Archive for the ‘ readings ’ Category

Representations and Reflections: Edward Said’s 1993 Reith Lectures

An introduction to Edward Said’s Representations

The work of the late thinker, writer, literary theorist, and humanist Edward Said has left a lasting imprint on intellectual history. Said and his legacy is, to many, an inspiring and influential expression how an intellectual is, or should be, like. These recently reached our shores – figuratively – in the form of his 1993 Reith Lectures, titled Representations of the Intellectual (Vintage Books, 1994). Group members each took on a chapter — with a couple of chapters doubled up — to read and present at our latest session.

This series of 30-minute lectures (given by “leading figures of the day”) and broadcast on BBC radio once a year, was done weekly over a period of 6 weeks. This format led Said to be “as precise, accessible and economical as possible” (p. xvi). In a similar vein, our reading group members also strove to do just this in our reflections and commentary of the written text of his lectures. They comprise Representations of the Intellectual (the title chapter), Holding Nations and Traditions at BayIntellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals, Professionals and Amateurs, Speaking Truth to Power, and Gods That Always Fail.

In all of these, Said seeked to “speak about intellectuals as precisely those figures whose public performances can neither be predicted nor compelled to into some slogan, orthodox party line, or fixed dogma”, that “standards of truth about human misery and oppression were to be held” regardless of any sort of affiliation or “primeval” loyalties (p. xii).

Indeed, an underlying, core theme of his lectures was — and still is — the need to speak truth to power, where necessary even against one’s own seemingly-natural allegiances. This principle resonates in milieux as diverse as views on the ongoing (as of this posting) North African-Arab uprisings (“End of ‘1989’?” Saroj Giri, OpenDemocracy, 1 March 2011), and that of a US “Realist” scholar of international relations (“Reporters, scholars, and patriots”, Stephen M. Walt, 2 March 2011), albeit in very different ways.

For Said, intellectuals appeal to “as wide as possible a public, who is his or her natural constituency”, and the problem for intellectuals is the presence and enviroment that give rise to “insiders, experts, coteries, professionals” who make public opinion “conformist, encourage a reliance on a superior little band of all-knowing men in power” (p. xiii). It is interesting to also note this last point, for “they” are almost always men.

Then at some point one would find oneself in a form of exile, of being in some ways marginalized. This is something that occurred to Said throughout his life, yet which supported the thesis of his lectures about the “public role of the intellectual as outsider” and “amateur” (p. x).

Many of us in the group too, would have considered ourselves — to different degrees — outsiders and marginals; some perhaps more than others. It is partly because of this that we identify with Said’s thoughts and writings.

Here then, are some of our reflections of Edward Said’s Representations. (more to be added later; do check in for updates)  Continue reading


Singapore, the ISA and international civil society action in 1987

(This is a catch-up blog post for readings sometime in September last year onwards…there’ll be a few more  in the coming weeks)

The reading for the week of 6 September (2009) dealt with the international organisation and civil society reactions to the 1987 Internal Security Act (ISA) arrests in Singapore.

You can find the article at the Copenhagen Business School, Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies website.

Titled ‘The 1987 ISA Arrests and International Civil Society: Responses to Political Repression in Singapore’, it traces ‘the development of political dissent from abroad and how such actions played a formidable role during the so-called ‘Marxist’ conspiracy arrests in 1987 and how such alternative political viewpoints will continue to play a large role in shaping criticism and opposition to the present repressive political climate in Singapore.’ (from the abstract)

The group found the piece interesting and informative, and it certainly shed some light on some of the events  surrounding the Operation Spectrum arrests, which I believe is still quite obscure to most people of the post-75 generation, including most civil society activists living at the present time.

Three questions, however, appeared to us, and especially to me, as we discussed this article.

