The Labor of Political Theatre as Embodied Politics: A Conversation
Richa Nagar and Anna Selmeczi
29 August 2018
It’s been so very long since you so generously shared with me an early version of Hungry Translations: Relearning the World Through Radical Vulnerability (Nagar in journeys with Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan and Parakh Theatre, 2019), a manuscript that, in less than a year, had grown into a book from the chapter that you drafted for our volume a few years ago now. So much has happened to us and our book projects since, and now, dreading that I might be too late, I would like to take your kind invitation and begin a dialogue on the work which that chapter-draft, ‘Political Theatre, Radical Pedagogy, and Embodied Politics’ took on, ‘A Syllabus in 13 Acts’ embraced and Hungry Translations moulded into fullness.
At a later point of this conversation, I would like to return to an exchange about listening that we didn’t get to finish when you last visited Cape Town in June 2016 – just as in Muddying the Waters (Nagar, 2014), listening is a crucial element of the praxis of ethical engagement that Hungry Translations narrates. First, however, I would like to ask you to speak about translation – a notion that features already in Playing with Fire (Sangtin Writers and Nagar, 2006), threads through Muddying the Waters, and gains centre stage in your most recent work. In writing the early work with Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan (SKMS), translation emerges in the process that you and co-authors refer to as the transformation of Sangtin Yatra into Playing with Fire; a process that of course brought with itself the recognition that ‘no act of translation is without problems of voice, authority, and representation’, and did so under mounting pressure to publish the work in English, so as to gain wider support for the co-authors of Sangtin Yatra who were under intensifying attack in the wake of the book’s publication in India (Sangtin Writers and Nagar, 2006, p. xxiii). As such, active reflection on the complicated interconnectedness of languages, genres and dynamics of social exclusion and the corresponding elitist assumptions shaping the politics of knowledge production became indispensable for the collective’s praxis of alliance work and co-authorship already at this point, challenging you all to keep negotiating, ever since, the risks of real and metaphoric border-crossings without giving up hope in the ability to build relationships of situated solidarity across differences of all kinds.
In Muddying the Waters, it is through re-telling the very story spanning from Sangtin Yatra to Playing with Fire (and beyond) that you rearticulate your approach to positionality, feminist alliance work, critique and co-authorship, and note the increasing prominence of an ‘attention to language and translation’ in your work since those books (Nagar, 2014, p. 81). Indeed, Muddying the Waters is a beautiful account of the ways in which ‘the labour and praxis of translation constitute the core of engaged research’ (Ibid., p. 16). As the first truth of co-authoring tales in feminist alliance work underlines later in the book, this is a continuously evolving labour of love. It is the bonds made of ‘dreams, dissonance, affect, and trust’, themselves grounded in ‘everyday relationships, emotional investments, and creative skills’, that enable translating knowledge created through discussion and reflection in one place into a language that resonates in another (Ibid., p. 168).
In Hungry Translations (Nagar in journeys with Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan and Parakh Theatre, 2019), the staging of Hansa, a version of Premchand’s last play originally titled Kafan, unfolds into a process that threads these same bonds, emotions, skills and dreams even closer together. In telling the story of this journey, the book offers an incredibly rich co-articulation of insights on alliance work, scholarship, theatre and teaching as sites of knowledge-making and politics. Hunger, that is, the interdependent yearnings of hunger for creativity and politics through theatre and the hunger of the belly is central for the ways in which you speak about the ongoing project of disrupting given logics and norms of knowledge production in this book. The hunger for theatre that you and your co-travellers experience and bring into the making of Hansa is just as (if not more) burning as the kind of hunger that is usually accounted for under the label of ‘the social’, the hunger that is supposed to consume ‘the poor’ i.e. those in need of ‘development’ and ‘empowerment’. It is through fully embracing this truth of equal fires that the book renders the call to ‘radically rewrite the scripts of caste, gender, and poverty politics’ (Ibid., p. 190) as the ‘interbraid[ing of] poetic justice and social justice’ (Ibid., p. 33).
While critical pedagogy has been part of your reflections on co-authorship and alliance work shared in Playing with Fire and Muddying the Waters too, it is in the latest book that this evolving collective practice and, through it, the commitment to rewriting the scripts of poverty politics is most comprehensively ‘carried over’ into the US university classroom in the form of the course titled ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements’ whose syllabus makes up the Fourth Part of Hungry Translations. Journeying with Hansa was, as you say (Nagar in journeys with Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan and Parakh Theatre, 2019, p. 190), crucial for making this step seem possible, not least because it created and made available an expanded notion of staging for working towards just ways of telling and receiving stories in the academic learning context. Staging is the third word I would like to touch on later in our conversation, however, for now, can you please share with those who have not yet had a chance to read the new book, how translation features in ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements’ and the question that drives it: ‘Can there be an embodied process of learning how to tell and receive stories responsibly in and through the classroom?’ (Nagar, 2017, p. 155). How does translation help continue the interweaving of poetic justice and social justice in this setting?
