Friday, January 1, 2010
Rajesh Kumar Sharma
(The following is a reconstruction, and translation from Punjabi, of the lecture given on 20 November 2009 at a seminar organized by Pragativaadi Sabhyacharak Manch, Chandigarh)
When I received the programme chart for this seminar a few days ago , I discovered that its theme would be India's current policy on culture. I wondered if I was qualified in any way to speak on such a matter. The wonder has by no means lessened, but it has prompted me to formulate a few basic questions.
The first question, expectedly, is whether India currently has any policy on culture. Assuming that it has, and assuming also that by India's policy is meant the government's policy, one may ask whether it fairly and adequately represents the wishes and needs of the Indian people at this moment of history. One may go further and even ask whether culture should at all be subject to policy-making.
On the other hand, the brute fact is that whether or not there is a formulated policy on culture, the existence of a government policy - unstated, fragmentary, virtual, but for all that no less real - cannot be denied. Hence, the most important question must be located in the nature of the relationship between culture and government policy. And I think that question could be phrased thus: Is the government's ostensible policy on culture to be treated as expressive of the government's real stance on culture or as a disavowal of its real stance? Within the larger embrace of this question, one may also ask whether or not, and to what extent, the official policy on culture might actually function as a screen for interventions, both active and passive, of an altogether different order and complexion.
How should culture be thought? Should it be thought the way it has been thought, and continues to be thought, in the terms of Western anthropology, as something out there with more or less clearly marked boundaries and available as an identifiable set of practices, values, beliefs, attitudes, etc? As our very own other with reference to which we identify, flatter and curse ourselves? Or should we take Fredric Jameson's way and move on along that way? Is it not time to dump the old imperial-anthropological notion of culture when, driven by the fantasy of a global empire, capitalism now invades all culture? Urban planning, rural decay, management practices, corporate finance, land use policy, media spectacle, accountability of public servants, and extreme complication to the point of opacity in the spheres of law, finance and technology – can these be any longer kept out of considerations of culture?
We have been witness to universities mindlessly renouncing their true vocation, the pursuit of critical thinking, and reinventing themselves instead as factories of 'human resources' for an economy hurtling from crisis to crisis. More recently, projects have been undertaken to 'conserve' the Punjabi cultural heritage by video-recording the folk dances and songs (it is another matter if the dancers and singers happen to be university students). Do not such attempts to 'conserve' culture constitute a disavowal of the imperative to think culture in these difficult times? Moreover, by taking recourse to such conservation projects, do we not confine culture to enclaves? If we believe we can 'save' our culture by consigning it to the magnetic/laser tracks on discs, we are being cowardly and dishonest in the face of the challenge to think. Loads of disks may bury our guilt but cannot deliver us from it. Archiving cultures in transition, documenting histories in the making demands much more than making casual and fragmentary recordings of the simulacra of heritage for consumption in the global market of cultural exotica (which includes 'roots').
The urge to musealize culture can be an evasion of the obligation to understand culture as history-in-the-making. By musealizing culture, we could be gleefully cooling our feverish conscience even as we continue to look away from the reality that is happening and changing all around us.
Jalal Toufiq, the thinking film-maker from Lebanon, speaks of the withdrawal of tradition past a surpassing disaster. What if in our case culture has withdrawn past a long and subtle, and not so subtle, but surpassing colonial and postcolonial disaster? Could it be that we have failed to apprehend the withdrawal and so continue to make such a song and dance about a culture that may actually be only a 'counterfeit' culture, without our even beginning to be aware of it? Perhaps our obsession with a 'counterfeit' culture has something to do with our wish to sleep through the disaster. Why else should we locate culture in the past alone? Are France, Britain, Italy and US cultural orphans?
We must approach culture as our contemporary moment, which of course does not preclude history. History has an inevitable bearing on the present, but that bearing is far from self-evident. What we arguably need to practice, with all possible rigour, is an archeology of culture,which may not only enable us to understand our contemporary moment but also make us its true contemporaries. And only then shall we be able to appreciate why culture matters so much today.
As Paolo Virno has indicated, the defining tendencies of culture in these times are performativity and virtuosity. Capitalism has already arrived at the point where it uses technology to source our physiological, cognitive and affective faculties. Martin Heidegger's dark prophecy that technology would one day make the human being its “standing reserve” is being more than realized as our very faculties become the materials of production and reproduction with finance capitalism transforming into posthuman capitalism. Both inner and outer space are being reterritorialized under the new empire of global capital. Amidst such a scenario, when culture becomes the most profit-laden resource, what does an obsession with culture as something located in the past and musealized in sacred enclaves signify, if it does not signify strategies of deflection and self-deception?
It is interesting, and perturbing, that even resistance is being harnessed as a resource by global capital. The spaces of genuine dissent shrink as 'private' media yields to corporate media which, in actual practice, is only the unofficial and obverse face of official media. The confusion and erasure of boundaries can be seen in the media professionals donning the costume of the public intellectual on the one hand and, on the other, some 'intellectuals' flirting promiscuously with the media in the managed carnival of the spectacle. Of course, digital spaces of resistance are also emerging, but in a country like ours, they remain – at least for now – enclaves of a counter-elite, which is not the same as non-elite or subaltern. As a result, the range and human depth of public discourse are shrinking even as channels and blogs proliferate wildly. Maybe we could take that seriously as an index of the crisis of thinking.
Hence the imperative to problematize culture as a practice and as a conceptual category. Culture is not a given. It is not an entity, but a becoming, a process, an apparatus in perpetual mobility. And today more than ever, it is a critical becoming, achieved – though always precariously – through a becoming-critical. We must beware of doing anything that would culturally disenfranchise anyone, much less whole groups of people or entire periods of time. Indeed, the whole question of the relationship between culture and community requires to be revisited. The lessons of fascism are yet to be assimilated even intellectually in our part of the world. Our intellectuals continue to sing worshipfully of their ideas, howsoever muddled, of culture as some perfumed enigma at the inscrutable of particular communities while they turn a willfully deaf ear to inspired interrogations of the received ideas of the community such as in the writings of Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Roberto Esposito and Jean-Luc Nancy. The tendency to read community, polity and poetry as synonyms must be combated by investing critical knowledges in the field of culture and by pursuing a rigorous lucidity. If at all culture must be located, it can only be in the chimerical spaces between the individual and the community, and between the temporalities of the past, the present and the future and that which bears down from outside the thinkable temporalities. Culture is a space of possibilities – not just in terms of the future but also in terms of the past and the present. As such, it is also a space of 'impossibilities' that await realization in other orders of things.