When #MeToo struck the Nobel

The Nobel Prize for Literature, among the most coveted awards, has unwittingly given impetus to another major social movement. For the first time in 69 years, the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature will not be awarded perhaps following in the wake of the recent upsurge of the #MeToo movement across the globe. Incredible as it sounded when it was announced in early May, global audiences seem to have begun to reluctantly acknowledge the impact of the #MeToo movement on this momentous decision.

The #MeToo campaign, initiated as a hashtag on social media in October 2017, has made victims of sexual assault and harassment come out quite literally. It also opened up a whole new language, especially for the female body, thus vocalising experiences hitherto subjected to guilt and shame. The Academy’s recent decision on the Nobel Prize for Literature extends the process to a fresh discourse on ethical responsibility and the politics of reception.

Needless to say, this could have happened to the selection panel of any of the Nobel Prizes. That it has happened to Literature makes the context more easily available to a discourse which has for long questioned diminishing human responsibility in the face of increasing acts of epistemic injustice beyond physical violence.

The history of debates around the Nobel Prize for Literature has largely focused on the global politics of choice of author and text or the literariness of such choices. Two years ago, controversy characterised Bob Dylan’s award of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the debates which followed made the world recognise the boundless possibilities to constantly review the approach to literature and the arts.

The #MeToo movement has also found significant visibility through the Arts, which underlines how an aesthetic imbued in the body politic can effectively deflect the role of women as mere objects of desire. Sexual politics can no longer be confined to hushed whispers and quiet corridors.

The body has moved beyond the pages of confessional literature to the extent that it questions the very structure of an institution with its claims to a global recognition of what constitutes one of the most human discourses – Literature.

The credibility of the Swedish Academy is at stake even as none of its members are directly implicated. And why, many have asked, should the implied allegations against the husband of a member, affect the selection process to award the most sought after Literature prize?

Jean-Claude Arnault, noted photographer and husband of Academy member, Katrina Frostenson, has been accused of groping and assaulting 18 women over more than 20 years. After this scandal came into media focus last November, five life members have withdrawn from the Academy. These multiple exits highlight not so much the absence of sufficient representation on the panel, as questions of social responsibility and credibility which the Academy has to shoulder as an institution of global standing. Even as Sara Danius stepped down as the Academy head, protesters gathered at Stortorget Square in Stockholm, to demand the removal of the Academy’s entire board.

The media has drawn attention to the power dynamics and global politics behind the prize itself. Significantly, the #MeToo movement has raised the bar for social responsibility towards sexual harassment globally in the decision of the two Nobel Prizes for Literature being awarded together in 2019. 

The Swedish Academy has indeed given more teeth to the biting impact of the #MeToo movement as well as extending debates on the ethical implications of gendered violence. The Swedish Academy has been galvanised towards an ethical reconsideration of its functions as a global organisation. Sexual harassment is no longer one woman or man’s issue but has global implications which entail social responsibility and community consciousness from all genders, classes and sections.

The decision of the Academy also heralds a growing acknowledgement of the inter-connectedness of human issues and the need to acknowledge gender concerns as human rights which demand multiple interventions beyond legal justice systems in more inclusive, symbolic acts of solidarity. 

That the Academy’s responsibility is not just the award or the selection of a Nobel Laureate is obvious. The postponement of the award does underline the importance of audience reception. The ramifications of global acceptance extend beyond the award. The Swedish Academy which awards the Nobel stated that it needs to regain “confidence in its work” before selection of the next Nobel Laureate. 

(The writer is Associate Professor, Department of English, Christ Deemed to be University, Bengaluru)

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When #MeToo struck the Nobel

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