21.05.21

Writing is difficult these days. Not just because we are living in a world that is increasingly unpredictable. Part of it is the very fabric of the unknowability of a future that seems to make any utterance devoid of meaning. That is what is true for all of us, I suppose. This website has been fairly dormant for a while. While I wanted to document my research over a year, it became clear to me that projecting such expectations is not really the healthy thing to do. So, what have I been up to?

I am attending a bunch of fun courses this summer semester. The Canons and Revisions course at Freie Universität by Florian Sedlmeier, for instance. I find the course and its reading rewarding for the many ways it opens up canons to questions.

I have been writing a chapter on canons and the politics of canon for my own thesis. This chapter has been quite a long way from finishing but it is still being shaped by questions of the formation of the subject called Indology (via Aamir R. Mufti) and the idea of the pedagogical via some Bhabha. I am still reading up on the idea of gestures, which I think will be a good addition to this conversation.

On a more organisational level, I have never been busier. We are putting together a postgraduate conference for GAPS’s Postgrad Forum called Postcolonial Narrations.

Sometimes work is all one has in the face of uncertainty. This is definitely one of the times that it has kept me sane.

Recommendations

Watch College Behind Bars on Netflix. Truly inspirational.

Listen to Passenger List which is honestly the greatest podcast ever.

objects of research: Titania Palast, Berlin

A Kino in Berlin

We begin in a kino (cinema) in Berlin. Post-Berlin is battered and bruised far more than almost any city in the world. The Allies have carved up the city into four administrative zones: the British, French, American, and Russian sectors respectively. This is also where people who are concerned about culture from the Allied sector are wondering how to regenerate “culture” in this city again. Some of them are scheming.

Berlin, 1945

To make this more complicated, it would seem like the Allies already have areas of influence that will ultimately result in Berlin being divided between the East and the West, just like Germany itself. This is where West Berlin needs a pick me up. Surrounded by the “East”, West Berlin hosts the first Congress for Cultural Freedom conference on the 26th of June 1950. The venue is Titania Palast.

Titania Palast is one of those spaces in Berlin that surfaces again and again under the auspices of historical circumstances. It was one of the biggest cinema halls in Berlin when it was inaugurated in 1928. Most people know it today as the cinema where the Americans started the International Berlin Film Festival, better known as the Berlinale, in 1951. It was the spot where the first concert of the Berliner Philharmonie took place after World War II (1945). It is also where the Freie Universität’s “Gründungsversammlung” took place on 4th of December 1948. Much of this is commemorated on a plaque outside.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d6/Gedenktafel_Schlo%C3%9Fstr_4_%28Stegl%29_Titania_Palast.jpg

This is where the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) begins its work. The Congress itself was attended by quite a few famous writers, philosophers, and “thinkers”; names like Tennessee Williams and Bertrand Russell come up when we look at the list today. What did they do there? They drew up a manifesto against “all encroachments on the creative and critical spirit of man”.

Since this is during the Cold War, and just after the Berlin Blockade, this well-attended congress in West Berlin is also hinting at the Communists across the border (not far from Titania Palast) who are, then, those who are controlling thought. Declassified documents have of course shown that much of this was funded by the CIA. But at the time, the Congress for Cultural Freedom was the space for culture. And this is where we also meet Mike Josselson.

Josselson appears in the introduction of Campaigning Culture and the Global Cold War: The Journals of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (edited volume by Giles Scott-Smith and Charlotte A. Lerg) as the enigmatic American of Estonian origin who spoke English, German, French, and Russian. Josselson, who had already been in Germany for interrogations of German POWs, quickly becomes a part of the CCF and starts convincing intellectuals to serve as editors in the global struggle against Marxism/Communism. This was reported by the New York Times in 1966 as well.

With that background, we land in Bombay.

Berlin to Bombay

Bombay was the venue for the second conference of the CCF. Given its Non-Alignment Movement times, it is not surprising that the CIA was worried that “that Indian intellectuals, artists, and writers might also refuse to take sides.” (Pullin 285) Hence, they land in India for the second iteration of the congress.