In the hope that you have the time and mind-body-soul-space to respond, warmest wishes,
9 September 2018
Thank you so much for the gift of this rich letter and for the labour of love that you put into arriving at it. You offer so much in your opening note, especially with your attentive reading of ‘translation’ as an evolving concept and vocabulary that is rooted in its own unfolding praxis: from Sangtin Yatra: Saat Zindgiyon Mein Lipta Nari Vimarsh to Playing with Fire: Feminist Thought and Activism Through Seven Lives in India; then from there to the collective movement making in Sitapur that birthed Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan or SKMS and inspired me to create Muddying the Waters: Co-Authoring Feminisms Across Scholarship and Activism; and then from there to Hungry Translations: Relearning the World Through Radical Vulnerability. As a way to acknowledge some of the layers that you so thoughtfully summarise above, let me begin this reflection on translation and embodied learning by specifying some of the stages in the making of our own conversation – stages that were also crucial moments in the making of Hungry Translations.
I sent you an early version of the manuscript of Hungry Translations in October 2017, but it was not until May 2018 that I could submit it to the University of Illinois Press. A lot of changes happened in the book during that intervening period, including changes that were inspired by discussions on hungers and translations with members of SKMS in Sitapur in January 2018. These changes were part of the ongoing journeys that you allude to above. When – in 2015 – you, Erzsébet, and Shine first invited me to submit a 5,000 word-long chapter for your edited volume, I had just begun to process the huge learning experiences that had accompanied the making of the play, Hansa, Karo Puratan Baat, in 2014. Your invitation encouraged me to take a first stab at writing the piece (tentatively titled then as ‘Political Theatre, Radical Pedagogy, and Embodied Politics’).
However, that writing felt grossly inadequate. I found it impossible to either summarise the power of that collective experience or offer a fragment of it as ‘embodied pedagogy’ for academic audiences without struggling emotionally, psychologically, and physically with the countless ways in which twenty people restlessly learned to breathe, move, and grapple with meanings of life and death together over a period of six months. Those six months of learning to play, sing, and act together had jarred each one of us in profound ways, such that none of us could ever be the same people that we were before Hansa. I could not find a language to analyse or explain what these intensely felt entanglements of theatre, pedagogy and embodiment were – or what their implications could be – for this all-encompassing yet seemingly amorphous thing that we call ‘politics’. Each person who had walked together over six months had been touched or shaken for life, and the difficulty of drafting a chapter for your volume was among the several experiences that made me realise that grappling with such learning could only happen in and through the body itself.
That realisation, along with some other serendipitous encounters, is what set into motion the transformation of a course called ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements’ into ‘A Syllabus in Thirteen Acts’. My first attempt at that Syllabus, which tried to imagine the classroom as theatre – not just metaphorically but also in a very real, fully embodied sense – is what I offered when I visited Cape Town in June 2016 for the Radical(ising) Collaborations workshop that you and Sophie Oldfield had co-organised. The conversations in that workshop – especially a comment from our dear friend, the late Elaine Salo – were powerful and remained with me for a long time. Elaine casually asked a piercing question: why do US-based scholars care so much about looking for and claiming transnational resonances when that is hardly a priority for researchers in South Africa while engaging a political issue or concern? While Elaine had not addressed this comment specifically to me, I took it to heart. It inspired me to guard against slipping into a romance of the ‘transnational’, and to keep grounding the Syllabus in my own journeys of unlearning and relearning with Sangtin Writers, SKMS and Hansa – all of which had shaped that Syllabus’ own form and priorities. Elaine’s comment also pushed me to create the conditions that would allow me to teach the Syllabus (by then, it was ‘A Syllabus in Fifteen Acts’) at the University of Minnesota for two semesters in 2017. The organising and teaching of this class over two semesters with Tarun Kumar, who had also co-led the making of Hansa as well as several plays with saathis of SKMS, became an essential part of continuing to till the field on which Hungry Translations could grow.
Even as I describe some of these crucial moments in the making of Hungry Translations, one can already see how translation cannot be seen as a unidirectional journey from an ‘original’ version in one language to an ‘equivalent’ version in another language. Rather, translation becomes a dance where resonances, experiences and feelings; critiques and comments; agreements and disagreements circulate in complex ways to shape what is told or not told (and how), so that each retelling evolves and shifts from one site to another based on the demands of the context and audience where it needs to do its work. These are some of the truths of storytelling I discuss in detail in the last chapter of Muddying the Waters. However, Hungry Translations only begins with this premise. What it advances is the idea of translation as an intimate relationship between the self and another, one that always struggles with how not to make that another into an Other.
