When A Hundred Publics Bloom, Watch Out!

By Sharaad Kuttan

For his first GRC piece, Sharaad Kuttan muses on the circumstance for conversation—through his work, political context, and life—and how its curation sets the scene for the forum of the public. In a world devoid long of objective truth, Sharaad posits how one—individual or institution, alike—might bridge the yawning distances between us by considering the hows and whys of talking to each other.

14th Sharjah Biennial 14 & March Meetings. Photographed by the author.

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I’m sitting in front of the TV watching a documentary on Netflix that leads me through the lives of brilliant people, who all, it seems, aim to transform the world for the better. And a toy-maker drops a phrase that I had to borrow. She said, I want to create the “circumstance for play”.

I substitute the word “play” with “conversation” but retain “circumstance” because embedded in it are notions like “to enable”—wonderfully pedagogical, empowering—but also has echoes of “happenstance”, which brings the quality of alchemy into the equation.

As a journalist, I have long felt that it has been my responsibility to actively create and partake—as interlocutor—in conversations, whether in print or broadcast. As anchor for a morning radio show, together with colleagues, we curated four hours of drive time, Mondays to Fridays, to draw listeners into a series of conversations to, as our tagline read, “prepare you for your business day”.

Having recently taken on the role of co-director of the George Town Literary Festival, I am now extending the curating of conversations—with the kind of lead time no journalist is ever given—across four days, with considerations of not just ideas, information, and most importantly time, but also of performance and of space. At a literary festival, the dreaded “dead air” of broadcast becomes an opportunity for silent deliberation; for a potentially productive pause in the endless stream—sometimes barrage—of narratives, factoids, and manufactured feelings.

And because I appreciate the challenges of curating conversations, today I am drawn to the design of the “circumstance” as much as the content. But few of us, in the media, have the luxury to focus, to research, and redesign the conversation and its context.

No Malaysian can avoid being asked about our “breakthrough” general elections last year that swept away a half-century-old political dispensation, if only to sweep back into power a man whose authoritarian style of governance marked a good part of those 50 years.

And so as we reconstitute democratic politics in what we like to call “Malaysia Baharu”  (New Malaysia), we are painfully aware of the profound ironies that mar the origins of this political breakthrough, and the many contradictions that will shape the conversations we need to have as a national society.

I grew up in both Malaysia and Singapore, and have spent a lifetime thinking about the deep shadow that authoritarian governance casts on the ways people relate to each other and shape the circumstances of their engagements. With this recent democratic breakthrough, which is starting ever so gingerly to change legal and political circumstances on the ground, the question of the role of “the public”—with its alchemy of reason and passion—is gradually coming to the fore, in this period of transition to democracy.

“We have become a thousand republics,” an Indonesian activist said to me recently. She was lamenting how new, potentially democratic structures, have allowed districts to enact conservative by-laws.

The image of a string of island republics, in an archipelagic formation, first struck me as a metaphor for radical democracy. But I also understood that she meant it as a terrifying vision of fragmentation and potential oppression—the fusion of democratic forms with anti-liberal cultural and social tendencies.

How is an evolving public, emerging out of five decades of authoritarian rule, going to function in Malaysia’s transition? To the dismay of many, it’s a noisy, contentious space, occupied often by loud demagogues. So I say to myself, wasn’t the promise of democracy precisely the free and open contest of ideas, where outcomes cannot be predetermined? A little scary, no doubt, but a challenge to each of us to be fully present?

I have been thinking through not only the many conversations I have had in Malaysia since the general elections last year, but also those I have witnessed abroad.

At the Kultursymposium Weimar 2019 it was asserted that we can no longer hold naively to the promise of the “force of the better argument” as espoused by German social theorist, Jürgen Habermas. Simply put, a promise that reason—produced through communicative rationality—can come to govern society and state. The symposium was set in the beautifully-manicured city of Weimar, home of Goethe—celebrating the centenary of the Weimar Republic and Bauhaus movement it enabled—an island in a sea of economic stagnation, social resentment, and a right-wing political backlash.

The symposium organisers, the Goethe Foundation, were more than aware of the circumstances of the international conversations they had curated: “All around the world, future pathways are being recalculated.… Straightforward answers to an increasingly complex world are in high demand, and not only in the political sphere.”

The 14th Sharjah Biennial 14 & March Meetings, held in the United Arab Emirates this year, also displayed this keen awareness of circumstance, illustrated by the exhibitions and conversations about art and cultural production titled Leaving the Echo Chamber.

The curators wrote: Leaving the Echo Chamber does not propose a “how to leave” this context, but rather seeks to put into conversation “a series of provocations on how one might re-negotiate the shape, form, and function of this chamber, towards a multiplying of the echoes within, such vibration representative of the vast forms of human production—its rituals, beliefs and customs.”

One can read these exquisite formulations as ones which nonetheless express our paralysis in the face of the Climate Crisis or the resurgence of right-wing populism. If so, should we give up on the conversation and hide behind those who promise us security—to protect us from the danger of “a thousand republics”—in exchange for our silence? Or do we use conversation—in groups large and small, local or international—as an imperfect tool, to renegotiate our relationships in the hopes of making better the world?

Additional information:
Video from Kultursymposium Weimar 2019: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEuiss_3dX0
Sharaad’s review of the Sharjah Biennial: https://artsequator.com/sharjah-biennial-14/

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