To be Partisan, Unsettled, and Alert: Conversation with Geeta Kapur
Preface written by Geeta Kapoor (New Delhi)
This interview, conducted as part of a book project on Marx in Malayalam, is strongly contextual. The southern state of Kerala has the distinction of being the site for the first elected Communist ministry in the world. This was in 1957. The subsequent dismissal of the Communists remains a stain on the otherwise progressive politics of then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Generations of political activists in Kerala have tested the full spectrum of radical politics including elected governments and extreme left-wing positions that call for direct (revolutionary) action. Kerala intellectuals and artists are familiar, if not steeped in Marxist thought; this is also true of Kerala’s great peasant leaders and theoretical ideologues that have led the Party over decades.
Where do I come in? I have no first-hand acquaintance with Kerala culture, language or politics. I have a fair familiarity with the artists that have come from there who have emerged into the “national” scene and, to a smaller extent, I have some knowledge of the cinema and theater from Kerala. An avant-garde “contingent” of very young Kerala artists (Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association) emerged in the 1980s and “died” in the same decade with the deeply mourned suicide of their charismatic leader KP Krishnakumar, who was also an extraordinary sculptor. That electric moment and, now, since 2012, an involvement with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale have brought me marginally closer to the peninsular culture of this region. The Malabar Coast skirting the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean is connected since millennia to the peoples and cultures of East Africa and West Asia. My contribution to the 2014 Kochi-Muziris Biennale project consisted in convening a seminar (titled Terra Trema) that addressed historical, archaeological, political, literary and curatorial issues of precisely this scale and dimension.
When the two young interlocutors (a theater scholar from Kerala and a student of art history) asked me to conduct this email dialogue, they were probably thinking of my close involvement with the broadly Marxist Journal of Arts and Ideas many years ago. This reference comes up in the interview. But I see this dialogue more as part of a set of interviews that have been proposed in recent years by young colleagues engaged in their own critical recapitulation of the decades past. This is not, I believe, a nostalgic retrospect. Witness how India self-aggrandizes itself as a nation-state, nurtures corporate oligarchies on its soil and sells itself to become a constituent member of Global Capital. The situation provokes interlocutors to initiate a process of historical recuperation where prior ideological formations are put in place—not with the hope of establishing rectitude or continuity but exactly its opposite: to markthe accelerated process of disjuncture within a national space now become the site of extreme contestation. When democratic versions of civil and political society come in the grip of rightwing ideology at the religious, economic, social and cultural fronts, a retroactive dialectic needs to be set apace. Therefore, perhaps the need for a pedagogic account of articulations and positions adopted, activated and shed by figures whose lives span the recent past.
There is much of this in the interview and the only preface it needs is this: my claim to an aesthetic bind resonated at one stage with a declared (though perhaps sanguine) partisanship. This is now unsettled and alerted by conjunctural issues. Taken into territories of harder, darker, larger questions, I take recourse to truth-telling and rhetoric; to forms of speech and styles of telling best unravelled by the sceptical interlocutor and reader.
Ameet Parameswaran and Rahul Dev: You have engaged in and theorized cultural movements and collectives that posit resistance and change vis-à-vis imperialism and communalism. How do you look back at the unfolding of these movements in the last four decades? What do you see the role of the theorist/critic of cultural practices to be in the Indian context?
Geeta Kapur: The term imperialism was demonstrably relevant until the mid-twentieth century; it may now appear to be overdetermined. Radical thinkers within the critical and creative community argue that the category and term lost one aspect of its relevance when decolonization completed its course; its usefulness was further diminished with the establishment of a unipolar world around 1989. This is ironical considering the date coincides with the fall of Soviet and European socialism; but not so ironical considering the overwhelming makeover of variously defined economies into neo-liberal consortiums: nation-states across the spectrum became willing constituents of global capital (and China’s adoption of state capitalism was in tune with it). Left-leaning cultural theorists tend now to conduct their critique using the single term capital. This conceptual compaction and determinate designation draws upon a history of Marxist thought applicable to the operations of global capitalism today. The argument that imperialism is immanent within the very logic of capitalism has not however been abandoned by critical thinkers outside the West. It still constitutes a valid category of analysis and provides a handle for ideology critique. Indian Marxists (for example, the leading political economist Prabhat Patnaik)(Prabhat Patanaik, Whatever Happened to Imperialism and other Essays (Delhi: Tulika Books, 1995).), opt for terminological continuity consistent with the material and ideological import of global capital in the Third World. Sanctioned by this position, I argue for a retroactive staging of political rhetoric in conscious contrast to the subtle euphemisms of a taken-for-granted radicalism in so much contemporary (art and culture) discourse.