In this conceptualisation of translation or retelling as a relationship, one must always yearn to do justice to stories that are lived and narrated on an unequal or violent terrain, while also recognising that such an exercise is always marked by mistakes and gaps. In terms of politics and praxes of solidarity and alliance work, then, the labour of translation is the collective labour of continuing to co-travel in search for justice, without assuming that the meanings of justice or ethical co-travelling can be learned outside of the travelling itself. Such co-journeying requires each person in the collective to become radically vulnerable before one another, while also recognising that such radical vulnerability cannot be demanded; it can only emerge as a part of an organic collective process and it comes at a different price and with different risks for each in the collective. The power of translation – as relationships in search for justice on an unequal terrain – then resides in the hunger to continue to search ethically for just translations, rather than arriving at perfect translation. For, the expectation or assumption of arrival at perfect translation implies the end of the relationship that is hungry translation.
It is precisely such an awakening for perpetually hungry translation in collectivity that ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements: A Syllabus in Fifteen Acts’ seeks to awaken. Even as the course acknowledges and struggles against the institutionalised context of a university classroom, it tries to create an anti-hierarchical space in which the co-travellers can begin to appreciate and confront the (im)possibilities of collective learning. Learning to let go of one’s own story and to co-own strands of each other’s stories in an embodied journey, where each learns to recognise the protagonist and the antagonist – the human and the inhuman – that lives within each one of us are some of the principles through which every single person who inhabits the space of classroom begins to walk together on this path of hungry translations.
I am truly grateful for your engagement, Anna, and look forward to continuing this dialogue with you.
7 October 2018
Thank you so much for this rich and beautiful response. I feel honoured and excited about our dialogue, both its substance and spirit. In the face of constant and steadily increasing pressure to fulfil and produce, I find comfort in thinking about your work, despite struggling to trust my own writing and its capacity to match the powers of yours. Now, getting ready to finally respond to you so much later than I was hoping to, I’m holding on to what you wrote in an earlier email about the demanding time and timing of our exchange: ‘I hope that wherever we arrive with this conversation in the end feels deep and “loved” (rather than rushed in order to meet a deadline)’.
Not every pocket of time that we peel away from other tasks and passions eventually grants us the ability to respond adequately, however. Resonating with so much of the process of imagining and editing this very volume, that recognition is one of several powerful lessons of your recollection of Hungry Translations’ coming into being. When texts take their time, beyond the dizzying juggle of all that is life and the simple physics of not having enough hours in the day to fit in everything, we have few choices but to allow ourselves to take the time, because giving the work love sometimes means facing the inadequacies of writing. Your narrative of the various junctures of the manuscript’s development shares that gesture precisely – the acknowledgement of an expressional insufficiency of the language of ‘embodied pedagogy’ available to you at that point. Without that acknowledgement, invoked by your deep commitment to Parakh and your co-creators, any revision or expansion of ‘Political Theatre, Radical Pedagogy, and Embodied Politics’ would have failed to be true to the collective experience of Hansa. Contrarily, a sense of inadequacy that keeps feeding translators’ hunger, one that emanates from the necessarily imperfect translation of stories from one context to another, arises exactly from one’s genuine commitment to the just telling and receiving of stories. Hungry Translations emerged, we could then say, through writing and travelling from the inadequacy of a language that fixes and disciplines, to the inadequacy of languages that keep moving between unscripted meanings of justice.
This journey, this movement of carrying over the many-layered life-changing experience of the making of Hansa into the space of academic knowledge-making at a prominent American university could not have happened, as you recall, without approaching Parakh as a pedagogical practice and, in turn, without finding a way to render the body as a valid medium of learning. Hence the commitment to honour – or abide by – the lessons of the very process of making Hansa. This you do so by introducing the notion of staging and inviting co-learners to (re-)enact teaching and learning as ‘a practice of strategic retellings and embodied performance’ (Nagar, 2017, p. 163). Staging allows the class to perform a whole set of oscillating movements that turn Parakh’s theatre as pedagogy into pedagogy as theatre for the course’s fifteen acts (and beyond). With the relational understanding of translation that, as you say, has come to be a point of departure for the manuscript, and another basic principle according to which ‘All politics are politics of storytelling’ (Nagar in journeys with Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan and Parakh Theatre, 2019, p. 205), the syllabus outlines a mode of engaging with global politics that moves back and forth between participants’ own stories and those of geographically distant others conveyed in readings, audiovisual material and interactions within the class. Throughout the syllabus you encourage participants to experience these stories not only intellectually and verbally, but emotionally and corporally too. You ask everyone (your students, readers, and facilitators, including yourself) to reflect on how reading and writing make us feel, on what triggers joy or sorrow, and thus to become aware of how our bodies, our senses and embodied memories shape the ways in which we perform our own stories and receive those of others. Central to this call and the broader epistemological and ontological underpinnings of ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements’ is the composite of mind-body-soul-being and, accordingly, a methodological refusal to insulate the classroom as the space, and the intellect as the vehicle of learning from the rest of the senses and sites in which we experience and inhabit the world. Could you please say more about how this refusal was received and performed during the course? How did co-learning and co-creation throughout ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements’ relate to the ways in which the making of Hansa was moved by the refusal to distinguish between the hungers of the body and the soul? How did the course add to or qualify the work of centring ‘hunger as an episteme’ (Ibid., p. 45)?
