Saturday, October 30, 2010

McDonald’s Workers Are Told Whom to Vote For -

When workers in a McDonald’s restaurant in Canton, Ohio, opened their paychecks this month, they found a pamphlet urging them to vote for the Republican candidates for governor, Senate and Congress, or possibly face financial repercussions.

The pamphlet appeared calculated to intimidate workers into voting for Republican candidates by making a direct reference to their wages and benefits, said Allen Schulman, a Democrat who is president of the Canton City Council and said he obtained a copy of the pamphlet on Wednesday.

The pamphlet said: “If the right people are elected, we will be able to continue with raises and benefits at or above the current levels. If others are elected, we will not.”

It then named three Republican candidates after stating, “The following candidates are the ones we believe will help our business move forward.”

McDonald’s Workers Are Told Whom to Vote For -

Leadership and Leitkultur -


That we are experiencing a relapse into this ethnic understanding of our liberal constitution is bad enough. It doesn’t make things any better that today leitkultur is defined not by “German culture” but by religion. With an arrogant appropriation of Judaism — and an incredible disregard for the fate the Jews suffered in Germany — the apologists of the leitkultur now appeal to the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” which distinguishes “us” from the foreigners.

Nevertheless I do not have the impression that the appeals to the leitkultur signal anything more than a rearguard action or that the lapse of an author into the snares of the controversy over nature versus nurture has given enduring and widespread impetus to the more noxious mixture of xenophobia, racist feelings of superiority and social Darwinism. The problems of today have set off the reactions of yesterday — but not those of the day before.

Leadership and Leitkultur -

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Recovering the humanities, revitalizing democracy

By Rajesh Kumar Sharma

There was a time, not very long ago, when the humanities were under attack. Now they are just ignored. It is as if the case for 'job-oriented' education (to use a tasteless phrase that rules the journalistic writings on education these days) had been decisively and finally won. So long as someone was speaking against the humanities, a dialogue –howsoever worn-out and tattered– was at least alive, though not with any great kicking life. But a silence now reigns over the fate of the humanities.
            It is a symptomatic silence. Symptomatic because it comes at a time when cultural commodities become most expensive and attract increasing investment under the shadow of speculation. As canny communicators and cool gurus swarm the cultural marketplace, it is nevertheless being proclaimed that an education in the humanities no longer pays.
            While the humanities shrink and decay in their old homes in colleges and universities, new institutions –private, corporate– prosper, spinning money out of a booming culture industry. Clearly, cultural production has become a protected economic activity for an elitist minority that collaborates with corporate media to produce culture for consumption by the masses.
            Timely infusion of critical funding could have renovated the old homes of humanities and built them into competitive sites of cultural production. But this was not done. Why? One can speculate. Along with marketable cultural production these sites might have spawned some unwelcome offspring: critique and dissent. Something the corporate education apparatus can be relied on to kill before birth. ‘Reforms’ in their first, fragile blossoming couldn’t have been exposed to any menace, least of all to seductions of forbidden knowledge.
            The National Knowledge Commission's professions of love for good old humanities for the sake of a better future are already rotting in mouldy archives. And the spectacular dream of resuscitating the Nalanda University, with its international cast of star faculty and wages in dollars, mocks the great old Nalanda's soul: that becoming, not being, is the truth. Institutions are not made of bricks and mortar alone but of ideas and the free, questing spirit that animates them. In its erasure of the boundaries between the past and the present, Project Nalanda avows the refusal to face either. A strange avowal. Uncanny, to be precise.
            How do we go about the task of recovering the humanities? Certainly not by trying to dig out of burial some pristine version of them. In the humanities, as elsewhere, we must affirm 'becoming'. And in our time, that affirmation ought to be performed democratically and for democracy. The humanities must today be recovered as the democratic trial of truth(s). For too long have we, the children of modernity and enlightenment, stood guard over an idea of democracy that brooks no fundamental interrogation. At the very least, the humanities can begin to revitalize democracy through their textual practices, as they have been famously doing for several decades now, in which the enactment and trial of democracies take place. These simple and basic exercises can pave the way for a larger mobilization of thought dedicated to our common democratic futures. Otherwise, government by management will completely erode and replace government by democratic politics.
            Yet for this to materialize, the space of the humanities must be protected against brutal depredations of the market. The law of the market is not a natural law, notwithstanding the appearances concocted by an ideologically committed corporate media. In an era of cognitive capitalism when creativity becomes a premium input for profit maximization, we need to restore some sanctity to the Holy Muse and learn to deposit our mundane calculations outside the portals of its shrine. Only then shall we hear other voices. Only then shall we be able to speak in other tongues. Democracy's survival demands nothing less.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

CM's Media Adviser Lifts the Veil

By Rajesh Kumar Sharma

The open letter of Harcharan Bains, media adviser to the Chief Minister of Punjab, should be archived in the cultural studies departments of the world's universities.1 It is such a model illustration of how ideology functions in these times. 