First, although the writer gave a fairly comprehensive overview of the organisations, informal groups and individuals involved in solidarity actions in the wake of the arrests of the so-called Marxist conspirators — post-1987, we are given precious little information or opinion regarding the abstract’s assertion, namely, how such alternative political viewpoints will continue to play a large role in shaping criticism and opposition…to the powers-that-be in the country. In fact, besides stating (in the paper) tantalising nuggets such as ‘The strong international interest shown during the 1987 ISA arrests compares markedly to other PAP crackdowns past and present’, we get to read little of how similar solidarity actions and/or alternative viewpoints (or lack thereof) will continue to shape criticism of and opposition to the PAP regime in Singapore.

Second, how did these international civil society actions tie in with other international fora such as in the UN General Assembly meetings? This blogger has personally heard an account of how the Singaporean delegation to the UNGA at that time was confronted with protests and questions from at least some of his or her counterparts at the UN level. The reading group understand that this was outside of the author’s focus for his paper; however, he could have briefly touched on other types of international interactions in tandem with his emphasis on international civil society actions.

Third — and this relates to the first question — where are most or any of these groups and individuals now, and how have they influenced, or helped to shape critical discourse and alternative/oppositional viewpoints, with regard to political repression in Singapore after the 1987 arrests? Again, the author of the piece could have provided readers a few clues, or pointers, or even a minimalistic projection of how they’d evolved, or even the way forward, if any.

In response to this, A said something that was rather insightful. In essence: some of the info that we may have expected to be there simply wasn’t, because there is most likely a culture of self-censorship and fear — on the part of the author, the editors, the managing editors of the journal, the sources themselves. Any single one or more element in this equation is plausible.

Of course, the questions we posed might just have had a simpler explanation: the info we wanted, the knowledge we seeked, was not part of the research scope of the paper, and/or the author might not have thought to include (even a passing mention of) them.

Posted by rodsjournal.

Invisible cities

Our reading two weeks ago was on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

From the synopsis:

Dream-like story-telling at the twilight of an empire

In a garden sit the aged Kublai Khan and the young Marco Polo – Tartar emperor and Venetian traveler. Kublai Khan has sensed the end of his empire coming soon. Marco Polo diverts the emperor with tales of the cities he has seen in his travels around the empire: cities and memory, cities and desire, cities and designs, cities and the dead, cities and the sky, trading cities, hidden cities. Soon it becomes clear that each of these fantastic places is really the same place.

In our sharing about the multi-faceted aspects of cities and our experiences of them, one thing we asked each other was which city, or cities, we’d lived in, and which cities we wanted to live in for long periods of time – or possibly for the rest of our lives.

Four cities come to mind for me, but I only spoke of three of them that day – Auckland, Singapore and Bangkok. All three carry interesting memories. One was where I found out about life. The other was where I was born and grew up. Yet another was where I discovered another side of life, and the potential for so much more. The fourth shall remain un-named for now.

Here’s something S wrote on her blog – her thoughts on the discussion:

So this time around, it was Invisible Cities. We shared a text that had characters Marco Polo and Kublai Khan bro-mancing each other about social dimensions in a city. RI-C talked about a new shopping centre in Orchard Road and how it made him feel disconnected from the building. Not that a building can behave like a human being, but the fact that it is new, raw and demanding attention makes it less interesting. RO-C talked about his overseas stint in Auckland [Editor’s note: she originally thought it was ‘Oakland’] and Bangkok, the differences of it and how he eventually adjusted to Bangkok’s untamed streets. As for me, I couldn’t really figure out where I would choose to live but it would be awesome to explore South Asia for a bit. I’ve decided to pick up farming…somehow.

Right, well and good…although the farming bit is…interesting, to say the least 😉

Final thoughts?…There are still other cities, other vistas, to explore.

Posted by rodsjournal.

Where is Bandung 1955 now?

Or, reflections on ‘Everyone has their Indian’

The first things I want to comment on about the last reading, Amitav Ghosh’s essay, is not my own. A few things that A said were particularly salient.

