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Interview: Prof. Jonathan Dollimore

On speaking truth to power publicly

Print edition : Jan 04, 2019 T+T-
Prof. Jonathan Dollimore.

Prof. Jonathan Dollimore.

Interview with Prof. Jonathan Dollimore.

Professor Jonathan Dollimore was in Kerala in October 2018 as an Erudite Scholar in Residence hosted by the Kerala State Higher Education Council. Instrumental in popularising a critical practice known as cultural materialism, he also pioneered queer studies in academia. Dollimore de-sanitised our very idea of literature by politically examining literary texts as sites of cultural production where hegemonic meanings are stabilised in history. In a disarmingly simple style, he talks about the continued need to be historical, political and philosophical in speaking truth to power. Excerpts from an interview:

In 1985, your commendable work “Political Shakespeare” pioneered cultural materialism as a critical method. How do you view the prospects of the cultural materialist approaches to literature over the three decades after the publication of the book? How would you respond to the detours and deviations taken by cultural materialism in these years?

At the moment of its inception, cultural materialism was never a fixed philosophy or creed. It was a critical practice and an open-ended philosophy. Like all critical practices, it evolves in relation to the reality it confronts. At the outset, my conviction was that cultural materialism had to be historical, political and philosophical.

I do think that over the last years there has been a great deal of very productive emphasis on the political side of it, particularly historically, but I think there hasn’t been sufficient attention given to the philosophical aspect. This has led to some second-rate work being produced under the name of cultural materialism. To communicate, sometimes you’ve got to simplify, and if you can communicate meaningfully with people, simplification is a small price to pay. At the same time, if you mystify someone and alienate them with a complexity, you’re wasting your time.

Once there is that project of “shared meaning”, there is no end to how deep we can go. And I believe that only philosophy can really do justice to those necessary depths. Remember what Marx said, “Hitherto philosophers have only understood the world; our task is to change it.” However, if we read Marx’s works, it is perfectly evident that he knew how incredibly difficult it was to change the world without adequately understanding it. In fact, the whole of Marx’s work is about trying to reach that deep understanding and we must never relinquish that effort.

One of the radical underpinnings of cultural materialism, at its inaugural moment, was its political commitment and the emphasis it placed on “recovering histories”. With the rise of right-wing ideologies all over the world, history itself is being reinvented in a particular kind and format. So the historicity that we are laying claim to can take up new and alarming forms. In this context, what do you think should be the socio-political commitment of a cultural materialist scholar? Must we devise new ways of subversion?

While it depends crucially on the context, it seems that so many of the conflicts that we see in the world today are partly the consequence of a betrayal of meaningful communication. If you think about identity politics, people stop listening and simply wait for an opportunity to speak. Thus, meaningful conversations gave way to the assertion of a position. Identity politics makes people tribal in ways inimical to politics and the communication that politics depends upon.

This might sound trivial, but when you look at the absolute corruption of communication from our world leaders such as [Donald] Trump and [Vladimir] Putin, when you look at the pervasiveness of fake news and post-truth in the period that we live in, one of the tasks left to those of us with the benefit of education and literacy is to restore the practice of meaningful, honest, communication. It wouldn’t be possible unless there is a profound respect for language and meaning; a respect for what it means to be human and to connect with other humans.

But is this not a utopian take, given the fact that the language itself is being hijacked by the market?

Language is being hijacked by the market, but that can also be resisted. Intellectuals will be on the losing side to some extent, but they have also made a difference. They have enabled individuals to speak truth to power and this sets a historical precedent. This makes possible a historical-cultural moment which other people can draw upon. And eventually, when there are successive attempts at speaking truth to power, at refusing fake news and refusing post-truth, a movement emerges.

At that moment of coalescence, usually it is the young who give impetus to significant social movements. Such movements may not always succeed. However, one must always behave as though the discussion one has will be the one to make a difference, and eventually a moment of coalescence may occur. Remember that great remark by Gramsci, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” This shows that at some level this sense of despair is not new. And sometimes when you are despairing intellectually, you have to keep going practically and that’s just the price of a struggle.

Speaking about resistance, public universities are a major forte of political resistance, especially for the Indian youth. However, the universities are under siege and there is a concerted effort to bring them down. In this context, do you not see in fields like cultural studies the last vestiges of the politicality that you are arguing for?