Even as I write this, I am not sure of the amount of work that has been done or should be done on Indian poetry’s publication circles and this conference in 1951 (Pullin). The Indian Congress for Cultural Freedom (ICCF) has its own little history that I will not go into. What comes out of this is the Quest magazine, the archive of which lives in a bizarre Freedom First website these days. I have to Eric Pullin’s work here as exemplary in this field and that is who the reader should go for that part. There is also a Graziano Kratli’s essay that touched upon this briefly.

The part that amused me as I went down this rabbit-hole was to imagine a poetry reading. This is what I will end with.

It is probably warm as the communist/pacifist Allen Ginsberg starts reading his poetry on the balcony of Ebrahim Alkazi, the Bombay theatre director (Nerlekar 61) in 1962. Not far away, Arthur and Glorya Hale are in their Nariman Point apartment where they await instructions from Harry Rositzke, who was their CIA station chief in Delhi (Kratli 185). Nissim Ezekiel, one of the editors of Quest, publishes almost every poet who was probably there in that Ginsberg poetry reading. Ezekiel does not remain the editor of Quest for a long time. But for that brief moment, Ezekiel is the best fit that Scott-Smith and Lerg write about in their introduction: Journal editors who were “often well-known intellectual personae in their national contexts and beyond, and their public standing both required and allowed them to demonstrate a certain degree of independence from Paris (and of course, from the United States).” (13)

Curiously, as I start digging into Indian poetry’s publishing circles and connections, I find myself within 20 mins from Titania Palast in Berlin. I take the S-Bahn, across the former borders that divided the East and West sides of Berlin, and end up at a generic Kino in Berlin. There is no sign of the CCF and its history in this place now. They call it Cineplex Titania now. There is a plaque, of course. And as Roman Mars says, always read the plaque.

Further Reading

Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer

Supriya Nair, Publishing Revolutionary Road

Francis Stoner Saunders, Who Paid the Piper

Michael Warner, Origins of the CCF

Giles Scott-Smith and Charlotte A. Lerg (ed.), Global Cold War: Third World Intervention and the Making of the Cold War
– Eric Pullin, “QUEST: Twenty Years of Cultural Politics”

objects of research

I have long wondered the fate of this blog. This website started as a post-midnight idea one winter night in Kreuzberg where I lived between 2015-2018. As the years have progressed, I have undertaken quite a few foiled ideas on this blog. Yesterday, as I started reading on a particular archive, something of a clarity brick fell upon my post-midnight brain. This is about the future of this blog.

The Blog as an Archive Machine

The essential use of this blog has always been to aid some form of archiving; hence being named, archivbox. The name came from this cardbox I saw on the streets of Kreuzberg one day when I was taking a walk. The name seemed right for something that is a relic of internet culture: the blog. Now that I am writing and reading things about archives of Indian poetry and about postcolonial literature in general, I am curious about blogging as a research phenomenon. Think of a reaction channel but somewhat more reflexive and definitely more background. With the possibilities of embedding and linking seemingly disparate and farfetched things together, a blog is the research journal we need to go about our business of thinking about things.

The Blog as a Journal

Given its the desultory existence, this blog, however has had no raison d’être so far. I find the thought of writing a private journal on the internet a little too voyeuristic if not downright self-centred. In the coming posts, this lack of purpose will be willed into something more productive in a more academic sense. The blog as a journal of a person is too boring. The blog as a roll-call of publication even more so. This is something else. This is about producing more content to make myself read and process more things. Notes, connections, archives, etc, etc.

Links

Other than the usual tabs (About, Current), you can find all my posts about my objects of research in the links below:

  1. The One about Indian Oil
  2. The One about Titania Palast

objects of research: Indian Oil

One of these days, as one does, we come across a relic. It is a relic that feels alienating precisely because it is not our past. It is a past that we have not lived through. We cannot look back. This is the past of our grandparents, at best. For many of us who were born away from the urban centres, even that is a stretch. The imagination does not go that far, I want to say. To make up for imagination one does not possess, one must have the archival tonic. This became my way of understanding this past some years ago.