Globalization is in full play within the cultural arena; and the ideological dispensation of neo-liberalism permeates the institution of art (art as institution). But there is, perhaps, less coercion, more complicity, and the deployment here of terminology such as imperialism is indeed heavy handed. Art institutions are now alert to widening the frame of their professional remit in response to changing modalities of art practice; they may even serve as sensors for such vital transformations that are underway at the more critical edge of cultural globaility: witness the innovative expositions, the unexpected turns taken by international biennale projects worldwide. But even recognizing that the art community resists deterministic ideologies, that it asserts a claim on sovereignty as a matter of faith in the creative principle, terms like hegemony and interpellation continue to be relevant. And totalizing ideologies, repudiated by post-structuralist theory, return via the compulsions of global capitalism. It is, therefore, useful to continually rethink the definition of cultural praxis. This is what an artist, art theorist and critic must ask (if not answer) when she claims the contemporary in the properly historical sense of the term.
As you know, communalism is a term coined in India to describe religious or sectarian conflict between communities. The secular is upheld against communalism by the Indian Constitution; this is then a strictly national question. The discourse on communalism and secularism is built into India’s national struggle, the Partition, and the democratic agenda of a modernizing nation-state. Even those who declare the idea of the nation to be redundant must find ways to address (and redress) sectarian conflict in India. The country is multi religious, plural and divided in terms of its ethnic, caste, and linguistic communities. Even admitting that the secular assumes rather than confers democratic rights; that it can scarcely confirm equality within a nation’s citizenry, I argue as follows. The vexed subject of Indic civilization is best addressed by prioritizing its polyvalence and, with it, a complex self-other equation which the secular mind accepts as a responsibility; by compacting the sacred and the profane, the secular imagination allows for an aesthetic encounter based on an agonistic principle; and with such contradictions (and confrontations) as its remit, the secular underscores modernist and avant-garde art practice and almost certainly serves best this historical period and its potential for cultural creativity.
AP and RD: The institutional formation of art history, cultural studies, cinema studies and performance studies has only emerged very recently and, in many cases, is still an ongoing process in India. In your theoretical writings and endeavours to open up spaces for critical enquiries, such as those published in Journal of Arts and Ideas, you have traversed these boundaries, showing the interconnections of practices and ways of historicizing. Could you elaborate how you have seen these disciplines form and interact in India and do you see a possibility of interdisciplinarity at the present stage?
GK: The Delhi-based Journal of Arts and Ideas(Published by Tulika Print Communication Services, Delhi.), conceived and published by a left-wing editorial collective, was an early platform in India for what later became the interdisciplinary field of cultural studies; indeed, the Journal is generally recognized as having initiated and archived the first phase of cultural theorizing in India. Those thrity some issues of the Journal (1982-1999) were an article of faith: the project was ingenuous and advanced in the way it proceeded to address all the arts at once: literature, theater, architecture, cinema and the visual arts. It privileged cultural practice which was in some measure derived from the example of IPTA(The first conference of IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association), held in Bombay in 1943, addressed historical crises: the Second World War and colonial India’s engagement with the Allied forces, with special pride in the Soviet Union’s role in defeating fascism; the “Quit India” movement against the British Empire; and the tragedy of the (colonial/ manmade) Bengal Famine of 1943. Representational means were provided by theater and included cinema and music. The group dispersed in 1947; inheritors have cropped up at different times and places when a battle by progressive cultural forces is required.), an inspirational moment of cultural activism in the collective memory of the Indian Left.
The discipline of cultural studies, a radical intervention at the time of Stuart Hall (and his generation), has not only acquired full institutional status, but is now systematized to become, perhaps, an over-signified pedagogical curriculum in (especially the US) academy. From that perspective, the Journal can be seen as a somewhat maverick enterprise. What needs to be acknowledged is that the authors and their diverse engagements were also in their own way systematic. They offered a historicization of art practices within a very broadly Marxist framework.
I have to add that formal protocol, transgressions, surprise and the eccentricity of art practice still gives me my own agenda; its precipitate discourse and interpretive affect lures me more than the curricular structure of cultural studies. But that is, I suppose, on account of my being a polemical critic and not a well-appointed scholar; or, on the other hand, a writer caught within an aesthetic bind…The Journal gained its historical and cultural valence from such fairly upfront and often contrarian positions within and beyond the editorial team that ran it for over fifteen years.
