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December 16, 2013

Increasing environmental debates have fuelled interest in the study of literature in relation to environment and ecology.

Naturewatch:Literature has engaged with the environment through creative means like poetry.Photo: G.P Sampathkumar

Naturewatch:Literature has engaged with the environment through creative means like poetry.Photo: G.P Sampathkumar

Pursuing English literature at the college level is often thought to be about revisiting giants who once walked the earth. Across disciplines, including the humanities, courses with contemporary relevance and those tailored for job markets have been introduced to woo students of the 21st century. Obviously, English literature and language studies have not merely stood and watched. Be it English for mass communication, copy writing or Dalit writing, feminist writing, post-colonial literature and human rights, these have all found their way into the syllabus.

A relatively recent addition to these new lines of exploration is the study of literature and the ecology or literature and the environment. What do students and scholars of literature have to do with the environment? “As literature engages with life and everything in the world, it must also engage with the environment,” says Murali Sivaramkrishnan, head, department of English, Pondicherry Central University. The department offers, “Green Voices,” as an elective and a soft course. As professor Murali says, “eco-criticism,” is fast becoming a buzzword in the academic circles in India.

Green lens

Simply put, eco-criticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment, which necessitates looking at literary studies though a green lens. To understand what this branch of study is founded on, Cheryll Glotfelty, University of Nevada, spells out succinctly: when “… literary scholars began to ask what their field has to contribute to our understanding of the unfolding environmental crisis.” While literature has always engaged with nature and the environment from a creative and aesthetic approach (through poems on nature and more), eco-criticism demands a close critical look at nature and the environment.

Literature and ecology/environment is best associated with the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) in the U.S. which states that the course is, “for those interested in the natural world and its meanings and representations in language and culture.” ASLE has various affiliate bodies in the world, with two such in India alone. The ASLE-India chapter (whose newsletters are published from Puducherry) and the Organisation for Study of Literature and Ecology (OSLE) with key office-bearers from Tamil Nadu.

Like their international counterparts, these bodies have published papers, books, and regular newsletters, apart from conducting conferences to promote interest in the study of literature and environment.

According to Suresh Frederick, head, department of English, Bishop Heber College, Tiruchi and vice-president, OSLE, a few institutions in India have already been offering the course for quite some time. At the Madras Christian College, it has been part of the curriculum for a decade. “Recent conferences by English literature departments in India have deliberated on literary studies with an ecological approach,” he says.

While the course is an elective, it may soon turn into a core course in universities, feels professor Murali, president of ASLE, India. Increasing environmental debates and a growing consciousness on environmental issues by citizens have only fuelled interest in study of literature and ecology. By studying inter-relationships between nature, culture and environment, eco-criticism also explores facets like eco-feminism, eco-poetics and eco-justice.


The study of literature and environment holds good as an elective for students from other disciplines as it is essentially an interdisciplinary branch which integrates philosophy, life sciences, ethics and feminist thinking.

Students of environmental engineering, ecology and sciences have also taken up Green Voices at Pondicherry University in the past. For would-be activists, nature photographers and green engineers, an understanding of eco-criticism can give a creative and critical approach towards the environment, rather than a purely scientific one. Not being bound by disciplines, it can help students to broaden their horizons on environmental issues.

“It is as important for literary scholars to talk about environment as about human rights or women’s writing,” says Mr. Murali. “Eco-criticism can provide a new perspective on environmental issues. When perceptions differ, finding alternative solutions is possible.”

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December 16, 2013

Exploring cinema, censorship and its impact   USHA V. T.

TOPICS arts, culture and entertainmentbooks and literaturebooks and literaturenon-fiction

USHA Review of Censorium

Cinema is unarguably the most powerful medium of the present with tremendous affective and performative potential. In terms of performance art-forms evolving from myth to modernity, from ritual to theatre, cinema has grabbed the space within and outside the human mind. Small wonder that within a few years of its emergence, the medium has swiftly seeped through the corners of the open edge of mass publicity through its performative dispensations, namely the element of anonymity that characterizes any public communication in the age of mass publics: in the sense that what makes cinematic communication public is not just that “it addresses me” by way of public channel, but also that “it addresses me insofar as it also, and by the same token, addresses unknown others” in the shared public sphere.

Barring perhaps the ubiquitous internet and social networks, cinema’s role thus in creating a symbolic authority has only increased over the years in the collective sphere in a sort of geometric progression. But the reach that this wields is so often curtailed and constricted by the powers that be. Technically freedom of art-forms and their power of expression reside in the people and the state that is their political expression. But in actual practice who is it that articulates it? Who sanctions the energy that is palpable in the streets and theatres, its legitimate expressions? Politicians? Activists? Movie Stars? MNCs? Courts? Censors?