Today, as a part of my research on Indian poetry and magazines, I came across the archives of the Quest magazine. Looking at this magazine archive from the 1950s-1970s, this odd feeling came upon me. Indian Oil advertises Gauhati Refinery in 1960s. First public sector refinery built with Romanian assistance (because the Eastern Bloc was a thing). Among 173 rupee Agfa cameras with rangefinders that were sold only in Delhi, Calcutta and Madras, and Indian Airlines fares from Bombay to Colombo (daily!), is this news of hope of a refinery in Assam.

Did the readers of this magazine know where Assam was? Did they even know where Gauhati was? Would they know now? It is not just the odd juxtaposition of the Assamese refinery and the metropolitan spaces but the sheer distance that one sees from this moment of hope.

Names will change: Gauhati will become Guwahati, Madras Chennai. People will burn themselves in Assam in the name of this oil. All of that is a mere decade away. But in 1960s, it is still a different world. People can still cling on to some sort of hope that I cannot imagine inhabiting in 2020.

day something: interviews and poems

I have long been a follower of Vivek Narayanan. One afternoon in Delhi, the poet Michael Creighton introduced me to the poetry of Narayanan and there has been no stopping since.

Narayanan’s work interests me not just because of the intense craftsmanship that he has about his work. It is also how he manages to use form in his poetry that has fascinated me. The Life and Times of Mr. S, his book of poems, deserves a much longer post that I hope to get around to, finally. For now, here is an interview from the Center for Writing and Communication with Souradeep Roy and Uday Kanungo.

day 18: gehirnschleuder

The word Gehirnschleuder was suggested by my friend over a video-stream as we both struggled to understand what our brains are going through these days. Everything is the middle of pretending to be normal and going, what can mildly be called as, bat-shit crazy.

India’s overlords have inadvertently decided to turn this medical crisis into a humanitarian crisis. Migrant workers, who have a precarious life and are always exploited by contractors for cheap labour, have been made to walk thousands of miles. People have collapsed and died on their way home.

Gehirnschleuder

This Twitter thread by @_kanikas_ brings grief this morning packaged in neatly organised tweets.

There is a kind of shame that nothing else but belonging to a history can bring. This is that kind of shame.

day 10: how to speak poetry

maybe we should meet as complete strangers


Take the word butterfly. To use this word it is not necessary to make the voice weigh less than an ounce or equip it with small dusty wings. It is not necessary to invent a sunny day or a field of daffodils. It is not necessary to be in love, or to be in love with butterflies. The word butterfly is not a real butterfly. There is the word and there is the butterfly. If you confuse these two items people have the right to laugh at you. Do not make so much of the word. Are you trying to suggest that you love butterflies more perfectly than anyone else, or really understand their nature? The word butterfly is merely data. It is not an opportunity for you to hover, soar, befriend flowers, symbolize beauty and frailty, or in any way impersonate a butterfly. Do not act out words. Never act out words. Never try to leave the floor when you talk about flying. Never close your eyes and jerk your head to one side when you talk about death. Do not fix your burning eyes on me when you speak about love. If you want to impress me when you speak about love put your hand in your pocket or under your dress and play with yourself. If ambition and the hunger for applause have driven you to speak about love you should learn how to do it without disgracing yourself or the material.

What is the expression which the age demands? The age demands no expression whatever. We have seen photographs of bereaved Asian mothers. We are not interested in the agony of your fumbled organs. There is nothing you can show on your face that can match the horror of this time. Do not even try. You will only hold yourself up to the scorn of those who have felt things deeply. We have seen newsreels of humans in the extremities of pain and dislocation. Everyone knows you are eating well and are even being paid to stand up there. You are playing to people who have experienced a catastrophe. This should make you very quiet. Speak the words, convey the data, step aside. Everyone knows you are in pain. You cannot tell the audience everything you know about love in every line of love you speak. Step aside and they will know what you know because you know it already. You have nothing to teach them. You are not more beautiful than they are. You are not wiser. Do not shout at them. Do not force a dry entry. That is bad sex. If you show the lines of your genitals, then deliver what you promise. And remember that people do not really want an acrobat in bed. What is our need? To be close to the natural man, to be close to the natural woman. Do not pretend that you are a beloved singer with a vast loyal audience which has followed the ups and downs of your life to this very moment. The bombs, flame-throwers, and all the shit have destroyed more than just the trees and villages. They have also destroyed the stage. Did you think that your profession would escape the general destruction? There is no more stage. There are no more footlights. You are among the people. Then be modest. Speak the words, convey the data, step aside. Be by yourself. Be in your own room. Do not put yourself on.