In the part of Hungry Translations that precedes the syllabus, you insert fragments from director Tarun Kumar’s and actor Alok’s journal. Both sets of fragments speak powerfully to the affective and embodied aspects of alliance work and how they shape the political and creative process. Both offer remarkable reflections on the crucial catalyst signified by the co-, on how much depth the genuinely shared nature of translating Kafan into Hansa lent to that process. It was the intensity of collectively grappling with the various hungers of the text, as well as the intertwining of the text’s characters and world with the often very difficult events and experiences affecting some of the co-creators during this time, that amplified the transformative potential of staging Hansa. It was due to a complete collective immersion into the creative labour of the play that, as you write, ‘all workshop participants [became] researchers and thinkers of life’ (Ibid., p. 150). In reflecting on the magnitude of this transformation and the work of moving between the embodied pedagogies of Hansa and ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements’, a question about the temporality of political and creative labour occurred to me. At the bases of co-creating Hansa are fifteen years of building your praxis of alliance work through radical vulnerability and trust. The all-consuming intensity of making Hansa adds a crucial temporal dimension too, as over a period of six months participants dedicated time to collective work sometimes well beyond their means and resources. When thinking about the transformative potential of university-based pedagogical practice in light of such history and dedication, how can one avoid feeling limited by the time-frame of a semester? How, if at all, do the multiple time pressures and the transience of university education modify your understanding of alliance and co-authorship? Hungry Translations’ co-authored Epilogue touches upon some of these questions in relation to academic writing through the provocation of ‘why bother’? Would you consider responding to these questions in terms of that provocation?
With much love,
11 October 2018
I could not have asked for a more engaged reading of Hungry Translations or of my response to your first letter. I love your crisp and concise embedding of hungry translation in the politics of language:
Hungry Translations emerged, we could then say, through writing and travelling from the inadequacy of a language that fixes and disciplines, to the inadequacy of languages that keep moving between unscripted meanings of justice…
In reading the manuscript of the book, you seem to have embraced the spirit of a hungry translator. As you flow with this spirit, you observe how such translations go hand in hand with pedagogical practices that must necessarily work through the ‘composite of mind-body-soul-being’. Allow me to digress for a moment to confess that the use of those stringed words seems grossly inadequate even as I use them; for, connecting those four words through hyphens does not change their initial separateness. So right here, we have a good example of the ways in which language inevitably fixes our articulations, even as we try to challenge that very fixity… In any case, it is this embodied and deeply affective journey of the inseparable ‘composite’ beings in a collective mode that allows the co-learners to both undertake, and to theorise/internalise through performance of strategic retellings, the importance of feeling and scripting, embodying and enacting, rehearsing and staging. This underlying belief, then, is the starting point from where ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements’ invites its co-travellers and co-actors to be fully present in the journey; it asks each co-traveller to learn to tap into, and to give, the whole of ourselves to the journey of co-remembering, co-telling, co-scripting and co-performing our own stories in intense entanglement with those whom we have been previously taught to see as an Other in our families, in our communities, in our institutions, however we choose to define these families, communities and institutions.
As a methodology of grappling ethically and in fully embodied ways with a shared journey of composite beings, I also appreciate your exquisite distillation of ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements’ as a:
refusal to insulate the classroom as the space, and the intellect as the vehicle of learning from the rest of the senses and sites in which we experience and inhabit the world.
At the same time, however, this refusal cannot be seen as merely methodological. Rather, it is an insistence on a mode of dwelling in worlds – as well as on modes of knowing, learning, and being – that are intentionally or unintentionally othered in formal institutions of ‘higher’ education. Such a refusal asks us to inhabit the realm of learning through a radical vulnerability which is collective by definition, and which can only be proposed as a vision and a desirable commitment, but which must emerge organically and cannot be demanded from the participants. The course of such a journey can never be predicted or replicated – much like the making of books/journeys such as Sangtin Yatra/Playing with Fire, or of a movement such as SKMS, or of a play such as Hansa. For, even if you try to repeat exactly the same process, the journey of learning how to become vulnerable together will be different each time a new group moves together. In such a dynamic journey, the designated instructor or teacher cannot be the ‘expert’ who can pretend to fully know the content of the lessons that are yet to come just because that person has chosen the readings and created the plan and assignments. Rather, the organiser of the course – as a class – must also submit to the course – as a journey – in which each one must learn to absorb/respond to/grow serendipitously and spontaneously with the varied ways in which the collective of composites is moving with one another. As a co-creator and co-learner of the course, then, the organiser must be prepared to guide the collective as each member goes through the ups and downs of becoming (or not becoming) vulnerable, and the critique, agitation, and creativity that flows from all of this.
