Thursday, May 29, 2008

A case for accountable judiciary

Reference: The report in The Tribune titled "PPSC Scam: HC reinstates 31 sacked judicial officers" dated 28/5/2008


The Punjab and Haryana High Court's orders reinstating the 31 judicial officers are surprising, particularly in view of the context elaborated in the news report. It is hoped that the Court will not allow any question mark to be raised over the appropriateness of the orders and will let the people learn, through the media, the logic and the details that have guided the reversal of its own committee's recommendations. This would reinforce the people's trust in the judiciary and also reaffirm the supremacy of the people in the democratic republic that is India.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

The Digital Future of Books

By L. GORDON CROVITZ

Link

New issue of bookforum.com

Articles include:

Voices Carry

THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN STORYTELLING TRADITION IS ON VIVID DISPLAY IN AN ANTHOLOGY FEATURING INTERVIEWS WITH FORMER SLAVES, AND THEIR DIARIES, LETTERS, AND MEMOIRS.

Link

Sunday, May 25, 2008

sentenced to be refreshed: a post-facto meditation

On Refresher Courses for Teachers


Digging into the foundational rationale of academic refresher courses, one may run into layers. There is the advertised layer, and then there are others.

The advertised layer can be sighted in statements of objectives: acquaintance with the latest developments in one's area of teaching; review of one's teaching practices; an opportunity to think laterally; re-motivation; etc.

Corrupted beyond recovery by excessive academic abuse, the word “refresh” has finally given up the ghost. The spirit has departed, and the letters hang dank and withered like leaves. The primary specific implication that as a teacher I need refreshing is simply too painful. It hurts vanity. Not that modesty is absent, but it sure isn't spilling over either.

Often, then, a refresher course is received as a paid holiday in a sanatorium, a time to doze and booze, with its compulsory regimen of indoctrination--the forced ingestion of a handful of ill-digested intellectual fads normally thrown up the moment the dispenser has turned his back. Only after you have attended a refresher course can you comprehend how seriously and chronically most teachers are afflicted by an obscure allergy to professional refreshing. And the nasty environment, getting nastier by the day, only aggravates the affliction.

At a recent course, one of my colleagues tearfully begged the course coordinator to be delivered from “this academitis”. The poor woman, who had just concluded her inspirational discourse on the virtues of academic refresher courses, smiled and smiled and looked utterly disconsolate. No one before had voiced his apprehensions about the course so prematurely and boorishly. It was inauspicious.

She nonetheless rose to the occasion like a veteran and peered into every abashed eye. With the silence that followed, an unholy alliance was negotiated, signed and sealed. All agreed to suffer together, to lend one another their shoulder to cry on. It would be a pure sacrifice, with no priest!

And so time began to drag. Superlative poverty of intellect and pedagogy moved arrogantly in a procession of overdone pageants. Mediocrity reigned supreme, to be officially archived as excellence. One decade of compulsory academic refresher courses has spawned a school of resource persons among whom the majority has been devoutly parroting the same discourses to consecutive groups of participants year after year. Even the introductory fumes and concluding whimpers are at times indistinguishable.

One retired professor, after gratefully suffering a prolonged introduction as “an internationally renowned authority on Shakespeare,” read out a paper that he claimed was his very recent work. During lunch, the participants put their heads together and mutually confirmed that he had made the same claim for the same paper one year before too and at different staff colleges. Another resource person, having taken it into his head that college teachers needed a diet of grammar, chirpily spent three hours reading clauses from a book and copying them on the blackboard. His marvelous resourcefulness was only surpassed a few days later by another who, giving cheaply tuneful readings from his shoddy translations of Shakespeare's sonnets, endeavored hard to elicit a few words of gushing praise from the ladies. What he achieved, instead, was clear universal disapproval, nay, disgust, so that in the following session he conveniently abandoned what he had set out to do and proceeded with an impromptu sermon on the contemporary meaning of dharma. In a shining display of metaphysical wit that must have dazzled the worm-eaten eye-holes of Dr. Johnson's corpse, he gravely described the Constitution as one of the sacred shastras and exhorted us to shape our lives in deference to this timeless book.

Not all persons, though, turn into muscle-flexing and foul-mouthed porters under the load of learning. Indeed, they become lighter and brighter. The best resource persons were clearly those who didn't derive their weight from the label of “resource person”, who didn't try to be seen as possessing any special knowledge but felt, like children feel, that they had found something exciting and ought to share it--a sense of discovery, an exploratory outlook, an aesthetic transaction, even a few moments of frank, honest conversation. They were, obviously, few; but they were the persons who could have got better audiences and yet had come to talk to us. They had not stooped to earn money, nor climbed atop a shaking pole to dance to someone's tune and shout down at others. And they did not ferociously defend their perceptions like poor fanatics who have nothing more to hang on to.

Unfortunately, even they showed little inclination to engage with the most pressing issues of living and teaching today. How easily the academic life castrates the intellect. Intellectual adulthood gets reduced to sucking the confectionery of shoplifted theories and licking the walls of ivory towers. They will cheerfully discuss the techniques of teaching language and literature, but they are not prepared to question whether what we do in the classrooms makes much sense and whether what we are doing is really the best we can among our students. It is a dreadful barrenness; questions are simply not being conceived.

Ideally, colleges should be the places where we can bring together what we have learnt from teaching in the classrooms and then find out what best we can do in order to help the students do their best. With the expertise and the fruits of research made available by the resource persons, we can attempt to devise better educational practices. What happens, instead, is that the refresher courses are reduced to sentences to be undergone in order to earn a promotion in grades. Non-monetary benefits are extremely rare and derive strictly from personal transmission on the one end and receptivity on the other.

But then, even a prison sentence has its lessons provided one will suffer to read it deviantly.

