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Towards Day 23 (Wed, Apr 16): "Novel Vision"

Anne Dalke's picture

can we meet outside?!? and pay attention to what difference that makes?!?
(Sophia receipt, Kelsey book...)

I. coursekeeping
I am cancelling Monday's class, in return for your working with Ava for two hours:
wear crappy clothes, long pants and shoes --and something to tie your hair back;
you will most likely get messy. Reminder of sign-ups:
on Friday, Simona and Lisa, 11-1; Kelsey and Sophia, 1-3,
on Saturday, Jessica 10-12, Agatha 12-2. 
Within the next two weeks, the rest of you will have a chance to "volunteer".

By next Wednesday, I expect you to have read  the first 1/2 of The Hungry Tide, to p. 145;
and by the Monday after, the whole novel, so keep @ it.
By next Tuesday @ 5, I expect a posting from you, with your initial reflections on/
questions about the story--when you go to post, please read one another's postings
(the later you post, the most you have to read!) and write in response
(rather than my having to "create" a conversation; btw...for me to do anything
w/ your postings, they really do have to be up before I go to bed @ midnight...)

Also reviewing what's ahead: you have one more 5-pp paper due for me, @ the same time
as your final portfolio (5 p.m. on Sat, May 10 for seniors; noon on Fri, May 16 for all others).
I would like to have one more individual writing conference w/ each of you,
and I'll read your most recent set of papers on that schedule
(before you come to talk w/ me about the next one, on anything arising from this
last section of the course, on "Re/presenting: A Space for Justice"--
the hockey stick graph, our discussions of SueEllen Campbell, Tim Burke, Teju Cole,
of the role cemetaries in ecological thought, and/or, of course, The Hungry Tide...).

I am happy to talk w/ you whenever you have an idea for the final paper,
anytime during the next four weeks, so will expect you to be in touch
(I won't do a sign-up sheet, but expect you to initiate our conversation,
when you are ready to talk).

Aside from helping Ava w/ her project, and pulling off the story slam,
you will have two other cluster-wide assignments due @ the very end:
the first of these involves some documentation of a follow-up to the story slam:
so: go into it knowing that we are expecting some further “action”
arising from the conversation (could be another talk with a non-360 participant in the slam,
building on the convo about home, or exile, or silos, or a talk w/ someone who didn't
come; could be another "action," a meeting with someone in the Pensys Center, or
the Greens, or the ENVS Steering Committee...?); whatever you feel called to do,
we will ask you to document that action (and we will treat that documentation as private:
using google doc structure Sophia established to plan the story slam, we'll create a
folder there where all can deposit papers).

Your second 360-wide assignment will be a Serendip portfolio,
reflecting on your work in the cluster as a whole.
I'll post detailed instructions within the week, but there won't be any surprises:
it will be a list of all the things that all your professors have always checked for:
attendance/reading/participation/written work/
the degree of your active, critical engagement in the cluster;
there will be a quantitative portion--how many classes you missed, etc.--
and then a qualitative one, where you will describe the trajectory of your learning.

Questions about any of this?

II. Anything second thoughts/left overs from Monday?
either about segregated storage spaces and memory sites that are cemeteries,
or white savior complexes, or the relation between these ideas...?!?
I thought it was pretty amazing to sit in that vortex of wind with you,
to think-and-talk about our need to 'make a mark'--both in how we try
to respect and remember the dead, and in our work against
social and environmental injustice.

Some questions/thoughts that have lingered for me:
* Does everything need to be memorialized? Or archived? (my mania about Serendip...)
* Can we hold our work and our lives more lightly?
* Does even asking that question elide questions of power?
( some "get to be"/can afford to be remembered, and others are forgotten...)
* Why do we put fences around our cemeteries?
Can we be more porous,
more open to the intersection of life and death,
not so terrified of what death is-and-means,
not cling so much to material forms of memorials? (to "cemetery-ing"?)
* What does respect look like? Could it meaning letting our bodies,
these forms of "transport," decompose/compost?
(Ari @ Center for Environmental Transformation)
* We (Kelsey) seemed critical of the use-value of the concept of "innocence";
we (smilewthsh) talked instead about being conscious of always being inadequate,
always w/out full knowledge--and yet educatable, responsible, and able to act.