In responding to the insightful provocations you pose in your last letter, I am realising that to try to summarise how the aforementioned refusal was received and performed during the first two semesters of travelling with ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements’ in the classroom is just as impossibly hard as writing a 5,000-word essay on the embodied pedagogies of Hansa was. There were so many intimate stories and delicate transformations, so many difficult moments and joy-filled discoveries that happened for each participant in the process of walking together. Yet, I do not want to inadvertently slip into a mode of citing examples from the classes’ experience in a way that the participants – with whom I walked, shared, and learned so much – are unintentionally represented as subjects of another research or pedagogical experiment undertaken by an academic researcher. In fact, some members of the classes – as well as a member of the audience – have written about instances from the journey that opened up new modes of (re)learning for each ‘I’ and the ‘we’s’ that were co-emerging in the class. For instance, Esmae Heveron (2017) wrote a senior thesis that drew on her experiences while she was taking the class in Fall of 2017, and Maria Schwedhelm and Sara Musaifer, both of whom journeyed with the class twice, joined me in co-writing a piece for a pre-conference workshop on “Unsettling the University” in Mexico City (Musaifer, Nagar and Schwedhelm, 2018). Also, Surafel Abebe, a scholar of theatre, wrote a letter to the class after watching the play we performed in Fall 2017, and that letter is now a part of the Epilogue of Hungry Translations that Siddharth Bharath, Sara Musaifer, and I penned together. So, perhaps the most honest analysis and ethical representation of refusals we experienced and participated in can only happen as some kind of self-reflection or co-reflection.
Thus, I prefer to respond to your provocations by highlighting a few key lessons that I learned in organising, facilitating and guiding this course over a period of two semesters with two groups of co-travellers/writers/actors. As you note, the co-creation of Hansa as well as ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements’ emerged from fifteen years of co-building an embodied praxis of alliance work through radical vulnerability and trust. This is the main reason why I invited Tarun Kumar to join me in teaching the course as I embarked on the work of translating it from a syllabus to serious theatrical praxis. Thankfully, Tarun could join me in the middle of the first semester and stay for the rest of that semester and for all of the second semester – something that added a very specific kind of continuity between Hansa and the first two semesters of teaching ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements’ as a Global Studies course at the University of Minnesota. This continuity – which required quite a bit of logistical and bureaucratic work with the university and for which Tarun chose to sacrifice his on-the-ground work as a theatre worker and actor in India for much of a year – was driven by at least two hopes. First, that the course would enable the participants to internalise – through an embodied praxis – the necessity of becoming radically vulnerable in order to forge collectivity in the form of a ‘blended but fractured we’. A second hope was that all the participants on the journey would be moved to appreciate the political, affective, and epistemic labour of those whose lives embody a refusal to distinguish between the hungers of the body-mind-heart-soul. The lessons I learned with respect to these hopes were at once deeply difficult and infinitely enriching.
To begin with, the journey of organising, guiding, and building this course over two semesters in 2017 was also the same kind of intense, all-encompassing journey that the making of Hansa in 2014 was. Each semester brought its own creativity, joys, challenges, and hardships. These were not merely in relation to what all the participants were reading, retelling, and creating together but also in relation to participants’ interrogation of what it means to have a course like this in the spaces of the institution which has historically participated in colonising peoples, lands and knowledges, and whose violence continues to this day. Students brought their uneven and difficult personal and community histories with respect to the institutional space, one that made some of them reluctant to, or suspicious of, the principle of radical vulnerability. I had already known that radical vulnerability – which involves a fundamental trust in one another – cannot be demanded in the absence of an organically felt need of a collective to do so. I had known that while an embrace of radical vulnerability can lead to a beautiful and all-encompassing creative journey, resistance to radical vulnerability can pose challenges if that principle is imposed as a rigid formula. However, based on my experiences with SKMS, Parakh Theatre, and the first semester of teaching ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements’, I also believed that people in a group could adopt this principle for the sake of all that which might be gained in the process – including tough lessons in why solidarity work feels so darned impossible and gut-wrenching at times.