By a fair estimate, the refresher courses for college and university teachers in India consume Rs. 100 million annually. Since the institution has entrenched itself into the system that survives chiefly on inertia, there is no evidence of any inclination to examine either its efficiency or its usefulness. Information technology, for instance, finds no place in the training equipment of academic staff colleges. Two or four courses in a teacher's career that spans three or four decades should invite ridicule in an era when work normally requires continual re-skilling. It would be better, therefore, if these colleges are restructured and transformed into Virtual Centres for knowledge-sourcing, research, pedagogical training, creative work, academic exchange, and peer interaction and evaluation. In place of the occasional ritual of refreshing, a properly functioning system of self-driven academic training, exchange and knowledge creation can be put in place much more affordably. The consequent arrangement will be far more useful, efficient, responsive, and engaging.


Rajesh Kumar Sharma
(from Archives 2001)
Published in Spark-Online

-----

The Performers

A baby hand, grubby and dusty, popped from the left the moment I opened the lunch box.

The train was pulling out of the Ludhiana railway station after a five-minute halt. The sun, a mildewed orange peel, was going down behind the dust and smoke of the industrial city. The train had been late, and I had not eaten anything since breakfast. All around me people were eating, and their sight had quietly disturbed my hunger.

Without turning my head, I rolled my eyes to the left. The little boy took two steps and stood before me. He was four or five years old, and was wearing the oversized rags of charity, the pants held up with a cord. His palm was stretched for begging in an easy, accustomed gesture. Red and green streaks ran across the grimy face: someone had obviously tried to paint colorful mustache and whiskers to make that face fascinating and, perhaps, adult. But the colors had got overwritten and almost lost under the grime.

He wants a portion of my meal, I thought, for in his other hand he was already holding a chapati.

I find it very uncomfortable having to eat my meals in a train. The dirty little child, with his dirty little hands begging for food, the sight froze me with a vague embarrassment and indecision. Before I could react to his sudden appearance, he had vanished into the crowd, perhaps drawn by better hope.

Half an hour later, he reappeared. This time he carried a small ring, made of hard steel wire, and was accompanied by a girl, about ten years of age, who had very short hair and carried, under the right arm, a small drum.

She settled down on the floor of the passage and began to beat the drum. The little boy struck a few poses and then broke into a dance. He danced in rhythm but not to the beat of the drum. An entirely subjective rhythm, sealed, and inaccessible to spectators.

The passengers in the train were an assorted lot. A young man promptly established a cordial eye contact with me and smiled, as if to express his appreciation of the absurdity of the children’s theatre. The Indian classical dances are all rooted in drama, in acting, abhinaya – as it is termed in Sanskrit. In Kathakali, the famous dance of Kerala, the dancers paint their faces in symbolic colors to enact characters from the epics. Red and green are among the colors they put on faces.

But the dance was a mere prelude. The little boy soon began the acrobatics, twisting his tender body into knots and passing, in different styles, through the steel ring. The girl, meanwhile, continued to beat the drum, with no change in rhythm, no break, uniformly, mechanically, without a speck of interest. Her eyes were looking at nothing, not even at her artiste companion, who was probably her brother. The boy too, I noticed now, was not looking at anybody. One couldn’t tell what their eyes were seeing, because they seemed to be looking at nothing.

When the performance ended, the girl stood up and leaned against a seat back, and continued her objectless gazing. Perhaps she was gazing beyond space into pure time, an act impossible for me to comprehend and mimic because I have a location, a station, whereas she lived between the stations, going from nowhere, to nowhere, lived only in time, without space, and survived only on time.

The baby-hand boy held out his half-open palm again, clutching a few coins with three fingers in an attempt to persuade the spectators of his performance to pay for his art and labor. He presently received two coins.

Then he went and stood before the young man who had smiled to me. He and his friends began to laugh to see the little boy spreading his hand before them. They told him to go away. But he stood there, mute, and immobile. They kept laughing, and he waiting, until sleep overpowered him and closed his dirty little eyes. And then he swayed in sleep, like a ship tossing, and that really disturbed the young men who didn’t want any contact with dirt. They shouted, angrily and loud.

But even that didn’t break the tired artiste’s sleep. He didn’t move a step.

Until his sister dragged him away, for another show.



Rajesh Kumar Sharma
(from Archives 2002)
Published in Brevity

On Gubhagat Singh's "Love, Divine Love, Love Infinite"

Comment on Gurbhagat Singh’s “Love, Divine Love, Love Infinite” (Published in the Punjabi Tribune of May 18)


Gurbhagat Singh’s article ends with strong words for “the so-called intellectuals of Punjab”. They are mute witnesses, he says, to the erosion of love which has been the defining and life-sustaining ideal of their culture. He obviously feels deeply for Punjabi culture that he thinks has been let down by its “intellectuals”. That he desires them to play a more interventionist role is more than evident. What is not so evident, however, is that he takes the possibility and efficacy of intellectual intervention rather unproblematically at a time when, for various reasons, no serious thinker is inclined to take such intervention for granted. We are no longer in the kind of world that Sartre inhabited; intervention today often risks sliding into a political-cultural commodity. Another thing that is not evident in his castigation, because it is implied, is that he has a certain firm picture of the correct Punjabi intellectual and that he identifies himself quite sincerely with that picture.

Such preliminary considerations apart, there are other, more troubling aspects to his argument and method. His opening declaration that every culture essentially evolves and revolves around a single predominant sign begs the more fundamental question of whose verdict will decide which sign is the sign of a given culture. Any demagogue or self-proclaimed intellectual with a dash of political ambition would aspire to sell his particular sign as the defining sign of the culture. Moreover, the very notion of a single-sign dominated culture is an imperialist, closed and totalitarian notion.

Intellectual engagement with matters of culture has to be conducted in an open and liberal spirit. It cannot afford to be like the ardent but naive commitment of school children to their respective positions in a debate. It must not operate at the level of ‘mine is better than yours because it is mine’. Can the innumerable sublime expressions of love in several cultures of the world be ignored just to inflate one’s cultural superiority complex? Homer, Dante, Kalidas, Shakespeare, Rilke, Tugenev, Dostoyevsky, Emile Bronte, Michelangelo, Browning, Ghalib, Nirala, Prasad, Llosa, Marquez . . . the history of literature and the arts is filled with uncountable instances that can only be denied out of a fanatical zeal for what is narrowly thought to be “one’s own”. These instances can escape notice only if one chooses not to acknowledge their existence or if one is deluded enough to think that the world will see just as much as he tells it to see. It is one thing to cite the priest of otherness Levinas to make a point but it is quite another to conduct oneself in the light of his insights. How can one invoke his supreme ethical authority that is founded on unbounded respect for the other and, in the same breath, state that one’s own culture is the greatest? What sort of openness and respect for the other is it?