This is an interior landscape. It is inside. It is private. Respect the privacy of the material. These pieces were written in silence. The courage of the play is to speak them. The discipline of the play is not to violate them. Let the audience feel your love of privacy even though there is no privacy. Be good whores. The poem is not a slogan. It cannot advertise you. It cannot promote your reputation for sensitivity. You are not a stud. You are not a killer lady. All this junk about the gangsters of love. You are students of discipline. Do not act out the words. The words die when you act them out, they wither, and we are left with nothing but your ambition.

Speak the words with the exact precision with which you would check out a laundry list. Do not become emotional about the lace blouse. Do not get a hard-on when you say panties. Do not get all shivery just because of the towel. The sheets should not provoke a dreamy expression about the eyes. There is no need to weep into the handkerchief. The socks are not there to remind you of strange and distant voyages. It is just your laundry. It is just your clothes. Don’t peep through them. Just wear them.

The poem is nothing but information. It is the Constitution of the inner country. If you declaim it and blow it up with noble intentions then you are no better than the politicians whom you despise. You are just someone waving a flag and making the cheapest kind of appeal to a kind of emotional patriotism. Think of the words as science, not as art. They are a report. You are speaking before a meeting of the Explorers’ Club of the National Geographic Society. These people know all the risks of mountain climbing. They honour you by taking this for granted. If you rub their faces in it that is an insult to their hospitality. Tell them about the height of the mountain, the equipment you used, be specific about the surfaces and the time it took to scale it. Do not work the audience for gasps and sighs. If you are worthy of gasps and sighs it will not be from your appreciation of the event but from theirs. It will be in the statistics and not the trembling of the voice or the cutting of the air with your hands. It will be in the data and the quiet organization of your presence.

Avoid the flourish. Do not be afraid to be weak. Do not be ashamed to be tired. You look good when you’re tired. You look like you could go on forever. Now come into my arms. You are the image of my beauty.

– Leonard Cohen

day 9: the unbearable liberty of minimalism

DIGITAL MINIMALISM
by Cal Newport
Penguin Random House, 304pp., February 2019, 978-0525536512

One of my friends often tells me that most of anglophone philosophy is based on bad translations of european philosophy. I tend not to fall into these conversations over fears that my grasp of most of these things are so elementary that any addendum I might have in a conversation on this is briefly entertaining at best and mildly irritating at worst. However, there is something to be said about a tendency found in anglophone writers: they quote european philosophers at length in self-help books without actually justifying much of the tradition that has grown in philosophy after, say, a Nietzsche or an Aristotle. This does end up creating an impression of reading these philosophers for how much they can help you. Cal Newport’s fairly recent book Digital Minimalism goes between a book that is interventionist in its outlook to being an example of the kind of book that often has odd blind-spots of immense cultural value.

Newport’s book is one of the many attempts to educate myself about the conversation and literature about being data-conscious. Given Newport’s own academic background (he is a professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University), it is one the books I have consumed during this coronavirus-induced time that has magically appeared in my schedule. The reason the book appeals to me, therefore, is not because I read it as relevant literature but also about the “hacks” a peer might have about being data-conscious.

The book—should it be marketed to people from Gen Z to millennials—offers something that has become a near ubiquitous topic: Big Data is watching you. It is, however, not very radical in offering people the way to get out of it; quit it and monitor the way you develop your relationship with the tech giants of the world. The radical departure he makes, I would argue, is the manner he manages to tie-up a relationship between a happy and fulfilling life and that of a productive offline life through many lengthy passages of Aristotle, Thoreau, and Franklin. His many “practices”, for instance, include a 30 day declutter of your digital ecosystem, followed by high-quality leisure principles.

