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Ideas and literary activism

Amit Chaudhuri and (picture right by Sushroota Sarkar) David Graham

Is it possible to think of a notion of activism in the field of the literary as opposed to activism that is born of the free market and the globalised world? Are these two ideas necessarily contrary or are there spaces of dialogue between them? Consequently, is literary activism entirely shorn of questions of politics and dissent, especially in the context of the global economic downturn of 2008 and the rapidly changing dimensions of our everyday lived spaces - both physical and virtual?

These are some of the questions that emerged as central concerns of the three-day symposium held by the University of East Anglia in India from December 2 to 4 (the first two days at Jadavpur University and the final day at Presidency University). The panel discussions after the symposium, held in the evenings, underscored the sheer range and ever-changing nature of these debates.

The first two panels, on December 2 and 3 at Seagull Bookstore, sought to understand literary activism in the context of the present socio-political scenario where censorship is no longer simply centralised but has numerous local manifestations. The first panel, Publishing: The Nervous Mainstream and the Stubborn Independents, discussed the nature of independent publishing practices today especially in the face of the marked polarisation in the industry that has put the middle-brow publishers in jeopardy. It also foregrounded the crucial notion of what David Graham (independent publisher, formerly CEO of Canongate and Granta) termed "the biodiversity of publishing" - something that would necessitate a stubborn splintering of the secular liberal consensus of what "can be" or "should be" considered literary as opposed to the market-driven, risk-averse approach of mainstream publishing practices.

A more context-specific instance of this notion of literary activism and biodiversity of practices could be seen in the second panel, The Journal of Ideas in the Time of Globalisation. The panel sought to understand the crucial link between writing and politics in the globalised world, especially in the context of the journal and its illustrious history as a mode of cultural, literary and political intervention. Instances of journals like Caravan, the Bengali journal Desh, and n+1 served as the context for debating the co-existence of diverse reflective and analytical practices and the relevance of the journal of ideas at such a juncture.

The third panel, The Writer's Polemics in the Age of the Free Market, held at Presidency cafeteria on the last day of the symposium, quite fittingly sought to understand the third major factor in the domain of literary activism - the writers and their personal polemics - especially in the context of the globalised free market. Drawing from diverse experiences - poet Jamie McKendrick, novelist and critic Amit Chaudhuri, novelist and critic Dubravka Ugresic, Benjamin Kunkel, the founder editor of n+1 - the panel discussed the writers' polemics as individual modes of resistance and reflection. In an ideologically polarised world where the cultural space for polemics has shrunk, and resistance and subversion have become commodities unto themselves, the personal narratives foregrounded the neoteric aspect of literary activism, and indeed, of the changing notion of the literary itself.

The writer is PhD scholar,Centre for Studies in Social Sciences


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