One was that Ghosh’s trip to Egypt took place in the context of cultural and international exchanges between Asia and African, in the spirit of solidarity of the time between these two continents.  The second was about human behaviour – the mix of respect for Ghosh’s culture on the part of the Egyptians, and yet a certain casualness when, for instance, they asked him if would switch his religious allegiance to the camel now that he was in Egypt (as opposed to when he was in India and a Hinda, and thus would presumably worship the cow).

The third was the observation that it was unusual for an Indian PhD. student to go to Egypt or Africa to do field research – especially when it was still fashionable or ‘normal’ to go to the seat of the former colonial empire to study instead. And that’s where Bandung 1955 again comes in.

ban01It was the inaugural meeting of the Bandung Conference, which in later years led to the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement, or NAM. Initially a show of solidarity between the newly-independent nation-states of Africa and Asia – those in the 1950s – it has nevertheless been pulled in many directions, with some eventually allying themselves with either the Soviet bloc or the Western ‘democracies’ (many of which were still colonial powers). Although it was initially a noble attempt to forge a path between communism and capitalism, some of these countries combined elements of both, with very few becoming more liberal or advanced democracies.

So it is that the NAM’s relevance and legacy is continually being questioned, with progress framed in terms of economic (if not political development), and Africa faring worse than Asia on this score. This was an observation that underscored the 10th anniversary meeting of the NAM in 2005, written up in this article – ‘Bandung Revisited’.

It highlighted the statements made by various leaders, prominent in their own right if not in the NAM itself. I noted wryly that most of their statuses had changed. There was Japan’s Koizumi (no longer prime minister), Zimbabwe’s Mugabe (now in a power-sharing agreement with the country’s ex-opposition leader), Gyanendra of Nepal (deposed and no longer ‘king’). Then there was Kofi Annan (no longer UN Secretary-General).

One of the more unsavoury characters mentioned, or rather not mentioned, was the president of Sudan – although his country was. Can we really believe it when the Sudanese government ‘denied that it had instigated violence in its war-torn Darfur region’?

There is also the tendency to paint the nation-states of the NAM as having some sort of global solidarity, but with the plethora of regional organisations, arrangements and military treaty alliances  (ASEAN, ASEAN + 3, APEC, ARF, Five-Power Defence Arrangments, etc.)  that intersect and overlap, or the differences between Northeast, South and Southeast Asia, or the more affluent and developed states (e.g. Japan, South Korea, Singapore) in contrast to the rest, or the self-interest of Asian and African states in the context of great power competition (US, Russia, China etc.) still very much dominating international politics – I’m afraid that to depict the idea of the NAM as a cohesive ‘Global South’ may be a fantasy at best.

Bandung 1955’s legacy is yet to be fully revealed, much less celebrated.

Further reading

NAM Summit 2006: No More Crossroads

Bandung Revisited: The Legacy Of The 1955 Asian-Af Rican Conference For International Order

Bandung Revisited: The Legacy Of The 1955 Asian-Af Rican Conference For International Order
by See Seng Tan & Amitav Acharya (Eds.)

Posted by rodsjournal

Reading: ‘Everyone has their Indian’

Here is the (rather impromptu) reading for the week of 5 July, again provided by A.  I couldn’t find it anywhere else online so I’m posting the whole reading here. It’s another one by Amitav Ghosh. I’ll post my reflections on it later…

In the meantime, enjoy.



From Chimurenga 14:  ‘Everyone Has Their Indian’

Confessions of a xenophile

by Amitav Ghosh

Next to my own country, India, there is no place in the world that has been more important to my development as a writer than Egypt. It is now nearly twenty-eight years since I first landed in Cairo, on April 19, 1980: I was then twenty-four years old, and I had come to explore what was to me a new, but not entirely unknown world. The immediate pretext for my journey was research: a short while before I had won a scholarship that took me from Delhi University to Oxford, to study social anthropology. My dream was of writing fiction, but like many an aspiring novelist I felt I lacked the necessary richness of experience. The writers I admired – V.S. Naipaul, James Baldwin and others – had gone out into the world and watched it go by: I wanted no less for myself. The scholarship was a godsend because it allowed me to choose where I wanted to go and in my case it was Egypt. Through the good offices of Dr Aly Issa, an eminent anthropologist from Alexandria, I was soon installed in a small village in the Governorate of Beheira, near the town of Damanhour: in my book In An Antique Land I gave this village the name Lataifa. My home there consisted of a recently vacated chicken coop on the roof of a mud hut; at the time there was no electricity, although there was, as I recall, a supply of piped water.

