Friday, October 9, 2009

Writing without authority

Back in early 2008, literally half-way through the writing of Singapore: A Biography, I was asked to give a lecture at a conference in Johannesburg entitled 'South African democracy at the crossroads'. Anyone who knows me will know that when it comes to Africa (past or present) I'm not exactly an authority, so the immediate question was 'why me?'

The conference, held at the University of the Witwatersrand, was a bold and timely affair which sought to bring together academics, journalists, filmmakers, artists and activists, all concerned that Mandela's utopian dream of an inclusive South African democracy was being wrecked by his successors. It became quite a controversial affair in other ways too. One journalist, feeling slighted that she did not get the interview she had wanted during our party on the first night, complained in the national press of those academics who still live in a world of 'chardonnay and char-grilled prawns', notwithstanding their professed desire to step down from the ivory tower and mingle with the people. (The chardonnay and char-grilled prawns were, by the way, delicious!).

But for me this conference was special for two other reasons. Firstly, before I gave my address, I was introduced – by one of South Africa's most eminent living scholars, no less – as a 'leading public intellectual in Singapore', which almost caused me to fall off my seat! You see, to be a 'public intellectual' you kinda need a 'public', and in early 2008 I didn't even have a proper job let alone an audience in Singapore beyond my immediate family.

More importantly, the discussion at the conference turned eventually (and quite aptly, in my case) to the whole notion of 'writing without authority'.

The idea of 'writing without authority' comes from a self-reflective meditation on his work by the Nobel Prize-winning South African author and academic J. M. Coetzee (see Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews), and some critics have subsequently used it to describe his entire oeuvre. In his novels, so I'm told (I've so far only read a few of his essays), Coetzee makes a self-conscious attempt to dismantle his own authority writing as a white, South African male. To escape all the authoritarian connotations that such a status represents, his fiction embraces the narrative voices of the marginalised – the blind, the disabled and, in several instances, women.

Some people might think that this project sounds like yet more of that indulgent, intellectual navel-gazing for which white, liberal academics are so famed. (For though they might get all angsty and guilt-ridden about their privileged status, they still know where to find the best char-grilled prawns and chardonnay when it really counts.) Certainly, the irony of Coetzee's own effort to write without authority is that the more he does so, the more prizes he seems to win, and the more his international authority as a white, male, South African writer seems to grow.

Yet for those white South African liberals at the conference – who felt compelled to voice their concerns over the challenges facing their country's young democracy, while being acutely aware of how their voices might come across (given nearly half a century of apartheid) – their dilemma remained a real one. Writing without authority might ultimately be an impossibility, but it still appeared to be worth the attempt.

So what has all this got to do with Singapore: A Biography?

At first, the idea that historians ought to have a go at writing without authority might seem faintly ridiculous. Who's going to listen to a historian who consciously tries to marginalise his/her own voice, or who implicitly raises the question 'Who am I to speak?' (before other people raise it for them)? Generally, the historians I know enjoy speaking and writing as authorities, and their readers and listeners expect them to do so.

Which is why the British historian Orlando Figes is such an interesting exception.

Like Coetzee, Figes is a multi-award winning author, and also like Coetzee, Figes likes to withdraw himself from his own narratives. In mid-2008, during an interview with the Guardian about his new book The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, he had this to say:
Look, the days have – or should have – long passed when the historian stands in his Olympian position and tells you: this is what happened, this is what it means, this is what you should think about. I structure my history in a literary way in which different readers can get different responses out of it. [...] I'm not the sort of historian who says, bluntly, this is the meaning of these experiences. I've tried to convey those experiences in a way that allows people to engage with them, and imagine themselves in those situations, and come up with their own meaning.
'Russian revelations'
in the Guardian (14 July 2008)

Naturally, the way Figes structures his narratives ought to give us a hint as to how he hopes they will be read. Nonetheless, he remains quite unperturbed in the face of the criticism that he never really tells us what he thinks, or that he fails to provide an over-arching political narrative or moral interpretation that might better hold the multiple stories featured in his work together. Instead, as the Guardian's interviewer puts it, Figes's work represents a new kind of democratic history where readers are expected 'to do their bit, to forge their own critical relation to, and emotional engagement with, his subject, rather than swallow a narrative and set of judgements whole'.

The attempt by Figes to write history without authority – or perhaps, to be more precise, to write history with multiple authorities (leaving readers to form their own intepretations) – proved a great inspiration when it came to the writing of the post-war sections of Singapore: A Biography. In these chapters, we used the device of placing the stories and testimonies of multiple (often opposed) historical actors side by side to explore what remains a still hotly contested period from Singapore's political past. We didn't completely remove the authoritative voice of the historian from these chapters, but we did try to restrict ourselves from the kind of over-arching moral and political judgements that might have got in the way of readers making up their own minds for themselves.

Were we successful? A veteran of the Barisan Sosialis to whom I showed these chapters wrote to me to say that such is the continued dominance of PAP-sponsored narratives of post-war Singapore (the recent volume Men in White being, in his mind, no exception) that the only real 'alternative' history that can be written at this time has to be an explicitly partisan one. Perhaps he is right. But perhaps, also, Singapore: A Biography will say something about this period that will encourage further thought as well – even as its authors appear on the surface to keep their own thoughts to themselves.

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