UNCEASING WAVES

Resisting the Seductions of the Text: Rethinking the Role of the Word

Posted in Politics by Karthick RM on March 7, 2011

THIS IS A PAPER I PRESENTED AT THE DEPARTMENT OF SOCIOLOGY, JAMIA MILLIA ISLAMIA, ON 27th JANUARY 2011, FOR A CONFERENCE ON ‘CONCEPTUALISING RESISTANCE’ (I should add that my views have significantly changed since then)

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
-John 1:1, The Bible

“Not so long ago the Earth numbered 2 billion inhabitants, i.e., 500 million men and 1.5 billion “natives.” The first possessed the Word, the others borrowed it.”
-Jean-Paul Sartre, Preface to The Wretched of the Earth

We in the academia are familiar with the Foucauldian discourse on power-knowledge relations. Knowledge engenders power and power requires knowledge to sustain itself. Knowledge, is not just a body of facts, facts that have been selected by a group of people as worthy of knowing, it is also a system of words, and a system of ascribing meaning to words. Combined with power, it is a system of discriminating interpretations of words and texts – it determines which interpretation is right and which is wrong. What about the word of our focus, ‘resistance’? Does it have any inherent universal meaning or value? Sartre argued that “The word is a certain particular moment of action and has no meaning outside it.” (Sartre 2009, p12) Let us take a case – the white slave-owners in erstwhile Southern America opposing the abolition of slavery and the black slaves opposing slavery both deployed the term ‘resistance’ to their respective demands. A word or a collection of words i.e., a text, has no meaning, no value in itself but that which is given to it by humans in particular scenarios and in particular power relations. A logocentric approach to a text is almost always connected to systems of power and domination.

Of course, there is great subversive potential in a text, which can also be considered a sign. “Texts can say more than one supposes, they can always say something new, precisely because signs are the starting point of a process of interpretation which leads to an infinite series of progressive consequences. Signs are open devices, not stiff armors prescribing a bi-conditional identity.” (Eco 1981, p11) But there arises a situation when that very text becomes a monopoly of a powerful elite and they, with their knowledge and with their interpretation(s) of the text, hijack the potential for liberation in it and turn it into an instrument of repression. An old example of this is Christianity under the church. A more recent one is Marxism of the Leninist variant. My paper, besides attempting to critique the Leninist view of Marxism(1) seeks to emphasize on the need to look beyond a rigidly defined set of texts and interpretations for a successful praxis of liberation-centered resistance.

PROBLEMS OF THE TEXT

The fundamental problem of a resistance movement that relies greatly on a text for its worldview and political action is that after a point, the emancipatory essence of the movement is lost and the text, and those who control it, take over. Yet, it is hard to envision a liberatory movement without a body of writing that has a deep understanding of existing conditions in the society that it seeks to transform. As many Leninists would argue, it is necessary for a revolution to have a revolutionary theory. But the priority has to be set here – it is liberation that is central to a revolutionary, not the text. This, then calls for a democratic, free for all criticism and critical inquiry of the concerned text by those involved in the revolutionary struggle and especially with participants from the target group. This is what Paulo Freire termed as ‘problem-posing’ pedagogy where “people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.” (Freire 1996, p64)

But how far is Leninism, and its conception of a rigid party apparatus, reconcilable with free and fair criticism? From a text which is considered to contain Leninism’s central tenets, ““freedom of criticism” means freedom for an opportunist trend in Social-Democracy, freedom to convert Social-Democracy into a democratic party of reform, freedom to introduce bourgeois ideas and bourgeois elements into socialism.” (Lenin 1979, p111) Blind, uncritical faith in a text without taking into account of the subtleties of the context is criticized as dogmatism by most Marxist-Leninists, including that one leader who is blamed for most ills of socialist praxis and who is accused of himself following a ‘mechanical Marxism’, Josef Stalin. I would however argue that the foundations for a dogmatic reading of Marxism was laid by Lenin himself. Stalin just walked into the fortress that Lenin built. For it was Lenin, who interpreted Marx’s concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat as “the organization of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class” (Lenin 1977, p324) and relentlessly opposed, even persecuted, those who held different views on the same.(2)In practice, only the Leninist interpretation of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was recognized as the legitimate one. This gave absolute power to the party, power to read, interpret, and give meaning to Marxian concepts and frameworks. The Leninist party-state, a panopticon par excellence, was the perfect resort where power and knowledge enjoyed an enduring tryst.

