Saturday, January 28, 2006

The tube, racing through central London. Leicester Square - a beggar steps on. A hard-luck story. He lost his wallet, needs some change to get back home. Perhaps an elaborate fiction, with its own codes; perhaps the truth. The horror of it - I'll never know. But fiction or truth, it doesn't matter - none of that changes the fact of his need.

Faces turned away, eyes averted. Embarrassed silences. People trying to hold on tight to the myth of normality, at the very moment that the horror of this world bursts into vision. Whatever you do, don't allow this to mean anything. It must mean nothing.

And there are also other faces. Stony, disgusted. Contemptuous eyes and wrinkled noses. They want something for nothing, the bastards. They abuse the system. Fuck them. Useless bloody cunts. And they smell too. These faces disappear, as fast as they can, behind the pages of the newspaper they happen to be holding - the Times, the Daily Mail, and yes, even the Guardian are quickly deployed to wrap their faces up in another world, protect their eyes from what is offensive and dirty and scheming and asking them for 50p. Fuck them.

That was there, on the tube. Here, in our own comfortable domestic spaces and social gathering-points, murmurs of the same: 'Real men wouldn't refuse to do a hard day's work.' 'I know them, they lie. I've seen it so many times.' 'All that is OK, but can't they wash?' Some phrases are spoken, some resonate on faces, on the way that the lips are drawn in a thin line of disgust, the eyes narrowed in loathing and, yes, fear.

And here, in the heart of a rich metropolis, a sudden sense of the uncanny, another time and place brushing against the one you inhabit now. I've been here before. The faces and the voices of the Delhi rich - the same expressions, the same tones, the same hatred for the kid on the road, tugging at your shirt, who doesn't even have the decency to be a cripple.

So much for the myth of the Three Worlds.

Went to the Steedman talk at the Institute of Historical Research a couple of days back. Absorbing, quirky. About a late-eighteenth century poet named Elizabeth Hands, a domestic servant who published a volume of verse in 1789 that was very, very widely read, and written - Steedman argued - with subversive and parodic intent, taking apart the cultural pretensions of the provincial gentry and bourgeoisie of Warwickshire. Steedman used Hands' poetry (I still can't get over the name. A domestic servant named Hands? And a poet, to boot? The possibilities that conjures up...) to open out wider questions of working-class poetry, the question of why poetry and not prose, the importance of the kitchen as a space from and in which writing could emerge....and other issues.

One of the themes that appears from her new work - and explicitly so from her talk - is a concern with the comic. She described her trajectory over the last twenty years as a move from a 'melodramatic' form of historical writing to a 'comic' form. It's an intriguing thought. One moment during the talk stood out. She was reading out Hands' poetry to us, then she paused, looked around at the audience, and said, 'I'm worried that none of you are laughing.'

I've discovered a fellow Steedman admirer, Rob, on the blogosphere - hurray! - and he thinks this might be a new way of dealing with questions of suffering and injustice - in a mode that chooses to optimistically celebrate the capacities of everyday resistance (he thinks this connects with Certeau's claims), rather than underscore the measure of pain and loss that was experienced.

I think Rob's right, and I think this connects with a tension that has been threading through the writing of radical social history ever since Thompson. Is the recovery of the 'experience' of the oppressed and suffering a means of articulating the ways in which they suffered, or the ways in which they resisted, in so many ways, their exploitation? I don't personally see that there should be a contradiction, but yes, different choices of emphasis do end up framing the same histories differently. I do think this ethical tension marks Steedman's work, and the intensities of affect that shape her prose. To recover the work of a servant woman who mocked the pretensions of her social superiors, and did so in a poetic form that was considered their property, is something that is evidently a historical joke Steedman revels in - which doesn't make her project any less serious or committed.