It hardly need stating that serious intellectual engagement always shies away from pleasant and self-flattering speculation. To ascribe a so-called unique intensity of the passion of love to some putative genes in the Punjabis is the worst havoc that can be committed upon the modern intellectual landscape of the world. The vacuous but dangerous notion of some gene-based special faculty fed the racist death factories of the Nazis not very long ago. What confounds Gurbhagat Singh’s attempt even further is the praise he lavishes upon the Punjabis for having “achieved” this “genetic faculty”. Even if, for a moment, we presume it to be “genetic”, can the Punjabis be congratulated for it? To do so would mean that they can be given the credit for having consciously cultivated it. Have they done it in some underground eugenic laboratories? One should curb the tendency to such speculation in view of what the world has suffered at the hands of various kinds of fascism. The Punjabis in particular can ill afford to indulge in such speculation.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Zizek on democracy

from Democracy Now

1. “Everybody in the World Except US Citizens Should Be Allowed to Vote and Elect the American Government” - World Renowned Philosopher Slavoj Žižek

Read/listen/view Part 1 here


2. Zizek on the Iraq War, the Bush Presidency, the War on Terror & More

Part two of a ranging discussion with Slavoj Zizek, the philosopher, psychoanalyst and cultural theorist. He has been called the “Elvis of cultural theory” and is widely considered to be one of Europe’s leading intellectuals. He has written more than fifty books and speaks to sold-out audiences around the world.

Read/listen/view Part 2 here

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Possibilities of intellectual engagement, since Sartre

Another issue of Reconstruction is out.

"What is the opposite of bullshit?" Possibilities of intellectual engagement, since Sartre: An interview with Bill Martin / Joseph G. Ramsey

Read the interview here:
Reconstruction 8.1 (2008)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

How to Write about Africa


Shreya Bhattacharji recommends a wonderful essay, published in Granta, by Binyavanga Wainaina.

Always use the word 'Africa' or 'Darkness' or 'Safari' in your title. Subtitles may include the words 'Zanzibar', 'Masai', 'Zulu', 'Zambezi', 'Congo', 'Nile', 'Big', 'Sky', 'Shadow', 'Drum', 'Sun' or 'Bygone'. Also useful are words such as 'Guerrillas', 'Timeless', 'Primordial' and 'Tribal'. Note that 'People' means Africans who are not black, while 'The People' means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were . . . .

Read the essay

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Wisdom for All Time

Some Random Thoughts


Prachya – Manisha – Gaveshana – Mandiram is the answer for the annoying and urgent question, ‘Is our culture dying?’ In the course of this talk it would be my endeavour to engage your attention on certain eternal verities relevant to man’s life and man’s conduct in real life. The expectations about Man and the ground realities, the contemporary actuality around, would naturally cause turbulence in those of us who believe that life is not mere pleasure, still less an opportunity to make money. The name of this association of thoughtful, benevolent intellectuals needs explanation for those who do not have ease in understanding the Devbhasha, Sanskrit. A number of inquiries can be instituted into the oriental wisdom down the ages in various fields and in diverse depths of detail. This is a temple of quest for the understanding of oriental wisdom, manas, heart-mind-intellect. Talking about and thinking about eternal verities will surely gives us valuable insights. We are fortunate in that our ancients left us wonderful treasures that could show us the way to meaningful living and save us from anguish, uncertainty, doubt and indecision.

Eternal verities are universal truths, which have a fundamental purport. No matter what the country or what the period of time, these are truths for all time. These may relate to the nature of the world, man’s conduct and behaviour and so. These may relate to physical nature or human nature, ethics, aspirations, goals and so on. These may relate to morality, human conduct and behaviour.

Let us take the eternal verity propounded by the upanishad: ‘brahma satyam, jagat midhya’. Can this mahavaakya be false. No, certainly not. The Upanishad was saying this in the context of explaining the universe and the universal reality. But we often say that life is real, suffering is real. The resolution to the problem is simple. Utterances exist in contexts. In the context of discussing brahma, brahmapaaardha, the Supreme Being and so on, in metaphysical speculation, we are convinced that jagat is midhya. We also have to agree in the verity jaatasya maraNam dhruvam or parOpakaaraya punyaaya paapaaya para peeDanam. These eternal verities, universal truths are truths for all time with no way to controvert. We cannot be idle and cease activity on the count of inconsequence saying that jagat is midhya.

Life is real, relatively as per our limited human understanding, in the sense that we are living it, experiencing, doing things, feeling happy or hungry, so on and so forth. But we, above that stage of avidya, do not say that life is mere birth, copulation and death. The poet said this in a mood of disillusionment and there are times we too fall in dejection. Precisely at this point we should seek the counsel of our ancients and find some kind of solace from their observations, statements, injunctions and caveats and sage counsel.

Birth, copulation and Death are partial truths of life. They are not the whole truth. The sign of life is not mere breathing. Life has a purpose and a goal and our ancient wisdom has been telling us that there is rebirth and a life after death. Our religion asks us to try to establish contact with the ultimate reality as per our own wish, desire, thirst or what you will.

There are physical realities. Nature, our earth, the other planets, the universe and the brahmand of our scriptures are aspects of eternal physical reality. What is Man’s place in this universe? What is Man’s importance on this earth, in this world? What is his destiny? Is there a purpose in human life? The thinking man has been addressing these questions right from the Vedic age. The great minds have revealed to us aspects of the absolute reality.