The reason it seems to be paradoxical to me is this: the kind of productivity that he encourages is so unapologetically apolitical that the high-quality leisure principles that he lays out only amplify a kind of outcome: a neoliberal one. Or rather, a quintessentially American one. Let me unpack this a little bit.

The Offline Island Bubble

There is enough talk about Facebook being an echo-chamber that has a detrimental effect on one’s mental health. There is far too much said about it everywhere for one to put links out there. The more dangerous issue that should be appealing to the digital minimalist, however, is that these echo-chambers do not simply have an impact on one’s life-quality because of the problems of the infinite scroll problem; it is also an issue of political leverage that one hands over to the Facebooks and Googles of the era. This is the problem of unregulated debates, working closely with tyrants who stamp out all dissent, and actually not stopping political ads that openly lie.

To counter this, when Newport tells the reader to find a balanced diet of views that are on the right and left sides of the aisle, it smacks of the centrist value of saying “there are good guys on both sides”. Listening to the right side of the aisle today, whether be it in Europe, US, or South Asia, means that we are enabling those who have blood on their hands.

The issue of social networks is not that it traps people’s productivity but also that should one be anything but a male/white/western/straight user, chances are that you will find your mental health affected by the indulgences these websites allow the most abusive/racist/sexist/violent of users. This is, then, not something that can be helped by going offline, can it? This is a political issue.

While I mused about this to myself recently, Newport’s book offered an explanation why questions of digital minimalism, or minimalism in general, uses some of the most disturbingly non-inclusive examples. There is a class aspect to it. In his “practice” that spoke about high-quality leisure principles, Newport mentions that one should be “handy”—one should learn how to make things and not spend hard earned leisure by mindlessly going about social media. This is a red herring. It sounds like a good idea till one realises that his examples in that part of the book deals solely with, what he calls, FI people; people who have gained Financial Independence at a relatively younger age. i.e., rich young people. The fact that even for one to even have/borrow the tools to execute such a proposition begs a question of capital: social and otherwise. To add to that, while I understand that mindlessly scrolling through social media takes a terrible toll on mental health, there is not much else one can do if one does not possess: a room of one’s own, capital to begin such a project, ability to execute such a project. With the recent explosion of disability studies in tech, the sheer enormity of this blind-spot was quite mind-boggling.

On the other hand, the examples of community building that he gave also fetishizes a kind of community building—one with internal jargon, jokes etc.—that would be extremely gendered in some cases. This is also why many many such minimalist groups continue to be white, middle-class, and (most times) male. Or, as the example of Mr. Money Mustache in the book shows, one that tacitly approves of gentrification moves in a city.

Perhaps this is the offline island bubble that is problematic in many ways that has to be theorized before we all assume that all offline life is sustainable, good, and ethical in spite of them being exclusionary, homogeneous, and quite frankly, class-blind.

The Politics of Data Minimalism

The politics of minimal data consumption not only includes more complex conversations about sustainability and environmental concerns (which the book does not touch upon at all); it is also about what it means to organize a political consciousness in the 21st century without falling into the trap of technological pitfalls—which includes poor mental health due to people having to be bullied online on race/gender/sexuality issues, issues of inclusion, and the already mentioned issue of handing sensitive data to tech giants. The politics of social media, I would argue, is also the politics of organization—not just of your own data and how that is used by social media giants to monitor public opinion about a regime—but also of organizing communities. Grassroot level community organizations should be diverse and inclusive bodies of people and in including an example like F3nation, it is a veritable fetish of men working out together that Newport ends up championing in his book.