But the comic form is important to her also, I think, because it allows her to make connections that a historical reconstruction based on more orthodox narrative causalities wouldn't. 'The joke' of Archive Fever, in her description of it, is something that clearly preoccupies her. She is able to make, through pretty sound historical connections, claims that appear absurd, but do a lot of the work in her argument. For instance - Michelet breathed the dust of the archives. This killed him. Michelet was killed by History, by the Archive. These are poetic connections, these are also, in their own way, comic - or maybe tragicomic - connections. Dust is a book that is anchored in, moves along the rails of, connections of this sort. And compels us to ask questions about the limits we sometimes place on historical analysis when we refuse recourse to the non-literal causality, the analogical connection, the strange and uncanny resonances and hidden threads that draw apparently unconnected things together.

The comic, actually, is something I've been thinking about lately, though - thankfully - in less academic terms. I've been watching so much excellent comedy, made across generations - the Marx brothers, Spike Milligan, Blackadder, Goodness Gracious Me, and above all, of course, Monty Python. And lately, Eddie Izzard. And it's struck me, lately, what a demanding form the comic is. Naturally, it isn't just about being funny. Nor, necessarily, is comedy 'light' - I feel more bruised, often, after a series of Python sketches than I do after a film by Bergman. To work, it seems to me, comedy has to respect absolutely nothing - no sentiments, no sacred cows, no communities, no individuals. Everything has to be, in some form, a source of laughter. (which doesn't, of course, make all kinds of laughter equally acceptable ethically). This is what makes it such a great form - what I love about Goodness Gracious Me, for instance, is that in its observation of the hypocrisies and absurdities by which many sorts of white Britishers and British South Asians shape themselves, it refuses to spare or respect anybody - Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, reactionaries, radicals, men, women, children. I really think it makes it the most democratic of forms - if only we could substitute 'everybody deserves to be laughed at' for 'everybody deserves respect', we might have a less dull and saccharine version of multiculturalism. But it's also such an incredibly demanding job. The minute you let the piss-taking stop, the minute you display an attitude that's less than irreverent, less than offensive to any pieties, the comic effect fails. (Ever wondered why each scene in a Marx brothers movies that doesn't feature the three clowns fails so miserably? It isn't just that they're great actors...the point is that things begin appearing less absurd at those moments, which is why they fail.) Tragedy, by contrast, can be relieved of its mission at so many points - it's a much more relenting form, it's able to slacken tension without necessarily losing the point. Comedy can't do that.

History, too, fails if it chooses to 'respect' anything or anyone. Of course historians have their heroes and admirations and faiths, even - but in its own way, it's a discipline that crumbles when you make the demand that it should respect 'sentiments' or 'cultures'. It's a vexed issue in India - we had, in Maharashtra, a ban imposed on a book that was accused of not sufficiently respecting Shivaji, and the Hindutva rewriting of school textbooks when the BJP was in power was based on the rhetoric that the older textbooks were 'disrespectful' of certain sacred cows (including, quite literally, sacred cows!). If you make that demand of history, you kill it. Perhaps this is the commitment that binds, by analogy, both history and the comic? And perhaps this is why we can try and create moments, through the writing of history, when absurdities and ironies are made visible?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