The great physicist Sir James Jeans wrote about the world, our home in space. Just imagine a huge cathedral, or the fabulous palace of a king. Put three grains of sand in the huge building. The building is less closely packed with the sand than this universe with planets, stars and worlds. The earth is a tiny particle in the universe and Man in the worlds is not any the more significant.

At the same time, Man is a unique creation and he has thinking capacity and a host of other qualities which other beings (those we know) do not have. Contrast man’s ideals and aspirations with the goals that people around are pursuing in the contemporary reality. Not that we do not know that life has a purpose. We have become more rational, more objective, and more open-minded, more understanding and more materialistic too. The contemporary actuality does not need to be explained at any length.

Knowledge has been expanding at very great speed. As Alvin Toffler wrote in his Third Wave nearly thirty years ago scientific discoveries and inventions are growing and expanding in geometric progression. The branches of knowledge have grown beyond recognition. Specialization is becoming more and more sharply focussed on minute aspects. But the sad reality is that man does not seem to have grown any the wiser. Wisdom is given a back seat. While according to knowledgeable minds scientific progress is doubling every fifty years, wisdom seems to taking strides backward threatening man’s very existence. Siddhi, accomplishment is the watchword. Shuddhi., purity is not paid any attention. Great minds like Thoreau (1848), Vivekananda (1900) Vivekananda (1900) Gandhi (1945), Sorokin (1948) and are only fashionable names to be tossed in quotations to impress.

In this scenario, groups of enlightened minds and thinking people are at work: witness the culture and heritage oriented TV channels like Samskar, Aaastha etc. Unfortunately, even those have to resort to accepting advertisements to sustain themselves. With a positive note that they would find sponsors with no business interests let us quickly remind ourselves of three sacred seers and their declarations of some eternal verities. First, Sage Veda Vyasa, who was participant of the action in the Mahaaitihas, the grand epic the Mahabharat, Adi Sankara and Trailingaswamy, in the chronological order.

Maharishi Vedavyas belonged probably to the 5th millennium BC. In the grand narrative, during the days of Aranyavas of the righteous Pandavas there was an episode where Yamadharma Raja himself in the guise of a Yaksha poses some questions to Dharmaraja, with the promise that he would be allowed to drink of his pond. This is really a test and the questions are related to creation, dharma, righteous life, human nature, insight into ideal human relations and so on. Dharmaja answered all the seventy-two questions to the satisfaction of the Yaksha, who out of joy brings all the four brothers of the wise, righteous man back to life. Here is a sampler of the questions and the answers, which encapsulate eternal verities, valid for all time.

What does really help man?

Dharma.

What the greatest among dharmas?

Ahimsa.

What is the path to heaven?

Truth.

What is jnaana?

Ability to discriminate, distinguish good and evil.

What envelops the whole world?

Ignorance, ajnaana.

What is ahamkara, ego sense?

Ignorance, ajnaana.

Which is the most surprising thing?

Seeing death everyday and still thinking of one’s own permanence.

Who is a sthithaprajna?

The one who considers all dualities the same, the one contented, the one who conquers the six enemies, the one steadfast never losing his cool.

Adi Sankara of the 9th Century wrote Prasnottari Mani Maala, where he asked questions and answered them himself for the benefit of the devout. Here is a sampler:

Who is in bondage?

Those attracted to vishayas, things, the sense attractions.

What is called liberation, mukti?

Dispassion, vairagya towards vishayas.

Which the most horrible hell?

This human body itself.

What is said to be the reason for liberation, moksha kaaraNa?

Seklf-knowledge. atmajnaana, realization of the self.

Who are true enemies?

One’s own senses, If these are conquered, they would be friends.

Who is the blindest?

The one tossed by lust.

What is death?

One’s own infamy or, disrepute.

Which is the malady right from the beginning?

Samsara, the world and also the birth cycle, which leads to being born again and again.

Which is more poisonous than poison?

Attraction and slavery to vishayas, sense attractions.

Which is the biggest enemy?

Desire coupled with anger, untruth, greed.

By destroying what does one get liberation?

Manas.

Mahatma Trailinga Swami (1607-1887) answered his disciple’s queries with genuine love for all. These are very pithy sayings, saarOktulu replete with the essence of deep insights and understanding inspired by the Supreme Being we call Eshwar. Here is a sampler:

Shishya: What is the most horrible naraka?

Guru: Our body.

Shishya: Where is swarga?

Guru: This very earth is swarga, if desires die.

Shishya: How can the earthly bond be severed?

Guru: By attaining aatmajnaana.

Shishya: What would give mukti?

Guru: Aatmajnaana.

Shishya: What is the way for the attainment of swarga?

Guru: Ahimsa, non-violence.

Shishya: Who is the enemy of Man?

Guru: His own senses.

Shishya: Who is the blind one?

Guru: The one ravaged by lust.

Shishya: What is Death?

Guru: Infamy or disrepute is Death. Man is immortal.

Sishya: Who is buddhiman? (The wise one)

Guru: The one who does not give in to lust.

Shishya: What is meant by manovinaasana? (Destroying the manas)

Guru: Moksha, salvation.

Shishya: How do we have any belief in a thing, which we do not see?

Guru: As we believe in the air and fragrance even though we do not see them.

The statements of all the three seers/sadhakas/visionaries relate to the Supreme Being, universal truths relating man’s life, his conduct and things worth pursuing, contemplating and practising. The three visionaries separated by vast stretches of time asseverated the same things again and again as the essence of wisdom. These are exempt from punarukti dosha just as in the case of sankeertan and repeating God’s name.

Tailpiece: Let me add as a tailpiece to my talk Indic Indic, call it Hindu, our culture survived all kinds of onslaughts internal or external. It will survive. The eternal verities have relevance for all time. At the individual level, (not as a great movement) everyone should turn the searchlight inward. Rising above the money-driven activities which are killing the human personality, each should aspire and endeavour for personality development and strive for a value oriented and principle-governed, god loving society in one’s own way.


