Hari Kunzru: Address to the European Writers Parliament

This is the first of what will become regular cross-posts from international writers or journals with similar political or aesthetic sensibilities to Overland.

Over the last few years, the Overland blog has built a small but flourishing community of writers debating politics and culture from a largely Australian perspective. The new cross-posts aim to build on those discussions, and forge some links with likeminded people overseas.

hari_kunzruHari Kunzru is the author of the novels The Impressionist (2002), Transmission (2004) and My Revolutions (2007), as well as a short story collection, Noise (2006). His work has been translated into twenty-one languages and won him prizes including the Somerset Maugham award, the Betty Trask prize of the Society of Authors and a British Book Award. In 2003 Granta named him one of its twenty best young British novelists. Lire magazine named him one of its 50 ‘écrivains pour demain’. He is Deputy President of English PEN, a patron of the Refugee Council and a member of the editorial board of Mute magazine. His short stories and journalism have appeared in diverse publications including The New York Times, Guardian, New Yorker, Washington Post, Times of India, Wired and New Statesman. His fourth novel, Gods Without Men, will be published in August 2011. He lives in New York City.

25 November 2010

What are we doing here?

I’ve been imagining other parliaments, parallel to this one – parliaments of doctors firemen and painters – dedicated to discussing the European problems proper to their professions. Perhaps I’m missing the point. If such events aren’t being organised then it is because we, as writers, are expected to fulfil a function that doctors and firemen and painters cannot.

You have accepted this invitation, presumably because like me, and you have a particular sense of the role of the writer. I don’t believe the writer is merely an entertainer, though we certainly shouldn’t be above entertainment, above giving pleasure. Nor are we just journalists, recorders of the doings of the world, or apolitical bohemians, dedicated to aesthetic shock. We may be any of these things, but this is not all we are. As lovers of language, as people who are dedicated to it and who value it very highly, we are – whether we like it or not – always already engaged in the political struggles of our day, many of which take place on the terrain of language – its use to produce social and national identity, its use to frame laws and norms, its use to define what it means to be a human, to lead a good or just or valuable life.

There’s a saying that culture is something that is done to us, but art is something we do to culture. We’re here in the 2010 City of Culture – an accolade it seems slightly superfluous to bestow on Istanbul, which is so visibly the product of millennia of European civilization. But we should be here to do something to culture, to set some terms for the future. There are many things we could spend the next few days discussing but I’d like to propose three areas where I think we can do useful work.

The first is in what I would call the space of literature. New technologies of communication and distribution of information have already changed the space in which we, as writers, live and work. The transnational networks are now the place in which we make our writing, where we research, where our work is archived and where we reach our readers. They are not, it goes without saying, a natural space, but one whose protocols and conventions are set – by engineers, by administrators, and by the companies who own the infrastructure and make the equipment we use to access it. It’s already the case that without access to the internet, people are denied participation in much of world culture. I think the production of this new space is too important to be left to engineers, administrators and corporate executives. We, as writers ought to help set the terms. Of those three groups, our natural allies are the engineers. We should be talking to them. What kind of information space do we, as writers, want to occupy? Where do we want to live and work? What values should be embedded in that space, what protections, what sanctions?

Issues such as net neutrality (the equality of all information traffic), censorship, data collection, personal privacy, and the lack of a persistent archive are of great importance to us. But there are two major tendencies emerging, both of which are having a profound impact.

The first is the emergence of open and collaborative ways of producing and sharing information. The highest profile example of this is Wikipedia. We should support an ethic of openness. However, in this world of sharing and infinite reproducibility, the value of our labor is being driven down. People want us to work for free. How are we to live, as writers? Should we even expect to live ‘from writing’?
The second is the privatisation of public space. We live in a period of enclosures unparalleled since the sixteenth century. All around, resources are being privatised, and cultural resources are chief among them. We communicate using private services which own the content we create. Send a message on a social network like facebook, post a picture or write a text and you do not own your words. You are adding value to the company, and you have little control over how your data is used. This is just the tip of the iceberg. When social and cultural life takes place on privately-owned networks, the values of the owners inevitably dominate. At the moment the internet is held open for us by international protocols and conventions. We need to recognise, as writers, how important they are, and to participate in their maintenance and formulation. It is my hope that this meeting recognises the importance of information as a commons, a good that should be freely accessible and shared by all, while also recognising that the production of information is labour, and has value.

The second area of concern is the so-called war on terror, a phrase which has, of late, been retired by those who originated it, now it has come to indicate something quixotic and sinister, instead of the noble enterprise it was once claimed to be.

