When Writers Take Their Social Responsibility Too Seriously

by Jyotirmaya Tripathy - Feb 25, 2018 07:22 AM
When Writers Take Their Social Responsibility Too SeriouslyThe role of writers. (Wikimedia Commons)
  • However deep an author’s insights into social problems may be, he/she can only remain an informant for a sociologist.

    Giving undue sociological weight to literature leads to an evaluative fallacy.

There is a deep-seated ambivalence at the heart of literature: it is, neither real nor unreal yet both. The imaginative faculty of the poet/author works on the raw material derived from the society and creates something new out of it (illusion of reality), which otherwise would be the material for historians, sociologists and anthropologists. It comes as no surprise that ‘poet’ in Greek meant ‘maker’. In the present time though, writers do not wish to be primarily known for their imagination but for their confrontation with social facts, and prefer writing fiction without being fictional. They take upon themselves the responsibility of active consciousness-raising and concern themselves with what is happening (or what they think is happening) rather than what may happen as per literary conventions.

The new fad is that creation as imagination reduces writers and limits their power; this in turn creates some buzzwords around which literature finds its justification. Now writers are variously called dissenters, social critics, offenders, conscience keepers, truth speakers etc. We often hear that literature’s truth is in the services of social development. The logic is that literature contributing to social development theoretically leads to an informed citizenry and helps create a society, which is in discussion with itself.

The Fallacy Of Social Literature

So far as literature’s social imperatives and community services are concerned, it involves questions of representation and empowerment. This is not something new; literature always did so in its subtle messaging, but mainstreaming social development as the avowed objective of literature is something, which may be a betrayal of the idea of literature as imaginative or aesthetic. And then the related questions that follow: what is that classed/sexed/linguistic/religious community, which can be represented in literature? To what extent literature can create a coherent theory of the social?

Using literature to teach sociological concepts is one thing as in the use of Antigone to teach human rights or Othello for gender justice or The Shadow Lines for nation-state, but all of us will agree that teaching sociology or politics through literature is not the same thing like literature as sociology. For every text espousing gender justice, there is another, which espouses the reverse. Very rarely a social novel is used by sociologists or a post-colonial narrative by strategic experts. If fiction offers sociological insights, it requires a trained sociologist to see those insights as helpful for sociology, and not because those insights make him a sociologist. This tells us something interesting; that the social promise of literature is not intrinsic, but an effect of a particular type of reading by experts. However perceptive the author may be about social problems, he/she can only remain an informant for a sociologist. Giving undue sociological weight to literature leads to an evaluative fallacy.

The Marxist tendency to treat literature (as super structure) as a copy of the real socio-economic conditions (base) reduces literature’s power to delight while educating. In the Soviet Writers Congress in 1934, all aesthetics such as narrative techniques were castigated and Joyce’s Ulysses (one of the very best of experimental texts) was denounced as ‘a heap of dung crawling with worms’ for being oblivious of social problems. Literature in this vulgar Marxist sense does not transcend human condition, but binds men to them and so cannot create anything universal. Hence super-adding social development to literature’s ever expanding set of objectives may just be a fetish. I would imagine that in the face of receding Marxist influence on general public, writers and literary critics have jumped on to this category to wring-fence themselves from the irrelevance of Marxist belief in electoral democracy.

Here it may be productive to engage with the evolution of literary studies vis-a-vis democracy and the rise in literacy. In England, such efforts were confirmed by Matthew Arnold for whom literature was a normative value, a study of perfection, the right reason to know the object as in itself it really is. It was also universal in its moral scope and was directed towards what is distinctively human in humanity. Today, Arnold’s ideas of literature being ‘the best that is thought and said’ may appear to be unsympathetic to marginal experienes, but during that period when culture was seen as minority and civilisation as mass consumption, Arnold chose to side with culture, the universal, the normative. In continental Europe though, thinkers like Thomas Mann and Julien Benda advocated culture’s national character over Arnoldian universal. Today again, this national may seem to be another kind of universal trying to erase differences within the nation. Since Mann stood for the national, he declared that ‘democracy is the end of music’.

There Is Nothing Outside The Text

Literature as national narrative remains one of the enduring tropes in literary criticism and theory. Modern literature in India contributed to the Independence movement and was definitionally national; Aurobindo spoke of literature articulating an Indian consciousness. In varying degrees, this literature created a counter narrative through which Indians reversed the colonial gaze and imagined themselves as subjects of history. The point I am trying to highlight here is that unlike the colonial mission of using literature to civilise, harmonise or Christianise, national literature recognised divisions within India, but asserted its difference from the colonial and more importantly promoted commonalities among Indians.