AP and RD: The question of nation has been one of the most contested topics in Marxist theory. Your writings have been critical in positing nation as the site of struggle against imperialism even as they theorize and highlight difference. Could you elaborate on how you see the relationship between nation and difference?
GK: Yes. Until recently I have engaged with the national-modern aesthetic but also, you must remember, a south-generated avant-garde. Both engagements use praxiological criteria. But the agendas of the nation-state (rather, the national-state, a term preferred by Partha Chatterjee(Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986). Reprint in the UK, Europe and the US several times.)) are now so roundly critiqued that I have to add substantial (and, I must confess, expedient!) qualifiers. Ironically, that is also the case with my use of the term avant-garde. Both, the national and the avant-garde paradigms are considered to have been superseded; the periodization of modernism, the exigencies of a global economy, the call for a global public sphere, and the vision of a heterotropic cultural ambit, makes redundant the resistance and radicalism that my chosen categories claimed. The assertion of independence declared by the decolonized peoples, and the utopian universalism of the avant-gardes are features of a lapsed twentieth century.
In intrepid style or, shall we say, with faith in recursive/reflexive ideation, I do still use the terminology of nation and state, avant-garde and utopianism; and I do still find these to be well-sustained historical markers in the making of the modern ? as also in its unravelling.(I acknowledge my debt to Frederic Jameson, to his categories of analysis and his preferred tropes for envisioning a future beyond the capitalist dystopia.) The categories must of course be radically recalibrated precisely by taking into account the critique posed by alternative positions, even outright refutations.
My work (as art writer and critic who serves as a cultural theorist outside the academy) attempts formal analysis and contextual critique of contemporary practice that has become strongly conceptual, archival, documentary and self-reflexive. More ambitiously, it attempts semiotic reading, and writerly interpretations of individual art works. Good sense persuades me to withhold any claims to linguistic investigation as inscribed within the semiotic/structuralist grid; or claims to hermeneutic readings with philosophic extrapolations built into the interpretative process. Thus it is with a relatively modest methodology that I approach the issue of difference and give it the shape of alterity ? a contingent category that extends itself to political/activist ideologies as well as to agonistic forms of cultural difference and cutting-edge art practice. It is also what ignites the aesthetic regime to which in a sense I am bound.
AP and RD: The theoretical landscape of the last four decades has seen the positing of the category of the Third World, which postcolonial discourse displaced. And right now we see the emergence of globalism displacing postcolonial concerns. Can you elaborate on these ideological and discursive shifts in the context of culture?
GK: Given a chance I would still go back to the term Third World. If there is any sanction for such recall it is because of the promise and even perhaps the honourable failure of a third alternative. But did all of the following fail: The decolonizing discourse of Gandhi, on the one hand, and Fanon, on the other; the many forms of revolution and resistance with Mao in China; Castro in Cuba; H? Chí Minh fighting US imperialism in Vietnam until as late as the 1970s; the vision for new solidarities formulated in Bandung in 1955 and the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961; the revolutionary call in the 1966 Tricontinental Conference in Havana that gave the emerging Third World its ideological force? Why, then, is this failed promise being reinscribed in the global discourse ? is it, perhaps, that it still allows us to think through and beyond the pragmatics of the given? Triangulating with thesis and antithesis, the prefix third anticipates a dialectic; it can, if only hypothetically, confront corporate oligarchies and global capital that generate alienation and violence.
Postcolonial discourse, ubiquitous after Edward Said, remained affiliated to the historical process of decolonization; it also became a model for the multicultural ethos of the 1980s. But as a strong political category of investigation (in the hands of Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy; Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha and Arjun Appadurai; and the sharp interlocutors among Subaltern Studies historians, especially Partha Chatterjee and Dipesh Chakrabarty), postcolonial discourse went far beyond multiculturalism or even cultural plurality. The calibrated intransigence of difference (to deploy a paradox) which inspired the best phase of identity politics was transformed to advance contemporary creative praxis by critics and curators committed to break the hegemonic criteria of modern and contemporary art – prominently, Rasheed Araeen, Gerardo Mosquera, Okwui Enwezor (among several others).
Meanwhile, postcolonial formulations may have run their course and become too familiar. It may now be the mandatory metadiscourse in cultural studies and offer funding criteria for regional departments in the US academy. It may even be devoid of theoretical and political rigour. And yet, I have tried to excise the term postcolonial from my vocabulary, and failed.
