ko ko thett is the co-editor of Picking Off New Shoots Will Not Stop the Spring, a new collection of “witness essays and poems from Burma/Myanmar 1988-2021.”
Poetic Justice: A Shared Irresponsibility?
Science is based on observation, or so have we always been taught, its concepts closely tested, confirmed or refuted. If, in today’s world, we subject the concept of justice to the same criterion, we would be hard put to observe any sense of justice among individuals or nations. What is to be observed, if we leave aside the philosophical questioning of justice, is no more any less than injustice on an unprecedented scale, where the key word is globalization. Can we truly, in all the disorders affecting the world, see a recognition and respect for the rights of the other, or a principle of equity guiding our fellow beings?
Not unless we choose to answer with something we, as writers, are accustomed to: i.e. abstract or poetic justice. That concept is, of course, not observable in international relations, not given the slightest significance, nor is it to be witnessed in the foreseeable future.
A word like ‘justice’ is an abstraction so unreal and so utopian that there is no way to observe its indicators and attributes in the real world. Especially given that it is best accounted for, and defined by, its opposite. We need injustice to understand justice. Allow me therefore to dwell on the absence of justice, or in-justice as an experience lived by the bulk of our fellow beings, for which there is much evidence in today’s world, as it operates between the rich, affluent and the hyper-educated societies and the larger part of underdeveloped countries, in other words between the West and the rest of the world. Even when one considers the case of the future economic giants such as China, India and Brazil, a gulf lies still between these two poles.
The first example of injustice, although conceived in intellectual laboratories, is the profusion of theories bearing on the Third World and their disastrous consequences. One can only, if you want, name a few from among the most notorious: “theory of chaos” and “the clash of civilizations” and even “the end of history.” With the passing of time and the sway of their contents, these theories have shifted human consciousness to some sort of lethal indifference for the peoples subject to their scrutiny. Nor only do their proponents see ineradicable hurdles facing development and well-being in all facets of economic, psychological, religious and cultural life; they in fact rule out any changes or steps forward for them to improve their lot in the age of the new paradigm called globalization.
If we consider, with Edward Said, that there is no spider’s web without a spider, we can safely assume that theories, which at one moment in history coalesce and point the way for further theorizing of a similar nature, are expressions of a higher intellectual and more powerful system. At the centre of the system is the role of the State, with its servants and elites engaged in active theorising, and to an extent resembling creative imagination and creative vision. In 1986, PEN held its annual congress in New York. The theme was “The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State”. The bulk of the prominent writers participating in the event denounced the “almost meaningless” theme of the gathering. Among them, George Steiner termed “The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State” a vacant phrase. Its grammar limps”. One notable exception, in contrast, made a case for what had seemed an impossible theme. Norman Mailer forcefully argued that if the State does not possess imagination, then we are left with no need to write history (1). Inasmuch as the State-- an organism composed of many human beings striving in concert or in opposition--creates concepts, it struggles to empower and strengthen them vis a vis society and the world (the Third Reich, the Church in the Middle Ages, the military-industrial powers today, the resurgence of theocratic aspirations in parts of the Muslim world).
In its current phase globalization is understood and made conspicuously visible only in terms of the economy, free trade and the fierce competition among the big trans-national companies, whereas nations of the South play a negligible role. In our poetic justice, we dare believe in a better world, free from economic domination. Yet taking the world for what it is, these nations are a long way from possessing the means and resources to develop. Adverse economic circumstances added to conflictual theories seem to reinforce each other to generate two sets of reaction: either a return to all things past, a closing off with an aggressive stance, or a genuine, if somehow inaudible, will to dialogue, encounter and communication.