If it is a calculated attempt to put the case of 'injured merit' (here the government's) before the 'discerning' readers of The Tribune, the calculation appears to have gone fatally wrong. As a signed statement that purports to answer a former minister's charges against the leadership of the principal ruling party and the CM and the Deputy CM, the letter merits serious scrutiny. But what a scrutiny reveals is that the answer does not really answer anything. The official media adviser has penned, actually, a personal letter.

But then why give it wide public circulation? 

The answer lies in the nature of the letter.

It is a fine, indeed admirable, exercise in rhetoric. Bains exploits to the hilt the resources of literature and language. He evokes archetypal tales of trust and betrayal, specifically that of Caesar and Brutus immortalized by Shakespeare. Against this charged and theatrical backdrop, he tells his contemporary tale of personal relations gone sour, of kindness returned with ingratitude, of sentiments wasted over an unworthy object.

Yet where are the questions of economy and politics that a letter coming from the CM's media adviser is expected to address? Is it a lapse, or a ruse? Is this an instance of unprofessional media management, or of really professional media management? Does the letter suggest that the government is not interested in answering the real questions, and so this recourse to an exhibition of personal sentiments? Or does it mean there is no one in the government who can ably articulate what is at stake, including the tangled issues of state-centre relations, federal funding, electoral promises, and grassroots governance versus top-down management?

There is no reason to believe that the government and the party have a dearth of talent. So there is only one key to read the letter: silence babbles.

Hence the right way to read the anguished missive is to be deaf to what is being said and to listen to the silence, to what the letter does not say out loud.  The excess of words actually carries only silence; but it is silence that tells the untold tale.

Clearly, the neat lines being drawn, in facebook kind of amateurish political comment, between good and evil are not realistic. The hard and significant fact is that neither side is discussing the issues. Manpreet Badal, who is seen as a winner of middle-class hearts, would have won, if he had the ability, the hearts of his party and the cabinet. He had a long enough innings to prove his mettle for leadership. So instead of finding in him an object to indulge our surplus, TV-induced pity, we might ask him: Recount your accomplishments as the Finance Minister and spell out in concrete detail your programme for a resurgent Punjab.
1The letter appears in The Sunday Tribune of 17 October 2010 and can be accessed at

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Response to S. Malhans's remarks on my review of Shikargah

(S. Malhans's remarks appear below the post 'Book Review of Shikargah' here)

Dear S. Malhans,

I take your observations with gratitude. You have obviously spent a good deal of time and care to comment on my short review.

I will try to respond one by one to the points you have raised.

My ideal reader is not a lazy person. I do not write for those who would expect me to "summarise" the text for them. Moreover, I do not see how a reviewer's summary can be treated as objective and hence relied on by a reader to arrive at a fair assessment of the review.

I do not deny the uses of "structural logic" but I would like to be alert to its own logic. The search for structural logic may, in some cases, arise from a deeply insecure conservative impulse. Structural logic can function as the Great Secret Validator: to explain away and justify everything. Indeed I do not think that in the name of structural logic we can even condone a writer's poor handling of dialogue and lack of homework. The writer as an artist and thinker is answerable to her readers by virtue of her decision to publish; she cannot hide behind any "structural logic".

But I would like to also ask: By what logic can the structrual logic of a text exclude its unconscious and subconscious? 

Your comments suggest that you treat the reviewer's introducing/summarising the text and explaining its structural logic as the essential components of any review. This is, in my opinion, a rather narrow view of the review as a form of critical analysis.

As for your remark about sexuality, it seems you missed my point by a wide margin. I am not commenting on the appropriateness or otherwise of a village girl's reaction to her encounter with lesbians, but on the writer's reluctance to engage with sexuality in this instance and others. And please remember that I have traced a triptych of sexuality, class and war. See them together as I do, and then you may see what I mean.