Lataifa and I were undeniably a shock to each other. There was the question of language to begin with: I spoke very little Arabic, and what I knew was of a laboriously classical variety. Thus even simple operations, such as asking for water, could cause great outbursts of laughter. In the process, however, my hosts and I discovered one medium of communication where we were on equal terms: this was the language of aflaam al-Hindeyya – that is to say, Hindi film songs. When all other efforts at communication broke down, we would burst into song – this was no small accomplishment on my part as I am a terrible singer. But many of the younger people in the village sang very well and knew innumerable Hindi songs. Indian film music thus became a shared language and opened many barriers and earned me many invitations to meals. The Hindi films that were best known in Lataifa were of the fifties vintage – films that featured such stars as Raj Kapoor, Nargis, Padmini, Manoj Kumar and Babita. The good-hearted vamp and cabaret dancer, Helen, was another well-known figure. Everyone in the village had a few favourite scenes and I would often be asked detailed questions about these episodes. This was a great trial to me, as I was by no means an expert on the films of the fifties. Often children would be called out to perform, which they would do with the greatest gusto. There were even minor specializations, some boys being regarded as particularly good performers of Raj Kapoor numbers, while others were experts in reciting dialogues and soliloquies. The performers were almost always boys as I remember, and it was quite a sight to see young jallabeyya-clad fellaheen attempting to imitate the dance numbers of scantily-dressed actresses like Helen. Even more astonishing, were the recitations, for it would happen sometimes that children would recite large chunks of Hindi dialogue without knowing a word of the language. Hindi films also provided me with a certain name-recognition, for although the mega-star Amitabh Bachhan was not as well-known in the Middle East then as he is now, there were plenty of people who knew of him. It was thus not as difficult as it might have been to introduce myself.

Yet, while I had reason to be grateful to Hindi films in some respects, there were others in which they made my life exceedingly difficult. One of these was the matter of cows. I must admit that until I went to live in Lataifa I had no idea that cows played such an important part in Indian films: from the recurrence of this animal in everyday conversation, one might well have imagined that Bollywood was a veterinary enterprise, and that cows, rather than Raj Kapoor and his ilk, were the true stars of Hindi films. Every day, several times daily, I would have to deal with barrages of questions on the matter of cows: did I worship cows (inta bita’abud bi bagara? – literally ‘are you a devotee of the cow?’) At what time of day did I conduct my devotions? Could they please witness my prostrations? Was there not a risk of being splattered with dung? Had I ever considered transferring my allegiance to the camel? And so on. Although these interrogations were often wearisome, there was also something touching about the attitudes of my friends. When we were out walking in the fields they would slow their pace when we were passing a cow: it took me a while to understand that they were allowing me time to perform my secret oblations. In the ploughing season, it often happened that we would pass a field where a team of oxen was being driven on with a stick or a whip: on many such occasions my friends would run ahead to berate the poor ploughman, telling him to stop beating his animals for fear of hurting the sentiments of Doktor Amitaab. In vain would I try to persuade them that cows were frequently beaten in India: they wouldn’t believe me, for had they not seen otherwise in Hindi films?

The other principal association that rural Egypt had with India, was the matter of water pumps, which were of course very important in rural communities. In those days Egypt imported so many water pumps from India that in some areas these machines were known as makana Hindi – or simply as Kirloskar, from the name of a major pump-manufacturing company. The purchasing of a water pump was a great event, and the machine would be brought back on a pick-up truck, with much fanfare, with strings of old shoes strung around the spout to ward off the Evil Eye. Long before the machine made its entry into the village, a posse of children would be sent to summon me: as an Indian I was expected to be an expert on these machines, and the proud new owners would wait anxiously for me to pronounce on the virtues and failings of their new acquisition.

