bengali and Engli$h. I think and speak using Bengali. My grandpa and six generations before him were colonized, my father was nationalized, I have been globalized. Because the West properly entered East through the exact geographical locus I am sitting at right now, these parts have a tragicomic cultural history. For all practical purposes, the city I hail from was established by the colonizing forces. The mission of ‘Civilizing the brutes’ began from this city and its surroundings. The Engli$h language, along with ideas of Enlightenment, was the basic signifier of the dominant discourse, and those who practiced, assimilated and perfected the lessons learned from the West. Then our country got politically independent, a lot of shit happened and a lot of shit has kept on happening, but the dominant discourses have remained the same and the power-structure has remained largely similar. This applies for the cultural front as much as it does for the political and economic front. My grandfather needed to know the Engli$h language to be ‘up there’ and so do I. As for writing, I write using both the languages though I am more comfortable with Bengali because I think in that language and hence I don’t have to translate my thoughts. It’s not that I have to go through/perform a conscious process/activity of mental translation of my thoughts and ideas to write in Engli$h, but it’s still a second language and it will forever be so. Human existence is social and it’s largely owing to conditions of existence that I will be forced to be a relentless player in the dominant discourses and their interplay, whether I continue my literary pursuit or not.



As for globalization, it has strengthened the fortifications of the roughly three hundred years old world order. There’s this saying that the local is the new global and there’s also a term ‘glocalization’ floating around these days, but these are the things we are given to bullshit ourselves with. Of course, it terms of hegemony, cultural[8] or otherwise, it’s still binary, it may not be 0 and 1, but it’s around ¼ and ¾, but the 1 had to concede the ¼ to the 0 for self-preservation but that doesn’t really make it non-binary. Does it? It might or might not become ½ and ½ in future and then the power-structure may or may not start shifting, but that’s none of my business.




Macaulay’s Bastard


Though I write using the colonizer’s language at times, I would like to assert that I am not Aerial and that language is not Prospero. At the same time, because I have not acquired the Western ‘cultural’ heritage by easy birthright, I have not inherited it. When my voice, as a writer, is to be heard (read) on a global/Western stage and context, I can ill afford to be the bastard child of Macaulay. But, am I not exactly that? Therein lies the dichotomy, a mad pull of opposites, and a source of perplexing insecurity and conflict. Have I inherited the cross/crosses I bear? What cross/crosses do I bear? What have I inherited? These questions can never have clear-cut answers and if I attempt at finding same, I would once again be deemed guilty of worshipping the demon of essentialism.


I do not want my writing to fall into the void which I have explained while dealing with the writer who had written her unpublished masterpiece. At times I feel like I have been pushed to the edge of the cliff beyond which lies that scary realm of silence. The fightback begins from this very point. I represent myself and my own voice. The enemies are represented by the dark and the white knights, their great master who currently goes by the name ‘globalization’. (the master had a different name and a different face in the past and so had the knights, the master will have a different name and a different face in future and so will the knights). I have no desire to fan up or the flames of the sort of want which the author of the unpublished manuscript has, and I don’t want the great master whom the dark and the white knights serve to determine my wants and deny my choices. That master is big and strong and so are the two knights. The sole weapon in my arsenal is to subvert. Given that my want is to not let my voice fall into the void of being unheard, I have to fight them back and move away from the cliff-edges. That’s my first lack of choice. Again, given that the opposition is the dominator and I am the dominated in this text, my choicelessness also lies in the very fact that I have no option but to subvert. Being Macaulay’s bastard child and being a dominated globalization has indeed killed my choices. Just that my wants are not the sort that can be fulfilled by either my bastardom or my oppressedness.      

In short, I want to be a dominant part of the discourse through my written text. For that I need access to platforms wherefrom I can reach out to the originators and recipients of the existing dominant voices. The current spread and outlay of force and domination stands against such access. I can’t indulge in full frontal fight against the current voices of dominance, including that of the Culture Industry. Hence, there is this need to subvert.


Despite the predominance of those who indulge in collaboration and complicity with the agents of force and domination (such as the two knights I have mentioned previously) in the realm of texted voices(/voiced texts?) there are many out here whose aspirations are akin to mine. Let the oppressed writers of the world unite (and subvert). They have nothing to lose but their projected sanity. They have the world to win seats of power to decentralize.    



[1]  Adorno & Horkheimer, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass-Deception, 1944
[2] Per the understanding of Freud-Lacan-Zizek
[3] I have quoted this from here:$h/mom-book/ch_1.html. It’s a part of an insightful treatise on post-colonialism by three Calcutta-based academics. It’s not been widely published or circulated. To me, it is a masterpiece.  
[4] Chaudhury et al, Margin of Margin: Profile of an Unrepentant Post-colonial Collaborator, Anushtup, Calcutta, 2000
[5] My understanding of Lyotard is woefully limited. I have used his concept of the differend simply because the illustration featuring the unpublished masterpiece relates directly to the point/s I seek to make.
[6] I refer to hegemony here as that of the ‘Culture Industry’, following the understanding of Adorno and Horkheimer.
[7] This term and the title of the next chapter are drawn out from the same essay as mentioned in Footnotes 3 & 4 .
[8] Supra 5


Prashanth Ashok said...

I had to read through it atleast three times to get an idea of what you were getting at. Masterpiece, I say

atindriyo said...

Thanks buddy. :D