Your related (un-relatable by me, to speak the truth) admiration of the "exposure" of "'terrorism'" is something on which I cannot go with you. You may disagree but I am of the considered opinion that only a naive reader would be impressed by such an "exposure". Similarly, what you think is a "[delicate handling and description]" of a romantic situation is to me a pedestrian and stock treatment. (It could be a matter of taste, mine being rather perverse).

You ask why my reader should accept my "interpretation" as "objective ...[and] accurate". I shall only say, with all solemnity, that I'd be guilty of a grave logical error if I expected an interpretation to be objective and accurate  An interpretation can only be an interpretation; it cannot claim to be more.

Now to return to where you begin. To state on the basis of only two reviews you have read and commented on that my evaluations are "often harsh" is not a very rigorous way of judging a reviewer. In the present instance, you somehow ignore the several good things I have said about the book. Critical integrity and forthrightness should not be perceived as "harshness". If these are, so be it. Criticism is not the craft of making pleasant noises but the art of a patient and sympathetic surgery.


Rajesh K Sharma

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Book Review of Shikargah

A novel in Punjabi by Surinder Neer

Published by Chetna Parkashan, Ludhiana, 2010

Price: Rs. 300

By Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Surinder Neer's maiden novel Shikargah shows she is a gifted story-teller. I choose the word 'gifted' to indicate her ability to tell her story engagingly and without straining herself. Besides, she has a profuse invention: she does not run out of absorbing situations and manages to sustain the reader's interest in most of them.  She has as much strength to dwell on sorrow and death as the sensibility to register the magic of everyday life. Dying and loneliness do not scare her, which is no small virtue in a writer in these days of profit-driven cultural production.
            Romantic situations are not her forte: the conversations between lovers are generally stilted and unexciting, and the colours of passion are faint and borrowed. But she is at her best in handling encounters across the generations, even when these take place only in memory. Among the most memorable of her characters are the lonely figures struggling to hold the moldering ruins of memories. Relying on their power and human vulnerability, she weaves a tragic epic, albeit somewhat unconsummated, of human relationships blighted by 'all too human' considerations such as those of politics and religion.
            Neer could have been more attentive to the tempo of the novel in its totality. The earlier part is over-paced: a good deal happens, without being allowed to sink in and find its space in the text. There are moments when the narrative demands to enter stillness, to turn inward and step into reflection. But the writer squanders these moments in her race to reach the next post.
            This, however, probably suggests that Neer stands on the edge of another order of artistic reality. She has to listen to the story her story-telling tells. If she knocks, the doors may open. And  yet, she may just never knock. Many do not, only to wither on the threshold, unaware where they happen to be standing. For example, the hasty and somewhat evasive treatment of sexuality, class and war points to the political unconscious of the novel's text which could have been unconcealed in its concealment with some more art. Instead of touching sexuality (including lesbianism) and running away horrified, she could have allowed her ambivalence to work itself into the texture of the novel. Likewise when class forces itself into the landscape of the text, she tries to pull a cover over it with the promptness of an embarrassed housewife:

Muslim men and women worked day and night in the fields. The landownership of the Sikhs depended on these Muslim wage-earners....
...                     ...                     ...
So these diktats did not work and the cultural and economic sharing between Sikhs and Muslims continued the way it had been going on for centuries.

Similarly, when it comes to dealing with war, Neer is in an unwriterly haste. The Kargil episode is disposed of in less than two pages. In fact, she writes more than once that no one knew how all this (political turmoil and violence) had come to happen. The novel would have been better if she had tried to figure this out and not evaded an encounter with history.
With a kind of run-of-the-mill treatment of some 'sequences', the novel as a fictional artifact appears to have succumbed to the cinematic spectacle: a point of contact between the fictional and the cinematic which could have been turned to better creative advantage by bringing out the simulated nature of reality itself in these times. Who says life isn't filmy at all these days? Why shouldn't fiction, too, be such then? But yes, on its own terms – consciously, artistically, politically.
            Neer has earned the gratitude of lovers of Punjabi fiction by extending its canvas in terms of both its thematic-political concerns and its language. Kashmir and Kashmiri deserve a greater presence on the Punjabi literary scene. If she has not been able to do greater justice to the long, complex and rich history of her subject matter, the fault lies equally with the Punjabi academic culture. How adequate is Punjabi language in resources on Kashmir? We cannot reasonably expect the writers to read in all languages except 'our own' yet write in no language except 'our own'.