So Hamas seems to have won the Palestinian polls. This is grim, as grim as it gets. Fatah has only itself to blame, of course, for having turned into the corrupt, opportunistic, unrepresentative organization that it now largely is. Much of the blame must, of course, be laid at the door of the Palestinian Authority, or, more accurately, the Repress-Palestinians Authority. Does this mean that the character of a largely secular resistance movement, one with much to its credit, is now going to change beyond recall? Or is it more a symbolic change, given how fucked up things seem to be in Gaza and the West Bank? Does this also mean a breakdown of that myth they call 'the peace process'? More land grabs? More desperate, savage suicide bombings? More Israeli troops rolling into Palestinian territories with shoot-at-sight orders and impulses? Things don't look good, and won't look good for some time to come, either for Israelis who've been living with the daily fear of violent death for several years now, or for Palestinians who've had to live with the same fear every minute of their lives so long it doesn't bear thinking about, and who've had to face the daily humiliations, micro-tortures, and insults dished out by the Israeli regime. A regime whose prime accomplishment is to have extended, in so many ways, the meaning of the words 'apartheid' and 'colonialism'.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The RSS General Secretary, Mohan Bhagwat, declared a couple of days ago that 'everything is changeable about the Sangh' and that its volunteers are free to join any political party. This is a very interesting statement, and I'm still not quite sure how to decipher it.
It's possible, of course, that these are the flailing words of an organization still short on ideas after the shock of the 2004 elections. It's possible that these are off-the-cuff remarks to a journalist who's asked an unexpected question. But somehow I doubt that.
My immediate reaction is that the long honeymoon's finally over. So many of us in India were sent into whoops of triumph when the 2004 elections happened, when it became clear that the admixture of Hindutva murderousness, as exemplified by Gujarat, and brutal economic neo-liberalism, as exemplified by the India Shining campaign, had not worked. We felt, and rightly, that this was the most important general election since 1977. We felt that, for all the compromises and unacceptable politics one could expect from a Congress-led government, there was a real opportunity here to frame new terms of political discourse, to put issues of poverty and vulnerability on the political agenda again. And to an extent that happened - the EGA's an instance of that. The trajectory of Indian economic and social policy remained depressing, but at least this was contested ground again, and it seemed, for a while, that the subsumption of all other political questions within the framework of right-wing identity politics had been halted. Some were so optimistic as to proclaim the death of the Sangh Parivar, and we constantly told each other congratulatory stories about the vibrancy of Indian democracy, we told each other that Hindutva could never succeed in a country like this.
We were confirmed in this by the incredible dithering of the BJP in opposition. The party that had been so powerful and vocal in parliamentary opposition at the time of the Congress and UF governments of 1991-98 seemed to have lost its nerve, to have degenerated into what the Congress was not so long ago, a pack of opportunistic climbers who made themselves ridiculous through their internal squabbles. The campaign against Sonia after the election bombed when she stepped down at the Congress party meet, a brilliant manoeuvre that took the wind out of the Sangh's sails. From then till now, despite a discernible recovery in electoral politics (Bihar, and now possibly Karnataka) the Parivar has seemed in crisis.
But political movements don't die this easily, do they? And this is the most important, most dynamic political movement of post-independence India. Out of state power, it orchestrated a massive popular mobilization to destroy a 500 year old mosque, and that was successful. Holding state power in Gujarat, it planned, managed, and successfully executed a genocidal campaign against Muslims, and realized its dream, to establish Hindu Rashtra there. A right-wing political movement with this force and energy doesn't die because it suffers an electoral reverse, however traumatic. In the oldest traditions of the Sangh, crisis, we could have expected, would bring out all its strength and resilience, see it regroup, re-strategize, and launch new campaigns.

I reacted euphorically when it seemed, for a while, as though this wasn't happening. Almost two years of UPA power now, fumbling and unsatisfactory but still incomparably better on every level than the six-year nightmare that had preceded it, and the RSS seemed to have been unable to come up with any kind of strategy to combat this. But now I'm worried. Mohan Bhagwat's statement, tucked away in the margins of the news, may - just may - indicate the unfolding of a new political logic, however unstable and tentative at first. Does this statement mean that RSS volunteers are to enter and destabilize other political parties? Does it mean that corrupt, opportunistic hangers-on are to be weeded out of the Sangh, reclaiming thereby that savage purity of purpose that has historically been its landmark? Is this perhaps an attempt to break and reconstitute the Sangh, perhaps to move beyond the BJP towards a new political formation, in the long-term? For this is the one political movement in India that genuinely thinks in the long-term, that has been able to strategize micropolitically on a national scale, to enter the circuits of education, temple networks, voluntary organizations, and local welfare, and work its ideological mission through these channels. We needn't be surprised if the RSS plays a waiting game, it's done this for decades. It's a tragic commentary on Indian politics that the one formation with an intelligent, clear-cut and patient strategy, the only grouping that genuinely has political vision, should be a savage, bloodthirsty, and fascistic movement, whose clarity lies in its total, incorruptible commitment to subordinate all minority communities to majoritarian rule. The RSS has finally spoken, it has finally delivered a statement that may suggest a real strategy, a real vision, once again.

