A Short Note or Informal Manifesto
Vinay Lal and Grzegorz Kwiatkowski
Though the idea for a new international forum comprised of poets and philosophers, writers and scholars, and activists and public intellectuals was conceived by us some months ago and has been germinating in our minds for much longer, the recent turn of events signaled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has underscored the desirability of such a venture. However reprehensible this act of aggression, and whatever the geopolitics that inform the present circumstances, we aver that war is always a crime against humanity.
The uncomfortable fact is that the world has been spiraling out of control for some years, oddly enough in the wake of the triumphant declaration by the United States, following the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that the entire world appeared to be gravitating towards liberal democracy and the ethos of the free market economy. Even as countries such as China and Russia have hardened their resolve to suppress dissent at home, many established democracies have been veering towards authoritarianism in recent years. On the economic front, it is widely conceded that inequality in nearly every country has grown immensely, and the various goals that the United Nations and its myriad agencies have set from time to time for the elimination of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, or illiteracy are not even remotely close to being met. The goalposts, whether with regard to literacy, access to health care, schooling, and so on, have shifted an innumerable number of times in the last half century.
However, the tenor of our present malaise or, to use an overly wrought word, “crisis”, cannot be captured by the decline of liberal democracy or the obscene economic disparities that make a mockery of our pretensions to a world where considerations of equity, social justice, and peace reign supreme. Beyond all this, the stark, brutal, and unremitting reality of climate change threatens to make every other misfortune or even catastrophe look puny in comparison. The most recent “Sixth Assessment Report” (2021) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes for grim reading, unequivocally clear as it is that the efforts to mitigate global warming have been woefully insufficient. It declares that “global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades”, and it goes on to warn that “continued global warming is projected to further intensify the global water cycle, including its variability, global monsoon precipitation and the severity of wet and dry events.” The extreme weather events that have plagued the world—not the least of them 100°F temperatures in Siberia—in recent years will almost certainly increase, though speaking of plague should of course remind us of the catastrophic coronavirus pandemic that gripped the world.
War, political authoritarianism, the drift away from democracy, unmitigated climate change, the spiraling increase in consumption, the reduction of the human to homo economicus: catastrophic as all this is, it is insufficient to describe what ails us today. Nor will it be adequate to add to the above narrative other elements of the global situation in the hope that we will better comprehend the temper of our times. It is entirely reasonable, for instance, to suggest that the seductions of globalization have given way to the recrudescence of nationalism. Some of us, especially if we have been life-long students of anti-colonial movements and have partaken of them in our own modest ways, recognize nationalism as a ‘disease’. The difficulty of persuading those who have been at the receiving end of colonialism to think beyond nationalism must be recognized, but nationalism cannot be deflected or confronted merely with anodyne expressions of the fact that people are fundamentally ‘good’ and affirmations of the necessity of being a ‘world citizen’. All too often, the ‘world citizen’ is a citizen of nowhere, and therefore bears none of the responsibilities that attach to the idea of citizenship. The ‘world citizen’ is only another expression of the rights-bearing individual who in principle has become the normative expression of what it means to be human, a stark indication of how far we have moved away from the language of ‘duties’.
The malaise of which we speak points to something deeply disturbing in the human condition at present—something akin to the end of imagination, even as all around the world common people take to the streets to signify their dissent, publishing flourishes, and the internet seems abuzz with thousands of ideas. Language can restrain, limit, and enslave us as much as it liberates us. Everywhere there is the injunction ‘to think outside the box’, though it should be obvious that anyone using so cliched a phrase is unlikely to ever do anything like that. Whoever heard anyone proudly declaring that they would like to think inside the box? (A similar problem exists with the vastly overused and banal word, ‘excellence’, regarding which Bill Readings made the most apposite observation, in The University in Ruins, that it signifies absolutely nothing.) T. S. Eliot, in “Little Gidding” (The Four Quartets), put it this way, “History may be servitude, history may be freedom.” To the great detriment of the world, the languages in which the human predicament has been framed in the post-World War II have been largely shaped by the practices of the social sciences in the United States. The problems of America become, willy-nilly, the problems of the rest of the world; when America sneezes, the rest of the world sneezes. When the master is sick, as Malcolm X put it inimitably, “we sick”. Identity politics of the sort that is exceedingly common on the American university campus and has slowly made its way into other sectors of American society has now become part of the common conversation in many countries, but we do not think that ‘identity politics’ is a very productive way of delivering a just society or an equitable social order.
