Postcolonial Print Cultures Conference Report: The Form of Ideology and the Ideology of Form: Local Debates, Internationalisms, and Print Cultures Between Decolonisation and the Cold War
Convened at SOAS, University of London, 11-12 January 2019
January 11, 2019
In her opening remarks for the conference, Francesca Orsini highlighted the methodological considerations behind the conference: to consider this historical moment of the Cold War in a way other than by splitting the world into two spheres and analyzing the corresponding cultural production. Instead, the conference conceives of this period as one of international traffic through shared concerns and shared languages, while simultaneously highlighting local issues, idioms, and perspectives. The resulting picture of the world becomes infinitely more complex – and more interesting – as we consider cultural production in its multiplicity.
The first panel brought together Francesca Orsini (SOAS), Laetitia Zecchini (CNRS Paris), and Ruvani Ranasinha (King’s College London).
Orsini’s talk, “Between worlds: Hindi literary activism, the magazine & the short story in the 1950s,” examined the production and re-production of short stories in Hindi literary magazines in the 1950s, offering a case study of the Hindi magazine Kahani (Short Story, 1954). She argued that world literature can only be envisioned and produced through local views, rather than under one overarching banner of what constitutes “world literature.” Kahani provides a window into this localized production, where “soft progressivism” was combined with an interest in aesthetics with the aim to train readers in aesthetic appreciation through the translation of “world masters” of the short story, while privileging new talent and more modern voices among Indian authors writing in the different languages. Her talk highlighted the medium of the magazine as a site of non-state literary activism that placed readers and young writers at the center, the preference for the story as opposed to the novel, and the multilingual knowledge that animated reading practices, even when publication occurred in a single language (Hindi).
Zecchini’s talk, “ ‘How do we stop being somebody else’s image?’: the struggle for cultural freedom and the poetics and politics in Cold War Bombay,” discussed the politics of literary translation and publication, particularly surrounding the journal Quest funded by the International Council for Cultural Freedom, itself backed by the CIA. She examined the editor Nissim Ezekiel’s own positions and motivations, noting that for him Quest’s purpose was the create the conditions in which the magazine would provide the freedom to debate, argue, and hold different theoretical positions, creating a space of cultural independence which could in turn realize political independence. Thus, despite Quest’s backing and anti-communist lineage, writers of different persuasions were attracted to the journal as an open forum. Finally, Zecchini noted Ezekiel’s ongoing attempt to free modernism from the ideology of “freedom,” or “art for art’s sake,” that purged the form of revolutionary politics. Her title is drawn from Ezekiel’s own statement, “I do not want to be an image, even the most luminous image, in someone else’s mind.”
Ranasinha’s talk, “Tambimutti and Sivanandan: Cold-War America and International Socialism,” considered and contrasted the political positions and self-fashioning adopted during the careers of two mid-century Sri Lankan writers. She recounted Tambimuttu’s self-stereotyping of the sensual Orient, first with his move to the UK in 1938, and heightened his reception among beatnik authors during the 1952-1958 period, when he lived in the Village of New York City and wrote for Atlantic Monthly. Tambimuttu adopted a critique of British colonialism only during this latter phase, aligning himself with the US’s own positioning as the custodian of decolonization. She contrasted Tambimuttu’s prior apoliticism towards the UK to the politics of Sivanandan, who became involved with the Trotskyite movement (LSSP) after he moved to the UK in 1958. Sivanandan’s political consciousness developed in relation to black British working class and anti-racist movements, and under his leadership the journal Race changed to Race & Class – a distinctly Third Worldist approach to international politics and race.
The second panel featured Duncan Yoon (NYU-Gallatin), Sara Marzagora (SOAS), and Neelam Srivastava (Newcastle) discussing the interplay between aesthetics and ideology in differing literary contexts.
Yoon’s presentation, “Ousmane Sembène and the Aesthetics of Third Worldism,” examined the Lotus Prize for Afro-Asian Literature from 1969-1988. He argued that the aesthetics animating the Lotus Prize formed an early postcolonial aesthetics based on five categories: 1) suffering as humanism; 2) class and social consciousness, manifesting as the work of witnessing and recording in order to bring about social justice; 3) the author as activist; 4) the work of demystification; 5) dogmatic temporalities, whereby colonial teleology is replaced by a teleology of decolonization. He read Sembène’s poem “Fingers” in relation to these categories, suggesting that Sembène, the 1971 Prize winner, critiqued dogmatic time and blind ideological commitment in this poem and in his later novels, thereby working in some way against the aesthetics furthered by the Lotus project.