What happened eventually in the Soviet Union is, of course, a sad (hi)story. One is indeed compelled to draw a parallel with religious dogma. I would like to make reference to Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. The critically acclaimed novel, besides a fantastic exercise in semiotics, is also a critique of a closed-ended reading of texts, of restriction of thought to a particular reading of text and the abuse of power that flows with it. At one level, it appears to target the dogmatism of the medieval church. At another level, the critical reader can read into the novel a general critique of totalitarian regimes that base a text, an interpretation of that text as their foundation. The villain of the novel, Burgos, murders people who access a rare text (in the monastery’s library, an exclusive sphere of knowledge) as he finds the knowledge of the text dangerous – it eulogizes laughter, which Burgos believes, will make people fearless of God. God is Word, God as the Text, but to laugh at texts will make The Word as a word. Once power over Word ceases, power over people ceases. This fear sparks off a killing spree, the totalitarian extinguishing of other voices. Burgos, incidentally, is a visually impaired character in the novel. Is this Eco’s portrayal of the blindness of dogmatism? One can ponder. The message of the novel’s protagonist, William of Baskerville(3) is relevant to the paper’s contention that no text, or no ‘truth’ of/in the text is to be held sacred; “Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from the insane passion for truth.” To laugh is to trivialize, to deconstruct, to make common, to make low. When it is directed at a power source, like the text, it no longer is something sacrosanct as it is laughed at. The Word ceases to be with God, it ceases to be God as it explodes as laughter on the lips of the commoner.

MARXISM IN INDIA – A SLAVE TO TEXT?

Let us briefly consider the two major parties that claim to represent the communist movement in India – the CPI(M) and the CPI(Maoist). The CPI(M) has been in rule in West Bengal for over 30 years. And all its (mis)deeds in the state, right from the massacre of Dalits in Marichjhapi in 1979, as soon as they came into power, to their recent brutal suppression of the tribal agitation in Lal Garh have been justified by taking recourse to this or that text of Marx and/or Lenin. It is not a mere coincidence that the majority of the Central Committee members of the CPI(M) happen to be upper castes. What in effect happened in CPI(M) ruled West Bengal was that the upper-caste who had access to the sacred texts of Hinduism and who used them to the detriment of the masses of lower castes was replaced by the upper caste who, by virtue of his literacy, had access to the ‘sacred texts’ of Marxism, who interpreted them to produce the same effect.

The Maoists on the other hand also criticize the CPI(M) and its failures again by reference to the texts of the deities of Marxism-Leninism viz. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao. While one is hopeful of the Maoists for the simple reason that the base that they have made inroads into, the tribals and the Dalits, are some of the most poorest sections of the subcontinent who have rich narratives of suffering and of resistance to oppression, one is skeptical whether the Maoists are not actually indoctrinating the cadres taken from these sections with selected texts of Marxist-Leninist thought and the party’s interpretations of it rather than paying more focus to the stories of hope, joy, sadness, subversion and rebellion that comprise the oral tradition of these sections. Why shouldn’t these stories of resistance be the focal point of the party rather than some text written in some context for some purpose that the concerned subjects have little or no knowledge of? While, indeed, the writings of Lenin or Mao do provide valuable inputs for the purpose of organizing resistance, they should be, ideally, dealt only as mere strategies for the larger purpose of creating liberated individuals. When a strategy degenerates to dogma, it replicates the powers that it sought to displace in the first place, for it becomes a body of knowledge that constitutes new power relations(4) How true was Nietzsche when he said that a man who fights monsters should take care least he become one himself!