Globalism and globality are now prefixed to every utterance, political, economic, cultural and aesthetic. And while there is no way to escape it, there is a way to annotate it: by qualifying and critiquing and disaggregating these in every instance so that there is neither euphoria nor doom about the global but, rather, a diligent account of the systems and consequences that regulate global operations. To this we may add, if somewhat ironically, a rhetorical wager: that we throw up a series of alternatives that riddle the monolith of capitalist globalization if not capital as such. It is a moot point whether terms like progressive nationalism; cultural cosmopolitanism; utopian universalism (even discarded terms like imperialism, decolonization, neo-imperialism) may re-enter the frame as polemical counterpoints. The global needs to be bestowed a vocabulary that addresses citizenship within the expanded public sphere but also at the same time the disenfranchised populace (the disregarded demos). The conjoined paradigm of the national and the global invites critical investigation as well as a negative aesthetic that embodies alienation, dissent, resistance towards the deterministic aspects of global culture framed by a deeply flawed global economy.
Irit Rogoff’s phrase terra infirma(Irit Rogoff, Terra Infirma: Geography’s Visual Culture (London: Routledge, 2000).) may be relevant in speaking about the globe; in which case, coercive gobality may turn out to be a destructible edifice after all. To unravel what is hailed as the triumph of capital, cultural practitioners may be looking to do something presumptuously ambitious: to make voluntary manoeuvres; to initiate a deterritorialized space-time traverse. And thus to signal an aftermath; to reconstitute the world order in terms other than nationalism, imperialism and Empire.
AP and RD: One of the central debates within Marxism is how one understands capitalism as a global system and its spatial dimension. In your own work, you have at various points posited the term disjuncture, a spatial metaphor for locating the historical contradictions of experience for Indian artists, and how disjuncture allows Indian artists to bring together what might seem antinomous experiences, forms and idioms, and claims. In the contemporary moment of economic globalization, does this disjuncture throw up something radically different from earlier contexts? Could you elaborate on this?
GK: You are right to pick out the word disjuncture, I started using it to express my discontent with the simple binaries that characterized discussions from the 1960s to the ’80s: the terms, continuity and change, tradition and modernity, framed many symposia, in India and across the Third World. The term also served my purpose in prefacing, albeit somewhat experimentally, the rearticulation of the concept of avant-garde outside Euroamerica. Later I deployed it, as you say, as a spatial metaphor, whereby I could make a transition to the historically useful and temporally volatile concept of conjuncture. Stuart Hall has said that it is useful to read (the overused term) context, as conjuncture; I willingly do that ? to free myself of the responsibility of spelling out social, political, cultural contexts over and again when what I really want to do is to address creative praxis here and now.
I have argued (in my book When Was Modernism(Geeta Kapur, When Was Modernism: contemporary cultural practice in India (Delhi: Tulika Books, 2000, reprinted 2001, 2007).) and since), that disjuncture as a concept-in-use allows me to interpret how Indian artists read, understand and participate in calibrating the language(s) of international modernism. That it makes me see the processes of alignment and disalignment ? not as passively received contingencies but as strategies that are tangential and even possibly tendentious. They are disruptive of assumed selves, prescribed identities, and given (art) histories. So when you ask what is the valance of the term disjuncture now ? in our increasingly globalized world ?I will refer to what I quoted above: if context can be read as conjuncture, then surely disjuncture is its symmetrical counterpoint. The twin terms signal the time of now: context fractured by the volatility of historical forces. Indeed, conjuncture/disjuncture make the contours of the contemporary jagged and sharp, therefore legible. This not only pushes us to exercise our imaginations and go beyond the local-global and the global-global, but also to prefigure some form of heterotopia where antinomies flourish and cotemporalities break the hold of global time (determined/monitored, as Prabhat Patnaik might say, by the speedometer of finance capital!)
AP and RD: Since the Parliamentary Elections in May 2014, the consolidation of the ‘Hindutva’ ideology with the discourse of (capitalalist) ‘development’ is underway. After the unprecedented results of the elections in 2004, you envisaged the possibility of developing a discoursealong the co-ordinates of citizenship, culture, and art practice. In the present scenario, would we need to re-evaluate our cultural practices to enhance and posit critical secular values?
GK: You have posed and answered your own question, which is perhaps as it should be when like-minded people converse. In 2004, after the Indian electorate defeated the rightwing rule of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and voted in the centrist Congress Party, I wrote an essay suggesting that citizenship, culture and art practice promised fresh conjunctural possibilities; and that the needle of the compass pointed at the more radical manoeuvres of the documentary medium.(“A Cultural Conjuncture in India: Art Into Documentary”, Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaniety, eds.,Terry Smith, Okwui Enzewor, Nancy Condee, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2008.) That is to say, the documentary form, in its manifold manifestations, might, indeed, be the portent of the cultural avant-garde in the context of a liberal state and culturally heterogeneous (economically homogenizing) world. I spoke especially about the political vanguardism of filmmaker Anand Patwardhan and the documentary poetics of filmmaker and artist Amar Kanwar ? investigative, self-reflexive, with a slow unravelling of the narrative of development in our country and in the world.
