Categories
Issue 10

The Viability of Utopia Today

In a world experiencing a pandemic, ongoing economic recessions, political upheaval, and impending ecological collapse, what does it mean to think about utopia? Projects focused on outer space by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk seem to think that humanity can find its way out the hole it has dug for itself by founding utopian societies on other planets. Politicians have longed promised utopian programs of social renewal. As a researcher of utopia as a genre and a theory, the question I have in reading about such hopes is not can we achieve utopia on earth or in space—such questions are well beyond my capacity and training to answer. Instead, I’m interested in whether it is useful to think about utopia at all. Does imagining perfect worlds serve our present or our future, or do utopias simply set us up for disappointment and failure? 

To think about the viability of utopian thought today, it is useful to return to utopia’s origins. The idea of a perfect place has existed for as long as humans have been thinking and writing. Works like Plato’s Republic and Ravidas’s “Begumpura” offer visions of worlds that improve upon the ones in which their authors lived. The term utopia, however, was not coined until the early sixteenth century by English humanist Thomas More. Formed by combining the Greek “ou” (no) with “topas” (place) and punning on “eu” (good), utopia etymologically means “a good place that is nowhere.” This should tell us something. Utopia, as it was originally conceived, was not understood as a real place. It was, by its very definition, a contradiction. 

More’s Utopia (1516) itself is full of puns and paradoxes. Raphael Hythloday, who claims to have discovered an ideal island where people’s needs are met and all live in peace and harmony, seems honest enough in his narration. However, his name, Hythloday, means “speaker of nonsense” in Greek. This name itself calls into question the veracity of his narrative. The world that Hythloday describes is equally replete with contradiction: though it has a democratic government in which everyone is free, the island also has slaves and is quick to colonize other lands. Indeed, the birth of utopia as an early modern literary genre is closely tied to the beginnings of European colonization. The justifications for colonization used by Europeans eerily echo those of the Utopia when Hythloday says that many of the Utopians’ independent neighbors, who were “liberated by them from tyranny,” admired Utopian virtues so much that they “requested” magistrates from Utopia to come to their lands and govern them. Giving these colonizing impulses, this seemingly perfect island is not as idyllic as it seems. 

The difference between dystopia and utopia is a matter of perspective. As students in my class last spring used to say, “whose utopia is it?” For the rulers of Utopia, the island’s life may have appeared equitable and democratic, but not so for its slaves. This same ambiguity pervades many other works in the genre. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella Herland (1915), for instance, depicts a feminist world run by women that also has racist undertones. Ursula K. LeGuin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973) dramatizes the contradiction inherent to utopia by portraying the city Omelas, whose prosperity depends on the misery of a child in the basement. The effort to achieve perfect harmony, it seems, often necessities homogenization, which, in turn, leads to the oppression and erasure of those who are different. 

So where does this inevitable failure of the utopian leave us? Do we throw up our hands and forsake the hope that things might get better? To answer this question, we need first to reframe our notions of the utopian itself. I suggest (as do many scholars of utopia) that utopias were never meant to be read as templates or blueprints. To understand literary utopias or utopian political visions in this way is bound to lead us astray.

If we don’t see them as guides to the perfect life, what use might utopias have? Instead of understanding utopia as a perfect homogenous society, we might more usefully read it as a mode of cognitive estrangement. Utopia helps us view the world critically, producing wonder and disorientation, not as ends unto themselves but rather to unsettle the assumptions of the here-and-now with the suggestion that things could be different. Hence, Paul Ricouer aptly describes utopia as “a progressive counterblast to the essential conservatism of ideology.” If we understand utopia in this more capacious way—as a mechanism of transformation rather than as a perfect place—, we can more clearly see its value. Utopian visions, despite or even because of their flaws, promote reform in self-critical ways that foreground the tensions and contradictions inherent in reform itself.

A practical example of this type of utopian thinking is Chantal Mouffe’s notion of agonism, a philosophical outlook that emphasizes the importance of conflicting positions. Taking issue with John Rawl’s notion of liberal pluralism, Mouffe argues that in place of a morality that seeks to neutralize difference, we should understand politics as based in conflict between adversaries who may disagree but who respect each other. Agonism might seem a far cry from utopia, but I argue that it is a vital example of utopianism as it can be exercised today: this is a form of thought that unsettles what we take for granted—that the end goal of a liberal democracy should be agreement—and helps us see that there might be different ways of envisioning the political. 

