Lit-Fest and Corporates: reflections/thoughts in the context of the Chomsky-Prashad’s ‘censorship’ debate


  • December 11, 2020
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Sending out the collective letter to Prof Chomsky by a few activists, was precisely an act of being cognizant of “capitalism’s contradictions.” Without that letter, the event would have gone on, un-interrupted. There would be no reading of a statement to expose Tata’s crimes. There would have been no cancellation of the event. This was precisely a moment when capitalism’s limit to permit opposition to its crimes by intellectuals was exposed, and what we got to know is precisely this: when asked to be accountable of its crimes, capitalism doesn’t speak in the language of contradictions. It speaks in the language of suppression. Nandini Dhar writes about the complex relationship between Lit-Fest’s and Corporate sponsors in the context of the recent Chomsky-Prashad ‘censorship’ debate.

 

 

1.

On November 19, 2020, a few activists noticed something both extremely exceptional and extremely normal. And that happens to be Noam Chomsky’s participation in Tata Lit Fest. There is nothing exceptional about watching writers, artists, academics and public intellectuals gracing corporate-sponsored platforms. The kings and queens are dead, so are their courts. But one can safely say, the tradition of the court-poets continues. Often, through the transmuted forms of corporate fellowships, sponsors and lit-fests.

 

Especially in India, ever since the post-liberalisation in the early 1990s, and particularly since the massive land acquisitions spree by the corporates since the early years of 2000s, the mining and mineral giants have been organizing more and more of such courts. In fact, privatized lit-festivals, organized by the corporate conglomerates and giants trump those organized by the government. In fact, we have a long list of court-poets who hog those glittering lit-festivals. Take a look through the Facebook page “Tata Kills” and you will know. Yet, Chomsky? At Tata Lit Fest! The man who had called on folks repeatedly to boycott British, French and American corporations on occupied territories?

 

Even more exceptional was the fact that Chomsky was supposed to hold a discussion on his recently published book Internationalism or Extinction, and since Tata has definitely contributed quite generously towards the planetary extinction that Chomsky is concerned about, his decision to speak at a Tata event, seemed odd indeed. As soon as Chomsky’s name on the festival’s website was spotted, an appeal letter was drafted, and signed by concerned activists and intellectuals, urging Chomsky to boycott the event. It was pointed out to him in the letter, the corporate group has had a long history of forceful displacement, human rights violations and environmental plunder in India.

 

The letter also pointed out, such literature festivals and cultural events organised and funded by the corporates are evidently attempts to obfuscate their crimes from public consciousness – an ideological whitewashing of sorts. A copy of the appeal was mailed to Prof Chomsky, and both the public appeal and Chomsky’s personal response to it was published in two independent media portals – GroundXero and Countercurrents. In his response to the public appeal, Chomsky asserted that while he would continue with the programme, along with Vijay Prashad, his interlocutor and interviewer, Vijay would begin the event by reading out a statement written by both of them, clearly stating how they feel about corporations such as the Tata, and the list of Tata’s crimes in particular.

 

The event featuring an online talk by Chomsky on his book was scheduled on November 20, 2020 at 9 pm. In the afternoon of the same day, Prashad and Chomsky received an email from the organisers stating cryptically ‘I am sorry to inform you that due to unforeseen circumstances, we have to cancel your talk today’. A few hours later, Chomsky and Prashad published their statement on People’s Dispatch, asking a “simple” question, was this censorship. Almost soon after, a writer, Roshan Ali, withdrew from his participation in the fest, citing in his tweets, the cancellation/censoring of the Chomsky-Prashad talk as the reason.

 

Following a public debate and controversy over the issue, on 22 November, Anil Dharker, the director of the festival, issued an official statement regarding the cancellation of Prof Noam Chomsky’s talk at @tatalitlive. The official statement by Dhankar clearly pointed out that the festival with TATA as its main sponsor is not a platform for free expression of someone’s specific agenda. It added “The expression of such an agenda – whether against a specific organisation, a corporation or an individual – is therefore misplaced in the discussions at our festival.

 

While debates over corporate sponsorship of art, literature and academic enterprises are not new by any means, this is indeed one of the most significant instances where a progressive luminary, such as Chomsky, was prevented from speaking, in order to maintain the “integrity” of a lit-fest. Quite predictably, the Indian literati has been attempting to make sense of both the event and the cancellation of the event ever since. One can say, the emergence of this open discussion within the spaces of the Indian liberal literary sphere, too, is a welcome change, given the issues of corporate sponsorship have been historically treated within such spheres as a given condition for the thriving of a vibrant cultural scenario. Taken for granted, and therefore, beyond any debates.