The danger of this is not simply in my finding it blandly centrist; the danger of digital minimalism being seen as a cute productive hack to getting more done while not advocating structural changes in the data game is the reason why people who come from diverse backgrounds stay glued on to their phones: to find a community that keeps them mentally sane in a world where every whiff of political action often becomes the caricatured apolitical bubble that helps one’s productivity.

day 8: i have decided to become boring

I am, in many ways, the incorrigible news-junkie. It is probably because I am from Bongaigaon and if you are from Bongaigaon, you have to know things to make sure that you are still a part of a world, any world. So I became a news-junkie. The compulsion to have read up on everything from Elvis’ meeting with Nixon to the Bodyline series to knowing about every Yung-1 sneaker silhouette ever released is something that I cannot stop myself from feeding my brain. Data, you see, is my drug. It has not always been an easy relationship. But mostly, it has been something I have been able to channel: for instance, collating stories on the anti-CAA protests in India and then the violence that followed was something that definitely kept me sane during a very difficult period of 2019 where I felt nothing but helplessness.

Given this background, this coronavirus induced self-quarantine has been something that has given most of us a chance to reflect. For many of us who live away from home it is also the time we have spent anxiously holding on to live-tickers; one in Europe and one that is elsewhere. This has been a source of the kind of anxiety I have never known in my life. Being the anxious person I am, at some point I was staring at the Deutsche Welle site having read the same ticker that refused to update at 4 am; this is when it clicked: I have to change something.

On being Data Conscious

It is not something that I am declaring that is new. I have always maintained that we have to change our relationship to data because, as more and more data goes out, the more vulnerable we become to the technology that is supposed to make us more social. This is where we have to do the hard work because staying away from the Facebooks and the Instagrams of the world means that you have to find your own ways of dealing with something that is not just philosophical (as Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism points out, quite rightly) but also something deeply ethical. It has to do with how much you enable a tech-giant like Facebook and Google to use your data. Even as Facebook and Google tell you about the “local” businesses you should be supporting, we are still at the mercy of their data algorithms. Recently, due to technical issues, a lot of links connected to the coronavirus outbreak suddenly became “against community rules”. It was later attributed to a bug. Even if we take this up as something of an “honest mistake”, I do feel terribly insecure about depending on the Zuckerbergs of the world to read news, or not to have access to them because of a bug. Hence, I find this to be the right time to re-evaluate my own relationship to Facebook and its products (Instagram and Whatsapp, of course).

Social media, in general, has contributed to a lot of grief but I am also worried about what it means to live outside it for a while to understand how I can use it in a manner that actually makes sense. Staring down the infinite scroll when you are away from home and are worried is probably one of the most awkward silences one can find oneself in. And in the last few months, given all that has happened, for better or worse, this has been a constant emotion that I have felt. So, after going through half of Newport’s book, I have decided to become boring.

What does that mean?

For one, I don’t think I ever want to have another open-ended conversation on a long thread with a stranger trying to convince them that maybe lynching people is not a good thing. As for a more general principle, I want to fundamentally change the way I am consuming things. This means, having more time to actually meet and stay in touch with people by having conversations. I am in disagreement with Newport here who is, by all accounts, underestimating how much a long email works like a letter in the digital age. He does seem to be against all texts and wants people to have analogue conversations. I am a little more deliberate than that when I write people and hope to maintain contact with a few friends by writing mails.

The biggest problems that I can imagine would be simply knowing far less than anyone in real-time. I would also miss a few events because of the fact that the events page on Facebook is, for all purposes, one of the most crowded ones. I do want to think that Cal Newport’s practice idea that we can always bookmark that page and then use it once a week is something I would eventually end up doing—once this whole coronavirus thing is over.

Additionally, there would be all the information about people graduating, getting married, getting jobs etc. that I would also miss out on. But I guess that would mean that I would simply write people and reach out individually. Which is really not a bad thing.

As of now, I plan to not do anything else on my Facebook. Or Instagram. Now is the time to be boring and calm. I cannot wait for it.

P.S. I am not a digital minimalist. Not yet, in any case. But I was very glad to have found an audiobook version of the book Digital Minimalism on Libby, which is an app by Rakuten. If you are someone who has access to a public library, you probably also have access to Libby. It is simply one of the best apps I have ever come across. Libraries are the best things in the world. They represent the very best of what we have on this planet.

Photo credit: Hunter Harritt on Unsplash