Saturday December 09, 2023

Art in post-normal times

Untimely meditationsIn the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, different states and societies resorted to various methods to curb terrorism and violence, and promote peace. These range from wars, civil wars, rebellions, suicide attacks, social development and peace movements to cultural activities. Among the different initiatives undertaken here for cultural enrichment

March 18, 2015
Untimely meditations
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, different states and societies resorted to various methods to curb terrorism and violence, and promote peace. These range from wars, civil wars, rebellions, suicide attacks, social development and peace movements to cultural activities.
Among the different initiatives undertaken here for cultural enrichment and peace are the literary festivals held in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad for the last five years.
Since their inception attendance at the literary festivals ‘rose from roughly 5,000 in 2010 to 10,000 in 2011, to 15,000 in 2012, to 50,000 in 2013 to 70,000 in 2014.’ It shows that it has succeeded to attract large numbers over the years. Such initiatives breath fresh air into the otherwise suffocating cultural, religious and social ambiance of the country. Despite the efforts of peaceniks in Pakistan, peace remained an elusive dream for majority of Pakistanis for the reason that every attempt harbours a demon that thwart efforts and spoils dreams.
Literary festivals have elicited criticism not from the usual puritanical suspects, but from a section that can be roughly lumped under the rubric of a progressive/secular segment of society. This situation demands a diagnosis of a society that is experiencing disintegration of social contract and undergoing, to borrow a phrase from Ziauddin Sardar, “post-normal times”.
It basically indicates the breakdown of signification in literature because the impact of changes in the outer world has permeated into the literary world and disrupted the functions and role of literature. In addition, compression of time and space in the globalised world of today has rendered particular worldviews, systems of knowledge production and mediums irrelevant. So far language has remained a reliable medium to convey reality. Words do not derive their meaning from some essentialist source away from the mundane day-to-day realities of life, rather the meaning stems from a complex interplay of metaphors, worldview, text and the reader.
Unified truth is a product of the regimes of truth and framework in society. Such framework ensures that there is the centre that brings multifarious dimensions of life within a unified whole. It is this that determines our mode of communicating truth and meaning. When the context or framework that infuses meaning into words and makes certain mediums a part of representational practices disappears, the communication breaks down. As a result, every word and every individual starts to freely float in a void devoid of signification.
Today old certainties, systems of thought, knowledge production and framework are defunct. People have lost a unified worldview. That is why the old world of meaning has disintegrated. We are sitting on ‘a heap of broken images’. In other words we have lost our traditional abode and have not yet found a new home in the new order of things. This creates a permanent state of homelessness, angst and alienation in us – for without being rooted one cannot bear fruit and fail to enter into communion with the universe in the state of cosmic alienation. These existential experiences have given birth to metaphysical pathos of cosmic proportions. It is art that gives voice to ineffable feelings and experiences of the soul. We have to learn to be at home for not being at home. Only then can we create a new metaphor to explain cosmic alienation.
The debate surrounding the relevancy of literary festivals and discussions on such platforms ignores the existential crisis faced by the state and society. The subliminal idea that informs literary festivals in Pakistan is to restore the unified framework and create a centre which brings in every centrifugal element within its ambit. Our attempts to communicate individual and collective experiences through literature do not resonate well with our lived experience because most of what is produced in Pakistani English literature caters to market demand in the outside world that views even the blatant violence in our society through exotic lenses.
Thus, the macabre situation of our country has been turned into Vanity Fair by literature produced for global consumption. Inspiration can come from anywhere but the content should come from the inner life of beings in the world. An ordinary Pakistani today is caught up in extraordinary abnormal events. Absence of normalcy in the ordinary lives of people causes excruciating spiritual pain. Our literature ought to give voice to this pain instead of following the trend of the literary industry. Therefore, it is imperative for literature to dissect pathologies of society and culture in post-normal times than to cater to the ideals and ideas of normal times and societies.
The question that arises here is: how do we deal with the creative aporia we are facing? It can be overcome by understanding the new patterns of culture industry, knowledge production and formation of the self in a space created by disintegration of the old order. Traditionally, it was assumed that interaction with established structures formed our agency.
Our contemporary experience is no more structured; rather it is fragmented like a heap of broken images. Therefore, genres, forms and literature should reflect the fragmented nature of experience, self, sense and sensibilities. Instead of yearning for a unified frame of reference, rarefied ideal types and anachronistic metaphors and irrelevant literary canons, the literature of today should aspire for the ideals that emanate from our lived experience in a particular time and space.
The art of today cannot have a unified view of reality and a single narrative for a multitude of experiences. All it can do is tinker with parts and pieces and salvage some pieces from the rubble of broken images, and prepare a collage-like reality of modern life. Therefore, a new vocabulary is required to represent sensibilities created by new arrangements on the heel of the death of context and significations associated with it. All major institutions are facing crises of legitimacy.
Being a part of this space, literary festivals cannot escape questions regarding legitimacy of inorganic spaces. At times the very effort to create a new space gives birth to segregated spaces. It happened with art galleries in Pakistan where the ‘riffraff’ are not permitted. Literally festivals basically celebrate creativity. Literature can communicate with its diverse readers/audiences if the creative imagination of our literati succeeds to craft inclusive mediums and spaces. Otherwise, we will be devoured by the black hole created by the collapse of our unified old certainties.
German cultural critic Walter Benjamin perceptively elaborated the crisis of experience and its representation begotten by modernity, capitalism, new mediums, subject matter and genres. He drew on eclectic sources for his content, blurred boundaries between genres, wandered in the streets like a dandy to observe the multiple hues, facets and complexity of modern life, and expressed modern sensibilities through hybrid genres. He even went to the extent of rejecting illustrious types of literature. Rejecting the literary canons of literature of the modern age, he said “Poets find the refuse of society on their street and derive their heroic subject from this very refuse. This means that a common type is, as it were, superimposed upon their illustrious type. … Ragpicker or poet – the refuse concerns both.”
The trouble with most – not all but most – of the authors and artists at literary festivals and art galleries is that they ride roughshod over the refuse of society, and superimpose their illustrious types in a very sanitised environment. That is why the demons in our Pandora’s box make a highly cultural activity irrelevant to the wretched of the earth. It is time to decentre the celebrated so that a new self, novel genres and more relevant literature can be created.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.