Critical Life Research Group: Tabish Khair

Poet, writer and critic Tabish Khair talks about the relationship between his creative and critical writing, the 'new xenophobia', and the impact of the digital on literature.

Tabish Khair is a poet, writer and critic. He is Associate Professor of English at Arhus University, Denmark and is currently Leverhulme Visiting Professor at the University of Leeds. We spoke to him about the relationship between his creative and critical writing, the new xenophobia and why he’s troubled by the effects of the digital on literature.

What first prompted you to write creatively? Who or what has influenced you as a writer?

TK: I was a quiet boy who loved to hear stories and to read. I grew up in a small town of what was called the most backward state of India: there were few distractions, not even TV until the late 1980s. I was lucky in inheriting books from both my father and especially my grandfather, and in having an uncle who wrote part-time in Urdu. Though, of course, I was not expected to be a writer. I was expected to be a (medical) doctor: there were three generations of doctors behind me. Failing that, something sensible, like an engineer.

But quite early on I realised that the only ‘steady work’ I wanted to do was read and write. As for influences, well, I was a precocious reader and still am, but such was my situation that I could not identify fully with any writer: they all had very different backgrounds from me. You will not find many writers who grew up and studied in a small town of India published internationally in English even today.

Do you feel a tension between your work as a creative writer and your work as a literary and cultural critic? How do you negotiate these two modes of writing and their different demands?

TK: No, actually I do not. Creative writing and cultural/literary criticism demand different registers but they can easily walk hand in hand. Both are ways in which you engage with words and worlds. I find academic writing and academic criticism more difficult to combine with creative writing, especially poetry and the short story. As you realise, I distinguish between cultural/literary criticism, which does not require jargon and institutional structures to prosper, and academic writing, which mostly does.

Your recent Leverhulme lecture explored the question ‘what is literature?’ As you noted, this question has a long history that can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. What draws you to this question now?

TK: The best literature always presses against the limits of language – at least within its socio-historical context. Language, any language, allows us to say some things and prevents us from saying some other things. Sometimes what is said is a matter of historicity: some discourses can be made in a certain historical and cultural context, and some others cannot. For instance, in 19th century Europe, it was easier to talk of various races and miscegenation than of a ‘mixed marriage’; homosexuality was conceptualised in terms of ‘sodomy’ rather than ‘gay rights’.

This, of course, is not simply a matter of progress: for instance, there have been historical periods when things which are desired but seem impossible today would have appeared quite normal. But while some of the limits of language are socio-historically determined and might be crossed in time and space, some other limits seem to be built into the natures of some languages and, more generally, the relationship of language to the world outside language.

Now, this world outside language has been largely abandoned in recent decades. There is a clear conviction, in exactly the circles where people have the education and sometimes the academic brief to think with clarity, that because language is not just a representation of reality, nothing can be said of reality and all we can do is talk about language, in one guise or another. As a writer who works on his texts for years and cares about ‘reality,’ I simply cannot give up on literature, abandon it to various kinds of fundamentalists (including academic ones) or to whatever the market makes of it. Hence, I have to engage with literature qua literature.

In your recent book, you suggest that the present is characterised by the growth of what you term a ‘new xenophobia’. Does this also demand new forms of response – and responsibility – from writers and critics of literature today?

TK: I prefer the word ‘response’ to ‘responsibility’, as the latter assumes an artificial moral choice and has a connotation of patronage. But response – if it is full and complex – automatically translates into responsibility. That is one of the points I make in my study of what I call ‘new xenophobia’ – a kind of xenophobia that is based less on distinguishing oneself from the other, as in racism or antisemitism, and more on expecting the other to merge and disappear into oneself. I argue that new xenophobia has more abstract structures of discrimination, in keeping with the fact that the power of money (as cash, drafts, etc.) is increasingly turning into abstract and numerical capital. Literature, of course, is central to any attempt to counter this, for literature is always a deep contemplation into the other (and the self) and a response to life.

In your talk you drew on diverse examples, from Islamic fundamentalism to European colonialism, to argue that political violence always entails linguistic violence. Does this imply a separation between violent and non-violent forms of reading, with the former relating to a conception of language as a blunt, transparent and ideological mode of communication, and the latter relating to a more literary conception of language that is attuned to its gaps, contradictions and openness to interpretation?

TK: I think reading – or even hearing – is always about crossing a divide. When we read literature, we engage through abstract writing with a very concrete world, a world that exists elsewhere (or nowhere) but also needs to exist for us at the moment of reading. The contemplation that literature demands always involves engaging with others, for it is not just a text written by someone else (and elsewhere) but also contains other selves (characters, voices, etc.).

Violent forms of reading – I would call them ‘non-reading’ – smooth over these matters, demanding complete agreement, singular meanings, total transparency, absolute positivity.

At the same time, the process of reading forces us to engage with ourselves too. Fiction, for instance, creates a very fine distinction between truth and falsehood, which is not based on a simplified theory of facts or lies. I think literature works with these elements: it reaches over, but it also does not pretend that the chasm does not exist. This is a fact with any kind of language – written or spoken – but other language-usages (administrative ones, for instance) like to pretend that we can communicate fully, be entirely transparent to each other etc. Literature says: yes and no. Hence, any real reading of literature has to be attuned to gaps, contradictions, even noise. Violent forms of reading – I would call them ‘non-reading’ – smooth over these matters, demanding complete agreement, singular meanings, total transparency, absolute positivity. In that sense, the dominant discourses of neo-liberalism are as problematic – and violent – as those of religious fundamentalisms.

In your talk, you suggested that digital technologies might have a troubling effect on the ways in which we read in the present. Could you explain a bit more about the ways in which you think the digital affects the contemporary experience – and understanding – of literature? Is this impact necessarily negative?

TK: My understanding draws a lot on the writings of Byung-Chul Han. In a series of little tracts, now increasingly available in English, Han argues that contemplation or deep attention defines human activities: “Culture presumes an environment in which deep attention is possible,” writes Han, “Increasingly, such immersive reflection is being displaced by an entirely different form of attention: hyperattention.”

He states that a hectic rush into activity and a low tolerance threshold for ‘boredom’ are not conducive to culture, just as multi-tasking is not a progress but a regress. Animals have always ‘multi-tasked’, for instance, by eating, grooming and keeping a watch for other predators at the same time. Han also argues that internet communication makes it easier to ignore the other and that a surplus of information is not knowledge. He critiques what he sees as an obsessive rush towards absolute positivity and excessive transparency, and contends that matters like ‘truth’ are impossible to understand without negativity: for instance, truth exists only along with falsehood.

All these, and other tendencies, I fear, are leading to a hollowing-out of literature, both its reading and its publication, a trend that goes hand-in-hand with the pressures of marketing, of capital. Both our engagement with literature and politics – because both depend on an ability to pay deep attention to the other – are likely to lose in depth, at least unless we show more awareness of these dangers than the current economic machines pushing for digitalisation allow us to do. Digitalisation, robotisation, computerisation – that entire complex is the gold rush of our age, and right now no-one in power is willing to consider the ‘Red Indians’ shot, the human misery, and the ‘nature’ despoiled in the process.