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Monday, December 8, 2014

* Symposium on Literary Activism!

At the symposium on literary activism it was a curious case of reading with the grain and yet against the prevalent dominant trend. The so-called democratisation of the literary space has brought an end to the pursuit of the aesthetic value of a text in favour of its archival importance as increasingly the literature departments in the academy concentrate on culture studies. Derek Attridge (York) in the inaugural UEA Infosys lecture on “The Critic as Lover” pointed out that the language of celebration generated by the market is a reductive mechanism catering to an anti-intellectual environment. David Graham (Canongate/Granta/Pavilion) too acknowledged the situation and rightly said that in publishing the focus has shifted from the book to the market. But this is noessentially a market phenomenon. The general environment is such that often editors succumb to the threat of legal notices and violence by certain groups who do not understand the nuances in literature. The micro-publishers and independents like Ananda Lal (Writers Workshop India) and Navin Kishore (Seagull) are perhaps stubbornly occupying a niche which the mainstream is nervous to invest in.

Today’s English Departments are places for professionalisation and there is no room for the literary amateur. Saikat Majumdar (Stanford), through the example of the polymath Nirad Chaudhuri, championed the cause of the autodidact amateur in shaping the bildung (culture) of the society. Discrediting literature is divorcing oneself from its civilising influence and creating a world of cultural bureaucracy. And those who are not deemed to be politically correct are forced to live in the ON (out-of-Nation) zone, like the Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic. She explained her situation as having turned up at a party with the invitation but the dress code is all wrong. Amit Chaudhuri (UEA) in his failed campaign for Arvind Krishna Mehrotra as Oxford Professor of Poetry showed a case of literary activism. Chaudhuri explained that the attempt to establish a non-Eurocentric cosmopolitan poet in Oxford was worth an “adventure” because it at least created a flutter in the literary space which has been marginalised. Another kind of literary activism is through translation, which both UK poet Jamie McKendrick (translating Italian poets) and CNRS’s Laetitia Zecchini (translating Arun Kolatkar) practice. Translating, and that too poetry, becomes a zone of resistance against the market forces and the general climate governed by the hermeneutics of suspicion.

In the discussion on the journal of ideas Jon Cook (UEA) mentioned the part once
played by Scrutiny and Partisan Review in the UK and the US respectively in mediating literary criticism into the public domain. Chinmoy Guha (CU) put into perspective the idea of having a symposium on literary activism in Kolkata, supposedly a society in decline and political chaos, but arguably harbouring a rich tradition of cultural and literary enterprises. In this historical context he related the activity of Bengali journals like Desh, of which he was the literary editor for ten years, and the eventual advent of global forces. Perhaps Benjamin Kunkel’s N+1 and Anjum Hasan’s The Caravan by bringing back syntactical complexity and breaking consensuses play as much a part of literary activism in the global stage as little magazines do at the local level.

It was left to Peter D. McDonald (Oxford) to acknowledge a sort of homecoming at this symposium for English Literature became a subject in the colonies even before it became a curricular discipline in Britain. Speaking in the two voices of the optimistic Don Q and the pessimistic Sancho P, he explicated the demise of traditional literariness where now Shakespeare is studied for scrutiny and no longer as a canonical figure. With reference to Maurice Blanchot’s 1959 essay “What about Criticism?”, he pointed out the role of criticism as an intermediary between journalism and the academy. Swapan Chakraborty (JU) made the pertinent point that one who studies literature does not necessarily write literature but writes about literature unlike certain other disciplines (as in Physics where one studies Physics and writes Physics). Rosinka Chaudhuri (CSSSC) hinted at the relationship between ethics and aesthetics, which is crucial to the polemics of writing and defines the strangeness of the literary.

What  ultimately emerged over the three days was a rather deconstructive view of the literary where the hierarchy of predominant and latent trends were disturbed and a degree of indecisiveness was introduced into the argument. The literary cannot have an autonomous existence irrespective of culture and society but to be of value it needs to have a certain irreverence for the institutions that make culture and society. Literature’s relevance lies in its non-belonging: sui generis for the present and thereby, paradoxically, for all times too.