 

Earlier this year, a similar issue was raised regarding the Jaipur Literature Festival. Since Zee happens to be one of the primary sponsors of JLF, and for anyone in India, familiar with the former’s role in the recent Hindutva-fascist politics, participation at JLF should logically go against his/her public anti-fascist, anti-communal stand, a few interlocutors have argued. The arguments that were put forward by the participating individuals were not that different from the one that tend to come up every time the issue of the participation of “progressive” artists and intellectuals in corporate-sponsored festivals are brought up – we will use their platforms to speak against them. However, once the festival began, and the lawns of the Diggi Palace were thronged by anti-NRC-NPR-CAA protestors – mostly youth and students – they were manhandled by the security personnel and thrown out of the ground.

 

Writers who have attended the event, and who themselves admitted that they haven’t thought much about the politics of funding before, were forced to reflect critically upon the fact. One wonders, how would JLF authorities have reacted, if even a few of the self-proclaimed anti-fascist writers and intellectuals had shown the backbone to join the anti-CAA-NPR-NRC protestors? Or had organized one themselves inside the premises?

 

In that context, the cancellation of the Chomsky-Prashad event at the Tata Lit Fest carries the debate a step further.

 

2.

The Chomsky-Prashad debacle has brought into light certain questions. In light of such questions, this particular essay is seeking to address itself to those who call themselves “leftists”, or even better “Marxists,” and still, continue to take part in the corporate-sponsored lit-fests. We intend them to be the primary audience of this essay, since, to be a “leftist” or “Marxist”, in this world, one needs to be especially mindful about two things – the complicated operations and structural constitution of capital, and the resistances to such. Liberals, as such, have no responsibility regarding these matters. A case in point is Annie Zaidi’s essay on Scroll:

 

Art is a lifeboat, a raft we cobble together from scraps left on the shore after a shipwreck. We work with these materials – loss, hope, bewilderment, loneliness, caricature, dependence, vengeance, fleeting moments of joy, and terror. The rich and the powerful know that for any society to remain stable and sane, a little truth must survive. Destroy it, squeeze it too hard, and you get a society that is unable to breathe. Such a world turns on itself, starts to feed on itself.

 

Art may or may not survive without the support of sponsors, but a world without artists’ critique and intellectual conflicts has had its tongue cut out, its gut corroded.

 

Note the curious absence of two categories from the list that Zaidi forwards as the foundation of art—anger and resistance. In the same way, she is vague and non-committal about the role of corporates in sustaining art, she also can’t think of dissent and resistance to be the foundational emotions that can prompt one to create art. And, this is precisely the purview of a liberal artist-intellectual. And, while we have deep differences with Zaidi on these questions, we are not going to blame her for coding them in the way that much.  At least not as much as we hold the leftists responsible. Because, to be a liberal, is to suffer from a disease called corporate realism, a state of mind that does not allow one to think of art-making and distribution – as well as the world at large – beyond corporate control.

 

But, in our political simple-mindedness, we had assumed, that’s not what being a “leftist” or “Marxist” means, by any means.

 

In other words, we believe, there is a much bigger responsibility that the leftist intellectuals possess in this matter.

 

Let’s make one thing clear at the very outset. Neither Chomsky nor Prashad were, by any means, the only “leftists” or “social justice” folks who adorned the Tata panels. There was, for example, Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of the celebrated, American leftist magazine Jacobin. There was Jayati Ghosh, the Indian economist. And neither of them, to the best of our knowledge, cancelled their participation, or provided any explanations regarding their presence in the festival, even after the Chomsky-Prashad’s session was cancelled by the festival authorities, and the mainstream newspapers were compelled to devote a few sentences to the occurrence. Let’s also make this clear. Before his panel with Chomsky, Prashad had another panel scheduled, and that one had gone on uninterrupted.

 

Of course, our expectations from Vijay Prashad are really minimal. We know him predominantly as the guy who had been the international face of the Indian parliamentary left – especially, CPI (M)’s – attempting to re-package its incapacitated history to the international left audience as a slightly more attractive one. Yes, he is a Nandigram apologist. And, to know about his previous political stances a little better, google his statement on Tapashi Malik, a young woman allegedly raped and killed by the CPIM party’s goons during the anti-landgrab movement against the TATA in Singur in West Bengal a decade or so ago. But still, one can always hope for a fellow leftist’s change of heart, no?