Maybe the Maoist leadership should also do what Cherukuri Rajkumar alias Com. Azad, who was recently shot dead in a police encounter, asked the reading Indian public to do, “when we do not understand the feelings of the affected people, it is better to imagine ourselves in their place. This may help us in getting nearer to the truth.” (Azad 2010, p108) I would like to highlight the word ‘feelings’ for that is something completely absent in the Leninist reading of Marxism. The thinking, feeling, sensuous being-subject that the young Marx wrote of was replaced by the object to be manipulated of/by the Leninists. Personal feelings are abundant in the stories of the tribals and the backward castes. An imported text is devoid of it. It will always remain alien to the concerned subject and remain a property of those that bought it in and be open to manipulation by a group of elite. Liberation is a philosophy of strength, not weakness. And faith in the invincibility of a text, in dogmatism, implies not strength, but its opposite. “How much one needs a faith in order to flourish, how much that is ‘firm’ and that one does not wish to be shaken because one clings to it, that is a measure of the degree of one’s strength (or, to put the point more clearly, of one’s weakness).” (Nietzsche 1974, p374) Such a faith also stems from, if I might say so, a will to power, a desire to perpetuate authority, and a fear of the free-thinking, critical individual. And any political philosophy that bases its praxis on such a premise is doomed to totalitarianism.

PARTICULAR DANGERS, PARTICULAR POSSIBILITIES

One must emphasize on the necessity to consciously de-emphasize the role of the text for a successful liberatory praxis, especially in India. It is by the virtue of access to and interpretation of ‘sacred texts’ that a minority community of elites, the brahmins, were able to grade their fellow human beings on the basis of a ritual hierarchy, of course, in collaboration with the upward and the upwardly mobile sections of those castes immediately below them. And it is always easy for a elite that controls a text to negotiate terms with another elite, even if the latter is against the interests of the vast majority of the populace over which the native elites presides. Colonialism in India and the collaboration of the brahmins in the initial periods is a perfect case. “Brahmanic texts, both vedic origin stories and the much later dharma texts of Hinduism’s puranic period, provided transregional and metahistorical modes of understanding Indian society that clearly appealed to British colonial interests and attitudes.” (Dirks 1992, p6) What was completely submerged in this process were the narratives of the rest, the Dalits, the tribals, and the various non-brahmin castes that were on the outskirts of brahminical discourses. Once one narrative was put across as the narrative, it was easy to push the others to the fringes, to look down on them as ‘primordial’ or ‘premodern’. What then was written on these sections, then, becomes what the master narrative and the masters of that narrative chose to write. Indeed, as Chinua Achebe points out “There is such a thing as absolute power over narrative. Those who secure this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where, and as, they like.” (Achebe 2000, p24)

Eric Selbin observes that “Traditionally, history has been constructed from above, composed by the victorious, orchestrated by the powerful, played and performed for the population.” (Selbin 2010, p9) The mythical characters of the Indian past that are referred to by the ‘mainstream’ Indian leftists in their writings happen to be those that figure in the brahminical texts. S.A. Dange had no issues in calling the Gita a materialist text whereas Subhas Chakravorty of the CPI(M) proudly claimed that he was a Hindu, a brahmin and a communist. Koteshwar Rao alias ‘Kishenji’, the number 2 of the CPI(Maoist) who is also most known for the role he played in the Lal Garh movement, referred to the Maoists as the Pandavas while Kobad Ghandy(5) the recently arrested Central Committee member quoted from the Rig Veda in a recent article. I have mentioned before how the two opposing parties refer to the same Marxist-Leninist sources to oppose the other’s policies and to defend their own. The similarity in framing oppositional discourses also extends to their selection of aspects from the past. Yet, “There is another history, rooted in people’s perception of how the world around them continues to unfold and of their place in the process. This is a history informed by people’s ideologies, the views they have, and it reflects the context, material as well as ideological, of people’s everyday lives; a history revealed and articulated by the various instruments of popular political culture.” (Selbin 2010, p9) Observe the striking contrast in the Naxalite balladeer Gaddar’s (a dalit by caste) performances. Almost a cult figure among lower castes, students and activists in Andhra Pradesh, his invocation of memory and the past involves the tales, the folklore, the gods and goddesses, the popular culture of the marginalized, a far cry from the carefully disciplined, high moralizing texts of an organized religion/dogma.