(The basic text of a talk delivered in Delhi)

V.V.B. Rama Rao

Email: vvbramarao@yahoo.com

vadapalli.ramarao@gmail.com

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Politics of the Spectacle

Reason Retreats as Images Invade the Political Arena

Democratic politics is essentially the politics of rational discourse in which language, thought and persuasion play key roles. At least that is what we have so far tended to believe. But the ongoing political battle for assembly elections in Punjab appears set to change our notions of democratic politics fundamentally and for ever.

It is not that the theatre of politics has moved unprecedentedly and dangerously away from reason and towards emotion. That would be retelling an old story. Emotion has always been an indispensable appendage of democratic politics, whether for good or for bad. What is new is the rise to predominance of affect vis-à-vis reason and emotion, which can shift politics on to an entirely different ground. What is most disturbing is that on this ground the rules of democratic politics as a rational discourse do not seem to apply.

When reason has to contend with emotion, it has at least a rival. That is why it not only survives but even flourishes. Affect, however, preempts reason because its appeal is sub-rational. In the prevailing culture of the spectacle, it finds a particularly conducive environment to flourish because the images can bypass reason to speak directly to the senses. In a culture of the spectacle, we are everywhere surrounded by images which solicit us nonstop. Words are pared down to mere letters and numbers to reduce communication to a transmission of images and symbols: look at the practice of using SMSs and instant messaging. Images usurp the space of reading, listening and reflection. You do not say but show. Not that the images are anything new. What is new is that there are too many of them, in too quick a succession, and the succession is quite a jumble. In the good old days the image was an extension of speech. Now it is a substitute.

It is the rational foundations of democratic exchange that carry in them the promise of freedom, justice and a better world for everyone. And reason survives on reflection. Images, on the contrary, derive their force from immediacy. In a mediatized culture, they wield tremendous power to seduce people with their raw, sensory urgency. Hence the transformation of politics in our times, when politics comes to resemble cinematic fantasy. Indeed the distinction between politics and entertainment can be no longer sustained on the other side of the line either, as films like Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Rang De Basanti and now Guru exemplify. Politics minus memory and context is the best current recipe for instant entertainment. Ideologically drained and historically empty, such compromised cinematic narratives perhaps announce the arrival of an ironic postmodernist patriotism.

It is not a mere coincidence that both politics and cinema should have discovered the force of the visual impact only at this particular historical juncture: India is staking its claim to the status of an emerging global superpower while seeking, ironically, a frictionless integration into the global order. From the viewpoint of global capital however, real histories and people are the most stubborn impediments in the way of integration. Since democracy forbids overriding them, technology would help capital find ways to make them effectively disappear.

And people and histories do effectively disappear in a culture of the spectacle, even though the superficial impression may be to the contrary. Images as stereotyped representations increasingly replace real people and real histories. The process involves what can only be called a high-tech primitivism: a mix of high technology and primitivist appeal to affects. But it also means the destruction of the whole legacy of rational dialogue on which democracies have historically grown.

It is not often noticed that the recent empowerment of the visual in Indian cinema has come at the cost of the narrative which has suffered a proportional disenfranchisement. This illustrates the direction and motivation of the change that is sweeping through the world. The tendency of the change, clearly, is to marginalize reflection and memory in favour of pre-reflective, affective impact. This is as true of politics as it is of cinema. When the interests of democracy as a rationally engaged community conflict with those of global capital, affective impact can short-circuit democratic reason and carry the day for capital. The short-circuiting is a high-speed operation and relies, appropriately, on powerful media technologies. These technologies include real-time communication, extreme close-up, assembled ‘reality’ and invisible spatio-temporal disjunction. Repetitive and artificially abrupt use of the affective impact delivered through images preempts the use of reason. The insidious triumph passes off silently and uncelebrated. And expectedly so.

The point is we need to understand the current obsession of political parties with images in the wider context of the history of the global present. This obsession seems to have reached pathological proportions in the alleged acts of computer-aided simulation and morphing, but it is more than pathological. It is also the displaced symptom of a grave threat that emerges unsuspected and looms over democracy.

We can try to locate this threat with the help of a typical photograph that most newspapers and websites carry these days when reporting on the electoral juggernaut. It is the photograph of a political rally. The leaders are sitting on a high podium, their heads turned back, their eyes looking into the camera, and the audience looking at the leaders posing for the picture. The audience is all eyes, a strange audience of pure spectators, with hearing and speech suspended. Between the audience (which is far off and below) and the high podium, there are still more cameras. The leaders are thus, essentially, perched between cameras on either side, with the audience providing only the background, whether visible or not. Anyone who looked at the photograph with a sense of wonder (like someone from another world) would only conclude that the whole show is by the leaders and for the cameras. The people are there just as a necessary nuisance or prop, a crowd that has rallied to see a movie being shot. The real scene of action is the taking of the picture. In other words, the real transaction is between the leaders and the media.

The truth, however, lies somewhere between the utter absurdity of the situation described above and our knowledge of the real demographics of political rallies these days. We would be fooling ourselves if we compared these rallies with those organized by people around the world against America’s attack on Iraq, or with those which took place before and after the imposition of Emergency in India. The rallies today are manufactured shows, consisting mostly of party workers and paid crowds. It is doubtful if anyone goes to really listen to the speeches of leaders and to choose the right party and candidate to vote for.

The truth probably is that these rallies are no more than dead relics of a bygone politics in which public exchange of opinions and judgements used to matter. Instead they have become photo-ops for feeding the media, which then will prepare its pre-electoral verdict with the help of media-savvy psephologists (who will inevitably go wrong). It is as if democracy has left the polis and settled down in the studio, to be touched now and then with Photoshop. At its heart there is a hole, indicating the exit of real, flesh-and-blood people, of the kind who consume a pesticide and die. They are the people who have ironically understood their dehumanization, their transformation into pests. But democracy, strangely, does not understand what they have understood.