Therefore, I was not entirely ready for a theoretical and political position that warranted a firm refusal to become radically vulnerable in the university classroom when Tarun and I encountered it in the second semester of teaching this course. On the one hand, this resistance posed a major challenge in a course that was premised on trusting, sharing and embracing radical vulnerability. On the other hand, it forced the participants to grapple with the ways in which radical vulnerability can be experienced as an artificial demand in a space such as the university which has colonised, erased, or dismissed the experiences, knowledges, theories, and stories of the othered. As someone who had undertaken the responsibility to guide the course and make it a worthwhile and meaningful experience for all, the question that became salient for me was: how could resistance to radical vulnerability also allow us to be creative in ways that could engage and represent our emerging critiques and analyses, especially as they related to struggles against the violent histories embodied by the academy? What could it mean to do justice to the fragments, disjunctures, and scars that marked the processes of forging collectivity? It was only by consistently grappling with these questions that the participants in the second semester could create the powerful play, Fractured Threads, which they performed before an invited audience on 18 December 2017, about three years after the staging of Hansa, and seven months after the making of the play Re-telling Dis/Appearing Tales, created and performed by the earlier class.
With respect to the second hope – that all the participants on the journey would be moved to appreciate the political, affective, and epistemic labour of those whose lives embody a refusal to distinguish between the hungers of the body and the soul – I learned some important lessons also. I had assumed that in order for me to become a perpetual learner, especially in the context of ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements’, it was important that I did not resort to lecturing in class. I wanted the key understandings to emerge through the process of walking together rather than through lectured points that could be communicated or grasped in advance of the journey. I had hoped that these key understandings would include recognising how one’s own yearning to share, to empathise, to trust, and to create feeds into a collective hunger. The emergence of this understanding could then organically connect the members of the class with (a) the epistemic labour and contributions of those who made Sangtin Yatra/Playing with Fire, SKMS, and Hansa and (b) the ways in which material hungers that reside in the body become inseparable from hungers to co-analyse and co-create, and to struggle collectively in a mode where the dances across the i/we/they/you are productive of new relationships in search of contextually grounded articulations of justice. These are essential ingredients of ‘hunger as an episteme’.
However, after co-guiding the course with Tarun over two semesters, I see things a bit differently. Because of the temporal and institutional limitations of a semester-long course where students must read, write, tell, share, create and perform together within a set number of weeks, it cannot be guaranteed that all the lessons will emerge organically from the group’s journey. Co-authorship that is imagined as a genuine sharing of authority is a slow and difficult process in a collective of composites, which is itself in the making. It is not uncommon for the most critical lessons – as well as deepest moments of appreciation for one’s co-travellers and for the shared journey – to be felt most powerfully at the end of a performance that tests us, whether that performance be a rally, a book release, or a staged performance. Not surprisingly, then, every time we have done plays in SKMS and Parakh, it is after the first public show, that the most acutely felt hunger to perform in the next show emerges. In a semester-long course, however, where time is short, it is important to ensure that the lessons that are unfolding in the journey are being translated back to the class – and key connections with other struggles are being made – so that everyone is on the same page and so that all can move together toward realising and appreciating the complex meanings of hunger as episteme. This is a hunger that includes an abiding commitment to grapple with the antagonist that lives in each protagonist and the ways in which the human and inhuman live in each of us. It is only through such a perpetually hungry mode of being that we can hope to refuse the separation between the self and other as part of doing justice to the violent histories and geographies all of us have inherited, individually and collectively.
To conclude with the words that you offer in your letter, then, despite the multiple and intense time pressures and the transience of the university education, it is worthwhile to continue the fights to create spaces where we can bring in epistemes from worlds of struggle that can never be fully accessed, contained or imagined from within the spaces of the neoliberal university. It is only through such epistemes that we can interrupt the violence institutionalised by colonial and colonising modes of thinking, relating, knowing and being so rampant in the academy we know. And this, I think, is a sufficient reason to bother, again and again.
I would like to express, once more, my sincerest gratitude to you for making this conversation happen.
20 February 2019
There is so much in your last letter that could sprout many more exchanges; I keep coming up with questions that I would love to ask you, only to realise that in this response I have to, at least for the time being, conclude our dialogue. I would like to do so by returning to the thread of listening that we didn’t have the chance to talk through the last time we met in person. Along the way, I will speak to the notions of the ‘fractured but blended we’, refusal and radical vulnerability – notions through which you share the experiences of teaching ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements’ – so as to think about the ways in which these ideas, which were born, reinforced and challenged in collective praxis, help us face up to the violence of the (post-)colonial university.
You are very right to note that what I translated as ‘a methodological refusal to insulate the classroom as the space, and the intellect as the vehicle of learning from the rest of the senses and sites in which we experience and inhabit the world’ is not merely methodological at all. It is, you write, ‘an insistence on a mode of dwelling in worlds – as well as modes of knowing, learning, and being’ that are normally ‘othered in institutions of “higher” education’. A form of ethics then and, indeed, it is only as such that it can remain true to the formation and movement of the ‘collective of composites’. Your letter is a rich and heartfelt reflection on the implications of this ethics for, among other things, the ways in which we account for the experiences of co-learning (-knowing and -being), as well as on the unexpected challenges that taking seriously such collectivity might present. Let me attend to both of these implications, the acts of refusal through which they take form and the hopes and lessons through which you tell them, as I’m making my way to the question of listening.