Mouffe’s political theory is one example of contemporary utopianism, but utopia does not need to be confined to the ‘real’ world. Fiction is a valuable and often unrecognized bridge between the utopian and the political. Whether a Netflix series that unsettles our assumptions about the future or a novel that gives glimpses of a world that could be different, narrative fiction offers pathways for critique, a mode as vital to our world as to More’s. It’s tempting as a literature professor to use this as a chance to make a case for the value of the humanities, but this is not so much my point, at least not here. Rather, fiction is one of many possible vehicles for a utopianism that charts lines of flight to other worlds of possibility. These worlds do not have to be on Mars but instead can consist of smaller acts of reimagining what we take for granted and efforts towards change with the understanding that perfection will never be possible.

References: 

Mouffe, Chantal. Agonistics: Thinking The World Politically. London: Verso Books, 2013.

Ricoeur, Paul. Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, ed. George H. Taylor. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Alexandra Verini is a professor of medieval literature at Ashoka University. Her research interests include medieval and early modern gender, religion and utopia. She is currently completing a book that explores utopian thought developed in women’s devotional communities.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 8

The Economy Of Stories

‘Any story you can come up with has already been written in the Mahabharata;’ by popular consensus, this is often heralded as the truth in India. The Mahabharata, with its intricacies in plot, characterisation, details, off-shoot narratives and adaptations, could easily be considered as the mother of fiction. Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots argues that any given story is bound to fall within one of his seven major plot structures. If we were to consider this true and assume that the Mahabharata encompasses all major plotlines, then every single work written in the world today would simply be an adaptation or a rewriting of an existing story.

Why then do we bother writing, re-writing, adapting and recirculating existing stories? Are we simply enabling the production of another economy, where stories, like currency, exchange hands only to be drawn on or crumpled in one’s pocket before being handed to its next owner? This brings me to a theory that I have decided to call ‘the currency of fiction’.

What happens to the currency we use on an everyday basis? The notes either exchange hands till they are torn/worn, at which point they are replaced by crisp, new ones that everyone loves to get their hands on; or, they become old enough to be worth preserving for their collectable value. I see something similar happening in the economy of stories—the basic plot is the monetary value, and the currency or the stories are the means to access this value. New notes are the rebirth of these existing stories, in the form of adaptations or re-imaginations. The stories that gain age, wisdom and stand out in some sense, then become Classics, or collectables. Any subsequent note with significant resemblance or reproduction of thought of these Classics are the ones that are the most desirable, i.e., the ones with the most exchange-value.

——————————————————————————————

Be it Enola Holmes, Maria Dahvana Headley’s feminist translation of the classic Beowulf, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Forest of Enchantments – the tale of Sita from the Indian epic Ramayana (the Sitayan), Kamila Shamsie’s novel adaptation of Greek tragedy Antigone into present-day Britain and Pakistan—Home Fire, or even a spin-off of Hindi soap Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai to the new Yeh Rishtey Hain Pyaar Ke with the stories of the children, and grandchildren (or was it great grandchildren?…I lose count) of the previous leads, recent times see no dearth of the return of our beloved characters.

Why? Why reimagine Juliet in 2020, as opposed to creating a new Desdemona or Laila or Heer? What about these particular characters makes us want to bring them to life again, albeit in a new socio-political scenario, or a reimagined world? I argue that it is our need for familiarity.

——————————————————————————————–

“Desi tadka with a fusion twist” | “Chai tea latte.”

What do you see common to both these ‘fusions’? I see the need for familiarity wrestle the desire to explore – the ‘certainty’ component of your personality in a heated debate with the ‘uncertainty’ percentage. Both these notions do just what an Enola Holmes does—brings you something you know that you like and that you trust is good, while adding some spice to it. The need to watch it, buy it, or consume it, is motivated by the same need to check your phone when a notification pops up with “Your friend ShortAttentionSpan has updated her profile,” you know the existing story is good, and you believe that if something new has been added to it, it ought to be good too.

——————————————————————————————–

Stories are thought to have been born as a form of relief or a doorway to a world beyond. Be it by way of murals on cave walls that showed horses racing through the clouds to greener grass, or by way of an ‘ajji’s’ (grandmother’s) stories to her grandchild of a crow placing rocks into a thin-necked vase in order to able to drink the water inside.  All of these stories, while allowing for this momentary escape from reality, most definitely contain a component of the ‘real’ encompassed within themselves. The horses could be human beings rushing towards something and ignoring the metaphorical clouds around them; the crow could be ‘Sharma Ji’s beta’ (the ideal neighbour’s son, a prodigy who every Indian child is asked to be more like) who manages to do smart work and reap the best results.

What all of these stories do is play with the distance between you, and the world you are reading/watching/accessing. By making it appear sufficiently afar, the stories allow for a commentary on the real world, enabling you to access it without winning the assured eye-roll a moral lecture would otherwise merit.