What we are heading towards is not better democracy but simulated democracy. In this scenario, the only way to protect a politics of the people might be to take politics back to those sites where sustained rational discussion can still take place among people themselves, and not merely among their self-styled media representatives. These would be the micro-sites of mohallas and bazaars, of dhabas and tea-shops, of nukkads and chaupals, of tubewells, and of shops, offices and factories. And this should be done by people themselves.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

(from Archives 2007. Written after the 2007 State Elections in Punjab))

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Three Poems

By V V B Rama Rao


Threadbare


'Your eyes are deceitful-playful'

You'd say looking beyond-through,

Twirling the buttons on my heart contentedly.

Blessed is the shirt-front:

The prized possession I take out ever now and then

Smelling in mind youthful memories tingling fresh

-How'd a male ever sound the depths?

Between the act and the heart fathoms differ

The lecher's pinch is more suffered than desired

Love knows only giving:

A flower holy offered in surrender.

Didn't the devil possess me:

'You'd come for childbirth, don' you?'

Squirming in compunction

I refresh scorching memories for my redemption.

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Three Jeers


Three jeers for Demonocracy

One for fabulous promises of those in power

One for the money-spinning ruses of haves

and

One from those, seething below the poverty line!


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Gleeful



Imagining leads to intuiting:

Thinking leads to penning.

Men and women, adults and adolescents
Wish to pour out

Joys and sorrows travail and triumphs.

Who'd convey musings feeling whims and secrets?

All prayed to Goddess Saraswati, the Sacred Muse

All do not include the sundry

All include not merely the believers

Include the serious wishers, yearners too.

Who said Gods bless only the believers

The unbelieving are held dear by God!

Deities and Powers in unison said:

"LET THERE BE WEB-SITES!"

Here we are.

You, He, She and, of course, "me"

The site is a gift for all!

Email: vadapalli.ramarao@gmail.com

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Technology, Capitalism and the (Im)possibility of Literature


The Hypertechnological Moment

Having left the technological age behind, we have been in the hypertechnological moment for quite some time now.

The need to characterize the present as a moment arises from the situation produced by the impact on temporality of recent developments in information and communication technologies. The instantaneity of communications today alters the experience of temporality in a way that renders obsolete the terminology of ages and periods. The sense of the passage of time wears away as the tempo of experience crosses the barrier beyond which the experience of time ceases to register as a passage. As Paul Virilio argues, the present becomes, in its global “amplification”, a time bomb that drains the past and the future of their temporalities, leaving us trapped in its own eternity as “the time of an endless perpetuation of the present” (133-34; 143).

With the hypertechnological moment superceding the technological age, history seems, at least for now, to have ended. It may be reborn once we have reconfigured ourselves, by equipping ourselves with a faster tempo, to match the new temporality.

The hypertechnological moment can be said to have arrived when technology becomes ostensibly self-driven, self-accelerating and self-justifying and when it becomes progressively indistinguishable from culture. It begins to pervasively infiltrate culture even as it sucks culture into itself. The distinction that Heidegger famously made between technology and the technological mode of being may, then, have already begun to vanish under the pressure of speed as life, in live interface with technology, comes increasingly to happen, instead of being lived in the space-time of reflexive experience.

The hypertechnological moment is, thus, a bizarre realization of Kierkegaard’s aesthetic sphere as the ideologically (informationally) induced universal condition of a perpetual, “general accident” that pre-empts reflection and perspective by means of sheer speed (Virilio 70; 125). So fast does one technological object replace another in a false infinity of choices that despair is permanently aborted as if by default and the possibility of entry into the ethical sphere blocked. Heidegger fondly hoped that the human being would reaffirm, in the darkly seductive face of technology, his obligation to preserve Being, but he probably did not anticipate the powerful nexus between capitalism and technology in which Being soon after his lifetime would be shrouded.


Capitalism and Informationalism

Hypertechnology is not just the next phase after technology. It emerges from the imperatives of what Felix Guattari calls the Integrated World Capitalism (IWC), which both feeds and is fed by high-speed networks of information processing and transmission (Guattari 31; 47). IWC is not post-ideological. Neither does information replace ideology under it. Its ideology is informationalism. As ideology and practice, informationalism can barely conceal its two-way umbilical link with the IWC, though it has a tendency to conceal the character of information as a product and to silently further the capitalist project of economicization of culture through digitization. By means of digitization, cultural objects (to which culture is now reduced for the convenience of economistic classification) are transformed into digital data to be fed into the technological matrix for informationalization.

It is not being argued that in the past culture and technology must have been ideally and happily distinguishable but have only now become indistinguishable. The point is only to understand the present by using the past as a point of reference. We need to grasp the implications of the fact that in the present moment the technological appropriation of culture has been uncontrollably exacerbated under the global information regime of the IWC which carries out a massive commodification of culture by technologically over-writing the conventional boundaries between culture and economy.

Deeply implicated in this process are the new media that constitute a synthetic parallel ecology in which we find literature and subjectivity getting increasingly caught. The new media are in an advanced stage of reterritorializing culture in an act of absolute imperialism. This imperialism, however, confronts its greatest challenge in the defiant nexus of literature and subjectivity. Since these two are among the last outposts of resistance to the capitalist logic of usability/disposability, threatening that logic with destabilization and subversion, capitalism cannot but engage them in order to reconfigure them for its purposes. Under the global information regime, this engagement has so far appeared mainly as the attempt to informationalize literature and subjectivity. There really are people who seriously look at literature as data and explore the possibility of moving on from a theory of archetypes to a theory of algorithms. And just as there are companies (run, ironically, by real people) that treat people as data, there are ‘futuristically-oriented’ cognitive scientists who hope to one day download consciousness in a disk drive.

