Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 -12 May 2004
Issue No. 689
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nigel Ryan

'A new direction'

Tariq Ali spoke twice last week at AUC. Nigel Ryan attended the first of his lectures

Literature and market realism, the title of the first public lecture Tariq Ali gave at the Oriental Hall at AUC -- he is currently visiting Cairo as part of AUC's Distinguished Visiting Professor programme -- was intriguing enough, though it attracted a smaller crowd than might have been expected.

One of the most important post-colonial voices, as Ferial Ghazoul said in her introduction to the lecture, Ali was born in Lahore in 1943 and rose to prominence with the student movement of the 1960s. After graduating from Oxford University he headed the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. He is on the board of the New Left Review, is editorial director of the London-based publisher Verso, and in the 1980s regularly produced programmes for Channel 4 in the UK through his independent production company Bandung.

Click to view caption
From socialist to market realism: Roses for Stalin, Boris Eremeevich Vladimirschi

In 1987 Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties, appeared; more than ten years later Ali returned to the same decade in 1968: Marching in the Streets, published by Bloomsbury in 1998. It is, perhaps, familiar territory: what Ali does, though, is to internationalise aspects of 1960s political activism and in doing so he shifts attention away from the all too often exclusive focus on mass demonstrations in Paris and other Western capitals. These books, as has been noted, "expose the global conditions of 1968 and their ramifications outside the over developed West". Among Ali's fictional excursions are the historical novels Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (1992), The Book of Saladin (1998) and The Stone Woman (2000) -- part of a planned quartet of novels on Islam. He also worked with the late filmmaker Derek Jarman on Wittgenstein. (One hopes his experience of the project was less fraught than that of an earlier distinguished visiting professor, Terry Eagleton.) All of which makes the somewhat sparse turnout for the first lecture surprising.

The coinage market realism, Ali began, at pains to explain his title -- refers back to socialist realism, the house style of the Soviet Union, codified by the first All Union Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, enshrined in a Stalinist decree, and subsequently adapted by the Chinese government. It was, as Maxim Gorki had insisted two years earlier, "a new direction essential to us". But can you think of any major works of art that are socialist realist? The question was rhetorical. "There aren't any," Ali insisted, before qualifying the statement to exclude cinema, since some filmmakers did manage "to subvert social realism".

And now, the argument proceeded, we have market realism -- no less monolithic, no less constricting of individual creativity, but a product of the dictates of global capital rather than of the Soviet state under Stalin.

Imitation -- "mimicry" was Ali's preferred phrase -- has become the dominant impetus to cultural production, and it cuts across genres. A successful film -- and this in purely box office terms -- spawns a thousand attempts at replicating that success. The New York Times bestseller lists now dictate what is to be published by the handfull of publishing conglomerates that now dominate the industry. They are all chasing the same formula in an endless pursuit to replicate some earlier success.

Inevitably, Ali argued, it is diversity that is the great casualty of this homogenising process. Great art, he suggested, cannot result from a process of imitation. It is generated from within. With hindsight this oddly Romantic formulation might have acted as a trailer for Ali's subsequent dismissal of Foucault and Derrida.

Ali's introduction begged rather more questions that it answered. It is perfectly possible to argue that the imposition of Socialist Realism constituted no real break with the practice of the most advanced elements of the pre-revolutionary Russian avant-garde, that it was, indeed, inherent in the political positioning of the groups that constituted the most progressive trends of that movement (with the exception of Malevich, perhaps). Agit-prop, unfortunately, has a remarkable ability to transform itself into orthodoxy. So how does real art -- the stuff Ali insisted is bred within, feed into his notion of market realism? Alas, this was a stone left unturned.

After sideways swipes at the high-priests of post- modernism Ali went on to praise Edward Said as an exemplary public intellectual, while underlining Said's insistence on the primary importance of texts. Yet in this lecture on literature and market realism -- which as it progressed appeared increasingly extemporised -- the only text cited was Don Quixote.

Ali returned repeatedly to his central point: that market mechanisms -- the mechanism of global capital -- have dictated that the only endeavour worth pursuing is the attempt to replicate past success and cultural practices that operate outside this dynamic are inevitably marginalised.

China, home of the world's "most vibrant capitalism" -- another of those seemingly contradictory formulations -- is a case in point. And yet it is in the throes of a cinematic renaissance. As is Iran.

Well yes, but that is no secret. Iranian and Chinese films have been amassing prizes at international film festivals for more than a decade. Far more interesting, perhaps, had local conditions of production and distribution been examined rather than opining the relegation of Chinese and Iranian cinema to the art house. Which, given what is churned out as mainstream cinema, is no bad place to be.

I doubt if I was the only member of the audience to feel short-changed by this particular lecture. The core of Tariq Ali's argument -- that globalisation, in the cultural realm, is synonymous with dumbing down, that accountancy-led practices, in publishing, in cinema, in art, mitigate against the appearance of the most challenging work -- is hardly a new take on the current situation. But it can be stated in a paragraph. And a paragraph does not an event make, even when surrounded by an hour's worth of well-rehearsed generalisations. The audience, however small, deserved a little more than the exercise of geniality. Admittedly things grew a tad livelier when the floor was opened for questions: that this should be the case says an awful lot about the content of the first hour.

Yesterday Tariq Ali was scheduled to give his second lecture as Distinguished Visiting Professor; the title, this time, Empires and Resistance. I suspect, and hope, it will be more substantial than Monday's offering. Even important post- colonial voices sometimes need to prepare.

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