What you are describing sounds all too familiar because it has happened in the United Kingdom as well. It is one of our abject failures that we did not prevent this from happening. We were looking the other way.

Someone said to me recently that there is no point in trying anymore because the battle has been lost. Such an attitude would make it impossible to challenge the fraudulent language of the philistine bureaucrats who now run our universities. To this, I would respond that it is never too late to start. This is because telling the truth or trying to be truthful is always, in a strange way, redemptive. And I am sorry if that sounds too religious, but it is true.

There is a curious kind of energy which comes with trying to be truthful rather than simply being compliant. Playing the political game at any price is one of the most destructive things you can possibly do, because you end up being corrupt, if not sooner, then certainly later. And I also believe that we must never underestimate the potential of young people to be reinvigorated politically. With each new intake of students, the university regenerates itself and becomes a new place. So I believe that it is never too late to start.

Even when you talk about speaking truth to power, a striking aspect of the political climate in India, and elsewhere in the world, is that power is profoundly aware of the truth. In a time when strategic cultures of power erase memory and history in favour of post-truth rhetoric, how do we arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the need to speak truth to power?

I think you are quite right to say that power is aware of the truth. Indirectly that is further confirmation that truth is still retrievable. Perhaps we should rephrase the statement and emphasise instead the act of publicly speaking truth to power. These days, speaking truth to power is much more about trying to share the truth, through platforms like social media, so that power has to answer to the truth. If a court jester questions a king, the king can afford to ignore him. However, if he speaks the truth while the king is surrounded by commoners, the king will be forced to answer.

In a democracy, speaking truth publicly is an act that forces or compels the power to answer. In that sense, one of the aspects of the virtual world is that even as power struggles continue to remain between elites, the virtual world has given us the resources to make the struggle so much larger. The whole world now knows that Trump is a chronic serial liar and many other deplorable things besides. He will fall and fail eventually and the work that many have done to expose his lies will contribute to his demise. And remember, it isn’t “post-truth” that is keeping him in power but other Republicans being complicit in the lying.

Speaking about truth as a potential site of resistance, what role does literature play in articulating the truth? I was particularly reminded of your fascinating take on the notion of “dangerous knowledge” that is related to the suppression of truth.

It seems to me that as intellectuals, we must follow the truth where it leads us, like Nietzsche. An alternative perspective argues in favour of putting limits on truth and where it may lead us.

However, many traditions, including the great Romantic Western tradition, have held that you follow the truth wherever it may lead and at whatever price. And if the truth begins to undermine your morality and ethics, or if it tells you that you are living a lie with regard, for instance, to your marriage or sexuality, you pay a price.

It could even be said that Nietzsche’s madness, to some extent, was hastened by his extraordinary suffering in the pursuit of truth and knowledge. He was a martyr to truth.

Dangerous knowledge is that disturbing knowledge that is all around us, which we want to exclude for the sake of a comfortable life. Certain choices in life may make us feel that we are a fraud, but we make such choices rather than acting on the knowledge which would make us truer. Dangerous knowledge does not necessarily have to be a big, threatening narrative, but it is what is everywhere around us. In a Freudian sense, it is the truth that we endlessly suppress in order to live our daily lives. Sartre called it bad faith.

It seems to me that one of the great themes of literature is the revelation of dangerous truths. Someone like [John] Milton may articulate the dangerous truth in order to contain it, but because he is a great writer, the articulation of the truth is more vital than the containment. So, although he set out to “justify the ways of god to man”, Satan becomes the most compelling character in Paradise Lost . Milton thus attempts to be orthodox, but fails. Modernist writers, on the other hand, want to subvert the system. While there is this traditional philosophical distinction between literature as affective or cognitive, I think that literature is profoundly cognitive. All the time it articulates truths, ideas and insights which may liberate us, threaten us.

You commented on the role of social media in making truth public. Since the inception of cultural materialism, there has been a significant shift towards digital humanities. How do you think a cultural materialist would engage with the politics of the virtual world, given that many of the offline hegemonies are often replicated in the online platforms as well?

The virtual world is increasingly used as a way of denigrating or rendering obsolete the old ways of life. I belong to an earlier epoch, but I still believe that it is worth articulating what I think is true. I will say that while many people exploit the radically relativising potential of the virtual world, there are still those who hold on to power in ways that are not virtual at all. Its effect is real and transparent. Being human, we probably abuse the new technology at our hands more than using it productively.

