In brief: reports from delegates

KCL postgraduate Fariha Shaikh’s report on the workshop:

04 February, 2011

Commodities and Affect: Fariha Shaikh (KCL) February 2011

The Kolkata Workshop was a collaborative effort organized by three institutions – Jadavpur University, the National Library of India, and the Victoria Memorial Hall. All three contributed hospitality and academic support to the Network, in the belief that the university, the museum and the library were sites for the circulation of material and intellectual commodities in the colonial period and thereafter, and each had a distinct role to play in understanding this history. The Kolkata Workshop was therefore planned in such a way that the focus was on social history on the first day at Jadavpur, on art, memorials and exhibitions on the second day at the Victoria Memorial, and on print culture, books and libraries on the third day at the National Library. At both the Victoria Memorial and the National Library, delegates were offered the opportunity of viewing the special exhibitions, which offered a visible testimony of the material culture of the period under study, in the shape of artefacts and printed books.

The programme boasted an impressive range of events, that extended beyond the usual staple of lectures, to a student production of Arup Ratan (a play by Rabindranath Tagore and directed by Ananda Lal), a talk by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, and an exhibition of archival material at the National Library, Kolkata. On each day, we were escorted by student volunteers to a different location: on the first, to Jadavpur University; on the second, to Victoria Memorial Hall and on the third, to the National Library. It was an exciting time to be in Kolkata. We experienced at first-hand the generous hospitality of the students of Jadavpur University and the staff of all three institutions who worked tirelessly to make sure our stay in Kolkata was a pleasant one and the Workshop a fruitful intellectual partnership, a true ‘network’ of relations.

Over the course of the three days, we explored how affect politicises even the most basic things, for example, food, water, books and land. Each of the papers came at the intersections between ‘commodity’ and ‘affect’ from a different angle, producing a rich dialogue across different periods and disciplines. Here, I have been able to touch upon many, but not all, of the papers presented.

The NYU panel on water explored the different symbolic meanings water acquires across time and space. Toral Gajarawala argued that water in Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable (1935) is an ‘idle metaphor’: it is a scarce commodity in the novel, yet there is an abundance of it in metaphorical terms. She posed the question of what it means to use water as a metaphor when there is a material lack of it in the novel. Her argument came to rest on the thesis that water in the novel is ‘secularized’: it is the ‘metaphoric consciousness’ of the novel, present not as an object in religious worship, but in connection with questions of casteized labour. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan took up the idea of water as a sacred object, specifically in the context of the water of the River Ganges. Her question, ‘How can the world’s most sacred river be so heavily polluted?’, highlighted the competing scientific and religious attitudes towards the river. Rajeswari argued that such discrepant attitudes have not aided the ecological stability of the river. The religious belief that the holy water of the Ganges is able to break down toxic elements is contested by the fact that it is heavily polluted and under threat from global warming, but in its ‘modern secular mode’, Rajeswari argued, the government had failed to clear up the Ganges. Elaine Freedgood coupled the notion of pollution with that of consumption: she explored the rhetoric surrounding the purification processes of water in the nineteenth century. The sanitary reform movement, she argued, did not just emphasise the need for the physical purity of water: it also aimed to cultivate feelings of disgust and repugnance towards drinking diluted sewage.

In the response session to the panel, Nilanjana Deb (Jadavpur University) commented on how sacred water is also commodified – bottled and sold as ‘Gangajal’ (Ganges Water), for example. Her comment elicited a number of responses from the audience. One member argued that ‘when you want to remove water from common use, you render it sacred’, exposing how ‘the sacred’, as a form of affect, calls into play notions of access, use and power. Another member of the audience commented that deep ecologists see water as a source of life, not just as a resource: was the division between secular and sacred so clear-cut?

