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The anxiety of performance

By November 27, 2018No Comments

Source : The Hindu – LITERARYREVIEW    –  Saikat Majumdar

What can literature do to defy the boredom of modernity? On its own terms?

Around the end of August this year, I spent a couple of days at the Mumbai Film Festival. Like all carnivals, it had its cluster of interesting moments. On one hand there was the actor Sonam Kapoor protesting, very suavely on the podium, that she is clumsy and out-of-place anywhere outside her home. On the other end, there was the writer Manoranjan Byapari launching, with not even a dash of suave clumsiness, the fierce book of his life as Dalit thinker and writer to an audience who might set the story to film. The platform that brought this together was a two-day event sponsored by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image, ‘Word-to-Screen,’ designed by Kiran Rao of Aamir Khan Productions and curated by Arpita Das of Yoda Press. Now in its third year, ‘Word-to-Screen’ celebrates and facilitates the transformation of books to films.

I was invited to speak at the author’s corner, which I did, and had a fine time of it, dining, wining and hanging out with several authors, publishers, and a wide range of people from the entertainment industry: producers, directors, architects of platforms such as Netflix, Amazon, Sony and Star. All of this right across from Jalsa, Amitabh Bachchan’s residence, which no taxi-driver in Mumbai ever fails to point out while driving past.

Content creators

Some strange things also happened there over the two days. I kept hearing about something called ‘content’, which apparently writers were supposed to produce, one of the many ingredients that go into the making of a web series or film, along with costume, set, make-up, location and cinematography.

Trends, I learned through gossip over palak paneer, had changed. Even a couple of years ago, producers and film studios, be it Yash Raj or Aditya Chopra, would show up here, looking for ‘content’. But these days, someone said, producers of feature films wanted nothing under a budget of ₹1,000 crore — apparently people now go to movie-halls only to experience films of the scale of Bahubalior Avatar. For everything else, to be watched at home or on your mobile device, there is a Netflix series. Web platforms, naturally, have replaced film producers at events like these, as most books in the world cannot quite promise ₹1,000 crore spectacles.

Either way, I had never thought of writers as producing ‘content,’ which appears to be some permutation of story, character, and context to which the film or web series can give corporeal body.

Some writers and publishers shared discontent, in hushed whispers, about being seen pregnant with content. Others seemed very content and stepped up to bridge the gap, pitching books through prepared videos and other digital material.

Was that a blueprint of the work to be done, or a slice of the labour of the cinematic producer who was being seduced to adopt it? Who could tell? In this world, probably the most generous imagination of books was as sheet music, a promise of something that is incomplete till made visual.

I had never seen literature reveal the anxiety of performance in this way before. Literature was now only ‘content’, deeply discontented till given the legitimacy of a film, TV show, or web series.

If we are willing to stretch our historical vision, there is nothing much wrong with this sensibility. This was how Shakespeare imagined his plays. The printed text was just a cheat-sheet to aid and abet the real thing: the stage performance, which drew the crowd and kept them enthralled.

But between Shakespeare’s times and ours, notably around the 18th century, something major changed in Europe. Books came into their own.

The popularity of print culture had something to do with it, and, on the whole, that thing called modernity, which was globalised through colonialism. Parts of that modernity are now in the process of getting antiquated, or at least facing some kind of profoundly transformative crisis.

Not the modernity of science, technology and capitalism, nor that of the nation-state, nor even the modernity of the individual, her private life, and her place in the free market and the democratic state — those are fine.

Shaky edifice

Some aspects of modernity, though, are not doing so well today. The first plank that seems to have come loose is that of secularism. Religion now has a vice-like grip, not only of politics but of elected governments, whether in the U.S. where the Vice-President prefers Creationism over evolution or in India where a monk heads the most populous State. Cosmopolitanism — the ability to welcome and celebrate strangers, as imagined by Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant — is another casualty in a world where lands, homes and bodies are ripped apart based on the construction of the self and the other, to be derived not only from abstract faith but now also from the possible identity of the meat on one’s plate.

Finally, there is the species most endangered of all — the dreaded L word.

In December 2016, speaking on a panel on culture wars between the Left and the Right at the Bangalore Literature Festival, I had asked if 2016, the year of Trump and Brexit, would mark the death of liberalism. One of my co-panelists, Aakar Patel from Amnesty India, was quick in his ironic retort: “Liberalism is boring. Fundamentalism always manages to stage itself as sexy.”

Can you hear the echo? Books are boring. Reading is boring. There is a technology subplot here, but that is never the whole story. The entire edifice of liberal modernity is now shaky. The mess of secularism is one dimension of this new order. The dulling of enthusiasm around reading is another. Look closely. The same river runs through.

What can literature do to defy the boredom of modernity? On its own terms?

We have arrived at a moment when literature needs to reassess its relation with liberal modernity. Literature was embedded, economically and technologically, in the rise of print and a large middle-class with the means, leisure, and literacy to sit and read in private. Such were the structural conditions of its birth. The spiritual conditions included the very conception of literature as a modern art form, with its preoccupation with authorial subjectivity, artistic interiority, creative originality, and its relationship with verisimilitude.

Back to the pre-modern

The modernity within which both the idea and practice of literature is embedded is still here, for the most part. But much of the world feels restless with this modernity. Writers and champions of books must take note of this restlessness, which fuses politics with cultural consumption.

One of the vital things literature can do at this moment is to disrupt its embeddedness in the modern. And try to find the pre-modern elements that got lost or subdued in the transition to modernity — the religious, the ritualistic, the communal, the performative. Their loss or depletion is profound. Paradoxically, the very emergence of literature is inseparable from this loss.

But the possibilities of re-forging connections with the non-modern are virtually endless. The celebration of the provincial over the cosmopolitan. The disruption of bourgeois rationality. The betrayal of individualism, privacy and originality. In sum, the very displacement of the notion of literature itself.

For the crisis of literature in the public sphere is essentially the crisis of liberal modernity. A ranting, tweeting president at the helm of the so-called free world feels like a fitting climax to a longer trajectory of erosion of liberal, progressive and modern values so dear to the global bourgeoisie. More immediately, it also marks the erosion of the social, psychological, aesthetic, and material conditions within which literature became an essential experience of modernity.

Because the religious, the irrational, the communal and the performative were subdued or domesticated to shape the modern literary space, the performance anxiety that haunts literature today is merely a return of the repressed. It is a reminder that the time is ripe for literature to embody different rhythms and patterns. I’m imagining a kind of literature that is more musical, more visual, more theatrical.

Poetry, for instance, that neglected stepchild, has now revived in vibrant new micro-lives across cities through a culture of performance, be it in cafés, galleries or informal social collectives, and now on YouTube and Instagram.

Poetry was communal, religious, ritualistic and performative before it became a new art form in print and joined the culture of private reading. Even as we delight in written poetry, it is heartening to see poetry reclaim its pre-modern life.

Pushed to the limits

It is prose, and especially prose fiction, for which the challenge is the greatest. Prose fiction, which hinges on the invented story read in private, is the special child of Enlightenment modernity. Its crisis is the greatest; neither print nor the culture of reading is what it used to be. At the same time, the expanding appetite for the creative reworking of mythical stories indicates a predilection for pre-modern narrations, where audiences had no expectation of an original story but looked to retellings of stories from the collective community memory. Fiction’s disruption of modernity, in many ways, must be a disruption of its own origin, creating prose that pushes to the limit its own literariness — where it was contained in the abstraction of language, its capacity to be anthropological, its embeddedness in the rational.

Happily, there is still much literature that performs but is bereft of the anxiety of performance. Literature which doesn’t seek performative legitimacy in another medium. It is complete without it, and yet disruptive of the complacency of liberal modernity in its subversive performativity.

Arundhati Roy once said about her book, The God of Small Things, that it is a deeply visual but stubbornly unfilmable book. In other words, we need literature that performs, but on its own terms, not on those of others.

The writer’s novels include The Firebird (2015) and the forthcoming The Scent of God (2019). @_saikatmajumdar.


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