However, there is always a productive way of using the technology, as we all know.

Your engagement with cultural materialism started off with your remarkable work on Renaissance England and the politicisation of Shakespeare. Would it be possible to say that in postcolonial locales like India, cultural materialism often played a neo-colonial role that gave sanction to the canonisation of Western writers with universal claims, such as Shakespeare?

In the early days of cultural materialism, our attempt was to resist the tendencies to canonise Shakespeare. We wanted to undermine the place that Shakespeare had in a traditional culture. I think to some extent we were successful, although Shakespeare has remained canonical. One thing that cultural materialism helped to do was to open up Shakespeare to new audiences, and to make it possible for different people to connect with him in different ways. Another one of our attempts was to place him in his own historical context, so that instead of seeing him as some solitary genius who was inexplicably thrown up in the early modern period, it would become possible to locate him as one of the many brilliant writers of the period. Shakespeare, both in the U.K. and in India, is now radically different than what he was 30 years ago, and this means Shakespeare is in no way canonical now in ways that he was. That people are still talking about and reading him is not in principle either bad or evidence of canonicity.

And if I can just digress slightly, one of the things that fascinates me is that in the end, although it is not among my intentions to canonise Shakespeare, I would want to say that Shakespeare and his contemporaries had an extraordinary sensibility—an intellectual sensibility—from which we can still learn.

It is a great paradox that an age which was, at one level, so barbaric could have an intelligence and sensibility which represent something that we lost. In that sense, I would very much defend the reading of Shakespeare.

India has been very fertile when it comes to adaptations of Shakespeare. Their amazing number perhaps makes it possible to say that at some point, subversion itself becomes canonised. Have you been able to see any of those adaptations? What would be your take on the politics of cultural adaptations, given the postcolonial locales from which they seem to be increasingly coming up?

I haven’t seen them. However, I have learnt a great deal about Shakespeare in India, mostly from a student of mine, Ania Loomba. Reading her wonderful work, I was astonished by the extent to which Shakespeare pervaded the Indian culture. In such a context, the only way out is to appropriate Shakespeare and make him work for you.

In that regard, I think cultural appropriations are perfectly valid. In fact, I even devised a term for it—“creative vandalism”. I use it to refer to the way in which you deliberately violate the authoritarians of the piece in order to allow to speak of them in very different contexts. However, it doesn’t work if you lose complete knowledge of the original context in the act of creative vandalism. There is a way in which you have to remain historically aware of where it comes from in order to appreciate the power of the adaption.

Given the answer regarding adaptations, as a co-editor of a landmark book and one of the founding figures of an influential critical approach, what is your response to the ways in which others have adapted, paraphrased, borrowed and broadly engaged with your work?

I remember a long time ago when I was in an American library, I picked a journal off a shelf and saw that it brutally criticised one of my works. Further down the line, I picked up another journal which had a positive review of the same work. I read them both, and to be absolutely honest, although I would like to say that the positive review was more truthful, I haven’t been able to recognise my work in either reviews. When you publish, you hand over whatever you have created to the world and it is there for the world to use and abuse. And if you sit in your study, fretting that it hasn’t been used correctly, then you are wasting your time. That is not how the world works. Look what the white boys did with the black music in America. Look where jazz came from. Look at any of our cultural forms and you will find that at some level it is a misappropriation or even a violation created from that which has gone before. It’s a form of theft. All culture is a form of theft. As Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about badly is not being talked about at all. That said, where I have felt it necessary to do so, I have criticised the co-option of cultural materialism by people in the university who use it for narrowly academic rather than intellectual purposes.

On the whole, when you look at cultural materialism today in the light of its potential for social transformation, how do you think it is still functional in a post-liberalised world?

I don’t know whether my country is particularly interested in cultural materialism, but there are some people who are still engaged with it. I am much more interested in seeing what your people are doing with it here. Those appropriations and transformations—things we have taken over in new contexts—that’s what is really exciting. We will wait and see. Also, the future is up to the young. It is not up to me to tell them what to do. Well, if they want to ask me, I will be happy to contribute. What I still have to contribute is the sense of the deep structures of where we are now. A lot of learning today is very superficial. And I think it is a great loss that people aren’t really wanting to go deeper, but then again, maybe I am wrong.