 

There is, then, a pattern here. A pattern that needs to be understood politically. What comes out of Sunkara and Ghosh’s participation is that, a section of the leftist intellectuals do not see any problems in showing up in events organized by corporations which have a clear record of human right violations and environmental genocides, the knowledge of  much of which are available in the public domain. It is difficult to believe that any of these folks did not know about Tata’s crimes. One can only speculate, that they are not stupid enough to think, these crimes have nothing to do with literature and cultural festivals organized by these corporates, in a world where capital not only determines every aspect of our existences, but also conjoins seemingly disparate entities into a capital-centric totality.

 

Let’s be clear here. Neither Sunkara, nor Ghosh, nor Chomsky, nor Prashad, quite needed the platform provided by Tata to make their voices heard. Especially, Sunkara, whose work as an editor and publisher of the leftist magazines such as Jacobin and Catalyst, have earned the respect of the global left much before Tata Fest invited him with a platform to speak. In fact, one can say, it is Tata which is, in fact, riding upon the radical capital that leftist cultural and knowledge workers, such as Sunkara have acquired, through actual backbreaking political, organizing, editorial and publishing work. And, corporations such as Tata are doing so, precisely to create their own sanitized faces, a form of “left-washing”, so to say.

 

One can only imagine, for such leftist intellectuals, a guiding logic has been the age-old argument of “screwing”/ “subverting” from within. Something that was succinctly expressed in Chomsky-Prasad’s declaration to begin their talk by reading out a statement on Tata’s crimes.

 

For a lot of us, who actually have experiences of working within corporate and government institutions in different capacities, and are also attempting to build up radical spaces outside them, this is a sentiment that sounds hollow, laughable and delusional. Precisely because, we all know, through the knowledge and experience gained through working within them, that institutions cannot as such be changed through the well-intentioned critique of an individual. That all institutions have systemic and structural constraints inbuilt into them, which shape, control and limit individual participation. And, that’s precisely why institutions are institutions. Rather than an individual’s critique changing miraculously the institution’s politics, it is much more likely that an individual, with time, gets co-opted within the overarching politics of the institutions. Although, we are aware that such forms of co-optation are often not quite simple and linear.

 

Yes, institutions need to be changed. Some institutions also need to be destroyed, to be thrashed into the ground. Both can happen only through people’s collective rebellions and resistances. However, such kinds of collective resistance is not what is invoked, when one talks about “using” a corporate platform to expose/critique the same corporation. In fact, in this logic of the “using” of the corporate platform, there is a simple-mindedness. Which can pass off as naivete as best, and an effort to veil one’s complicity at worst. If peeled down to its basics, that naivete translates into a default celebration of an individual’s power to bring radical social change, and that, too, only through voicing of one’s critique from a socially-accepted platform, which will also inevitably add to one’s social and cultural capital.

 

One might say, this is precisely a kind of liberal fantasy, which, one hopes, one won’t have to deal with when conversing with fellow Marxists.

 

Because what we are saying here, is neither a very difficult, nor a very novel proposition. In fact, what we are reiterating here, constitutes one of the most basic and foundational understandings of Marxism and other leftist thoughts.

 

3.

It was precisely this liberal fantasy that was ripped apart on the morning of November 22, 2020, by the statement issued by the Director of the Tata Lit Festival.

 

In the statement, the Director provides a long list of the issues covered by the panels and sessions in the festival: The diversity of thought and subjects featured every year is another reason for the festival’s success. This year’s programme, for example, included the following sessions: The Cause and Travails of Migration;  Dalits in Music, Business and the Classroom;  Artificial Intelligence and its Future Dangers; The Tyranny of Merit; Trial by Media with TV channels acting as kangaroo courts;  LGBTQ Inclusion in the Workplace;  a session on mental health featuring specialists in the field and one on the internment of the Chinese in India in 1962; Investigating rape as a Feminist Act;  The Future of Democracy in the Age of Strongmen; a session on Speaking Truth to Power through the medium of theatre;  writing plays for differently abled actors; strategies for making healthcare broad-based; and a session on Nationalism and what it means to be Indian. Through the years, the one single criterion for the inclusion of diverse subjects in the festival has been that the session is centered around a recently published book on the topic.

 

Note the use of the word “diverse” here. Indeed, nowhere in the statement has the word “radical” been used, and in fact, “radical”, in the way the left-leaning activists and intelligentsia use the word, has never been on the table for the festival organizers, to begin with. What has been on the table, was a politics of inclusion. A word, which, in our contemporary times, has come to possess positive meaning. Inclusion, in much of our civil society arguments, have come to mean making space for the marginalized, those excluded from the benefits of the social power. In that sense, the word inclusion comes with an inherent essence of empowerment and positive implications.