The workshop interrogated the politics of consumption by examining the affective lives of food – ‘consumption’ in the literal sense of the term. Ujjayan Bhattacharya (Vidyasagar University), in his talk ‘The cultures of Swadeshi’, looked at the heightened awareness of a particular food, ghee (clarified butter), in the pre-Gandhian struggles to overcome British rule. He argued that in an effort to cultivate the feeling of belonging to the nation, nationalists encouraged the boycotting of non-Bengali ghee by casting it as ‘bisri’ (awful) and ‘bhajal’ (having other ingredients mixed in). Ghee thus became implicated in a nationalist discourse. Modhumita Roy (Tufts University, Boston) continued to explore the link between foodstuff and nationalism in her paper on mulligatawny soup. She presented us with a brief history of how the Indian soup became absorbed into the British diet, first as a fashionable soup in the nineteenth century and later on as a commodity, as companies such as Heinz capitalized on it. Through the varied history of the soup’s uptake by British people, Modhumita read mulligatawny as an object that blends the domestic and foreign and cuts across class boundaries.

In his paper on the ‘Side-Effects of Empire’, Rohan Deb Roy (CSSS) argued that quinine was the ultimate metaphor for empire: it was government-administered medication and could be cast as bitter, a burden and disagreeable, but simultaneously, as charitable, beneficial and helpful. The pictures accompanying Rohan’s paper raised tangentially the question of how temporal difference transforms the affective field. Whilst adverts for commodities such as anti-malaria soap, for example, were taken seriously in their time, they were the subject of light amusement for the audience. The focus on archiving in Hardik Brata Biswass and Amlan Das Guptas (Jadavpur University) papers highlighted the temporality of affect more directly. Together, their papers showed that although we may succeed in preserving the aural or visual object, we cannot preserve the affect that the object once produced. Indeed, archiving itself displays a transformation of affect, as those who work in archiving engage with the objects not as consumers of popular culture, but as scholars.

Food, medicine and water: it should come as no surprise, then, that some of the papers in the workshop also touched on the notion of ‘life’, and its corollary, death. John Plunkett (Exeter) explored how Queen Victoria became the subject of photographs and other commemorative objects during and after her lifetime. This, John argued, was a form of ‘commodified affect’ and the production of such objects was key in creating and maintaining an affective relationship between Victoria and her colonial subjects. He further argued that Victoria was made familiar to her colonial subjects by exporting tropes of motherhood and family to the colonies. This was an attempt to soften the image of Victorian rule, to re-present it in terms of domestic life and duty. In the discussion session, Margot Finn (Warwick) mentioned that tropes such as motherhood and family can be cast as universal even though they do not socially exist as universals: did this mean that the ‘exportation’ of the familial rhetoric encountered resistance and if so, where was it possible to find examples of these?

Tapati Guha-Thakurta (CSSS) looked at a rather different type of commemorative object – the civic statue. She reminded us that though statues were immobile, they embodied multiple journeys, both within India and between India and Britain. She argued that though civic statues are placed in large, privileged areas, they have become the ‘least observed spectacle of urban spaces’. The affective relationship with the person the statues resembled had been superseded by a functionary role: they had become mere landmarks within the urban sprawl of Kolkata. In the discussion relating to Tapati’s paper, Supriya Chaudhuri (Jadavpur University) asked whether it was possible to imagine soft interiors beneath the impenetrable surface of the statue? Wax was more capable of mimicking the human anatomy than bronze, stone or cast iron: did this mean that wax statues had a greater potential for retaining an affective relationship to the person it portrayed?

The notion of the object being drained of life came up again in Swapan Kumar Chakravortys (Director, National Library) paper. He spoke on the affect that public libraries should attempt to cultivate in their readers – affect between readers and libraries, and between readers and books. He argued that books without readers are like ‘stones waiting for the lifting of a curse’; they are resuscitated at the touch of a reader. More broadly, he argued that, in the creation of affect, public access to the library was of greater importance than the size of the collection.

The subject of Nilanjana Debs paper was the Great Calcutta Exhibition, a collection where both size and public access need not be called into question. Nilanjana located the Calcutta Exhibition in a network of other exhibitions spawned by the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Calcutta Exhibition brought countries and companies into greater contact, but there was a huge amount of public interest in the Exhibition as well. Fifty thousand Bengali women attended the Calcutta Exhibition: a surprising fact given that women were rarely seen in places more openly associated with trade, such as the bazaar.