——————————————————————————————–

During theatre club meetings, we would play a game called ‘You!’ 3 characters would take their place in the centre, surrounded by a circle consisting of the other participants, or the spectators in this case. They would proceed to enact a scene—a short one, only a few minutes long. After the first performance, they would enact it a second time; the spectators were then free to clap their hands, at that  point the actors would freeze within the circle, point to one character, and yell, “you!” They would therein, take the place of said character and proceed with the scene in their stead, with one crucial change.

The aim of the game was to first understand how a single action contributes to the larger plot. The second aim was to help people understand what a good move, and a bad move, was —if the change elicited a story worse than the original, it was a bad move. And third, the real-life connotation—to be able to understand when and how your actions impact other people, and how you can think before doing something.

This game, while our little self-creation, is one that had been played on a much larger scale, a long time before us. Forum Theatre, a creation of Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal is motivated by similar goals, with the only difference being that the scene performed would be one of oppression, or societal harm, that could be averted through the tiniest of actions – one single action, that could contribute to, or help stop oppression.

In a similar manner, the economy of stories, in its distancing and temporary suspension of reality allows you to re-think the actions of a character, while also giving you the chance to step in with the whole, “why didn’t Rose simply move over and give Jack some space on the plank?” criticism. Stories provide us with an alternate space where we can think about the actions of characters, their motivations and aspirations, without directly realising that while so doing, we are also questioning and tugging at the loose ends of similar questions that arise around us on a daily basis. Stories thereby become powerful tools for critique, for questioning, for dialogue, and thus, for civic action.

——————————————————————————————–

In the economy of stories, as we recycle tales making a few crucial changes, we ‘adapt’ them to suit our present conditions. We play with the ‘distance’ of the story from its consumer, awarding the latter either the discomfort of reading about something too close to home, or the pleasure of an imaginary universe with a hidden resemblance to reality. We bring the reader/watcher/consumer to the right distance from our story in order to be able to comment on reality in the manner of our choosing. All of this while preserving the familiarity of existing characters, broad plot design, and the ambit of criticism that the root story fell under, in case of direct adaptations.

This ‘replaying of the same scene’, or ‘recycling of currency’, with a few crucial changes, shows the reader the light of the world of Forum Theatre, or ‘You!’ The potential to affect some real-world outcome; some civic change. The paranoia of ruling bodies about seditious fiction, crowd-exciting theatre, anti-establishment fictional narratives, suddenly makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? Imagine a large puzzle, with each piece being a currency note—the economy of stories produces a larger picture. The notes are connected by strings. That, if you sufficiently step back to look at, make up a compelling image. It is up to you to be able to decipher this image, make changes, provide new decisive shapes to the notes in order to elicit a different picture.

The economy of stories has immense power. As does art. Be it with a single currency note, the larger narrative, or the need for relief from reality, stories rule our world, as they should. The economy of stories is here to stay, and you are a part of it, either as a spectator or a motivated spect-actor. All you need to do is choose. And choose wisely, as Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, at the beginning of the Great War, a.k.a., the Mahabharata.

Varsha Ramachandran is currently an Editorial Associate at Agents of Ishq. She graduated from Ashoka University in 2018 with a degree in English Literature. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 7

Who is Deciding What You Watch? Fiction and Move Towards New Indian Censorship

The term ‘controversy’ refers to a “public discussion and argument about something that many people strongly disagree about, think is bad or are shocked by.” But why is it relevant here? The makers and actors of the web series Tandav, released on Amazon Prime Video last month have found themselves apologizing to the public for allegedly “hurting religious sentiments.” But let me tell you, this cannot really be termed as a controversy. It is not the first time that the term has been used to emphasise on the reactions of a certain group towards a fiction released on OTT (Over-The-Top) platforms. Clearly, the Indian media loves the term when it comes to addressing the reasons behind a significant rise in moral policing. The question arises, what then qualifies them to be called a ‘controversy’? Not saying that the content of the series is perfect, it has its issues which need to be critiqued, but that isn’t the focus of this piece.

Why did Tandav self-censor?  

FIRs against the series have been filed in states of Uttar Pradesh, Mumbai, Bihar, and Bengaluru so far, starting with BJP MLA Ram Kadam filing a police complaint in Mumbai and UP’s BJP MP Manoj Kotak writing to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to ban the series and apologise for “hurting sentiments.” At this point, one could ask – was there a “public discussion and argument” about it? Certainly not. Then whose “sentiments” are those? Leaders from a particular political party and the Police in these states filing FIRs at such a portrayal is a function of the religious group that they seem to align with. These sentiments are individualistic or concerned with a fragment of political leadership and could not be equated with that of the entire Hindu population of the country. However, it seems to have concerned the overall cast and crew of the show. The maker, Ali Abbas Zafar and several actors took to Twitter to unconditionally apologize and thanked the I&B Ministry for their guidance and support in the matter. In addition to this, they at once agreed to drop those sections of the show. 