 

The Director of the Festival had piggy-backed precisely upon that essence. In organizing such panels and sessions, the Director implies, they have been inclusive. By extension, the corporate that is Tata, has been inclusive.

 

Yet, what he also makes clear, that inclusion is hardly unconditional. Yes, you can be invited to one of these corporate festivals, and can speak about social power and social justice in vague terms. And, you would be extremely welcome. But, what you cannot speak of – include – is a specific critique of Tata’s crimes. Insert Zee (or corporate of your choice) in place of Tata. It would not make much difference in terms of the foundational principle.

 

In very specific ways, inclusion, here, then, comes to mean corporate inclusion, which is also translated as the inclusion within the agenda of capital. So, in a single stroke, the Director of the festival, has crucially stripped the corporate agenda of not only its veil, but almost all of its clothes.

 

What we have right now, in front of us, is a corporate agenda with its clothes off.

 

And, what he has said, makes perfect sense. Why should one open up one’s doors to invite critique of one’s own self? Especially if that critique has inbuilt into it, immense political and economic resonances? The joke is now, then, on the liberals who argue for a space of critique of corporate violence within the corporate platforms. The even bigger joke is now on the leftists, who claim that they are “using” the corporate space to subvert the corporate agenda.

 

In very specific ways, for the leftist intellectuals, artists and activists, this should be a moment for deep introspection. This is precisely the moment when much deeper theoretical and political work needs to happen around such words such as “diverse,” “inclusion” and “inclusive” within the leftist and progressive social movement circles. Much political work also needs to happen around the term “subversion.” What is it, anyway? Who can subvert what, and within what kind of precise contexts and material conditions? What are the ultimate ideological and political implications of the very idea of subversion? Concomitantly, this is precisely the moment when one also needs to think through the complex ways in which capital’s cultural politics intersects with its economic agenda, and is thrown back onto the civil society to do its work. It is precisely at this point, that several questions can, and have historically emerged.

 

For example, it is often argued, that while we all know corporations are evil, they do provide the individual intellectuals and artists with platforms to gain a wider audience. What’s wrong in “using” such platforms to talk to “people” at large? On a slightly more complicated scale, shouldn’t a leftist intellectual or artist, use capitalism’s contradictions to begin with? These are, we would concede, oftentimes, honest questions.

 

To make it clear, we are not claiming that art or intellectual work happens in a vacuum – within a protected, idyllic space outside of the structures of the market. We are very, very aware of the fact that all intellectual or artistic productions happen within market relations. Yet, the market is hardly a homogenous institution. The manner in which corporations such as Tata and Zee operate within the spaces of the market, is not quite the same as the modus operandi of a small, independent book publishing house, for example. In other words, this is also where we need to think of the questions of the inequalities inherent within the market, we need to think of the ways in which contemporary capitalism operates as a plutocratic mechanization. And, yes, this is also precisely in order to explain such complex phenomena in colloquial terms, that left activists use the term “big capital.”

 

Are we, then, to believe that to Bhaskar Sunkara and Vijay Prashad, themselves associated with independent publishing ventures, this reality is lost? Are we, then, to believe that Jayati Ghosh, one of the leading economists of this nation, has no idea about the realities of the accelerating economic and social inequalities perpetuated by the neo-lib plutocrats? Still better, are we, then, to believe that Noam Chomsky, who has himself, stood for the boycotting of corporations in other contexts, does not understand this simple fact that we do?

 

It is difficult, then, to believe, that the participation of these intellectuals at the Tata Lit Fest emerged merely from a space of well-intentioned, but misplaced, misguided and ignorant naivete.

 

There is something else that is going on. Something else that is far more complicated in terms of its essential politics.

 

4.

A quick look through the history of intellectual thought, literatures and arts would reveal, edgy, radical art of agiven era, have almost always been published and hosted by obscure venues, platforms and houses, and it is often much, much later, only when such works have gained a certain kind of popularity, have they been included within the oeuvre of the big corporate-driven platforms and venues.

 

In other words, what we are trying to point out here, is quite simple. Capital is appropriative, and the history of capital is predicated upon a sustained appropriation and co-optation of radical, alternative and independent cultural and political work. It would be idiotic to presume that in the current political climate in India, lit-fests organized by corporations, work differently. In other words, let us put it out clearly in here.