Marzagora discussed the controversies of pan-African politics for Ethiopian ideology in her talk, “Pan-Africanism in Amharic literature in the 1960s.” While the national mythology brought Ethiopia closer to Europe via Christianity, the 1960s witnessed the, ambivalent, Africanization of national consciousness. She observed that during this time it was the intellectual class that reoriented national policy towards Africa, thus bringing into question the common narrative of their co-option by the state. Ethiopia’s self-fashioning shifted in the 1960s from proclaiming themselves the smallest of the big global powers to a liberationist ideology whereby they become the biggest of the small nations, leading black Africa. Amharic cultural production demonstrates this shifting consciousness. Marzagora analysed Täsfaye Gässässä’s absurdist play The Thing, in which race is “the thing” that cannot be mentioned, and Mängəstu Lämma’s satirical poem ‘Basha Ashäbər in America’ examining racial politics in the US and advocating for identification with African-Americans, to show how South Africa’s apartheid and US racial politics became a way for questioning Ethiopia’s own refusal to recognize its racial problem.
Srivastava’s paper, “Publishing the Resistance: Giulio Einaudi, Third-Worldist Writing, and Resistance Aesthetics in Postwar Italy,” examined the publisher lists of the most influential Italian publisher of the 20th century, Einaudi. She posed the question, “Is there a Third Worldist aesthetic?”, suggesting that while editors may not have found certain stylistic forms in Third World texts aesthetically appealing (realism, the documentary, testimony), they considered them politically compelling and economically viable. The Saggi series (“Essays”) published by Einaudi allows us to rethink literature through this lens, where classics of Italian revolutionary and resistance literature were published alongside revolutionary texts of and from the Third World, thus creating a continuity between anti-fascist and anti-colonial thought in the Italian intellectual sphere.
January 12, 2019
The first panel of the second day brought together Venkat Mani (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Asha Rogers (Birmingham) for a discussion on the arts policies of two central and opposing nations, East Germany and the UK, towards world literature.
Mani’s talk, “Windows on the Berlin Wall: Postcolonial Catalogs in the former GDR,” discussed how the politicization of literature shaped and defined the course of world literature in the two German states between 1949 and 1989. He recounted how Cold War ideological divisions both facilitated and impeded the translation and reception of literature from newly decolonized nations. Mani examined the GDR’s investment in literature for secondary education alongside the world literature projects of two important publishing houses: Reclam’s Universal-Bibliothek and Volk und Welt. Volk und Welt, he noted, published more work from the non-West over a 30-year period than any other publisher worldwide. Mani argued that what occurs in the national sphere shapes world literature in ways unrecognized by dominant theoretical frameworks. Examining the East German state’s investment in world literature makes this lacuna present and moreover challenges normative periodizations and unidirectional flows from Western centers to non-Western peripheries.
In “Subsidy, Surveillance, and Internationalism: The View from Britain,” Rogers considered the effect of major cultural and political institutions in post-war Britain alongside the shifting political sensibilities of both black and white writers arriving from the peripheries of empire. The British Nationality Act of 1948 restructured citizenship in ways that spoke to both idealism and ambivalence; in the words of George Lamming, he was “condemned to the full rights of citizenship.” Rogers noted the rethinking of race and class occasioned by moments of recognition of and identification with the white working class; in the case of Doris Lessing, such politics led to increasing scrutiny from the British security apparatus. The Arts Council, founded in 1945, along with other cultural associations, helped structure the sphere of intellectual activity in post-war Britain, particularly with the subsidies granted beginning in the mid-1960s.
Djagalov’s talk, “Progress Publishers: Realizing Gorky’s World Literature,” focused on what he termed “the vast and unexamined structural impact of Soviet investment in world literature.” Gorky’s humanistic vision of a world literature publishing house translating into and out of Russian, alongside other languages present in the Soviet Union, was never fully realized due to the civil war. His Vsemirnaia Literatura (World Literature) Publishing House focused primarily on translation into Russian, much of which was left unpublished anyway. Nevertheless, 1931 witnessed the founding of the Moscow magazine Literature of the World Revolution (a later model for Lotus) with editions in multiple languages, along with the establishment of a Moscow publishing house that translated out of Russian. As the Soviet state commissioned translations worldwide, Russian literature reached audiences without historical contextualization, and in doing so emphasized the role of the writer in society.