Nissim Mannathukkaren is then right when he criticizes orthodox Marxism for ignoring the role of memory as a tool in the reconstitution of the present. (Mannathukkaren 2006, p17) I’m inclined here to quote at large MSS Pandian’s reading of a Dalit intellectual’s framing of a counter-narrative to the logic of ‘civilization’ created by texts of the brahminical castes, who

“rejects the civilisational claims and the teleology of modernity, and instead recuperates the past of lowly hill cultivators, hunters, fisherpeople, pastoralists, and the like as the high point of human achievement. He characterizes their social life as communal, with people pooling together and sharing food with a sense of equality, without much internal differentiation. Flow of history ceases to be civilising and Raj Gowthaman incites the dalits to step outside it… The need to reclaim what has been stigmatised is essential because that alone would end the self-hate that Indian modern has produced in the lower castes.” (Pandian 2002, p6)

These pasts have no texts. Only memories. And stories. Which leads us to exploring possible alternatives to the organized body of knowledge as text which might actually be tools in creating a more democratic discourse of resistance.

THE STORY AS AN ALTERNATIVE

The most common element in conventional politics is the creation of binaries. Modernism’s great contribution was the drawing of binary between truth and fiction, the former represented in that which is not fiction. And considering the value attached to that considered ‘truth’, all that deemed as fiction is condemned to the margins of the political. Rather than being an attempt to analyze and realize reality in all its complexity “opposite values are an intellectual framework created by the mind to simplify reality, and as a result, the framework does not do justice to reality The rich details and vast subtleties of the world cannot fit into two starkly separate categories” (Glenn 2004, p5). The body of knowledge that draws binaries is considered as infallible whereas the ‘unlettered’ narratives of varied experiences is looked down as unfit for serious politicking. A liberating praxis of resistance, I would argue, will need to go beyond simple binaries and attempt to absorb experiences, each experience, as a resource base for radical politics. Experiences are richer than texts as they are not just there, as being, but are in the process of becoming. This is where the story and the poem should enter politics, or those in politics should engage with stories. For what presides over stories, like poems, “is not the most lucid intelligence, the sharpest sensibility or the subtlest feelings, but experience as a whole.” (Cesaire 2010, p18)

Achebe notes that “Man is a story-making animal. He rarely passes up an opportunity to accompany his works and his experiences with matching stories.” (Achebe 2000, p59) I would like to use this opportunity to draw attention to the story of a resistance movement that was recently brutally crushed – the Tamil Eelam liberation struggle. Tamil popular culture has a tradition of venerating the dead in battle. The practice of installation of veerakal – symbolic stones to honour the fallen heroes of a community – was a celebrated practice among most subaltern classes. These stones are not just rallying points for the public, but they also become topics for emerging stories and oral narratives which became folk tales over the time. These tales got a new dimension with the onset of the Eelam liberation struggle. Frantz Fanon, writing on the articulation of national culture under colonial repression, points out that “oral literature, tales, epics, and popular songs, previously classified and frozen in time, begin to change. The storytellers who recited inert episodes revive them and introduce increasingly fundamental changes. There are attempts to update battles and modernize the types of struggle, the heroes’ names, and the weapons used. The method of allusion is increasingly used.” (Fanon 2004, p174)

