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MUZAFFAR KARIM | 17 MARCH, 2020

‘All Our Monuments are Mausoleums’

Theatre and democracy are like twins, or two strands of DNA


I – Recycling History

In Micheal Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) when Anna finally shoots Paul’s friend Peter after their exhaustive sadistic games, Paul rectifies and resurrects his friend by searching the remote and literally rewinding the whole scene for himself and for the audience.

This is what we do every time an event not of our liking (ideology) occurs: we search for a remote, a website, a video, a browser that rectifies and resurrects the event for us.

Haneke’s movie emerges as a critique of torture-porn and war-porn the culture of mass media. The movie continually breaks the fourth wall and in iconic scenes (like that above) makes the viewer conscious of the fictionality of fiction. It questions our position as consumers.

The present condition of the world harnesses this interpretation. One hand explores Mars, the other suffers poverty. #MeToo movements with strong-willed celebrities enlighten our faces, while 4.1 million girls around the globe are at risk of genital mutilation. We clutter space with satellites, and Earth’s environment is breathing its last. While the slogans and processes of Democracy are getting sharper, Palestinians and Kashmiris go on suffering.

While time seems to be progressing at the same time it seems to slope down into decadence. Time it seems, like Hamlet, is ‘out of joint’ or history like Paul’s remote is rewinding itself to rectify its mistakes before us, so the fictional-plot goes in the desired direction. All the dreams of Enlightenment and Modernism end in nightmares, and any promise of progression of time/history falls in pieces. Kant, Hegel, Marx and others can be seen wearing the mask of ideologies suffocating under the heavy debris of grand histories.

So is this terminus ad quem? But we have neither seen Apocalypse, Anti-Christ, Messiah nor Fukuyama’s End of History. We are stuck somewhere, in between. History it seems is on a loop, cycling or better ‘recycling’ —Jean Baudrillard’s word —‘History has only wrenched itself from cyclical time to fall into the order of the recyclable.’

Ironic it may seem, but for Baudrillard the ‘end’ does not occur because of termination, or the lack of something. On the contrary it happens from an excess of it – or example, the excess of sex in pornography, is the end of sexuality in it – the hyperreal.

Like Tyler Durden in Fight Club inserting those porn-shots within an excessive- emotional- hollywood- marketed family drama, because they all belong to the same domain, of the hyperreal. ‘The idea is destroyed by its own realization, by its own excess.’

Likewise the excess of events —more important the dissemination of any event, in real time, through 24/7 news networks, and the bombardment of proliferating commentaries— puts an end to history.

‘All our structures’ says Baudrillard, ‘end up swelling like red giants that absorb everything in their expansion.’ It’s like metastasis, the very growth of the body that ends the body – body politic or body social.

So, why doesn’t it end, what is ‘recycling’?

One of the many answers that interest is his concern with leftover ideologies. For Baudrillard, ‘defunct ideologies, bygone utopias, dead concepts’ like ‘Church, communism, ethnic groups, conflicts, ideologies’ are all here with us, and history has become its own dustbin, just like ‘the planet itself is becoming its own dustbin.’

This historical and intellectual waste, scattered all over the dustbin of history, poses a larger threat to us than industrial waste. The only possible function left for History is to ‘either perish under the weight of the non-degradable waste of great empires, the grand narratives, or the great systems’, or to ‘recycle all this waste in the synthetic form of a heteroclite history.’

It is for this reason the history never comes to an end, because the ‘leftovers’ are all settled here and there’s nothing that ‘will rid us of the sedimentation of centuries of stupidity.’ History through its ‘retroversion… to infinity’ recycles the leftovers, or like Paul’s remote, replays itself, rectifying or whitewashing any error.

This labouring helps us answer the earlier comparisons, the heteroclite (or other-inflected) elements of progress and decadence within democracies all over. The history is recycling, and many times recycles the fascism within democracy, or sometimes simply stupidity —because democracy and rights are nothing but ‘the confused end-product of the reprocessing of all the residues of history.’