One legitimate question is to ask oneself where all the theories of economics of development have gone. These theories were high on the agenda of the underdeveloped and newly independent countries throughout the 1960s and 1970s. An entire field of study, knowledge and research has vanished from teaching and from the academic curricula, its theories, concepts, methodologies and prospective promises fallen in limbo. “What happened so that a promising field – the study of development - has become literally wiped out by …neoliberalism and its religion of the market?” asks Michel Rogalski, editor of Recherches Internationales, in his paper “The return of the economics of development”. What these theories said in essence is that underdevelopment is the result of a long period of a multiform domination, often of a colonial nature, which brought about the integration of the periphery into world economy through faulty and distorting structuring mechanisms, largely to the advantage of the centre.
Globalization, says a researcher, broke into Algeria in the wake of its external debt – often referred to in Spanish as the ‘eternal debt’ for many countries - and the accompanying intervention of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (2). The same could be said of the four-fifths of human victims of unbridled globalization Wherever these two planetary institutions set foot, the consequences are far-reaching and a sense of an inescapable “total crisis” leaves politicians, citizens and intellectuals alike in a state of disarray verging on a zombie’s walk in daylight. Globalization is not a new concept, contrary to assertions in mass media. In the 1980s, the so called “Washington consensus” put forward the criteria of “good globalization”: very little or no State, privatization of all the economic activities, very little or no support to education, public health and culture, neither customs barriers nor protection of national productions, competition without restraint or limitations. Introduced into unprepared regions of the world for such an upheaval, the instrument of globalization, the foreign debt means permanent poverty and turns into “an immoral imposition, an illegal burden, a death sentence on future development and prosperity.” (3)
The cost of globalization is very high for its victims in many parts of the world. Its injustice knows no break or protections in the strongly marked tendency of a liberalizing process imposed by force, whether political, economic or military. More worrying yet is the fact that it looks as if conflicts and wars are the best ways to achieve globalization, at least when one considers the regions of the world in turmoil today. In the name of freedom, democracy and peace unjust wars are waged against peoples thrown back into dark ages, their fate changed into permanent humanitarian crises. With theories like clash of civilizations on the one hand, and hegemonic domination at work on the other hand, we observe the most salient feature of the new paradigm in world affairs: conflicts without end, says General Rupert Smith in his book The Art of War in the Modern World (4).
In contemporary literature, the missing item is undoubtedly this new paradigm and its devastating consequences for millions of individuals. In the not-so--distant past, a keen sense of justice propelled writers to tackle, in their own way, inhuman conduct during the early industrial era, the long history of slavery, or the effects of civil wars. Lured by the phraseology of peace, justice, economic growth expounded by forces above and over the individual, we have turned our back on the suffering that can so well be heard in books. Edouard Glissant sees two meanings of globalization in the French language: “globalization” and “mondialisation” (sometimes translated as ‘worldness’). We certainly are in the first; as to the second we are not coming any nearer. Much determination and will to justice and understanding is needed on our part to achieve a truly lived and accepted experience of respect, tolerance and recognition on a larger level see our task as writers to be the effort to explore this new frontier, the new territory between precisely globalization and worldness, a vast sea of dangers, of powers of all sorts, of the good and the evil, of human frailties and greatnesses to be brought to light, so as to comprehend, measure and build with words and emotions harbours and bridges—something only books can build. Literature knows no no man’s land, no forbidden territories.
The second example of the absence of justice has to do with the past, a past strangely defined not for what it was but for its biased implication for the present economic, political and, worse, racial supremacy. The tool for approaching it, history, is itself subject to attempts to simplify and instrumentalise it reminiscent of the kind of theories and popular knowledges that anticipated colonisation in the early 19th century. The history of many Third World countries is revisited with the barely concealed idea that they are neither worth their independences, nor able to evolve. Thus a new light was cast upon colonisation as exemplified by the 2005 February Law voted on by the French Parliament. What this law says is that colonisation had a positive role, glorifying it to an unthinkable degree. Exit the resistance of the subjected peoples, exit the spoliation of their natural resources and dispossession of their land, the obliteration of their identity, culture and beliefs. An insidious construction of oblivion is in action, with the intention of averting the recognition of the colonial past and the subsequent act of repentance. Had it not been for the vigorous reaction of historians, social researchers and citizens in both France and Africa, the February 2005 Law voted on by the French Parliament albeit partially amputated of its most offensive clauses, would have not been abrogated, , and history would have escaped historians. Minds captive in the nostalgia for imperial illusions and ruthless colonial adventurers have given themselves the assignment of hindering the conscious re-appropriation of the memories, the sole way “to recognise the past as past, in other words not to live it as a present”, says a historian.