This may all be paranoid, and I hope, I deeply hope that it is. But I'm worried. I'm also worried by the complacency of a secular government that has taken little note yet of what the Sangh is doing in the states in which it's in power - anticonversion laws in Gujarat and M.P., absolutely unjustifiable in any state that claims democratic credentials, have barely been commented upon, let alone politically contested. I'm also worried by the past. There was a time, not so long ago, when people one spoke to would confidently say, 'Ah, now that the BJP's in power, it's nothing more than an ordinary centre-right party, it's eschewed Hindutva.' Sometimes they'd go on to tell you what a wonderful, patriotic gesture the nuclear tests in 1998 were, and how wonderful it was that India was shining, it had to be true, didn't it, if the papers and advertisements told you so surely India was shining? Even if they didn't, and sometimes even when they shared your politics, they'd tell you there was nothing to worry about, we were simply stabilizing, in the natural course of things, into a two-party system.
We never did transmute into a two-party system, thank the Lord or whoever (better the Laloos of the world than the sterility of American politics!). There is, on the whole, no 'natural course of things'. Except, as activists had tirelessly pointed out for over a decade, in the politics of the Sangh. Events did take their natural course there. The BJP controlled India, the Sangh controlled Gujarat. The 2002 massacres happened. It was brutal, it was clinical, it was pre-planned, and efficiently carried out. It was also utterly and completely predictable - Communalism Combat had predicted it for months before it happened. In the life of the Sangh, it was in the natural course of things, it was the growth from adolescence into maturity of their political vision, the first total accomplishment of a goal, with practically no hitches.

If the same complacency reappears, the complacency that mistakes a temporary lull for a change of heart, a temporary wavering for a political decline, then we're all in deep trouble in the not-so-long run. And there's reason to worry.

I'm worried, and I hope I'm wrong. I'm worried because I refuse to believe Gujarat cannot happen again.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

listening to van morrison sing 't.b sheets'. it's a tortured song about a man who's trying to leave his sick and dying girlfriend, and desperately looking for excuses to get out of the room. tortured, and unmerciless. van sniggers nervously, mumbles fake consolations, promises to 'send somebody around later....with a bottle of wine for you, baby / but i gotta go'. pleads, with a break in his voice, 'open up the windows...and let me breathe'. the fear resonates: 'as the sunlight shines through the crack in the window pane...numbs my brain'. 'the cool room', he almost weeps, 'is a fool's room.' guilt, cowardice, claustrophobia, all haunted by the memories of love.
how dramatically rock music changed in the first decade and a half of its journey. and what a long, long journey it is from 'let me be your teddy bear' to this song. such a short time, and such a long distance travelled...from the energies of a new kind of dance music to the unprecedented lyrical dignity and depth that the best music of the mid-to-late sixties managed to achieve. dylan, with his 'historic break' with folk music, had something to do with this, certainly. but what else was changing, what made songs like this possible? no answers here and now, if ever. to quote van, 'i got to go.'
lahore: pakistan 679/7, and india, unbelievably, 403 without loss! sehwag 247, dravid 128. what on earth is happening to subcontinental cricket? i wish i could have watched it...sehwag and dravid making 403 in 75 overs is a thought that sets the mouth watering, and i really wish i could have watched the artist formerly known as yousuf youhana, who made 173. i'm glad to say that as far as cricket goes i'm slowly shedding any vestiges of patriotism (though not, i have to confess, a certain third-worldism), and i'm thoroughly hedonistic, just want my favourite batsmen to make lots of runs. which they did, inzy apart. but who the hell prepares pitches like this??? part of me wants the last day to be full of runs, and another part of me desperately wishes for the return of doctored pitches so that we can have a result. most of me, however, has given in to base commodity fetishism, and wishes i had a tv to watch and wag fingers at and reprimand when the game gets dull. on that note, good night.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