The phrase ‘digital humanities’ hits you therefore, if you have not already begun to accept it out of dead habit, with a ring of monstrosity which arises from its apparently inbuilt contradiction. Indeed, departments of the humanities in universities around the world have been taking the digital turn with an ease that astonishes even those in the so-called hard sciences who thought these departments were home to dinosaurs only. The optimism seems to come from the immense proliferation of writing which the switch-over from the print to the digital technologies has entailed. But the proliferation may not really be something to celebrate if one considers the possibility it has opened up of the unlimited dispersion of literature into generalized writing. On the one hand, there is the war on the literary canon being waged from several directions. On the other, technology has liberated the text from the charmed confines of the written word, forcing us to cultivate transliteracies, or literacies “across several media” (Thomas). Together these developments have facilitated the proliferation of writing to a point where we witness the rise of excessively narcissistic humanism in which writing as self-expression, self-projection and self-advertisement threatens to eclipse writing as literature. The result is we face a situation in which there are new impediments in the way of redeeming the promise of literature, whether that promise is seen – as Sartre does, regarding literature as “the subjectivity of a society in permanent revolution” – as that of action and resistance (122; 183; 224), or – as Blanchot does – as that of the writer’s disappearance into writing:

The work requires of the writer that he lose everything he might construe as his own “nature”, that he lose all character and that, ceasing to be linked to others and to himself by the decision which makes him an “I,” he becomes the empty space where the impersonal affirmation emerges (55).

In the free-for–all of cyberspace, when all acts of writing and uploading come to be seen as acts of resistance, resistance is divested of its political specificity and power. Likewise, narcissistic humanism can preempt what Blanchot sees as writing’s extreme demand that is the signature of literature’s infinite solitude and also of its singularity.


The Will to Informationalize and the Resistance to It

But literature and subjectivity are neither disposable nor strictly usable. And they are irreducible to information. Any attempts to informationalize them must necessarily leave a residue, or produce a surplus, that can be tentatively signified only in its singularity. This residue, or surplus, refuses to inhabit the IWC’s synthetic ecology as just one more bit or node in the global information network and so preserves the possibilities of resistance to capitalism’s global hyper-techno-logic. Against the homogenizing hegemony of capitalist globality, it pits irreducible singularities.

This is the reason it is important to understand the position of literature and subjectivity in relation to the new media ecology, even though the excessive transitional fluidity of the present moment does not so much permit the certitude of answers as calls for the radical uncertainty of a growing and nurtured problematization.


Literature and the Fourth Ecology

The term new media ecology is being used here to indicate the emergence, in recent years, of an electronic ecology in the form of the new media of information and communication technologies that treat real objects as potential digital data to be reapproapriated as information. This ecology effectively appears as an alternative and virtual environment-as-home (‘eco’ comes from the Greek öikos for home) into which the subject is being increasingly integrated as an inhabitant-component. The paradoxical (non-)manifestation of this ecology is the cyberspace. The new media are new in relation to the older media such as the TV and the radio insofar as they are not passive but interactive, immersive, networked and decentred, and employ convergence technologies (which allow them to be described as the multimedia). They are new, moreover, in terms of their perpetual self-renewal which is driven by the capitalist-technological requirements of constant upgradation in the face of competitive obsolescence.

By subjectivity is denoted the dynamic configuration of the narrative of the self. As a concept, subjectivity performs a permanent spatio-temporal displacing of the transcendentalist self of the Cartesian rationality and foregrounds the self’s structural vulnerability as much as its agential open-endedness.

There are reasons to posit a “fourth ecology” to add to the three identified by Guattari, namely the environmental, the mental and the social (52-60). Guattari recognizes the tremendous but subtly operative force of the mass media but only as an instrument of the IWC, whereas the new media, while increasingly assimilating and refashioning the older mass media, are peculiar in that they perform the ultimate vanishing trick: they disappear by transforming themselves into the synthetic ecology that envelops the subject as an invisible electronic haze that both mediates and obfuscates through informationalization.

It is interesting, therefore, that the new media should have a tendency to convey only the positive impression of democratic empowerment on account of their interactive functionality. The impression is not altogether illusory but it has to be seen against the cultural, psycho-analytical and deep-political implications of immersion, particularly of simulation, which the convergence technologies produce and which they aim to progressively refine to the point of the indistinguishability of simulation from reality. With digital simulation advancing rapidly to envelop the entire cultural spectrum, verbal as well as non-verbal, the space of culture outside technology is set to progressively diminish to the point where it all but disappears. One probable consequence is that it would render an authentic critique of the hyper-technological culture impossible. Another, and more serious, is that the symbolic cultural environment would be rewritten, or effectively replaced, by the ‘virtual’ electronic environment which would lack the materiality, heterogeneity and humanity of the symbolic environment that has been replaced. The substitution of “materiality” (matter/mater) with digitality is profoundly menacing in that it would be, like so much else, irreversible: humankind is not known to have ever gone back technologically to an earlier period of its history. But there is an even darker question to ponder in this scenario, the question of the constitution of subjectivity in a digitally simulated symbolic. Would it not be a hyper-subjectivity? What would be its nature, if it has any? That this is not merely a hypothetical possibility is evident from the recent appearance of a pathological condition, euphemistically known as the Alternate World Syndrome (AWS), which afflicts large numbers of the victims of Internet Addiction Syndrome (IAD) – the extremely heavy users of ICTs – and is characterized by a hallucinatory state of disconnect from reality induced by prolonged plugging into cyberspace.

The new media are known to be addictive and have, moreover, a tendency to integrate the user/subject into their network. From the wired human being, to the one using blue-tooth technology, to still another who has chips implanted under the skin and plugged into the nervous system, you can see progressive integration of the human being into the electronic information network. The integration proclaims the arrival of the posthuman. Although posthumanism has been both welcomed and condemned, the issues it raises for the fate of subjectivity are too pressing to be set aside for the consideration of future generations. Of these, the principal issue is of confronting the ambivalence of the posthuman so that its implications may be comprehended and the consequences anticipated as far as possible. The neurobiological prostheses that expand the human mind and body may be empowering and emancipatory in many respects but they also signify a higher level of complexity in what Heidegger calls technology’s “enframing” of the human as they rewire the human from the inside (324). Genetic engineering, nanotechnology and cybernetics today represent the frontline technologies operating to re-define, and reify, the human.

Since literature (as we know it) and subjectivity (as we have begun to understand it) are locked in an inevitable relationship, what kind of writing can be foreseen as coming from the posthuman? Would it still include literature (if we care to remember the historical origins of the discursive category called ‘literature’ in humanism, particularly in Western liberal humanism)? We cannot but grant that technological intervention in the form of the new media shall have far-reaching implications for both subjectivity and literature. Already it has not only shattered practically all our received ideas of literature but has also compelled us to confront afresh the question of the possibility as well as the possibilities of literature in the world.