Now it so happens that I am one of those people who is hard put to tell a spanner from a hammer or a sprocket from a gasket. At first I protested vigorously, disclaiming all knowledge of machinery. But here again, no one believed me; they thought I was withholding vital information or playing some kind of deep and devious game. Often people would look crestfallen, imagining, no doubt, that I had detected a fatal flaw in their machine and was refusing to divulge the details. This would not do, of course, and in order to set everyone’s fears at rest I became, willy-nilly, an oracle of water pumps. I developed a little routine, where I would subject the machine to a minute inspection, occasionally tapping it with my knuckles or poking it with my fingers. Fortunately no machine failed my inspection: at the end of it I would invariably pronounce the water pump to be a makana mumtaaza – a most excellent Kirloskar, a truly distinguished member of its species.

Yet, even as I was disclaiming my relationship to those water pumps, I could not but recognize that there was a certain commonality between myself and those machines. In a way my presence in that village could be attributed to the same historical circumstances that introduced Indian pumps and Indian films to rural Egypt. Broadly speaking, those circumstances could be described as the spirit of decolonization that held sway over much of the world in the decades after the Second World War; this was the political ethos that found its institutional representation in the Non-Aligned Movement. We are at a very different moment in history now, when the words Non-Aligned seem somehow empty and discredited; today the movement is often dismissed not just as a political failure, but as a minor footnote to the great power rivalries of the Cold War. It is true, of course, that the movement had many shortcomings and met with many failures. Yet it is also worth remembering that the Non-Aligned Movement as such was merely the institutional aspect of something that was much broader, wider and more powerful: this, as I said before, was the post-war ethos of decolonization, which was a political impulse that had deep historical roots and powerful cultural resonances. In the field of culture, among other things, it represented an attempt to restore and recommence the exchanges and conversations that had been interrupted by the long centuries of European imperial dominance. It was, in this sense, the necessary and vital counterpart of the nationalist idiom of anti-colonial resistance. In the West Third World nationalism is often presented as an ideology of xenophobia and parochialism. But the truth is that many of these movements of resistance tried very hard, within their limited means, to create a universalism of their own. Those of us who grew up in that period will recall how powerfully we were animated by an emotion that is rarely named: this is xenophilia, the love of the other, the affinity for strangers – a feeling that lives very deep in the human heart, but whose very existence is rarely acknowledged. People of my generation will recall the pride we once took in the trans-national friendships of such figures as Nehru, Nasser, Nkrumah, Sukarno, Chou En Lai and others. Nor were friendships of this kind anything new. I have referred above to the cross-cultural conversations that were interrupted by imperialism. These interruptions were precisely that – temporary breakages – the conversations never really ceased. Even in the 19th century, the high noon of Empire, people from Africa, Asia and elsewhere sought each other out, wrote letters to each other, and stayed in each other’s homes while travelling. Lately, a great number of memoirs and autobiographies have been published that attest to the depth and strength of these ties. It was no accident therefore that Mahatma Gandhi chose to stop in Egypt, in order to see Sa’ad Zaghloul before proceeding to the Round Table Conference in London. This was integral to the ethos of the time. Similarly, it is no accident that capitals like New Delhi, Abuja and Tunis have many roads that are named after leaders from other continents. Sometimes these names are unpronounceable to local tongues and then they cause annoyance or laughter, and invite dismissal as empty gestures. But the fact that such gestures are not without value becomes apparent when we reflect that we would search in vain for roads that are named in this fashion in such supposedly global cities as London, New York and Berlin. These gestures, in other words, may be imbued with both pomposity and pathos, but they are not empty: they represent a yearning to reclaim an interrupted cosmopolitanism…

Excerpted from Amitav Ghosh’s essay, Confessions of a xenophile.

Of love, colonialism and chapatis

The reading from two sessions ago was 2 chapters from Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace.