In the decades that followed, much of your critical investments were on the politics of sexuality. You have often said that your sexuality is interesting at those moments when it throws you into confusion, when the experience of love makes you question who you are and not confirm it. We in India have a history where gay people have been murdered and mutilated, and they continue to be oppressed. Recently, the apex court in India ruled in favour of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Even as there are many attempts to recover lost histories of gay cultures, there are also tendencies to romanticise them. How would you respond to gay identity politics and these new discourses of liberation that seem to be coming out of the very terms of oppression?

Sexuality as a comfortable extension of one’s identity appears to me as being profoundly untrue to the nature of desire. I would like to respond with a personal story. When I was in my twenties, I thought I was straight. Then I ended up falling in love with a man and it was an incredible, amazing relationship. It was a gay relationship across race. This relationship profoundly influenced everything I wrote. At this point, my new-found gay friends said, “At last you came out to be the person you always were.” But in reality what happened was that I became a profoundly different person. Overnight as it were, literally overnight if you take my point, I had become another person. It had thrown everything up in the air. It had torn me apart. It made me rethink who I am and what I am, as though someone had pulled the ground from underneath my feet. I can be wrecked by desire. The experience of love makes me question who I am, not confirm who I am.

For me, what is interesting in my sexuality are such moments which throw me into confusion. So I don’t agree when my friends say “affirm yourself as gay and embrace the identity of newly queer,” with the implication that it was always there. Traditions of writings about love never consolidate identity. Lovers don’t just proclaim: “At last I know who I am.” They are wrecked by desire, their identity is wrecked. That form of ecstasy, in which they don’t know how to live, sleep or eat, is profoundly undermining.

Identity politics for me has more to do with consumerism than it does with desire. And anyone who thinks their identity is comfortably coextensive with their desire is living in a dreamland, because one day you might wake up falling in love with someone you never thought you would. Identity politics, as it is being practiced on the campuses in the United States and the U.K., is profoundly detrimental because only certain people are allowed to speak. If you are a member of the minority you are permitted to speak. However, if you happen to be white, male or cisgender, you are silenced. When I started teaching gay courses in the 1980s, people assumed that only gay people would want to do them. And this was partly or largely true. However, I wanted straight people in there as well. They could bring in a different perspective and could learn things that only that course could give. But unfortunately, identity politics was already active and most of the straight people were excluded. I regret that to this day.

Even as you talk about this, could it be that your own location in a First World country colours your perceptions in a certain sense? Is there not a continued need for a strategic kind of an essentialism in places like India?

From the moment that I started writing my book Sexual Dissidence , I have realised that it was profoundly about identity, even as I was personally attracted to the anti-essentialist views. Later, when I read the works of essentialist thinkers like Andre Gide, I realised that the affirmation of identity is a crucial aspect of the history of sexual dissidence. So I framed the book around a contrast between Andre Gide and Oscar Wilde. And fortunately, there was an amazing moment when these two writers met in Algiers. Wilde got Gide to acknowledge his own homosexuality for the very first time, and this was life-changing for Gide.

Thus, the whole book is about double narratives—on the one hand, the way all liberation movements must embrace identity at some level to move forward and how, on another level, the very ascription of identity, while liberating, can also be the basis on which people are persecuted, demonised and separated. And we live in a very complicated world where you know our identities are contradictory. On the one hand, yes, politically we often tend to be anti-essentialist, and for very good reasons. Yet, at the same time we might be members of the emerging minorities which have to be essentialist. If you come at this philosophically, you will realise that this has always been the case.

It occurred to me that the Western philosophical trajectory has been an attempt to achieve objectivity, but always haunted by the impossibility of that task. So you get repetitions of periods where a great philosopher thinks that he has proved the objective nature of reality and then someone comes along and undermines it. And really it is the same with identity. Identities are always being made and unmade. And I am afraid that desire is on the side of unmaking.

At a time when we talk about the performance of gender and the fluidity of identities, how would you respond to India’s attempts at legitimising same-sex marriages—a move that could, in turn, institutionalise marriage?