That said, nationalism as in Bankimchandra Chatterjee or cosmopolitanism as in Rabindranath Tagore were not the best examples of literary aesthetics and often led to a kind of in your face political message. One is reminded of Keats, who advised that we should avoid literature if it has a palpable design on us. Though nobody doubts literature’s ability to make readers think outside the pages, this thinking or call to action remains personal convictions rather than intended political positions or a clarion call to activism. As the old master Aristotle said, literature articulates poetic truth where events in a drama do not tell us what has happened, but what may happen according to laws of probability and necessity.

Even when a narrative appears like reflection of reality, it is always mediated by imagination. It is this imagination which underplays the social and foregrounds the aesthetic or the imaginative. The present demands of reading literature outside aesthetics or as avowedly political, betrays certain types of poverty of imagination. One way to explain this sense of shame on part of authors is that they lack the craft or the ability to tell stories or are driven by the desire to get famous at the shortest possible time. The authors like Narayan and Raja Rao remain great novelists not because they gave us analysis of social problems but because they transformed those perceived problems into works of art.

Literature exploits the potential of human beings as sign-using animals. In literature, there is no referent or as Sartre said, literary language is non-transcendent. Texts do not transcend themselves toward phenomenal things to which they refer; they are used in a fictitious manner and create an imaginary world. Words as signifiers without referents create people, places and actions, and make them familiar and produce virtual reality. A literary work is not an imitation of some pre-existing reality; it is the creation of a new, supplementary world; this is in spite of the fact that literature may have names of real people or real place. So action in literature is performative rather than constative or referential. In literature, one has to agree with what the narrator has to say to enter into the work and enjoy the same, as Coleridge’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ proposes. Catharsis ensures that literature’s effect works only on the individual.

Death Of Literature

In India, literature (along with English language) got institutionalised as a medium of civilisation to create mimic men who will help the British rule India. But the popularity of literary studies has something to do with the lure of English as a gateway to personal and professional development. Here again, the social conditions prevailing in India and its experiment with democracy led to the popularity of English literature. This popularity was not because literature gave explanations of social problems, but because it imaginatively responded to them. Many reserchers today have completely moved away from literature and have found the justification of their research in non-literary frameworks. This has also something to do with the idea of research and research universities, a late import from the West which coincided with many Indians completing PhD in the US/UK and returning to look for jobs in India in the 1990s. The rise of English in its present avatar as a study of society or an experiment with democracy is fairly recent, which went hand in hand with the idea of crisis of humanities.

In the UK of 1960s and 1970s, teaching literature became an explicitly political act for radical and minority groups. English departments provided space to feminist and African-American critics and witnessed major paradigm shift in canon formation and pedagogy. This led to a repudiation of formalism and towards a more politically engaged reading: whose perspective the text promotes? What does it tell about us? What does it tell about them? What does it elide and whose authority it protects or whose power it legitimates? After 1970s, literature shifted attention away from the mimetic use of literature; it became a branch of sociological and philosophical enquiry about signification, aporia and ideology. Then theory arrived and led to the substitution of literature by secondary critical and theoretical texts.

In India, this change was visible in the late 1980s and was supplemented by the US returned academics and the prevailing political situation in India. The 1990s saw the obsolescence of conventional literary studies. This led critics to find salvation in politically invested theory, which highlighted non-literary dimensions of literature and reclaimed literature as a facet of the social. Unlike the teaching as preaching method or literature as organic education, theory harped on difference rather than uniformity, politics rather than aesthetics, fragmentation rather than unity. The political conditions of France and the US in 1960s in terms of identity groups replicated themselves in India at a time when questions of identity through Mandal and Kamandal, the rise of the backward classes, disintegration of national parties combined with the emergence of regional caste leaders created ideal condition for theory to take root. Instead of paradox, irony, plot or character analysis as literature scholars used to do, a new demand came to study elisions, traces and differences.

The rise of the so-called interdisciplinarity created a climate where using expressions like power structure, normativity, crisis of representation, performativity etc. started not only gaining currency but apparently replaced study of literature as a vocation. Institutions like American Studies Research Centre played a key role in the institutionalisation of theory among Indian academics. Now that ‘socialist’ parties are struggling to figure out what went wrong and the five-star intellectuals have lost their entitlements, the high voltage ‘award wapsi’ or the loud chorus of ‘dissent’ may be seen as are reactionary and diversionary strategies to stay relevant. The social commitment of literature in the Indian context must be seen in this historicity.

Jyotirmaya is a Chennai-based commentator and cultural critic.

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