The panel from King’s College London interrogated some of the central terms of the Project: network, affect and commodity. Josephine McDonagh opened the session by arguing that focussing on ‘the stuff of empire and all who participate in it, however reluctantly’ uncovers the fabric of everyday life, at home and in the colonies. She also argued that the circulation of commodities such as the novel produces an affective field as it creates and disseminates a sense of place and feeling. Clare Pettitt focussed on the limits of affect and the commodity.  She argued that without affect, the commodity is virtually impossible: affect layers the object with a particular set of symbolic meanings. As such, Clare argued, it is not just the elision of human labour that produces the commodity: Marx’s account of commodity fetishism is insufficient and needs further probing. She ended by asking, ‘What do we miss in this focus on the commodity, or what do we choose to miss? Are there some places or instances where commodity culture is resisted? What does affect disguise or uncover?’ Mark Turner came next, with a paper on Anthony Trollope. Mark examined the translation of Trollope’s postal service work into his fiction, arguing that both of Trollope’s jobs emphasised networks of communication. As a writer on the move – constantly travelling along the various routes of various networks – and yet without a particular destination, Trollope had a rather different experience of networks. Mark argued that while global networks suggest unity and coherence, they concomitantly suggest frustration, melancholy and, at times, disconnection from their centres. Ian Henderson gave the last paper in the panel. He bought Trollope’s account of his travels in Australia and New Zealand (1873) into conversation with A. A. Philip’s essay ‘The Cultural Cringe’. Ian argued that Trollope was an example of Philip’s ‘minatory Englishman’ ever-present at the back of the Australian reader’s mind inducing the ‘Cringe’. Ian further argued that Philips’s suggestions for curing the Cringe replayed some aspects of the racial politics as advocated by Trollope.

Devleena Ghosh (University of Technology, Sydney) and Rochelle Pinto (University of Delhi) both looked at affective relationships to land, but in different contexts. Devleena focussed on how, during the period of decolonisation, money and land were rhetorically separated: money became associated with Indo-Fijans, and land, with indigenous Fijans. Through this separation, notions of citizenship and belonging were transformed and redefined. Rochelle looked at the competing discourses surrounding land in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Goa. She argued that disputes over changes in the ways in which each village was allocated land were played out in a variety of ‘genres of print’, such as pamphlets, land reports and novels. These literary and non-literary texts offered new ways of ‘belonging to the land’.

Stephen Mueckes (University of New South Wales) paper was positioned in relation to the question of natural resources. He questioned the process by which elephant tusks become ivory – is it a straight path, or is it a process that is riddled with complexities? He argued that there are no such things as ‘purely natural’: all ecological things are inherently political and never passive to the will of humans. He showed that there was an asymmetrical globe trade in ivory and what was needed was the redistribution of agency. Without affect, Stephen argued, the decommodification of ivory would not have taken place. He further argued that, despite its decommodifcation, ivory has not been defetishisized because of the ‘sacred’ affect that surrounds it.

Margot Finn (Warwick) wrapped up the three days by offering her thoughts on the workshop. She highlighted three terms that she felt were key to almost all the papers – commodity, affect and culture – but made the point that the engagement with the term ‘culture’ was not as prominent as it might have been. Instead of being interrogated as a cause, it tended to be used as a ‘fall-back’ word. She invited us to question how we think affect works. Does it work differently in different cultures, or times, or contexts? Are there communities of affect or emotional communities? What is the interplay between commodities, affect and politics? Was it that commodities combined with affect produce politics? Or was it that commodities and politics together produce affect? To what extent was the politics of the commodity based on localness?

In the response session, Clare Pettitt (King’s College London) warned us against using the term ‘commodity’ too loosely and suggested a return to theoretical approaches as a way of moving forward.  Nilanjana Deb (Jadavpur University) raised the question of how the Project would proceed. Would the New York Workshop be different in format to the Kolkata one? Would it present us with the opportunity to expand our research, or would we be reworking our current research to fit in line with the next Workshop’s themes? Josephine McDonagh (King’s College London) responded by saying that research is never static and the New York Workshop would give us the opportunity to present our new explorations.

I am sure that the following Workshop will prove to be as intellectually vigorous and productive as the previous two have been.

© 2011 Commodities and Culture

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