What is required is a greater appreciation of more fundamental questions that underscore the precarity, ambiguity, and uncertainty of human experience. Every generation, admittedly, tends to think that its own woes are the worst, but we would do well to inquire what makes our malaise profound and distinct. We have already pointed to the conjuncture of various circumstances, at the apex of which stands the problem of the Anthropocene, but the gravity of the problem can be amplified by seeking to understand what makes our gross indifference to our common future, as well as man’s inhumanity to man, different in these times. The 20th century was a century of total war, but first World War I—the “Great War”, the war that was supposed to wean us from all wars—and then World II put an end to the idea that humankind had freed itself of the addiction to war. We need not add to the tally of these “world wars” the wars generated by the Cold War or modern-day genocides such as the one that decimated Rwanda in 1994. In the last two to three decades alone, just exactly what have diversity training—little do the bureaucrats know that even dictators have to undergo “diversity training”—corporate social responsibility, “respect” training, and other respected shenanigans wrought except the great delusion that somehow we have become more sensitive and caring human beings and the idea that incrementally societies will free themselves of their prejudices. The late David Graeber wrote wittingly and illuminatingly on ‘bullshit jobs’, but it is just as true that trillions of dollars are expended on ‘bullshit’ research that over the last several decades has yielded very little.
There is a character in Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague, who says that at the end of the day there is only one way to address the plague—“decency”. But whatever happened to decency? Or, even more tellingly, whatever happened to the idea of “shame”? Does the idea of ‘shame’ have any currency at all in most societies these days? We would go so far as to say that “shame” has virtually disappeared from the public vocabulary of our times. Whoever speaks of “virtue”—except perhaps students of Greek philosophy, immersed in the reading of Plato and Aristotle. The malaise of which we speak is captured in the unimpeachable and disturbing fact that every language of dissent has been hijacked, first and foremost by the gargantuan world of the American university.
This enterprise, which seeks no corporate or foundation funding, and is premised on the hope that goodwill, intellectual appetite and rigor, and imagination taken singly and in combination can command an audience, is thus animated by the conviction that poets, philosophers, writers, public intellectuals, scholars, and others must assume a greater place in thinking about the human condition and working on producing an ethical praxis more in congruence with ideas of social justice, equity, compassion, and even wisdom. Poetry makes nothing happen, wrote Auden, but of course as someone dedicated to the craft over decades he secretly pined for the day when Shelley’s apotheosization of poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” might bear fruit. There is no such expectation on our part, but we would like to see what we can do across borders—the borders that persist between nations-state, between self and other, between disciplines, between the cerebral and the manual, and the other borders too numerous to mention that make radical transgression a key political and ethical imperative of our times.
Our modest hope is to convene this forum once a month, or at least every six weeks, and have a poetry reading, short presentations, and vigorous discussion. Meetings will be held over zoom, and we may even in time use the transcripts to create volumes of collective authorship. If, after several meetings, it appears that the enterprise does not inspire us enough, it can be abandoned—or passed on to others who are able to marshal creativity and intellectual insights more forcefully.
We will have our first meeting via zoom on Saturday, April 23rd, at 10:30 AM (Los Angeles), or 6:30 PM—London; 7:30 PM—Poland; 11 PM—New Delhi. Registration at this link is required:
Vinay Lal, Los Angeles/Delhi: cultural critic, public commentator, blogger, and Professor of History, UCLA [email: email@example.com]
Grzegorz Kwiatkowski, Gdańsk: poet, writer, musician, and co-host of the Oxford workshop, “Virus of Hate” [email: firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sangam=from the Sanskrit, meaning confluence of rivers, especially of the Ganga, Yamuna, and the (mythical) Saraswati at Prayag; also refers to the Tamil Sangam poets, who flourished 500 BCE-300 CE; Agora=from the Greek, an open public space for markets, assemblies, and itinerant philosophers