In the course of the Eelam struggle led by the LTTE, the martyrs of the movement were honored annually on November 27th, the day that the first Tamil Tiger was killed in action – a tradition created from the 80’s. The LTTE leader, V. Prabhakaran, called it “a day of national resurgence, a day we pledge and commit ourselves to the emancipation of our nation.” (Prabhakaran 1993) When the Tigers were active, the day used to be marked with festivities in their strongholds. The Pongu Tamil cultural group used to stage street theatres and performances which expressed a collective memory of past resistance. Not always historically accurate, but again “to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’… It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” (Benjamin 1955, p257) The tombs of the slain Tiger cadres were revered as shrines, as veerakals, and analogies to past heroes were often drawn. The present modified the tales of the past, and the tales of the past aided the present struggle for a better future. Once the Sri Lankan government militarily defeated the Tigers, the army went on a systematic destruction and defacement of the Tamil martyrs’ graveyards and explicitly prohibited, with open threats of violence, the celebration of Heroes’ Day. The point was simple – they wanted no stories to be told. Fanon also points out how storytellers were targeted and arrested in colonial Algeria. (Fanon 2004, p174) The Eelam Tamil diaspora settled in many western countries still continues to celebrate Heroes’ Day not just as a show of solidarity, but also to recount the experiences, the stories of the struggle.

According to Edward Said, stories “are the method colonized people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history.” (Said 1994, pxiii) The story has an intimate relation to history. All histories are stories told by a person; all stories are histories accessible to many. The story is more democratic than the text as it is undisciplined. It is not connected to an exclusive body of knowledge but emerges out of particularities of experience, but which have a far more universal relevance than is imagined. It has a far greater appeal in the day-to-day lives of the masses than the well-disciplined but cut off from ground ‘realities’ that a text puts forth, as a story is something that can be easily absorbed, modified, retold and passed on. The space for maneuver and adaptation makes it a potent device in resistance movements. Since it is as comfortable in the oral as in the written, it is accessible to those outside the frameworks of literacy. And there is above all the possibility of human hope, “the conviction that stories are told so that they may be listened to elsewhere…” (Berger 2008, p101)

I would like to rest my case by saying that while I do not completely reject the role of a well researched text in a resistance movement, it cannot be the focal point of a liberatory movement, that defines it and justifies it. “We need to find a way to focus on the thoughts and feelings of people engaged in revolutionary processes, a perspective which binds the stories they convey of past injustices and struggles as they fight for the future.” (Selbin 2010, p9) The role of non-textual forms, particularly the story need to be reconsidered as they allow access to the greatest number and connect with the most valuable of all human desires, the desire for happiness of one through the happiness of all. After all, “in the final reckoning the people who will advance the universal conversation will be not copycats but those able to bring hitherto untold stories, along with new ways of telling.” (Achebe 2000, p83)

(1) Zizek questions the root of the term Leninism in his essay A Plea for Leninist Intolerance. “Is it not that it was invented under Stalin? And does the same not go for Marxism (as a teaching) which was basically a Leninist invention, so that Marxism is a Leninist notion and Leninism a Stalinist one?” (Zizek 2002, p23) Loyal to Lenin, Zizek draws a difference between Lenin’s ‘good’ Marxism and Stalin’s perversion of it. However, Zizek also points out that “To repeat Lenin is to repeat not what Lenin did, but what he failed to do, his missed opportunities.” (ibid, p26)
(2) Interestingly, Marx’s vision of the proletariat winning power was “to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class.” (Marx and Engels 1981, p75) Marx was always ambiguous about the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ An interpretation would be to look at it as the proletariat as a class for itself that seizes power – not as the proletariat represented by a party which takes power and rules in the name of the proletariat, which is the Leninist interpretation.
(3) The protagonist of the novel also explores how Biblical stories and tales of Christian heretics can be interpreted in a manner that breaks from the rigid orthodoxy of the church towards a more democratic formulation.
(4) Foucault argues that “there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.” (Foucault 1977, p27)
(5) Kobad Ghandy and Anuradha Ghandy have written quite extensively on caste. In fact, I would credit them as the major Maoist party members who have intellectually engaged with caste with the seriousness it deserves. The rich on-ground experience of the Maoists compels them to take caste and ‘tribal identity’ as issues worth serious consideration. Yet, I would argue, that their chief limitation is that they still look at caste through Marxist paradigms rather than looking at it through the subject position of the groups that they seek to address. Attempting to solve the caste question requires greater imagination than that the texts of Marxism offer.