There was an article written about me about two months ago which really annoyed me and I made them put in a correction. The article was primarily on bisexuality as something that doesn’t threaten identity. However, in the course of the article it said that I had been married, and I was absolutely furious about this. I have never been married. I have always remained opposed to the institution of marriage for obvious reasons, including patriarchy. But when my gay friends said that they wanted to get married I held that it is their choice, and a part of liberation is to have that choice. The remark in the article felt offensive to me because twenty years ago, had I got married, it would have been regarded as a deep betrayal of my homosexuality simply because of what was and wasn’t permitted at that time for gay people. It was very offensive to me that someone would think that I would just leave a gay relationship and go and marry a woman. Today, it is all different because everyone can marry. I still distrust the institution of marriage. I think it is conservative and a lot of gay people are deeply conservative these days. I have never been married. Maybe that’s why I stayed friends with all my former partners!

When we look at the trajectory of the politics of sexual dissidence in India and elsewhere, “queer” has emerged as a radically political way of talking about a diversity of themes ranging from gender and sexuality to desire. How would you respond to this particular direction taken by the lesbian—and—gay liberation movement?

It seems to me that in the U.K. now it is easier to be queer than being a good old-fashioned lesbian or gay person. While it seems trendy today, it wasn’t so when we started to use that term. But as time moves on, you have to constantly re-examine your own perspectives. Sometimes, when things gain a purchase, you have to jump in and challenge the new orthodoxies which surround them.

When a vital movement emerges, it may attract a lot of people all too eager to jump on the bandwagon and try to take it in directions which aren’t always productive. Gay marriage is a choice for many, but let us not pretend that somehow marriage is in anyway consistent with the wonderful utopian visions of the early days of gay liberation. Gay liberation has taken concepts from the dominant culture revitalised these concepts to be more inclusive.

And often, like in the early days of the women’s movement, gay liberation is not just about saying “we want the rights to behave as badly as you” which is, in a sense, what some demands for equality are about today. But the wonderful thing about the early liberation movement is that they have this wonderful utopian vision that was all-inclusive. They saw the world as a radically transformed place. While it was idealistic and unrealistic, it was so much more energising than some of the demands that we have today. So I miss those utopian moments.

This is where I would like to bring the recent work of yours, “Desire: A Memoir”, which I think ought to get much more attention than it has in the Indian context. What I liked about the book was the very notion of an academic writing a memoir that is both intensely personal and philosophical. Would you like to talk about that a little bit?

It is a difficult book to talk about. The autobiography came out last year, and it came about because I was remembering some dead friends. I realised that the whole pain of losing them had been so great that I had suppressed it. I realised I had to go back and relive it in a way. Once I started writing that book, the most incredible things happened. I had these great surges of remorse, regret and desire—reawakening of old desires for people who are now dead and lost. And well, I just thought I better write it as it comes out and that’s what I did. It was a lonely and painful book to write. But it was also the most meaningful thing I have ever written.

I was particularly struck by your remark: “I am not attracted to the confessional for its own sake.”

We can bore each other terribly by our own personal lives, but it always seemed to me that my life is interesting when the personal intersected with larger things. It drags you out of yourself as it were; you start to look down on yourself from a distance; and see yourself in a context. However, as I remark in my book, to be worth writing about, the personal needs to have a meaning beyond me. There are things which I felt it important to confess to, because certain dominant narratives were being untruthful about them.

One of these was about a relationship that I had when I was a boy with an older man. Certainly in the West, now anything that suggests a relationship between an adult and a young person is completely demonised. And I felt there is an interesting history here where older men and younger men really do have potentially important relationships which aren’t necessarily supposed to end the way so many can.

If, as you say, depression is a sickness of desire, it’s a malady I see gripping many in the academia today. At a time when the state continues to withdraw, not so discreetly now, from education, amidst various kinds of moves to liberalise and privatise education and tune it to market imperatives, in the process often breaking the backbones of our public universities, and also in the context of cultures of sycophancy and cultures of silence that seem to be on the rise, how do you look at the sickness of desire that makes many discerning intellectuals depressed?

About ten years ago, when all that you are speaking about was happening in my own country, I had a wonderful job in the university, but I was being asked to betray everything I believed in. Every day I was being asked to betray what I taught and what I lived by. And I began suffering from clinical depression. One day I just got up and walked out of my office. I never came back. I now think of that moment as a failure. Had I been stronger, I could have coped better. But it is when we function as isolated individuals that such oppressions become terrifying, and therefore we need to find ways of connecting with people, we got to make alliances. Global capital is so powerful today that I continue to despair at some level. But then, resistance is always crushed, will be crushed. The price of resistance is suffering.

Meena T. Pillai is Professor, Institute of English, and Director, Centre for Cultural Studies, University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram.