By Saitya Brata Das
At the heart of the phenomenon of Sahitya Academy Award winning writers returning their awards, one that has been the subject of much heated discussions in last few days, at the heart of these events lies the following question: how to think of responsibility today, a responsibility that is inextricably bound up with the question of the possibility of contestation, and, concomitantly, the very possibility of the political for writers, intellectuals, artists etc.
The question of the political has constantly been submerged again and again in the chaos of voices that rise so loud that the essential and truly decisive question cannot be posed. It thus appears that the political at stake for these writers and artists, the political in the name of which these writers are voicing their protest or contesting, is somehow not commensurable with what professional politicians (this includes professional intellectuals, those intellectual apologists of given and dominant hegemonic regimes) mean by “politics”. It is an imperative and a responsibility now, more than ever before (that means “urgently” and “immediately”), to bring forth to visibility, to manifestation, this anathema or this “scandal” that lies in the hiatus between the political in the name of which an infinite contestation is being carried out by intellectuals and artists, and, on the other hand, the politics of conditioned negotiations and transactions between powers, forces, gazes.
This appeared in an exemplary mode, like a flash of lightning only to disappear again, immediately, in the vast sky of darkness, in one of the countless debates in one of English news channels recently. Three writers and artists of renown who have returned their awards were invited along with a professional intellectual of a certain political party to comment and discuss the Union Minster’s trashing “comment” that this is an unjustified thing for intellectuals to do, a thing which is nothing more than a “paper rebellion”, a “manufactured crisis” for the Prime Minister, an impotent attempt without much consequence.
The Union Minister explains the phenomenon in the following way: those intellectuals and artists are now at odds with the current regime; they are those who enjoyed the patronage of the previous regime but are no longer pampered. As such, this phenomenon is none other than an irrational resentment, this whole “paper rebellion”; a bad politics, a “politics by other means”, which means, “means” without “means”. As if, there is something essentially bad about “paper” (this “paper rebellion”), for it constantly refuses to use force or power, and yet constantly, that means hypocritically, it accepts to be benefited by (another) power and (another) force, which for the Union Minster is the other political party, which itself is now constantly mobilizing forces to come back to power once again.
What is symptomatic – and this is important for any good diagnosis – of this Minister’s trashing comment, and subsequently of the professional intellectual at the service of the dominant regime in the debate, is the refusal to understand that the infinite contestation, wherein lies the true political and true responsibility, that the writers and artists “symbolically” (that is without force, without power, without gaze) carry out their resistance, cannot be reduced to the conditioned politics of negotiations between forces, powers, gazes. That means, the infinite contestation must constantly open the realm of conditionality of politics to something unconditional, to something like justice, which infinitely and always overflows, exceeds, surpasses any given (whether right or left or centric; whether conservative, radical or liberal) regime of political power at any given historical juncture.
Herein lies the aporia of responsibility, which is the very aporia of the political, for writers and intellectuals: whether understood from the perspective of a political regime that has forces at its disposal to legitimise its hegemony (and it is all “democratic”, as if democracy is automatically self-legitimate) or from the perspective of a political regime that may come into dominance sometime later but now has been dethroned from dominance, there is politics only in this sense: “if you don’t support me or if you criticize me, that means you are on the other side”. This concept of politics is totalizing; it is exhausted in determination of it as conditioned negotiations between forces, powers, gazes.
A non-subscription to this politics is thought to be even worse: a writer is irresponsible (because she supports neither me nor my enemy), apolitical (she refuses to contest power in the name of power, force in the name of force, violence in the name of violence), and even worse, is an opportunist. And yet, thought carefully and responsibly, in this irresponsibility lies the highest responsibility for writers and artists; in this apolitics lies a higher political. The political irresponsibility is apolitics and yet political in profounder sense: this aporia cannot be understood by the one who either has legitimized forces at its disposal or who is working towards such legitimacy. In that sense, the responsibly irresponsible metapolitics of writers has nothing to do with legitimation; it is rather infinite delegitimation of any given worldly powers at any given historical point, and hence its contestation is infinite: it does not rest satisfied with juxtaposing one power against another power, or privileging once force against another force.
Therefore, writing and creating works of art or pursuing truth in philosophy, all these fragile things that they do – fragile because they don’t have forces at their disposal – this fragility is excessive: they overflow, like a surplus, the entire forceful and powerful realm of politics. That this apolitical politics, or this political or metapolitics is a good thing is seen in the precise way in which the dominant powerful regimes feel attacked. Here is the enigma of the work of art: in its powerlessness, it opens up something like an infinite justice, not yet actualized in any worldly regimes of power, which makes power – despite its measureless appearance – limited or finite. This disinvestment or this withdrawing of stakes from any given worldly regimes that constantly need from us normative obligations, this rebellion is apolitics and political at the same time.
It is the task of the intellectuals, writers and artists to be irresponsible in the name of this infinite responsibility: that is, in creating works of art, and pursing truth to show this yawning abyss, itself a fragile abyss, between politics and the political, between law and justice, between force and truth, between power and peace, and to let allow forces to confront this abyss wherein they are paralyzed, dazed, transfixed.
Saitya Brata Das teaches philosophy and literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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