oh. i've just figured out what this blog is going to be. obsessive.
Finshed Steedman a little while ago, and what a book it is. There's a lightness of touch about it that isn't really commonplace among social historians - Thompson was also a great writer, but more in an angry, sometimes Swiftian and sometimes Dickensian mode, sprawling and resonant, though there was amazing elegance there too. But Steedman really reads like poetry at times - I found myself reading sections aloud. Here's another beautiful passage, one of the best in the book. She's writing about the practice of radical social history, the tradition she works within:

This is what we do, or what we believe we do: we make the dead speak, we rescue the handloom-weavers of Tipton and Freshitt from the enormous indifference of the present. We have always, then, written in the mode of magical realism. In strictly formal and stylistic terms, a text of social history is very closely connected to those novels in which a girl flies, a mountain moves, the clocks run backwards, and where (this is our particular contribution) the dead walk among the living. If the Archive is a place of dreams, it permits this one, above all others, the one that Michelet dreamed first, of making the dead walk and talk.

I was thinking about it, and I've concluded that this is the first book of its kind. Not the first to reflect critically on the ways in which history is known and produced, though perhaps the most original in that mode. But the form the book takes tells us a story. It begins with a laughing but serious passage through Derrida's Archive Fever, and takes, irreverently, his musings on the archive as a starting-point for her own, which are very different. It moves deftly into an examination of industrial disease and the literal, historical meanings of 'dust' and 'archive fever', connects these up - amazing sleight-of-hand here - with Michelet and his invocation of the oppressed of the past who now lie dead. One of the more startling operations in the book is the one where she makes the deliberately metaphorical argument that Michelet breathed the dust of the dead in the archives, and as they spoke through him, they took his life. Obviously not a literal argument, but it rings true still. In between two sections on Michelet, she inserts a chapter which seems to be from her ongoing research on domestic labour, and considers the way in which the eighteenth-century English legal system, the personal testimony, and the making of historical narration were connected. We move on: a consideration of George Eliot, and a reflection on the way the structure of historical time animates Middlemarch. Then to an absolutely marvellous chapter, entitled 'What a Rag Rug Means', about the poetics of working-class space, extending and refining Bachelard in the process, and doing more - considering the way working-class domestic interiors and objects become invested with meaning. In a characteristic textual swerve, she moves from a conceptually rich and loaded examination of the poetics of space to a very concrete set of observations about the social history of these objects that animates their capacity to hold meaning further. She then works her way through an extraordinary consideration of the relation between narrative and history, from which the quote above comes, and ends with another reflection on the actual and imagined meanings of dust, the dust of the archives, dust not as rubbish but as the inextinguishable surplus left over from past times, and dust as disease.

None of this does justice to the book, nor is it meant to. What I describe here are only bookmarks, signposts along what is a very winding and twisting journey along dusty roads (pun intended). This is a book that pretends to wind cautiously, but actually dances along those roads, taking turns that seem arbitrary but produce new and rich landscapes along the path, all of which add up to - well, add up to a very fine book. (you can deal in metaphors only so long!). That the book dances is one of the first things you notice - because works of history, even when written by great prose artists, are not supposed to dance. One imagines a slow, steady clump, one can go so far as to picture a nervous, brittle series of jumps, but the flowing, dance-like intensities of Steedman's book are something that's rare. Derrida's conclusions about the archive are refused ('Archive Fever? I can tell you all about Archive Fever!', she mock-expostulates at the beginning of the book, and then goes on to do precisely that) but in a sense the book takes Derrida's invitations to playfulness more seriously than Derrida himself ever did. Because this is a book that is both very serious and very playful.