In the 2014 parliamentary elections, a substantial section (though in actual fact only 31%) of the Indian electorate has reversed that ten-year Congress rule and given the BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the mandate to lunge into an unembarrassed embrace of the corporate model. The present government’s development-and-governance agenda is expedient; it promises a triumphant break-through for global capital. That this will galvanize India’s political economy blows the minds of the Indian middle class and enslaves them to India Inc.’s managerial rule. Moreover, super-power ambitions lures this aspirational class into accepting a frontal form of religious majoritarianism: Hindutva. Accommodating the once banned mother’ organization (RSS or Rashtriya Sevak Sangh), the state allows proxy plants by outfits conducting ideological surveillance. Today, India may be poised to accept an authoritarian (proto-fascist) form of centralized governance that seriously undermines democratic structures put in place by the Constitution of India.
Perhaps secular India has never been more vulnerable and in worse danger than after the 2014 elections. Will this mandate overpower the agenda of political equality among all religions? Will the populace escape the traps laid by proficient and belligerent nationalists? What can we assume about the values of citizenship, culture, and art practice within this kind of (nation) space? And does the secular call ? in tune with democracy and modernity ? suffice in resisting such a rightwing takeover?
There are many struggles on many fronts in today’s India. In conjunction with the religious, the caste issue remains paramount. All this has bearings on culture and the arts. Prescient articulation by civilizationally oppressed, democratically deprived citizen-subjects of the Indian state form the basis of Susie Tharu’s argument. She theorizes what she calls the “Right to the Aesthetic”(“Right to the Aesthetic and the Faculty of Art”, Unpublished lecture by Susie Tharu, delivered February 23 2012 at the inauguration of the School of Creative and Cultural Expressions, Ambedkar University, New Delhi. Susie Tharu, cultural studied scholar, feminist theoretician and activist has, more recently, devoted her scholarship to Dalit history and literature. See, Satynanda and Susi Tharu, ed. Dossier I and II, New Dalit Writing from South India: No Alphabet in Sight and From those Stubs Steel Nibs are Sprouting (Noida: HarperCollins Publishers, India, 2011).) as a democratic right whereby we witness the transformation of the very principle of cultural representation. Given the precarious subject-position and absent citizenship of the Dalits,(The word Dalit, derives from Sanskrit and means ground down, suppressed, crushed. First used in the nineteenth century, Dalit became a preferred form of confrontational self-designation among the “untouchable” castes and signals participation in protest movements against caste hierarchy in the twentieth century. This became an irreversibly modern movement under the leadership of Dalit jurist, Dr. BR Ambedkar, who is also the author of the Indian Constitution.) the compound equation of the citizen-subject assumed by the national imaginary becomes doubtful, if not false. What Dalit scholar-activists show is how this very instability produces systematic dissensus and collective empowerment. In her essay, “Right to the Aesthetic”, Tharu signals one such gesture. There are other possibilities. In line with Brecht’s theatrical instructions, the Dalit writer may stage voluntary alienation. On another plane, the Dalit practioner may turn the perverse upper-cast injunction of production as pollution(A phrase used by Dalit interlocutor Kancha Illiah in a talk with the same title in Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Delhi.) by offering techne (technique) and facture (texture), rather than sensibility and affect as criteria to set apace a materialist allegory of means, relations and objects of production. And, with it, a counter aesthetic that defies ready consumption.
Even as I return to the question of art practice, I find myself usefully stalled. I cannot grasp the full (aesthetic) import and (political) exigency of such radical otherness; I cannot go sufficiently far along the road suggested by Susie Tharu; I cannot, at this stage of my learning, find the courage to invert the assumptions of modern, secular citizenship within a democratically constituted republic and submit this to an annihilating critique. And this is how I must conclude this interview, on a note that vibrates along an ontological track and snaps back to uncover what may be called (after Fredric Jameson) the political unconscious haunting our individual and social existence.
New Delhi, November 2014.
To be published in Marx Vayanakal (Engagement with Marx), a book in Malayalm, edited by TV Madhu (Department of Philosophy, University of Calicut, Kerala, India.)
This conversation is the second in our series of interviews with members of the ARTMargins print journal editorial board, from Eastern Europe and beyond.