The recently concluded production of Sanjeev Uprety’s play Makaiko Arkai Kheti (directed by Bimal Subedi at Theatre Village) marks an interesting occasion to inspect the role of the artist. More column inches in the popular press have been devoted to this play than any other artistic work in recent times, perhaps both cause and effect of the production being extended for two weeks. The reviews have been largely positive and Uprety, a recently retired professor of English who is best known for his popularization of critical theory, has been praised for writing a play of significant political import in these times of crises, even as the nature of that politics has been left unexplored. Unfortunately, the reviewers seem to have made the cardinal mistake of taking the play and the playwright at their word, ironic for a play whose preoccupation with the “death of the author” has been correctly noted but treated with little critical vigor. In this haste to congratulate the play, what has been unanimously missed is its dubious conflation of two distinct issues: censorship and political correctness.
In 1920, an employee of the government of the Rana-ruled Nepal was arrested and imprisoned for writing what was ostensibly an agricultural manual, but which the government suspected of being a political satire and thus seditious. Krishna Lal Adhikari, the author of Makaiko Kheti (or, The Cultivation of Maize), died in prison, and it is this narrative of the persecuted writer that Makaiko Arkai Kheti (A Different Cultivation of Maize) tries to reconstruct—or deconstruct, as Uprety would have it. The play has a neat adversarial form: an independent and financially precarious writer has been arrested and is being tried for the crime of writing (even rewriting) a seditious book. What appears to be a harmless book on maize cultivation, the prosecution alleges, is in fact a subversive document. And to this effect, the prosecution marshals an army of hostile witnesses—a literary critic, a feminist, a transgender person, a Hindu fanatic, a leftwing activist, a human-rights activist, even the ghost of Roland Barthes, among others—all of whom find all manner of faults with the book, therefore bolstering the case against the writer.
Much has been written about the subtle postmodern conceits employed in the play and the successful dramatization of the perversions of contemporary politics. But an act of representation guided by the need to establish heroism of the artist is always suspect. It produces a curious politics, requiring that the art sacrifice certain analytical ethos. And in this play the casualty of this exercise of authorial narcissism is the all-important distinction between freedom of speech and restrictions imposed by conventions, often called political correctness.
One complaint the writer under trial, played by Uprety, makes throughout the course of the play is how forms of power constrain his expression: the government, with its coercive apparatus, but also activists and ideologues, with their orthodoxies and culture of political correctness. Given how often the refrain “freedom of speech” comes up in our current political and cultural climate, the rhetoric appears entirely plausible. That is until one examines the gross dissimilarity in the nature of these “powers” and the ways they manifest themselves. Censorship imposed by a state, whether before or after the fact, is almost always done to preserve or consolidate the monopoly of power. It is a reaction to the subversive possibilities of dissenting speech, often exercised by a minority ideology or community. In contrast stands what is today called political correctness (the original meaning has gone through several permutations through the decades). Always imagined to be the sole preserve of the wooly-headed liberal types who stand ready to take offence, it is in fact a fraught and complicated set of critical reactions that those with little cultural or political capital have developed over time. It is a particular type of defense mounted by those who haven’t historically had the power to represent—women, racial and sexual minorities, the disabled, and the poor—through the very tool of representation: language.
There are, of course, those who come ready with rehearsed complaints every time they have to respond to art; the history of the many “progressive” writers’ associations is an easy example. On the other side, the spectrum of writers who make a point of dismissing what they perceive to be pieties of political correctness is wide, from reactionaries like V. S. Naipaul to the radical Marxist Slavoj Žižek. But the play seems less interested in carefully dissecting the possible contradictions between free speech and political correctness than in reproducing the tedious clichés often attributed to activists of progressive folds. Consider the allegations made by some of the witnesses against the writer: for instance, the character who plays the feminist. She is agitated that women find no mention in the book, and that in describing the reproduction of the maize plant, the female flower appears to be less active than the male flower. In effect, she argues, the writer of the book is perpetuating the patriarchal myth that men are more sexually proactive than women. Predictably, a transgender witness comes along to further complicate the botanical metaphors: where is the space in the defendant’s book for someone who identifies as neither a man nor a woman? A Madhesi human-rights activist is disappointed that the writer ignores corn breeds found in Madhes, while another person accuses the agricultural manual of furthering class division by suggesting that peasants dine differently from landlords.
In their eccentric leaps of logic, these characters and their arguments are not without certain absurd comedy. But it is crucial to note that they are more than just comic relief; they are treated seriously in the play’s courtroom-drama form as the instruments through which it defines the contours of the prosecuted writer’s heroic independence. These characters become voices of unreason, intent to censure independent expression. The objections they raise are so farcical that the play’s balance is titled blatantly to the writer’s advantage. And so all critique that derives from an ideology proper becomes by definition dispensable.
