The panel discussion Literature! And the Political? A Dialogue between Readers, Writers, Publishers and Academics sought to provide a platform for an exchange between those doing literature and those analyzing it.
A report by Simon Godart
Held at the Lettrétage in Kreuzberg and organized as part of this year’s Summer School of the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School for Literary Studies entitled “The Politics of Literature – Literature and Politics”, the format wanted to spark a dialogue between the scholarly interest in writing and the reflection of those producing literature as poets, essayists, playwrights, or publishers. Accordingly, the speakers who were welcomed by FSGS-Alumna Iulia Dondorici represented this variety of positions within the literary field; the participants were Clementine Burnley (writer in poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction/community organiser), Dirk Laucke (playwright/writer and theatre director) as well as Daniela Seel (writer/translator/publisher at kookbooks).
While, as the title’s punctuation marks already indicated, ‘Literature’ was conceived as a widely accepted term for a diverse field of genres and activities, it was ‘the political’ that needed further clarification. It was therefore not surprising that the range of the panelists’ positions was extremely wide when asked whether they considered themselves and their writing as political. On one side of the spectrum, Daniela Seel explained that she felt she was not political enough. Describing her self-reflection as a constant reminder of “not doing enough,” she asked herself and the audience to become more political and to engage more in actual social debates, the “burning issues” that literature should address. Thereby arguing against a good conscience, she insisted that her work as poet and essayist as well as her initiative in the independent and artist-lead publishing house kookbooks may already contribute to political debates. But in her eyes, even though one might thus take a stance in the literary field, the idea to rest upon one’s laurels is unacceptable. Coining the expression “literary activist” which resonated throughout the evening, Seel emphasized that the political and the literary should always be thought of as interconnected.
Clementine Burnley replied by taking the diametrically opposed but not conflicting position, fearing her writing was sometimes “too political.” The connection between the literary and the political might not only productively influence both sides; by intertwining the interest in her work as community organizer and as a political activist with her poetic writing, Burnley described how the claims and interests she stands for find their way into her texts on their own. The prevalence of the political may therefore, even unconsciously, interfere with writing on such a fundamental level that the literary proper cannot be entirely kept free of it. She understands her work both as poet and as rather political activist between Berlin and Limbe (Cameroun) as such indispensable part of her daily life that it becomes hard to draw a line between the two. For her, writing and poetry in particular is always and foremost a mode of “claiming the stage” that cannot be separated from the position one expresses – the political is always already there, and therefore influences all other areas of a writer’s life. Writing in a broad sense always coincides with “claiming the stage” inasmuch as it is already a political act of addressing a public sphere; therefore, the literary proper can hardly be separated from it, which might explain the fear Burnley expressed of giving it too much room in her own writing. In this sense, her fear does resemble the feeling of doing too little Seel expressed. For both, literary activism goes beyond the image of the inspired poet producing beautiful lines by him/herself. Writing as political act seems to be both unavoidable and uncontrollable. The panelists’ own need to discuss just how far this politicization of writing goes, and how its effects can not only be described, but be exploited in the process of writing, was very perceptible and showed the resonance between the principal question outline proposed by the members of FSGS and their guests.
In addition, the stance Dirk Laucke took was a welcome completion of the spectrum of positions as he rejected with some emphasis the idea of being a political writer at all. Without denying the major influences social and political circumstances might always have on cultural production – including the politics involved in the presentation of the literary, as Laucke mainly writes for the theatre and also producing the adoption of his plays himself – he wanted to challenge the notion of political writing altogether. Did his texts aim at changing the world, and were his writings and productions meant to convince people of positions and beliefs the author shares? In his eyes, the ways in which literature might or might not have an influence on society and the world do not simply follow a strict causality but are an expression of the interrelations of both fields. Texts that appear to cause changes and allow for identificatory readings for specific readers (Laucke spoke of authors like Rushdie or Orwell) do so by hitting a nerve that already existed, following a general climate or “fashion” that finds its way into their texts. They are always already part of a world without therefore being able to change it in a direct sense. His plea was meant to differentiate between content and agenda; in his experience, his texts about subjects that are a current matter of public interest are often understood as being political in themselves. In this sense, the political value of his work would be highly overestimated, or, vice versa, not taken seriously at all. When everything that a text comprises is already seen as vaguely political, the term itself starts to wear out, losing its significance. Laucke’s self-description made it very clear that in order to have any real political impact at all, literature cannot simply adopt fashionable subjects to express a view on society. While in his own experience, some of his projects have had considerable effects – he mentioned “Früher war alles”, his work on Freital that premiered in March 2019 –, for him, the conception of activism seems to be different from literature in a narrow sense.