REFERENCES

ACHEBE, CHINUA (2000) Home and Exile, New York: Anchor

‘AZAD’, CHERUKURI RAJKUMAR (2010), Interview to the Hindu, April 14th, 2010, IN Maoists in India: Writings & Interviews, Hyderabad: Friends of Azad

BENJAMIN, WALTER (1955) Illuminations translated by Harry Zohn, New York: Harcourt

BERGER, JOHN (2008) Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance, New York: Vintage

CESAIRE, AIME (2010) Discourse on Colonialism, Delhi: Aakar

DIRKS, NICHOLAS B. (1992) Castes of Mind, Representations, No. 37, Special Issue: Imperial Fantasies and Postcolonial Histories, pp. 56-78

ECO, UMBERTO (1981) The Theory of Signs and the Role of the Reader, The Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 35-45

FANON, FRANTZ (2004) The Wretched of the Earth translated from the French by Richard Philcox, New York: Grove

FOUCAULT, MICHEL (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison translated by Alan Sheridan, New York: Pantheon

FREIRE, PAULO (1996) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Penguin

GLENN, PAUL E. (2004) The Politics of Truth: Power in Nietzsche’s Epistemology, Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Dec., 2004), pp. 575-583

LENIN, V.I. (!979) What is to be Done? in Marx-Engels-Marxism, Moscow: Progress, pp. 108-131

LENIN, V.I. (1977) The State and Revolution in Lenin: Selected Works, Moscow: Progress, pp. 263-348

MANNATHUKKAREN, NISSIM (2006) The Rupture with Memory: Derrida and the Specters that Haunt Marxism, Chennai: Navayana

MARX, KARL & FREDERICK ENGELS (1981) Manifesto of the Communist Party in The Socialist Revolution, Moscow: Progress, pp. 55-76

NIETZSCHE, FRIEDRICH (1974) The Gay Science, translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books

PANDIAN, MSS (2002) One Step outside Modernity: Caste, Identity Politics and Public Sphere, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 37, No. 18, pp. 1735-1741

PRABHAKARAN, V. (1993) Heroes Day Address, IN TE National Leader Mr.V.Prabaharan’s Speech – 1993, Available from: http://www.tamilcanadian.com/article/1374 [Accessed 07 January, 2011]

SAID, EDWARD W. (1994) Culture and Imperialism, London: Vintage

SARTRE, JEAN-PAUL (2009) What is Literature?, London: Routledge

SELBIN, ERIC (2010) Revolution, Rebellion, Resistance: The Power of Story, London and New York: Zed Books, Republished (2011) by Books for Change, Bangalore

ZIZEK, SLAVOJ (2002) A Plea for Leninist Intolerance, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 2, pp. 542-566

2 Responses

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  1. Eric Selbin said, on August 6, 2011 at 2:39 am

    This is a very interesting paper–what sort of feedback did you receive? I will look forward to seeing how you develop it and where it will go.

    • Karthick RM said, on August 7, 2011 at 12:14 pm

      Greetings Prof. Selbin,

      Thank you for your comment. The feedback was polarized – orthodox Marxists criticized it for being too idealist while those sympathetic to Laclau appreciated it for challenging the weaknesses of the left from within. But then, the feedback was mostly on a general level. I would have liked it better had there been more criticisms on the specifics, like my references to Marxists in India or the Tamil Eelam liberation struggle.

      And I enjoyed reading your book, especially the chapter on revolutions of the lost and forgotten.


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