Through what kinds of language can the provocations of performance — on stage, screen or street — be measured and judged? Is it through claims to tradition and ancient lineage, heritage and moral community? Or through sensitive norms of progress, rationality, decency and taste? This leads us to the serious issues discussed in William Mazzarella’s Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity.

Reasonable restrictions

In India, freedom of speech and expression is ensured by Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution but is also limited by Article 19(2), which allows the government to place “reasonable restrictions” on this right “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.” This provides the government with a wide net to seize and censor almost anything that is disfavourable.

The question that naturally would surface is how far is this censorship compatible with the constitutional provisions of a democratic nation? In many ways then censorship not merely silences speech but it also produces authorized forms of truth. This pertains not only to cinema but figures in the larger issues of all human creativity. It is argued that struggles over free speech and the dynamics of governmentality have their distinct regional and national histories. However, even from its inception, cinema has a global history, and thus to follow its evolution vis-à-vis censorship is to trace a graph of disciplinary technology that proliferates normalized understandings of subjectivity, sexuality, and citizenship in the lines of Michel Foucault.

William Mazzarella’s Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity is an ethnographic project that is set forth in five interpretative chapters exploring the elementary forms of mass publicity, the grounds of the censor’s judgment, the impact of censorship, its aesthetic distinction and finally a discussion on aspects of obscenity and the public forum. The introduction that leads up to the issues is so excellently set forth that it makes a groundwork for the reader to get the rest of the acts together in terms of the situation through colonial and postcolonial periods.

This book is eminently readable and the arguments are easily accessible because they are set forth in a jargon-free language. The data that is referred to is also from popular media. This is not to imply that the thesis lacks theoretical framework; but on the other hand so much of the density of the theoretical arguments that it resorts to are softened through such tender and accessible language that doesn’t for a moment appear to moralize or sermonize even when the author is forced to take up sensitive issues of culture, class, gender and morality.

For instance, the image of the “pissing man” that is sustained in the argument from beginning to end is not intended as an object of ridicule or even to mock at a culture that engenders the same — it is done with a sense of shame and a complete recognition of the situations of modernity that declassifies humans in terms of literacy and illiteracy. It is deemed obvious that authoritarian censorship thrived amid a servile citizenry and Indian public for ages had been looked upon as affected with an underdeveloped political rationality. Centuries of foreign domination and colonial burdens have repeatedly submitted the people into an abject servility and an equally over-compensatory assertion. If the British had plundered India’s resources, then successive post-Independence governments had done all too little to bring enlightenment to the citizenry. And then there is this political reason to cater to the vulnerability of Indian masses because it becomes easy enough to provoke an illiterate mind rather than a literate one.

Test of obscenity

The naïve argument that one often hears in support of censorship is: This is not America, this is India!And “the common man” is a polite name for the pissing man, invoked as always in the third person, in other words the imagined audience. Of course, meaning is always a function of the context, and every imaged object has its social and historical context. The meaning of indecency and obscenity has also undergone timely changes. Mazzarella quotes Justice Khosla on pornography as appealing against the notion of inadvertently applying tendency as a test of obscenity: “Anything may have a tendency for almost anything. A lamp post may be taken as a phallic symbol, a convenient object for canine relief, a source of light, evidence of civilization, something to lean against when waiting for a bus or something to demolish in order to demonstrate a sense of rebellion or discontent. So what is the tendency of a lamppost?” So how is one to go about making a list of bad things to be banned? Cinema threatened colonial authority on account of the roving eye of the camera that could move freely in close proximity or long shot. And imposing censorship on its transparent images was like making them a little more visible.

Thomas Metcalf argued that the British colonial policy in India was driven by a constant tension between universalizing ideals and particularizing practices. Film censorship, as early as the 1920-s, manifested this doubling. As patron/police, or ma/baap, the colonial government represented both an auratic exemplar of civilization and a supposedly impartial guarantor of the separate rights of India’s communities.

Cinema spoke directly to both of these impulses. In postcolonial times these double standards continued in the levels of the censored and the censors, nevertheless it is a mistake to think that censorship is simply a reactionary discourse, because in its most drastic reactionary moments it reveals a radical tendency in mass publicity. Mazzarella goes on to argue that understanding obscenity as a tendency of image objects opens up a useful way of thinking about mass publicity in general. If the censors have already exposed themselves to the corruptible then they themselves are corrupted thus and in no position to judge or debar. The issue thus crosses aesthetic and moral boundaries and moves into the psychological.

Censorium is at once a documentary on censorship and a theoretical space for hair-splitting analyses.

Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass Publicity by William Mazzarella, Orient Blackswan, 2013. Rs. 795

Keywords: Censorium: Cinema and the Open Edge of Mass PublicityWilliam Mazzarella