In the liberal universe of the play, there is no feminist other than a shrill, unthinking feminist. No transgender person other that one who forces the neither-male-nor-female contention in every context, no matter how bizarre. The Madhesi question appears provincial, and the Marxist, hypocritical. Any perspective that doesn’t fully embrace universalism becomes the agenda of an interest group. This is a classic move, a cornerstone of the liberalism of our postmodern times, which is certain that ours is a post-ideological age—a phenomenon which critics on the left like to identify as the cultural parallel of economic neoliberalism. Thus having dismissed all feminist, LGBT, Marxist, or Madhesi arguments as unreasonable and illiberal, the writer is left untainted—free to write and create, without the ethical burdens that come with powers of representation. He is free from having to absorb the critique of his creation, even from engagement with the world outside.
One can get a more complete picture of the politics at work here if the full cast of witnesses amassed against the protagonist of Makaiko Arkai Kheti is considered. It isn’t just these humorless activists who side with the state and against the writer. There is also an astrologer—a fanatic Hindu who blames the earthquake on moral degenerates like the writer—and a stay-at-home dad who appears to advocate men’s rights (because of the excess focus on women’s rights!), among others. In his defense, the writer cites recent examples of free speech being brutally violated, including the murders of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in France and rationalists in India.
Undoubtedly, he is accurate that these acts of violence are perpetrated precisely to threaten independent, dissenting speech. But how sensible is it to put these forms of censorship on the same side of the fence as the progressive ideologues? Apart from the clear asymmetry of power between them, how can one ignore that while the former are guided by explicitly fascist ideologies, the latter—even the farcical ones portrayed in the play—are anti-fascists who often have to bear the brunt of rightwing or majoritarian pressure. But in the play’s design, the rabble-rousers of both the left and the right are driven by the same impulse to silence, both acting on the oppressive state’s behalf. Once again, the dramatic conceit is to pit these strawmen against the injured writer. And, to a large extent, the play seems to have convinced many that such is the case; reviews have commended it on illustrating the “underbelly of identity politics that plagues the system” and the “chasm between diverse point of views” in the society.
There was an apt counterpoint to all this during a book launch in Kathmandu last month. The Nepali translation of Prashant Jha’s Battles of the New Republic, a journalistic narrative of the last decade of political upheavals in Nepal, was being released that Sunday afternoon (coincidentally also the last day of the play’s performance in Theatre Village). Among the people invited to speak was Surabhi Pudasaini, who coauthored perhaps the only critical review of the original book when it was released last year. Her argument in the review, as well as during the launch of the translation, had at its focus the representation of marginal voices in Jha’s book. While the book explains the machinations of high politics quite well, she said, it does so at the cost of bringing to fore marginal voices, women, and Dalits for instance. Even as the book draws sympathetic portraits of some of these characters, it fails to connect them to the larger forces that direct large political shifts. The criticism was valid, but more importantly, the author and organizers of the book launch found it necessary to invite Pudasaini and give intelligent reaction some space. In the world of Makaiko Arkai Kheti, however, one wonders if her criticism would be casually pushed aside for being driven by a feminist agenda and not being disinterested enough.
We do still live in times where speaking truth to power can have real financial, legal, and social costs. And Makaiko Arkai Kheti is for good reasons wary of this reality. But because the play has made a visible impression in the culture and among our intellectual classes, it becomes even more necessary to point out its misreadings of politics. True limits on what can be said or written are drawn by governments under the threat of criminal prosecution or by non-state actors through brute violence. What is called political correctness, on the other hand, is an act of social critique, regardless of the merits of the actual arguments made. If anything, it is simply another case of free speech. Sure, the lofty aims of the sometimes pedantic culture of political correctness often come in conflict with the creative will of the writer. The play, however, misses an opportunity to dramatize this conflict instead making the easy choice of trivializing all critique.
In the preface to his collection of essays on literary criticism, The Liberal Imagination, American critic Lionel Trilling cites a famous article by John Stuart Mill on one of the most influential conservative minds of his day, and also his political and literary rival, the poet Coleridge. Mill’s contention is that the partisans of liberalism will benefit from a more enlightened enemy and that liberals “are in danger from their [liberalism’s opponents’] folly, not from their wisdom.” Mill, Trilling argues, was speaking of the “intellectual pressure which an opponent like Coleridge”—a conservative in this case—“could exert [that] would force liberals to examine their position for its weaknesses and complacencies.” For a play so purportedly about politics and ideas, the absence of such an enlightened enemy was Makaiko Arkai Kheti’s most glaring omission.
The most interesting thing a platform like theater could say about free speech is not whether it is under attack or who its enemies are; these facts are clear enough. What was needed was an exploration of the gray world of politics of language and speech, and as Trilling recommended, “putting under some degree of pressure the liberal ideas and assumptions of the present time.” Why should a work of creative art, or any form of representation, be free from the pressures of social critique even if it derails the writerly craft? Why should a novelist who is deciding to write, say, a Dalit character, not be forced to think and rethink before proceeding with a particular representation of the character? Much of the plaudits the play has received appear to be purely for its inclusion of the myriad political voices that exist in Nepali society. But one would like to believe that the state of our culture has moved beyond the modest aims of tokenism. The pressing question today is what the quality of that inclusion, or representation, is. And the answer doesn’t necessarily involve “the death of the author”; the author has only to listen.
Cover photo: Illustration of a jury by C. E. Brock, from Humorous Poems by Thomas Hood. The British Library