 

While lit-fests and cultural festivals have existed for a long time, and often as inextricable elements of the internationalist left cultures, the corporate-sponsored lit-fests in India, today, coincide, interestingly enough, with another  significant politico-economic phenomenon—the widespread land-grab throughout the subcontinent. To put it simply, the very form of the large-scale corporate-driven, celebrity-infested lit-fest of our times, is tied to the specter of large-scale dispossession of Adivasi and other marginalized communities, environmental decay, economic genocide, and massive state repression, signaling us towards a much wider state-corporate nexus. In that context, the invitations accorded to progressive, leftist or radical intellectuals and artists to participate in such lit-fests, is hardly neutral or innocent. Rather, they are about making the radical intellectuals and writers complicit in the corporate agenda. They are about, well, manufacturing of consent.

 

In this case, the consent that is being manufactured, happens to be a consent to the corporate-sponsored genocides. A tacit consent, yet a consent.

 

When the lit-fests are giving you — the radical artist and intellectual a space to talk– they are not granting you more space to air your critical views. What they are doing, is appropriating your voice. What they are doing, is taking away the voice from you to speak as you please. In very specific terms, they are transforming you into a contemporary version of a court-poet. The process can also be termed as de-radicalization.

 

Imagine the Chomsky-Prasad panel without the collective letter addressed to Chomsky circulating beforehand. Chances are, the event would have gone on, with high-floating ideas about the evils this planet faces today, without much interruption. Chances are also that the words “capitalism” and “corporations” would have been thrown out, without necessarily bringing onto the picture Tata’s crimes. We would clearly state, that is precisely the kind of de-radicalization and co-optation that the culture of corporate sponsorship of art and knowledge production is predicated upon. In other words, our past experiences have taught us, intellectuals and artists walk into the corporate-funded spaces, censoring themselves, taking care not to let out of their mouths the “unsavoury” truths. The censoring that the Director of the Tata Lit Fest implies to be the “integrity” of the festival. The “unsavoury truths” that he terms as someone’s “specific agenda.”

 

Even a quick, cursory look at the ways in which dissenting voices were handled at both JLF and Tata lit-fest, should make that clear to the intellectuals and artists, especially those who call themselves “leftist.”

 

We refuse to believe, Noam Chomsky, the writer of the celebrated book  Manufacturing Consent, which had once inspired so many of us, and continues to do so, and has contributed so much to our becoming of alternative media activists, does not know the realities of such occurrences, that we, who are neither as erudite, nor as skilled in exposing the politics of the media in writing, happen to know.

 

5.

We have also been told, participation in the corporate-funded events by the leftists, are important, because, leftists, after all, need to take advantage of the “capitalism’s contradictions.”

 

To think that those of us, who often operate as killjoys and “party poopers” whenever this debate over corporate funding of art and intellectual activities comes up, are unaware of “capitalism’s contradictions,”  is to be condescending at best, and laughably ignorant at worst. Yes, we understand capitalism’s contradictions. And, that is why, we labour to create our own platforms. Yes, those platforms often happen to be dis-organized, reaching far fewer people than the corporate conglomerates. And, it doesn’t take a whole lot of political intelligence to understand, that this is precisely how it is meant to be. Because, that’s what staying away from “big capital” means. Even more so, running those platforms consistently, needs consistent, back-breaking work.

 

But, that back-breaking work is what leftists need to do. One cannot replace that back-breaking work even a small, independent platform needs, with the corporate platform.

 

Last but not the least, sending out the collective letter to Prof Chomsky, was precisely an act of being cognizant of “capitalism’s contradictions.” Without that letter, we repeat, the event would have gone on, un-interrupted. There would be no reading of a statement to expose Tata’s crimes. There would have been no cancellation of the event. This was precisely a moment when capitalism’s contradictions were exposed, and what we got to know is precisely this: when asked to be accountable of its crimes, capitalism doesn’t speak in the language of contradictions. It speaks in the language of suppression.

 

What it, then, comes down to, is the fact, that taking advantage of capitalism’s contradictions, too, requires active political labour. The active political labour of building up political collectives, actual political and intellectual organizing, and again, our own platforms, from which our views can be aired. Without any such labour, a mere participation in a corporate-sponsored platform, as a way to work through “capitalism’s contradictions” or “subvert from inside” becomes a passive act, which, at its best, is delusional, and at its worst, opportunist.

 

  • Nandini Dhar is a writer and teacher.

 

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