Critical theory, in various broadly post-structuralist guises, and history have been confronting each other for a while now. Theory has berated history for its 'positivism', for its 'naive' belief in the efficacy of positive truth-telling about the past. History has accused theory of not understanding the constraints of the archive, of not comprehending what it is that historians actually do. I've seen many convincing rebuttals of strong constructivist arguments by historians, but these come, overwhelmingly, as missiles in a war.

Steedman breaks out of that trap. Here is a book that does not seek to defend or recover ground, does not protect territory. The challenge of theory is taken on, but not for the purposes of rebuttal; rather, as a provocation that is both exasperating and thrilling. And then the book dances dangerously between the archival-historical and the 'theoretical', tweaking the beard of both. The passage I cited is an instance of this. What Steedman probably has in mind when she writes, laconically and startlingly, 'We have always, then, written in the mode of magical realism' is the work of Hayden White, who tried to reduce historical writing to a set of literary tropes grounded in the nineteenth century. Steedman does not react to this with outrage as so many have done, instead, she points out, calmly, that indeed historians work with tropes and genres, and these are richer and more varied - in literary terms - than White would allow. Modernist, magical-realist, surrealist - a whole new field of literary referents for history opens up. The twentieth century, in brief, opens up. And yet, through all of this, through a series of apparent concessions to Theory about the constructedness and fictive dimensions of history, Steedman manages to affirm, time and again, the irreducibility of the archival trace, and the dust that will not go away. There is no embrace of theory, there is no surrender to theory, there is no refusal of theory. It would be good if more historians wrote like this. Till they do, this book will stand alone.
sleep won't come. it's past six in the morning and i haven't been able to sleep at all. my body clock's beginning to worry me. insomnia's not a pretty thing to catch if you're meant to be hitting the british library and various stacks of archival files once the weekend's over.
on the subject of archives and history, here's carolyn steedman, my favourite living historian, writing about them in her new book, dust:

There is the great, brown, slow-moving strandless river of Everything, and then there is its tiny flotsam that has landed up in the office you are at work at. Your craft is to conjure a social system from a nutmeg grater, and your competence in that was established long ago. Your anxiety is more precise, and more prosaic. It's about PT S2/1/1, which only arrived from the stacks that afternoon, and which you will never get through tomorrow.

This is very precise, and very accurate, and of course it's a delight to read. what she writes is the product of years of grubbing in archives, (literally) getting your hands dirty with the muck of the past, and i'm only at the beginning of my research - still, these lines do describe something of what i feel when confronted with a bound volume of delicate, brown, crumbly nineteenth-century manuscript paper that demands that i read it and do it justice, while time demands that i leave it aside and move on to something else. I felt this way in bombay all the time while looking through the archives - that there just wasn't enough time. So much of what historians do, which enters the world of monograph publication looking assured and finished and commanding, is actually insufferably messy, loose ends flapping like crows, mysteries left unexplored, tales untold - incompletion is pretty much history's condition of existence. Which is, of course, what can also make it such a thrill. (not all the time by any means, about half the time you find yourself fighting a losing battle with boredom. but comes a moment when things begin to fall in place, and then....)
all posts won't be this narcissistic. actually, what the does it matter if they are?? they will be! and good for them if that's the case!
eventful first morning of blogging....all mornings won't be this way. and that i can say with more certainty.
blogging is frustrating and trying to figure it out with the patient and amused help of a friend (yes, LM, thanks....). lord i hate cybercomplications....


against my better judgment and purely on impulse, i've started a blog. hmm so what's it going to be about? who knows...i have a fair guess, though - music, literature, history, politics, the daily accidents that make up life (big, pretentious phrases!), random reflections...and so on. whatever that last might be. i do know this is going to be fairly random and sporadic, flurries of postings followed by indefinite silences. that's all i can manage by way of introduction at 2.30 a.m!