Sometimes the history recycles someone like Trump, or reprocesses a Modi for democracy. I was reminded of this reading Aijaz Ahmad’s ‘Post-democratic State’ written recently for Frontline.

There is a strong academic tendency to read both these figures as tyrants or fools, and many theories tempt us into that direction. What we tend to forget, is the process through which they came to the forefront, as leaders of the two ‘great nations’ – they did not appoint themselves as leaders, but were elected through a democratic process of election.

Dismissing them as tyrants undermines the sacrosanct process of electioneering and voting so vital to the democratic life. Gilles Deleuze says, ‘a tyrant institutionalizes stupidity, but he is the first servant of his own system and the first to be installed within it.’

So this is the time, to shift the focus away from the subject, to the system, the process: the Democracy. A question that begs the answer is, how come 21st century democracy gives birth to such politicians, and how do these politicians survive within that system? Is the system so favourable for people like them?

Such leaders share a number of behavioural patterns: narcissism, controversies, attention, and approval. They always have an almost pathological need to ‘pose’ – media, camera and social networking come in handy.

Another aspect of this theatricality is the blatant and gross display of power against minorities, or enemies. There is no ideology in force here, no hegemony, no secrets but an open agenda – visible and excessive. Power wears no masquerade; we are back to Royal power.

If history recycles itself then maybe we must recycle the theory too, going back to the old societies, and their theatricality of power, to understand the present paradox. Theatre and democracy are like twins, or two strands of DNA.

II – Demokratia or Theatrokratia

Around the sixth century BCE, Athens was a warring nation of tribal and foreign conflicts and among those trying to unify them was Pisistratus, a tyrant (not actually a tyrant but one like our leaders). Greek poetry had already started with Homer recorded around the eighth century giving way to Bacchylidian lyrics by the seventh.

Now Athens was not the great nation we remember. Sparta, Corinth, Sikyon, and Samos were the cities of importance. The rise of Athens is synchronous with the rise of democracy, and democracy originates beside the establishment of the theatre.

In the late sixth and early fifth centuries, Pisistratus established a single festival of Dionysos at Athens, the city of Dionysia. It was ‘an official celebration’ with performances providing the audience a chance to affirm themselves as citizens of the polis (city).

Scholars write that theatre was the ‘glue of democracy’ then. By the time it reached Elizabethan England it had been reduced to a grand spectacle, and theatricality was a tool to discipline and control people. ‘We princes are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world,’ announced Elizabeth I to a delegation of lords and members. And we were back to our present democracy of Princes, their visible presence and power.

In a theatrical-democracy the truth is less important than the performance. In fact, the spectacle of a lie performed with full theatricality can outwit truth. Democracy begs theatricality. Plato was so afraid of theatre, write Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, that he equated demokratia with theatrokratia.

Are we really then the ‘society of the spectacle’ Guy Debord warned us of long ago? ‘Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation,’ reads the first thesis of his study. We have ‘progressed’ abysmally.

Postscript

With players as diverse as news channels, social media, websites, democracy has become a mere theatrical game won by the best actors and directors with the largest paying audience. The Bharatiya Janata Party has understood this like no other. Is democracy overrated?

A common thread in democracy and theatre is: talking to the audience. For Plato, the only antidote to the poison of deceptive-theatre is philosophy, or what our colloquial calls education. An educated populace, an engaging public, is the only audience to this grand theatre. Frequently breaking the fourth wall and involving an ever more educated audience… is the only way to determine whether democracy is overrated or not!


Muzaffar Karim was born in Kashmir and completed his MA from the University of Kashmir. He earned a PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University and is currently assistant professor at the University of Kashmir. His poems and stories have appeared in various journals and newspapers.

Cover Photograph of an encounter two days ago at Anantnag, South Kashmir BASIT ZARGAR

 

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