I hope not to contain your story’s dance between radical vulnerability, refusal and the collective of composites, when I approach the two bundles of hopes and lessons that your write about from the vantage point of the university as the site of ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements’. Certainly, the locatedness of the course has been consistently present in our conversation, but it is in your last letter that the arising contradictions come to the fore most palpably. As you write, the ethics of refusing the othering work of the university asks participants to become radically vulnerable in the collective process of learning, which of course also means that the figure of the ‘expert’, ever so firmly reinforced by the neoliberal university, has to be rejected above all by the persons who are officially designated as the course’s instructors. The refusal to separate the modes of learning, knowing and being that take place at the university from those taking place everywhere else can also be read as refusing what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (2013) refer to as ‘the call to order’ and, in turn, the firm recognition of what they call study. Through these acts of refusal, the deep struggle that you describe in the Syllabus under the heading of Contradictions – the struggle of working towards an entirely non-hierarchical space while acknowledging its impossibility – becomes inhabitable and, through that, the space for radical vulnerability opens up too (Nagar in journeys with Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan and Parakh Theatre, 2019, p. 210). Yet, even while so refusing the call to uphold spatial-epistemic orders, the temporal frames of university-based learning remain and, as you write, necessitate the presence of some form of instructive translation if the crucial learnings and connections are to be truly shared. Perhaps the task then is to find the fine balance between this kind of hungry translation and what might be regarded as a call to order?
The past few days I have been wondering if your experience of co-authoring Sangtin Yatra/Playing with Fire with the autobiographers might offer a helpful perspective from which to look at this balancing act. In the Introduction to that book, you write about how the collective was moved to do away with the binary between political work and scholarly work within the collaboration and the movement at large, and interrogate what being an ‘expert’ means. Through the process of co-authorship, you recount, the sangtins had come to understand ‘what each of us could bring to the collective so that all of us could become better educated about the issues we had chosen to struggle for’ (Sangtin Writers and Nagar, 2006, p. xl). Thinking about each member’s contribution to the collaboration in equal terms of skills and labour allowed you to realise that deploying your own skill and talent of writing and editing did not turn into any form of authority, so the autobiographers’ express request that you and Richa Singh guide the process of writing Sangtin Yatra was not an act of reinstating your ‘scholarly expertise’. As your co-authors Richa Singh and Ramsheela summed it up: ‘There is nothing wrong in your undertaking the main labour of making the book. It will still remain our book’ (Ibid., p. xxxix). Would it be fruitful to think of your and Tarun’s guiding translation – as opposed to the call to order that the posture of lecturing issues – along similar lines?
I think that your refusal to ‘inadvertently slip into a mode of citing examples from the classes’ experience in a way that the participants […] are unintentionally represented as subjects of another research or pedagogical experiment undertaken by an academic researcher’ suggests that it might indeed be. I deeply appreciated this gesture in your letter, not least for its resonance with my own attempts at grappling with writing from here – this university, city, country and continent as well as this mind-body-soul-being. Mapping onto the experience of (e)migration, these attempts are framed by spatially oscillating views on the epistemic values and ethical stakes of what I do. There is a sizeable disjuncture between the post-#RhodesMustFall imperative to interrogate acts of speaking for and speaking with, and the ways in which our work is still being received beyond spaces affected by this recent iteration of the call to decolonise. In spaces of ‘global’ scholarship, what seems mostly to validate my work is its ‘ethnographic’ aspect. In spaces of critical self-reflection steeped in the current moment of South African knowledge politics, my engagement with communities of struggle provokes the undoubtedly valid question: why must black people always be written about as subjects of suffering? (This was my equivalent of how Elaine’s question landed for you at our 2016 workshop.)
It seems to me that the resistance to radical vulnerability that you and Tarun have encountered in the second semester of ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements’ performed a similar critique of knowledge production in and from the university. It is perfectly illustrative of the intricate conundrum that this act of resistance presents, that the course dedicates multiple sessions to the very problem that you render above as the question of ‘what it means to have a course like this in the spaces of the institution which has historically participated in colonising peoples, lands and knowledges, and whose violence continues to this day’. Act Four is titled ‘Settler colonialism, refusals, pedagogy’ and its synopsis reads ‘From radical vulnerability to radical refusals. What makes a refusal radical?’ (Nagar in journeys with Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan and Parakh Theatre, 2019, p. 225). In preparation for Act Six, participants are asked to read, among others, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s ‘Decolonization is not a Metaphor’ (2012) and Harney and Moten’s The Undercommons (2013). Tuck and Yang express their fundamental suspicion towards decolonisation as merely a pedagogical project, as a metaphor that, they argue, in much of critical scholarship stands in for what genuine decolonisation is: ‘the repatriation of indigenous land and life’ (Tuck and Yang, 2012, p. 1). From this perspective, asking the participants of a university-based class to make themselves radically vulnerable might indeed seem ‘artificial’, as you put it. For Harney and Moten, on the other hand, reparation cannot be (the sole) end as, for them, demanding reparation remains within the logic of debt and thus of existing orders of subjection. Instead, or beyond, such a demand, they offer the undercommons as a ‘we’ that, through acts of radical refusals and experimentation, is planning to tear down such orders. The university can be a site of such acts, if a paradoxical one at that: ‘it cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment’, and so, the subversive intellectual who works for the undercommons is ‘in but not of the university’ (Harney and Moten, 2013, p. 26).