Although these positions seem to vary significantly, all panelists shared both a genuine interest and need to define what makes literature political. Accordingly, the panelists agreed widely that an elaborated concept of the political was yet to be developed. In terms of engaged literature, no one in the discussion seemed to think that principles of literary action established in the 1950s and 60s could be applied to writing today. The discussion of engagement or the political implications of l’art pour l’art as addressed prominently by thinkers such as Sartre or Adorno no longer correspond to the questions writers face today. For the discussants, literature cannot be understood as the work of independent and omnipotent subjects that could simply turn their opinions and beliefs into texts in order to convince others. Both this unidirectional way of expression and the idea of activism as education for the public sphere was dismissed by Laucke, Seel, and Burnley alike. Writing should not be understood as a product ion of claims and pamphlets, nor should the writer think that his/her explanations were to teach their readers right from wrong – this simplistic understanding would not do justice to literature or the complex entanglements of the political. It became clear that for the invited, the political of the literary does not stem from the writers who described their work rather in aesthetic terms, but from the audience that by means of reception allows the texts to develop political meaning. Ex negativo, any naïve conception of well-minded individuals who translate their ideas and beliefs into educational or agitating texts was thoroughly dismissed.
What this complex relationship could mean for the actual production of texts remained rather vague. However, as the evening wore on, one recurrent subject shed some light on the possible implications for literary practices; the importance of the personal for the political. The three authors agreed rather tacitly that the representation of private experiences in all of the genres the discussion had touched upon was the privileged gateway of literature’s political and social impact. As Daniela Seel described her perception of today’s poetry, a merely formalistic approach in the sense of a “game of forms and words” would not be sufficient any more. In her words, writing has become “individual, not experimental.” She observed in her own writing as well as in the texts of others the power to voice not only private, but personal and intimate points of view that develop a general importance when being published. Not by addressing a collective but by forming it, writing in a broad sense becomes the invitation to share perspectives otherwise unrepresented. Texts that are able to express and to document singular experiences in this manner are supposed to enable a broad audience to adopt the point of view represented in them; this was also the case in the idea of literature as “giving the stage” that Burnley expressed. She described the sheer “urgency of writing to be in contact with an archive” that, by means of the colonization of Cameroun and the resulting “interruption” of its literary and cultural tradition, is no longer accessible. In staging this loss from a personal standpoint, the attempts to find words, even languages, that can express and remember this loss are not only aimed at describing an abstract collective memory; for Burnley, her personal and individual writing becomes part of an archive that is connected to the “lived experience of 100 Mio. people.” Inasmuch as these positions can be literarily unfolded in the act of publication – be it in the form of the printed text, the public reading or staging of a play, or in other ways –, their scope transcends the individual and thereby forges a bond between writer and reader/listener, not in the sense of a static social entity but of a dynamic grouping in which the position of the individual resonates.
The political room for maneuver that is thus created is not that of a supposed common ground of groups of interest, as cultural, social or ideological groups. Literary activism, to come back to the term in concluding, may consist in the act of creating new groupings that are not based on society’s already established parameters, but come to life by getting personal – and beyond.
Simon Godart is a Research Track Postdoc at the EXC 2020 Temporal Communities (FU Berlin), where he works on a project on literary constructions of complex temporality and history. He was a member of the Friedrich Schlegel Graduiertenschule from 2016 to 2019 and received his Ph.D from the FU Berlin in 2019. His thesis entitled „Passages. History in Quotations in Pierre Bayle and Michel de Montaigne“ will be published in 2020.