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LitFests as ‘cultural apparatus’

Arather systematic analysis of western cultural industries from a Marxist perspective began in earnest in the 1950s when a cohort of radical intellectuals – Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, Raymond Williams, C H Mills, Herbert Marcuse, Ralph Miliband, and E P Thompson – began to investigate the centrality of what they sometimes called the ‘cultural apparatus’.

The ‘cultural apparatus’, a construct first conceptualised by Bertolt Brecht, implies the “very process and means by which a work of art is brought to the public in this era of speculators, promoters, and middlemen”. Brecht claimed that a commodity-oriented society did not allow its cultural apparatus to be appropriated for a radical function. Instead, the cultural apparatus merchandises the art and thereby distorts and nullifies it for its own ends.

As a concept the cultural apparatus also played a formative role in the work of the Frankfurt School. As early as 1932 it emerged in Fromm’s writings, albeit in a rudimentary form. Fromm was later to describe the ‘cultural apparatus’ as a ‘filter’ conditioning what entered society’s ‘social unconscious’.

Fromm asserted, “Eventually, he [the alienated industrial worker] is under the influence of our whole cultural apparatus, the advertisements, the movies, television, newspapers, just as everybody else, and can hardly escape being driven into conformity, although perhaps more slowly than other sectors of the population”.

But it was through Marcuse (in his ‘33 Theses’, written in 1947) that ‘the cultural apparatus of monopoly capitalism’ was first conceptualised most elaborately. Mills in The Cultural Apparatus – left unfinished at his untimely death in 1962 – also highlighted the concerns shown by the Frankfurt School. Though Mills remained vague in his definition of the ‘cultural apparatus’, in his view it consisted of “observation posts, interpretation centres, and presentation depots” and was “composed of all the organisations and milieu in which artistic, intellectual, and scientific work goes on”.

While the Frankfurt School was attempting to theorise the effects of the ‘cultural apparatus’ on the people, Mills – like Brecht – wanted to explore the role of an intellectual in the cultural apparatus.

Almost simultaneously, Faiz Ahmed Faiz was also being tormented by similar concerns – in a different context though. In an appeal to Pakistani writers, ‘Writers, Where Do You Stand?’, Faiz points out: “It is necessary to redefine for the writer…the basic tenets of his creed as a writer to enable him to rediscover his individual and collective responsibilities”.

This is the role Faiz envisioned for the Pakistani writer: “Concretely, this means that in the world of today a serious writer must denounce imperialist, racialist and colonialist agencies and to support, admire and love all people in the east and the west struggling for freedom and basic national and human rights. He must make his pen a barricade against the threatened march of imperialist forces towards human destruction and a banner for the forces seeking to lead mankind towards universal freedom and universal peace”.

However, even without invoking Faiz Sahib’s revered authority, shouldn’t we question the political economy of ‘literature festivals’? Their cultural significance? Their class character?

Let us begin with the political economy aspect of ‘LitFests’. Sponsored by imperial embassies and institutions besides corporate houses, LitFests have a commercial logic. The idea is to market globally fashionable celebrities as well as advertising local ones. In essence, LitFests are vital cogs in the publishing arm of the cultural apparatus, whereby on the one hand the donor-funded and commercial character of these literary spectacles engenders a top-down structure answerable only to commercial interests and on the other, their onetime character does not translate into any grassroots movement.

Now juxtapose LitFests and indigenous literary bodies such as Halqa Arbab-e-Zouq and the Progressive Writers Association (PWA). Not only would Halqa and PWA often elect – by vote or consultation – their leaderships, they would also collect funds from members to hold meetings at humble venues; not at elite places that drive away working-class people.

In contrast, the figurative violence of elitism at LitFests filters out unsuitable client-audiences. Back in 1990, the day I arrived in Lahore from Sargodha as a Government College Lahore under-grad student, I literally spent my first evening at the Pak Tea House. With my working-class, small-town background, I really wonder whether I would have dared to enter the Pak Tea House if it were anchored in some elite beach-side resort.

Particularly perturbing is to see sight radicals, some of whom I otherwise admire, moderating LitFest panels. Is this how the marginalised Left is strategising an ‘awami’ outreach? When the Left reduces itself to ‘interventions’ and ‘enterisms’ in donor-sponsored spectacles, it forfeits the right to organise the ‘awam’ it aspires to represent. It also lends credibility to such spectacles when the need is to expose them. I understand that these are hard times as cultural spaces are being encroached by the religious right. However, jumping the fences is an escape, not a solution.

The writer is a freelance contributor.  Email: mfsulehria@hotmail.com

Farooq Sulehria, "LitFests as ‘cultural apparatus’," The News. 2014-02-11.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Social needs , Social rights , Human rights , International peace , Violence , Faiz Ahmed Faiz , Pakistan