This kind of censorship commonly referred to as self-censorship by the makers of the show, even before a legal order was passed by concerned authorities to do so, could be perceived as resulting out of fear. This culture of fear and intolerance has been perpetuated by repeated threats issued by religious bodies such as the Karni Sena, a Rajput organisation that has continued to incite violence against several creations of the Hindi film industry. In this case, they have announced an award for Rs 1 crore to the one who would chop off the tongue of the makers, even when the cast and crew has repeatedly apologized online and self-censored. Noteworthy it is that the maker and lead male actors of the show, Saif Ali Khan and Mohd, Zeeshan Ayyub have Muslim identities. Considering the state of politics in the country under the ruling government with the recent Anti-CAA/NRC protests, it appears that religion has played a crucial role in majoritarian powers deciding what viewers can watch. UP Chief Minister, Adityanath’s media Chief Advisor’s tweet on the same, and FIRs by members of political parties against the maker reveal the religious biases of the party in question. It forcefully restrains dissemination of that particular thought which seems to act against their religious beliefs. These leaders’ take on the issue alongside the crew’s swift submission towards those claims are moralistic in nature. One could perceive their actions collectively to be sensitive to popular support, leaders in terms of political gains and crew in terms of monetary ones. These motives make Tandav “controversial.” What one requires is a public discussion regarding the moralistic standards upheld by these two sections of the society, the stances taken by them in lieu of their hidden motives, rather than controversialize the content and members associated with the show for their thoughts that led to their fiction. 

The New Surveillance State 

What’s missing here is a legal development, definitive to this case. What the Indian audience received as a legal outcome is the recent statement by Union Minister of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar, where he cites “a lot of complaints against some serials available on OTT platforms” and states that the Ministry will soon issue guidelines regarding them. This came after the Government brought films and audio-visual programmes over online platforms under the purview of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in November 2020. These guidelines would control the release of content on digital spaces, especially OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar and more. This outright claim to control content on the web translates into control of a specific section of the internet by the Ministry. Considered to be in public interest, without involving the public in the conversation is quite ironic and diminishes the fundamental rights of the viewers, and furthers moral policing. The assumptions and predictions about the future of fiction on these platforms boils down to the question: who is deciding (quite literally) what we watch?

Fiction and Subversion of Imagination

“The web series ‘Tandav’ is a work of fiction and any resemblance to acts and persons and events are purely coincidental,” tweeted Ali Abbas Zafar, in the official statement by the cast and crew of Tandav. Fiction as a medium, is imaginary, that is, not based on true facts and/or events. And most Bollywood productions use this narrative art form to produce creative content for consumption by all sections of India’s population, complemented by its dissemination over OTT platforms. A consumer survey suggests that the most popular category of content watched in India on OTT platforms is movies and web shows. The form and platform together provides the creators with innate freedom to delve into issues that shape and reshape the society in diverse ways, borrow from society, and depict it  through dynamic, intense metaphors through storylines. Although content circulated are subject to healthy critique from viewers and rightly so, the move to assert control over their content under the discretion of certain leaders is oppressive and disrespectful to the viewer’s right to access multimedia, especially online. This act of taking decisions on behalf of the viewers, undermining creative freedom of the producers and digital space of the OTT platforms, restrains freedom of the consumers to access specific content and their right to critique. Earlier, the understanding of human life through fiction released over streaming platforms were not burdened by the jurisdictions of the Centre. When one proceeds to censor an imaginative art form, it is not only controlling the produced content, but at the same time the imagination itself. The angry FIRs by leaders upon depiction of Hindu deities in a certain light in a work of fiction attempts to curb the initial thought that goes into the writing process. This conscious effort to monitor ideas and stories before they are propagated infantilizes the viewers’ agency, and leads to subversion of thought.

The ‘fictional’ aspect now makes creations vulnerable to the guidelines. The imagination, ideas challenging the mainstream social structures, complemented by statements made by binary political leaders towards them inculcates fear and perpetuates it within the system at the same time. With the recent statement by Prakash Javadekar, it becomes certain that it is not ‘we’ who will in the future determine what ‘we’ want to consume online, at least in a ‘democracy’ like India. Till then, happy viewing!

Ariba is a student of English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).