Jia Yan considered the travelogue as a form of ideological expression in his presentation, “The form of the Sino-Indian Travelogue in the 1950s.” He focused on the ambivalent political relations between India and China from 1950-1962 and the use of cultural diplomacy. Striking differences emerge from the accounts of the writers who took part in cultural delegation exchanges. Chinese travelogues were government-funded and largely conformed to a politics of enhancing friendship; writers were briefed that they should not comment on current politics so as not to embarrass their ally, PM Jawaharlal Nehru. As a consequence there is a marked absence of contemporary socio-political life in the Chinese travelogues. On the Indian side, travelogues (part of an expansive multilingual archive) paid more attention to contemporary life, including the political revolution, which Yan read as providing an opportunity for comparison with India’s unsatisfactory status quo. Divergent conclusions, moreover, point to limited government influence on Indian writers and their cultural production. He concluded that, in the case of Indian travelogues, China often served as a point of reference that confirmed a predetermined ideological stance – whether pro- or anti-communist.
During lunch, Itzea Goikolea offered a short presentation on the bibliography for her research into Maghrebi feminism as traced through various channels of print culture, including magazines, protest letters, and manifestos.
The final panel brought together Supriya Chaudhuri (Jadavpur), Anjali Nerlekar (Rutgers), and Paulo Horta (NYU-Abu Dhabi).
Chaudhuri’s talk, “The Traveler as Internationalist: Syed Mujtaba Ali,” started off from Bengali polymath Ali’s travel book on 1920s Afghanistan, A Land Far from Home, first serialized in the newspaper, which became one of the most popular travelogues in Bengali. The text, which includes a focus on the multiple languages present in Afghanistan, comes to a tragic climax when discussing the events surrounding the rebellion led by Habiballuh Kalakani and his “sacking” of Kabul in 1929. Its anti-British tone and the author’s peripatetic career, including studies in Germany and a post at al-Azhar in Cairo, delayed its publication in book form until 1948. Ali commented derisively on the Greater Indian dream that animated so many Bengali intellectuals of his time, yet Chaudhuri contextualized this within the Asian Relations Conference in 1947 that called for greater exchange and solidarity between the newly-decolonized countries. After 1948, Ali’s peripatetic career back and forth between East Pakistan and India – where he became the first secretary of India’s Council for Cultural Relation and editor of its and editor of its Arabic journal, worked at All-India Radio, and taught at Tagore’s University it Shantiniketan – and then back to Bangladesh towards the end of his life, adumbrates an internationalist outlook and an easy crossing of borders that need to be recovered.
Nerlekar situated her talk, “Chandrakant Patil’s Inventive Translations Across Marathi and Hindi,” as a shift in direction away from the metropole of Bombay and towards the regional cosmopolitanism of Aurangabad. She noted that a world-cities view of globalization inevitably creates hierarchy; in contrast, placing the “ordinary” city at the center of study leads to a different paradigm, of diversity. These methodological considerations animate her study of Patil’s career in Aurangabad, where he translated poetry between Hindi and Marathi, moreover working in collaboration with other poets to translate those languages he did not read. Patil’s anthologies of translated Hindi and Marathi poetry created important genealogies in both languages and impacted the direction of modernism. Nerlekar suggests that looking at a place like Aurangabad may lead to a reconceptualization of what “Hindi” is and what it incorporates.
Horta argued for recovering the “decolonial Bolaño” in his talk, “Distant Star: Bolaño and Print Culture of the Cold War.” Against interpretations of Bolaño as a postnational figure of world literature, Horta contextualized his career within the politics of the Cold War, including time in prison during Pinochet’s dictatorship in the 1970s. His career as a novelist began following his move to Barcelona, where he edited literary magazines in Catalan and Spanish, doing work “invisible” to the contemporary image of Bolaño as a world writer. The recently published graphic novel Distant Star points to this trajectory, in which the antagonist infiltrates and assassinates a leftist circle. Bolaño’s early poetic career echoes the Peruvian movement Hora Zero, which explicitly spoke the language of decolonization, and in his later life he satirized government-approved literary elites. Finally, Horta’s research identifies Spain as a case study for the implications of local politics and markets on literature, pointing to Franco’s language politics as a major contributing factor to the growth of Latin American markets as well as the relative freedom of leftist Spanish-speaking authors in Barcelona.