Nearly a decade after it was inaugurated, this is the conceptual frame under which we are forced to live and speak and write. Ordinary laws, and ordinary canons of decency and civility have been suspended. We are in a perpetual state of emergency, with no end in sight. It seems clear that this state of exception is very useful in organizing and controlling the citizenry. But what should concern us as writers is the way the war on terror has degraded language. It is not only the brutal neologisms, the jargon and the corrosive euphemisms which have become part of our linguistic currency – extraordinary rendition, harsh interrogation techniques, enemy combatant – a list of words whose intention is to deceive – to which one might also usefully add words like ‘martyr’ and ‘crusader’, for the deception is not merely one-sided.

Above all the degradation is a degradation of our thought by crude oppositions, talk of a ‘clash of civilisations’, or any number of other binary formulations which serve to harden the lines between ordinary people who have no stake in this so-called global war. The cynics on both sides who are manipulating this situation accuse anyone who questions the absoluteness of their oppositions of a kind of moral relativism. In fact, just the opposite is true. As writers, as lovers of language, we should work to preserve the truth of our words, to call things like torture by their proper names, or if those names are worn out to find new ones. We should cherish debate, and use the full power of language to overcome crude binarisms

The third area of concern for us as writers is the use of language to produce identity. In the European context this is particularly crucial, as the economic crisis is immiserating large numbers of people, who are – as always in European history – turning towards xenophobia and atavistic nationalism in the hope of identifying an enemy more tangible than global capital.

It seems to me that multiculturalism, once a useful and progressive kind of politics, is no longer functioning as well as it did. The limits of identity politics are becoming clear. Instead of a playful, creative blending of the best of host and migrant cultures, the terms of multiculturalism are increasingly used by cultural conservatives of all stripes to police cultural boundaries. A liberal politics of absolute inclusivity, while presenting itself as pragmatic, has the disadvantage of obscuring genuine differences and antagonisms. Identity politics, which privileges categories like race and religion, is wilfully silent about class. Culture is, self-evidently, at the heart of this, and so we as writers have a central role to play. It sickens me to watch European bigots puffing up their chests about the values of the Enlightenment, as a badge of their superiority against poor and marginalised immigrant populations. Again, I say that opposition to this Enlightenment fundamentalism, isn’t moral relativism, but an ethical imperative. At this point, respecting difference is important, but so is asserting our common life across borders of race, class and religion. The fake pageantry of respect is no substitute for a genuine internationalism.

There are many weapons in the culture war, but chief among the techniques of policing thought and writing is that of offence. We are familiar with the use of the notion of offense by religious and ethnic minorities to gain identity-political purchase – from the Rushdie fatwa to the Mohammed cartoons, the martialling of sentiments of shame and abused honor have generated a lot of heat and not much light.

I believe that the right to freedom of speech trumps any right to protection from offense, and that it underlies all the other issues I’ve been speaking about. Without freedom of speech, we, as writers, can have very little impact on culture. In saying this, I’m aware that this is a prime example of a concept which has been degraded by the war on terror – that many European muslims misidentify it as a tool of Anglo-Saxon interests, a license to insult them, rather than the sole guarantee of their right to be heard.

It is in this context that we must deal with the absence of VS Naipaul from this meeting, which I find regrettable. I feel we would be stronger and more credible if we were to deal wih divergent views within this meeting rather than a priori excluding someone because of fear that offence might be given.

Our kind Turkish hosts have invited us here, as an international group, to air our views, and so it is my belief that we must not shy away from recognising the situation here, where we are speaking. I know by doing so, as a guest, I risk giving offence, but it would be absurd to assert freedom of speech in the abstract without exercising it in concrete terms. I want to name two writers who are not present, the nobel-prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk and the editor Hrant Dink.

Both these writers, and many others, had cases brought against them under article 301 of the Turkish penal code which makes it illegal to insult Turkey, Turkish ethnicity or Turkish government institutions. In its initial formulation, when it was promulgated in 2005, it was a crime to insult ‘Turkishness’. Pamuk faced trial for giving the following statement to a Swiss magazine ‘thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares mention that. So I do.’ Dink, one of Turkey’s most prominent Armenian voices was convicted under article 301 for then murdered by a young nationalist, who was subsequently photographed in a police station, surrounded by smiling officers, against the backdrop of the national flag.

There are many other examples in Turkey of the weapons of offence and insult being used to silence dissent. Turkey is obviously not alone in this, but since we are here, it is important that we acknowledge it. I believe that one of the most tangible and immediate results of this meeting would be to call for the repeal of section 301 and a declaration that no European writer should have to operate under the threat of similar laws.

I offer these remarks as a way of opening discussion. I look forward to debating all these issues with you over the next few days.

Originally published at Hari Kunzru.

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  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this article. “The fake pageantry of respect” – that hits the nail on the head.