Glass Palace book coverI have a confession to make: I tried to read this book nearly a decade ago. I say ‘tried’ because although I was well into it, I never managed to finish it; and I gave up before I’d reached the two chapters that were selected to be shared during the session. I’ve since experienced some regret at not completing my reading of it.

At times the book (or rather, the selected chapters) felt like a meditation. That was what I felt from the slow, purposeful, focused way of building up to a certain goal, but never quite making it explicit or obvious that there was a specific aim or climax. And yet there was. I liked the author’s deliberate pacing and writing style; it was (is) almost dreamlike without being too surreal or abstract.

This was effective in bringing out the pathos of the characters, their thoughts, mixed emotions, and compromises they make in life and love. All this is underpinned by very thorough historical research, which informs the settings and in a very real way, the paths the characters take. Whether in Burma, India or Malaya, the background of colonialism is always present (even though there is nary a British person in sight), as well as rebellion, real or imagined. The latter can be expressed through the account of sending the locals sending large numbers of chapatis to police stations all over the British India in the 19th century – which was usually a sign of impending unrest, or as is more often the case, a mundane way of unsettling the colonisers. Or simply just an injunction to eat when hard times are known to be coming (or some other such interpretation).

Ghosh is an excellent writer…it’s a pity I don’t manage to come across more writers like him. I highly recommend reading his work.

For more:

Amitav Ghosh

The Glass Palace

‘There’ll Always Be an England in India’ (review by Pankanj Mishra)

Posted by rodsjournal.

Social media and politics

I’ve taken the liberty to post one of our reading group member’s post on the topic we discussed three sessions ago.

From here.

cheers, Rod


Last week, the Rowell Reading Group finally got around to discussing Cherian George’s 2005 paper on ‘internet’s political impact’. He is the author of a popular book The Airconditioned Nation and a blog by the same.  The discussion on this paper has been pending for two weeks. The energy levels in the Reading group have been rather low. Some of it could be just due to the fact that we have chosen a rather busy time to meet – 5.30pm to 7pm on Sunday. T and J, the hosts are very distracted during this time as it is also a busy time for the Food03. Others have some engagement or the other to go back to in the late evening. So now we have changed the time to 3.30 to 5pm. Hopefully it will improve things.

I chose this particular article because there is now a sizeable number of people in this city who believe that the internet is opening up all kinds of new political possibilities. The most recent illustration that this is indeed so is the unprecedented mobilization against the way a small group of women captured AWARE – one of a handful of civil society organizations in the city and began to rewrite the organization’s agendas. Here is a link to one of the articles in Straits Times in the run up to the massive show of solidarity by nearly 3000 people at the extraordinary general body meeting which ousted the new executive committee.

The discussion meandered through “why academic writing often fails to be interesting” and “the role of the internet in recent developments in Malaysian ethnic identity politics” to “the history of the internet use in this city.” I took away one insight (thanks T, for spelling it out); and a question (thanks R for prompting me to ask); and a bunch of notes (thanks S for jotting down).

The insight is that, in a situation where it appears that nothing about the way people think and act seems to be changing, changes in technology can actually be a source of great optimism. Simply by making people do things differently, communicate and connect differently, social media is bringing about a lot of change silently. To put it succinctly, social media is the space where people are rehearsing participation. If the way, every now and then large numbers of people are prompted, mobilized enough to act in concert off the internet too, it is reasonable to expect that as technological change deepens, we will begin to see its consequences in political practice.

The question is: mobilizations in this city that seem to start on the internet and fall out into the real world, are at least until now merely one off events. This is because the social media through which these mobilizations happen also imply a lot of distractions. Is there any way at all to influence how things happen or are internet mobilizations like those inexplicable natural phenomena – where somehow a random event somewhere starts a chain of responses that are entirely unpredictable?

And today, I received this message from a mailing list for an event that i cannot attend would have loved to. Speakers at the Social Media for Mobilization panel discussion in Bangalore’s Center for Internet and Society will be addressing similar questions, I hope.