Literature, the New Media and Generalized Writing

The new media, for instance, alter the associations of the literary by relocating literature among a far larger set of cultural phenomena by using the technologies of convergence. These various phenomena come together and compete for our attention on computer terminals and elsewhere. In some instances, literature in cyberspace sheds its exclusive reliance on the verbal arts and integrates the auditory and the visual, rendering the boundaries between the arts and literature ever more indistinct. Flash poetry and fiction are examples of such post-print and post-literary writing. In fact, the presence of the new media has become so commanding today that one has to consider literature in terms also of "remediation" and "premediation" (Grusin). Literature’s passage through the new media, after it has been delivered in the medium of print, runs both ways: forwards as well as backwards. While many literary works are remediated by being recast through the media, not a few anticipate the rites of their passage through the media and hence come into the world premeditated. In the contemporary publishing economy, literary works do sometimes get “done” in such a way as to ensure their reproduction as games, films and TV programmes.

It is in the context of such relocation and reconstitution of the literary that one may consider the diffusion of the literary into “writing” which cyberspace in particular has unleashed. The enormous and yet exponentially growing and diverse writing in cyberspace confers a strange new meaning upon the signifier ‘text’. All writing, including literature, becomes text. Every sign becomes writing. But then, it is writing as digital code. Derrida’s pronouncement (“There is nothing outside the text”) become prophetic again as it re-stirs into life in the digital world of the hypertext and more.

The profusion of writing, the looming dispersion of literature into writing, the reappropriation of writing as digital code: the process disintegrates the canon(s), but it also compels literature to rethink its singularity. Indeed, the arrival/dispersal of literature in cyberspace traces a circular-with-a-twist itinerary: from the ancient Greek drama performed for communities of spectators, literature journeys through printed books intended for the pleasure of solitary reading to reach the computer terminals to be experienced “virtually” in simulation. The spectatorial returns as the spectral. The position of literature in relation to the new media ecology is, thus, not simply a matter of its disembedding from the tradition of print culture and re-embedding in cyberculture, but of the reconstitution of its materiality as spectrality. And it uncannily mirrors the substitution of subjectivity by hyper-subjectivity.

And then there is spectrality without the memorial traces of embodiment – the unauthorised because unauthored writing – produced at the click of the mouse by several essay, poetry and research paper “generators”, the programmes that “generate” different kinds of writing without the direct mediation of human agency. Are these “generators” the signs of things to come, when writing finally breaks completely and actually free of human subjectivity and agency?


Does Literature Have a Future? / Does the Future Have Literature?

In view of this looming prospect, several questions arise. Would it be sufficient to re-affirm literature’s difference from mere ‘writing’, from writing conceived as code? Can the putative “difference” of literature be reaffirmed without evoking its bond with subjectivity? Is it possible to unproblematically evoke that bond in a world in which humanism lies in ruins, thanks to acts of both politics and theory?

It might be of some help to keep in mind a possible distinction – between literature as an institution and literature as an elusive singular experience which the acts of writing and reading seek to capture.

If the space of literature is such as the subject can hardly bring himself to traverse, if it confronts him – always and again – with his limits by returning him to the experience of dying, to the limit experience and beyond (as Blanchot thinks it does), may not literature in cyberspace turn out to be even more potent than it is in print culture?

Just as the immeasurable gulf between literature and subjectivity can be measured, ironically, only in the subject’s experience of literature, literature’s extreme gift -- of solitude and singularity, of the experience of dying -- might be the sole available guarantee against the loss of self in a world in the cusp of change from the human to the posthuman, a world that is otherwise imploding into cyberspace in the slow motion of an infinite present.

But this is contingent upon capitalism failing to breach the speed barrier beyond which neither literature nor subjectivity can survive as outposts of resistance. For there are certain coordinates of space and time, a certain tempo of being, upon which writing, reading and reflection depend. As of now, the capitalist hyper-techno-logic is accelerating and seems set to break the barrier (Wilce).

Unless, of course, our subjectivities are reconfigured to match the emerging temporality and we can produce literature suited to that temporality. Or, as Alan Liu hopes, we comprehend “the laws of cool” and can undermine/subvert with irony (“destructive creation”) the homogenizing global regime of information economy (Liu; Hayles).

The first probability seems more likely, but it has improbably high stakes in humanistic optimism. Moreover, it does not reckon with the historicity of the literary. The second, on the contrary, seems to be based on a perception of history as inevitability and quietly passes over the question of literature (and art) as innovative resistance in order to look for opportunities for resistance in the “given” knowledge-world of informationalism.

But literature has always been, by definition, more than reactive.


Works Cited

Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. Trans. Ann Smock. 1982. London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Grusin, Richard. “Premediation.” Criticism 46.1 (2004): 17-39.

Guattari, Felix. The Three Ecologies. Trans. Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton. 1989. London and New Jersey: The Athlone Press, 2000.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Attacking the Borg of Corporate Knowledge Work: The Achievement of Alan Liu’s The Laws of Cool”. Criticism 47.2 (2006): 235-39.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. London: Routledge, 1993. 311-41.

Liu, Alan. “Understanding Knowledge Work”. Criticism 47.2 (2006): 249-60.

Sartre, Jean Paul. What is Literature? Trans. Bernard Frechtman. UK: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1950. 1993. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

Thomas, Sue. “Del.icio.us Way to Talk.” Times Higher Education Supplement. 28 October 2005.

Virilio, Paul. Open Sky. Trans. Julie Rose. London: Verso, 1997.

Wilce Hilary. “Young Minds in Hi-Tech Turmoil.” The Tribune. 1 December 2006. Reprinted from The Independent.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

(2006-7)

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to the Indian Institute for Advanced Study, Shimla for its hospitality that enabled me to write the first draft of this paper during my Associateship in May 2006.

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