The politics of literature
Literature had become a powerful machine of self-interpretation and self-poeticization of life, converting any scrap of everyday life into a sign of history and any sign of history into a poetical element. This politics of literature enhanced the dream of a new body that would give voice to this reappropriation of the power of common poetry and historicity written on any door panel or any silly refrain. But this power of the mute letter could not result in "bringing back" this living body.
The "living body" voicing the collective hymn had to remain the utopia of writing. In the times of futurist poetry and Soviet revolution, the Rimbaldian project would be attuned to the idea of a new life where art and life would be more or less identical. After those days, it would come back to the poetry of the curiosity shop, the poetry of the outmoded Parisian passages celebrated by Aragon in his Paysan de Paris. Benjamin in turn would try to rewrite the poem, to have the Messiah emerge from the kingdom of the Death of outmoded commodities. But the poem of the future experienced the same contradiction as the novel of bourgeois life, and the hymn of the people experienced the same contradiction as the work of pure literature. The life of literature is the life of this contradiction.
"We should treat works of the creative imagination as different from other forms of literary production. This distinction enables us to see and acknowledge that the writer who wants to make a statement has a wide choice of genres and that each genre has its place. Many writers have engaged in a variety of these genres. But we must be clear in our own minds as to what we are doing. Non-creative literature operates according to a conscious mandate. Creative literature does not. Fabrication by a journalist is regarded as betrayal. Fabrication is what a fiction writer does."
Regarding this, Jacques Rancire says, "The "critical," "political' or "sociological" interpreters of literature who feel challenged by my analysis might reply that the contradiction of literature goes back to the old illusion of mistaking the interpretation of life for its transformation. My presentation has been an attempt to question the opposition in both ways."
Jacques added, "First, I have tried to substantiate the idea that so-called interpretations are political to the extent that they are reconfigurations of the visibility of a common world. Second, I would suggest that the discourse contrasting interpretive change and "real" change is itself part of the same hermeneutic plot as the interpretation that it challenges. The new regime of meaning underpinning both literature and social science has made the very sentence contrasting "changing the world" and "interpreting the world" into an enigma. The investigation of this "politics of literature" that is much more that a matter of writers may help us to understand this ambiguity and some of its consequences. The political dimension of literature has been usually explained through social science and political interpretation."
We should treat works of the creative imagination as different from other forms of literary production. This distinction enables us to see and acknowledge that the writer who wants to make a statement has a wide choice of genres and that each genre has its place. Many writers have engaged in a variety of these genres. But we must be clear in our own minds as to what we are doing. Non-creative literature operates according to a conscious mandate. Creative literature does not. Fabrication by a journalist is regarded as betrayal. Fabrication is what a fiction writer does.
Anxiety arises from our narrow use of the term. We tend to think of politics exclusively in terms of partisan politics, electoral politics, political leadership and so on, with strife and confrontation implied, so a lot of people will try to disengage by saying: "I am not concerned with politics." The bottom line is that the word "politics" conjures up partisanship, divisiveness and a low threshold of scoring dirty points against an opponent.
Olive Senior believes, "We are all enmeshed in politics because we are all citizens of somewhere - even writers - and we cannot escape being shaped by political decisions, big and small. So instead of asking the question "Should literature be political?", I would rephrase it as a statement: Literature is political because we, the creators of literature, are political animals; it is part of accepting our responsibility of being human, of being citizens of the world."
The raw material of writers is the entire world that we live in; a world that continuously shapes us as we in turn shape it, through our poetry or fiction. The writer is someone who has no choice but to be engaged with society, which means political engagement.
So what makes literature different then from the other arts of writing - journalism, history, political science, advertising or party propaganda? To Olive Senior, that is the crux of the matter. The difference lies not in what we write but in the how. It is the difference between a journalist writing a story about, say, the shortage of public housing and the novelist inventing a character and a credible situation to demonstrate the impact of that situation perhaps down several generations, or how it leads ultimately to a revolution, or a suicide. It is taking the facts of the matter and then stitching them into a plot or a poem that illuminates it beyond the everyday experience.
The good thing is that in doing so, the creative writer has enormous resources that the fact-based writer has not. Literature is an art. It is about transformation. It is about taking one thing and making something else of it, changed but recognisable. So, politics might be the subject matter, but only as raw material. Literature does not need to employ polemics or confrontation. Nor is it about telling readers what they already know, but enabling them to contemplate what they didn't know they knew. It is not a question of avoiding issues but of being crafty in portraying them.
Literature is above all, storytelling. And, as Chinua Achebe has said, storytelling is a threat. Storytellers, poets, writers, have always found ways of confronting tyranny, especially in spaces where such actions are dangerous and deadly. Throughout the ages, writers have developed and employed myriad literary devices and explored the fullest limits of language through satire, magical realism, fantasy, fable and so on. Writers over the ages have found ways of talking about issues - like politics - without seeming to talk about them. The function is not to present the world as it is, but to present it in a new light through the narrative power of art. Literature does not ask "What is it about?" It asks "How do we tell it to make it real?"
The purpose of literature is not to represent but to re-present, to hold up that mirror in a light that enables us to see reality both reflected and refracted. And that applies to politics or any subject that we choose, or in the best case scenario, in the subject that chooses us.
The writer is an independent researcher