    Some thoughts regarding the concept of freedom of speech. As a right and as a public good, it is of course vital in itself and as the foundation for other rights and freedoms. It is, rather, the good faith of those institutions promoting it that is called into question, not by its inherent license to offend, but by its uneven application. In the UK, the Terrorism Act of 2006 – which outlaws the ‘glorification of terrorism’ – gained its first conviction:

    I have no desire to read Samina Mailk’s poetry; but the very fact that one can be convicted of an offense in part for writing the wrong kind of poem is alarming and objectionable. Similar revisions to the law were rushed through in this country:

    When we must depend on the good faith of the government not to enforce an injurious law, we are in trouble…

  2. Thanks Hari for agreeing to be the first of our international guest posts on the Overland blog.

    A few weeks ago I was asked by the Overland editors to go forth, beyond our virtual shores and find writing that spoke to the interests and concerns of our readers. I chose Hari’s address to the European Writers’ Parliament because it raises a number of important challenges facing writers all around the world.

    There is so much to comment on in the address but I was especially struck by Hari’s first two points.

    The notion of a ‘space of literature’ is a powerful one underpinned as it is by the velocity and scope of information technology. Hari’s points out that

    \…the production of this new space is too important to be left to engineers, administrators and corporate executives. We, as writers ought to help set the terms. Of those three groups, our natural allies are the engineers. We should be talking to them. What kind of information space do we, as writers, want to occupy? Where do we want to live and work? What values should be embedded in that space, what protections, what sanctions?\

    In the light of internet kill switch deployments, corporate collaboration in the shutting down of free speech (e.g. Amazon, PayPal in the Wikileaks case) and, yes, the mooted internet filter here in Australia, writers need to be vigilant in their protection of a democratic, open space for writing; a kind of virtual Tahrir Square in which technology is used to promote rather than control debate, intellectual exchange and collaboration. Indeed, this space should not be left to governments and corporate business to dictate how it should be used and by whom.

    The second point of particular interest to me in Hari’s address is related to the first. The ‘privatisation of public space’ leads to an undervaluing of the work of the writer. Witness the recent sale of the Huffington Post, a publication dependent in large part on a swarm of underpaid writers who have certainly added value to the company by providing content but leave empty handed when the boss flogs the company. Indeed, what is the value of the writer’s work? In particular, how do we balance commercial imperatives with the urgency of the times and the role we have to play in creating a viable future? How do we put writers at the centre of the global publishing business model? Or do we desert it and find new ways of owning the process of distribution?

    I could go on picking threads from Hari’s address to spin insights and inspiration but I’ll leave with a final word of thanks to Hari Kunzru and a note of encouragement to all those quiet readers who pass by the Overland blog without leaving a comment. Don’t be shy, we know you’re there and we’d love to hear from you as this exciting news series develops.

  3. I am intimidated as a (non) writer. You are very successful and intelligent writer proper Mr Kunzru.

    I am a lover of language, I am dedicated to it and value it highly. But I am a non-writer as such. I cannot get published.

    I guess it depends on who writers are. I teach kids to write.

    I think there is a gap between teachers and ‘writers’ that exists.

    And so I ask, when you ‘talk to the engineers of the technology’, will there be a space for non-writers, children and people to practice using language? If so, will there be different spaces for the real, published writers and those practicing, namely children and people who are only developing thier understandings of the ‘conceptual frame under which we are forced to write’ and ‘how the language of the war on terror has degraded language’?

    And will published authors engage in any of these ‘different spaces’ and be explicit for their audiences – or will they continue to assume audiences have a certain level of knowledge?

    In terms of identity, ‘A liberal politics of absolute inclusivity, while presenting itself as pragmatic, has the disadvantage of obscuring genuine differences and antagonisms’ – what might happen in a classless, developmental writing space? Might it contribute to freedom of speech? Will it be dangerous? Will it leave non-writers behind? Will it publish the real ‘differences and antagonisms’ within society? Will it encourage learning?

    We must teach our children and our adults, in safe and explicit ways the power of language. We must teach them how we can use it to make a better world, form the human expereince and be engaged in the political struggles of the day.

    You writers better get to work! Or is that the teachers?

  4. Great points, Sally. Thanks for the post. Hari is travelling in the US now but he is monitoring comments and I hope he picks this one up.

  5. Most interesting. Particularly the lack of engagement with notions of class which I have been ‘harping’ about for years. It is not easy to find opportunities to expose my views but I will take another plunge thanks to Hari’s erudition on matters close to the heart. I do believe that the escalation in mental disorders be that drug abuse legal or illegal is directly related to ‘the war on terror’ along with the inability or unwillingness for discussion or debate in areas of our lives where there was at one time a semblance of communication. I could say much more but will leave that to other scribes and I do hope that there are many of them.

  6. I totally agree with Hari that “multiculturalism” now in many countries is just used as a token term. Instead of celebrating diversity we have started fearing it with the use of pseudo-logical nationalist jargons.

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