In this charged field of refusals, can Tuck and Yang’s (2012, p. 10) urge ‘to be more impatient with each other’ take shape through radical vulnerability? Can fugitive planning (Harney and Moten 2013) be practiced by bringing into being a ‘fractured but blended “we”’ (Sangtin Writers and Nagar, 2006)? If mobilising a completely different vocabulary, these were the questions I tried to work through in a piece for the 2016 workshop on ‘Radical(ising) collaboration’. In the face of routinely failing public dialogues on rethinking the university, it seemed unable to offer room for blending that fractured ‘we’. At that point, when authoritatively presented critiques of the neoliberalising university collided head-on with accounts of the university as the place of speech instead of action, the place that isolates itself from the world of the township and looks elsewhere to find answers to local problems. Amidst the reverberations of so strong a reinforcement of the disjuncture between what students experienced as the world of the university and their own, reconstructing teaching and learning around the practice of just receiving and telling of stories seemed illusory. From the vantage point of Hungry Translations and this very dialogue, the contrast between that disjuncture and the ethics of refusing to separate the classroom as the space and intellect as the vehicle of learning from the rest of the senses and sites of our experiences seems even starker. Yet, the same vantage point sees me joining you once more as you guide this dialogue to a place of hope. If, as invoking Frantz Fanon Fred Moten suggests, a most urgent task is to ‘critique […,] destroy and disintegrate the ground on which the settler stands, the standpoint from which the violence of colonialism and racism emanates’ (Harney and Moten 2013, p. 132), then a militant commitment to creating spaces for ‘rescripting the undercommons’ and ‘stitching new wor(l)ds’ is certainly worth trying and failing again and again (Nagar in journeys with Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan and Parakh Theatre, 2019, p. 229).
Thank you so much, Richa, for the renewed hope and all that I learned through this conversation. With love and gratitude for giving me a chance to share the spirit of a hungry translator,
The book, Hungry Translations: Relearning the World Through Radical Vulnerability, underwent significant revisions during the course of this letter exchange. The quotations that appear here in Anna’s letters to Richa, then, come from two versions of the book — an early draft that Richa shared with Anna in 2017 and a later version from 2019. Both versions appear in the references because some of the sections that Anna quotes from were revised or reworded in the published book. For us, this is also a small way to acknowledge and underscore the making of this conversation as a continuously unfolding journey that cannot be contained by fixed words on the page.
This article was originally published as: Richa Nagar and Anna Selmeczi, 2020, “The Labor of Political Theatre as Embodied Politics: A Conversation,” In eds., Shine Choi, Anna Selmeczi, and Erzsébet Strausz, Critical Methods for the Study of World Politics: Creativity and Transformation. London: Routledge, pp. 84-100. The authors and the AGITATE! Editorial Collective are grateful to Shine Choi and Erzsébet Strausz and to Claire Maloney at Taylor & Francis for granting us the permission to republish this article in AGITATE!.
Harney, S., and F. Moten (2013) The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions.
Heveron, E. (2017) Unlearning and Relearning the Self and Other: The Pedagogical Potential of Stories in the Classroom. Senior thesis. University of Minnesota.
Musaifer, S., R. Nagar and M. Schwedhelm (2018) ‘Stories, Bodies, Movements: Preliminary Notes from an Ongoing Journey’. In Unsettling the University: Special Workshop of Comparative and International Education Society, Mexico City.
Nagar, R. (2014) Muddying the Waters: Coauthoring Feminisms Across Scholarship and Activism. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Nagar, R. (2017) ‘Hungry Translations: Relearning the World Through Radical Vulnerability (Draft)’. Unpublished manuscript.
Nagar, R. in journeys with Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan and Parakh Theatre (2019) Hungry Translations: Relearning the World Through Radical Vulnerability. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Sangtin Writers, and R. Nagar. (2006) Playing with Fire: Feminist Thought and Activism Through Seven Lives in India. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Tuck, E., and K.W. Yang (2012) ‘Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor’, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), pp. 1–40.
Nagar, R., and Selmeczi, A. 2021. “The Labour of Political Theatre as Embodied Politics: a Conversation.” AGITATE! 3: https://agitatejournal.org/article/the-labour-of-political-theatre-as-embodied-politics-a-conversation/.