A will to justice in history is as indispensable today as the recognition of the utterly unequal relationship between the North and the South. In the past, civilizations of the South had made great contributions to the world, as significant as today’s accomplishments in the North. Self-image, self-esteem and the right to self-definition are basic features of human nature. ”If you believe,” says the American historian William Lorenz Katz, “that a man has no history worth mentioning, then it is easy to assume he has no humanity worth defending.” Truth about the past is one of the foundations upon which the right to justice at the level of individuals or between nations is built. The construction of oblivion is the surest short cut to denial of justice. If historical justice is not taken into account, then the way is once more paved for renewed oppression. Without the struggle of the workers in the 19th and 20th century and their influence upon intellectuals, historians and writers, without the struggle of women and immigrants who have influenced historians, without the wars of liberation throughout the 2Oth century we would not have the multitude of historical studies available today.
To bring about justice in the historical affairs of our globe is a relentless effort. The recent publication of the Dictionnaire de l’histoire de la colonisation française (Dictionary of the history of French colonisation) (5) is one of those contributions that massively document the reality of an unjust system, and at the same time alert us to the insidious construction of oblivion. The latter is fed by the fear circle we live in, by the culture, politics and rhetoric of fear constantly instilled in our minds. And fear, in turn, is nourished by lies as form of political communication. “The lie belongs to the beginning of the twenty-first century,” noted a political analyst lately, during a worldwide reading of Anna Politkovskaya’s report on Chechnya, the journalist and critic assassinated on October 7, 2006. (6) Obviously, he referred to the invasion of Iraq. Before that, in the last quarter of the 20th century, in the wake of the fall the Berlin wall, the lie was a nosy background rumour, a harbinger of the taste to come for manipulative theories, and of the subsequent economic, political, bellicose experiments in the real world.
In our age, that of a huge planetary supermarket, we resent the fact that even cardinal values such as justice, dignity, respect, mutual recognition, solidarity and compassion with the downtrodden on earth have become mere commodities, or at best poetic messages to sell in the ad row. Yet I believe it is incumbent upon the writer to define a free territory for himself or herself, engaged in that “celebration of human consciousness” called literature, which has as one of its greatest assets the capacity to look back in its own long history. In the most desperate moments of Humanity, writers did not let down the human, “with conscience wide as hell,” as Shakespeare wrote in a different context. Their works survived, and remain inspirational, in spite of all the walls of China that oblivion erects all around them. They are still with us today, I believe, thanks to the fact that they teach us how to unlearn the wrong disguised as the right, the utterly unequal dressed up as democratic consensus, the unjust clothed in the rhetoric of justice.
- Norman Mailer, « The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State », New York Review of Books, 13 Feb. 1986, p. 23.
- Rogalski, Michel, « Le Retour de l’économie du développement », in Recherches Internationales,
- Nehili, A., « La Mondialisation s’est introduite par effraction », in Le Quotidien d’Oran, lundi, 19 mai 2003.
- MacInnes, Colin, « The Pirate who inspired the bankers », in The Guardian, June 25, 2005.
- General Rupert Smith, The Art of War in the Modern World, Alfred A. Knopf.
- Liauzu, Claude, Dictionnaire de la colonisation française, Editions Larousse.
- Schreiber, Ulrich, « The second Anniversary of the political lie – in memoriam Anna Politkovskaya