The conference closed with a Roundtable that included Hala Halim (NYU), Shital Pravinchandra (Queen Mary), James Procter (Newcastle), and Tanya Agathocleous (CUNY). Participants introduced their current projects, showcasing their own work alongside the questions and issues posed by the conference as a whole.
Halim is currently pursuing a project on postcolonial cosmopolitanism, building on her work on the Lotus journal. She noted that bracketing the Cold War, as this conference has done, marks “internationalisms” in the plural while simultaneously positing located meanings. She focused on a series of keywords that reoccurred throughout, speaking to the necessity of tracking these keywords across different contexts. Modernism was brought to our attention by Zecchini, Yoon, and Nerlerkar, suggesting the need for a project of collaborative and comparative genealogies. Third World appeared in Yoon and Chaudhuri’s talks. Yoon’s discussion brought up Mao’s configuration, which broaches the question of how far his three-world theory can carry. Chaudhuri’s talk referenced the Asian Relations Conference and its own articulation of the Third World. Genre appears in the question of how local forms inflect broader categories. Halim returned to the question of translation and brought “gender” into conversation with “genre,” asking how gendered activities are related to specific genres. What, for instance, is the relationship between the journal and gender, or the short story and gender? She drew Yan’s work into this discussion with his reference to Indian-Chinese “brotherhood,” asking what this formulation might tell us about internationlisms; similarly, Srivastava provided the example of a female editor’s aesthetic judgments, which begs the question of how aesthetics may relate to gender.
To close, Halim discussed her own work on the papers of the Egyptian artist and writer Ramses Yunan, where she found a stray letter from Tawfiq Sayigh, editor of the CIA-funded journal al-Hiwar. Sayigh’s request for Yunan to write on art collections and collectors in the United Arab Republic (Syria and Egypt) begs the question of how we might read such a request: is it a probing of taste? A folkloric turn? A question of use value or exchange value?
As her starting position, Pravinchandra raised the endemic problem with world literature in its current configuration: its neglect of the short story. She calls for a materialist analysis, pointing to the economy of the short story. A stark distinction arises between world literature theories and the anthologies where we try to “do” world literature, at which point the short story comes to the fore. She pointed to Orsini’s cataloguing of Hindi literary journals in the attempt to make sense of their animating practices as a prime example of how theory might be drawn from located practices of world literature. Pravinchandra also called for a return to the material text, asking, what is the role of the literary text in our research, and how can we bring the text back into our critiques? Similarly, how might we return to the text when working on the broader matter of a literary catalogue? She suggested that this may be a question of scale, where the text operates as the smallest unit.
She closed with a question: how do we ensure that the conference’s conversations about world literature become meaningful interlocutors in the conversations about world literature as defined by Damrosch et al? How, in other words, do we counter the “invisibilization” not just of certain kinds of literary texts and literary spaces, but also the kinds of literary criticism that this group is invested in? The conference papers, Pravinchandra suggested, showcased valuable reasons for resisting an overly hasty move to the scale of the global, but it simultaneously raised a question: how to refuse the prescription to necessarily speak on the scale of the global without our work being pigeon-holed as concerned not with world literature proper, but with “area studies”?
Procter began from the position of querying “the outside history inside the history of English.” He asked that we continue to pry open the relationship between form and ideology, arguing that print culture is more than a container of ideology. He also noted that the conference invites us to think not only about significant geographies, but also temporalities. This returns to his own work on radio (the BBC’s Caribbean Voices series and its archives) and the anticipated death of print. Moreover, the desires for teleology beg a return to considerations of temporality. He invited us to consider the specificities of form in relation to temporality, asking what the temporality of the periodical does to the politics of that space. Finally, he invited a return to questions of methodology. What methodologies will allow us to compare across these genres and forms while still acknowledging their interdependences, such as in the case of the radio script.
Likewise, Agathacleous noted the reoccurring turn towards methodology as we mediate between the local and the global. Together, our work creates a “thick description” for world literature. She asked what a collaborative aesthetic might look like, especially with the reoccurrence of intra- and international alliances affecting literary production. She introduced her work on disaffection and negative emotions in colonial contexts, noting the earlier occurrence of some of the issues highlighted in the Cold War period, such as freedom and autonomy, or what kind of reader the state is. The penalization of disaffection in colonial India coerced a relation of romance. Attempts to evade surveillance and censorship also affect form and content, such as with the conscious mimicry of British periodicals. Can we think of modernism as autonomous when it is partially birthed under conditions of coercion and colonialism?