* We were hurried through our conversation about the "banality of sentimentality,"
and I wanted to take a few more minutes w/ that. On the one hand, as Sara said,
"sentimentality" as long been dismissed as a "feminine" attribute" (cf. Jane Tompkins'
 "Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Politics of Literary History," in
Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction)
--so we don't want to
participate in the dismissal of the power of emotion. On the other hand,

* Teju Cole and Tim Burke are warning us to be thoughtful about our feelings,
not to let our emotions rule our behavior (cf. Lauren Berlant's "The Subject of True Feeling:
Pain, Privacy and Politics," which critiques "feeling politics" and "national sentimentality,"
convictions about "the self-evidence and objectivity of painful feeling," that
contribute to what she calls "the fetish form of sentimental citizenship, the wish...
to signify a political world beyond contradiction," "a logic of fantasy reparation" that
expects "to eradicate systemic social pain"; "national sentimentality," Berlant says,
"is too often a defensive response by people who identify with privilege, yet fear
they will be exposed as immoral by their tacit sanction of a particular structural
violence that benefits them."
[thinking about the town hall (and our story slam?!) from this perspective...?]

III. These questions will continue to resonate in the work of Amitah Ghosh,
to which we now turn--a first encounter for everyone?
We are turning back now to the complex genre of the novel. Teju Cole condemned
"policed language" and "enforced civility"; he called for plain speaking in public forums in
this country. But he also said,  "I am a novelist. I traffic in subtleties, and my goal in writing
a novel is to leave the reader not knowing what to think. A good novel shouldn't have a point."

I picked Ghosh's novel, out of all the eco-story possibilities, because it picks up on all our themes--
home, exile, porosity, science vs. humanities, the power and limits of language and translation;
it's also fundamentally about the tension between humanism and environmentalism.
And it gets us out of the U.S...beyond our borders!

Amitav Ghosh is my age (minus 6 years);
he was born in a Bengali Hindu family in Calcutta, and
educated (among other places) @ the Delhi School of Economics;
he got a D.Phil. in social anthropology @ Oxford.
He now lives in NYC, teaching comparative literature @ Queens College and English @ Harvard.

We are reading the fifth of his seven novels, most based on very careful research, and placed
in historical settings around the world of the Indian Ocean; he’s also published a lot of non-fiction,
including two essays I’ve linked to from our homepage: A Crocodile in the Swamplands makes it clear
that the Sunderbans are a focus for Ghosh’s environmental activism; in that essay, he opposes a
proposal to develop a luxury resort on the islands, as a human and ecological disaster; Wild Fictions
is a much longer essay about the power of storytelling. It begins by asking, "What are the tales
that animate the struggle over Nature that is now being waged all around the world?"--and then
he shares a lot of literature, legends and folklore...

His novel (as you can already see) also shuttles between the myth and history written down by Nirmal,
the memories and present day experiences of Kania, of Piya, and of a fisherman, Fokir,
whom she will soon encounter, and who will help her in her research.
Ghosh’s style is called “postmodern”: it’s not linear, but time-traveling, cross-cutting,
filled w/ all sorts of braided/unbraided sub-plots, appropriate for this "braided" setting.

IV. What I've planned for today comes from an essay about the novel,
Laura White's
“Novel Vision: Seeing the Sunderbans through Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide.
Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment
20.3 (Summer 2013): 513-513.

Count by 4's, to break into four groups:
1's focus on the map: what do you know, from looking @ it?
what does it tell us about the setting? from what p.o.v. is it drawn?
2's focus on Kanaii, as an observer: what is his p.o.v?
what does he bring into focus that the map does not?
3's focus on the Bengali script Kanaii is reading while riding on the train:
what perspectives does that add?
4's focus on Piya: what role does she play? how will she function in the story?

Return to report back...what do we know, so far--and what perspectives are we missing?

From Albert Camus’ 1957 lecture, “Create Dangerously":
"there is but one possible realistic film: the one that is constantly shown us by an
invisible camera on the world's screen. The only realistic artist…is God….All others are…
unfaithful to reality…reality cannot be described without effecting a choice…
cannot be reproduced without exercising a selection…The only thing needed…is to find a
principle of choice…And such a principle is found…in the future…the true object of realism
is what has no reality yet….This aesthetic that intended to be realist therefore becomes
a new idealism….a revolt against everything fleeting and unfinished in the world...a perpetually
renewed wrenching apart….."

amus’ 1957 lecture, “Create Dangerously.” A couple of bright spots:
“Art cannot be a monologue….
the reality of a man’s life…lies also in other lives that give shape to his…. Consequently, there is but one possible realistic film: the one that is constantly shown us by an invisible camera on the worlds’ screen. The only realistic artist…is God….All others are…unfaithful to reality…reality cannot be described without effecting a choice…cannot be reproduced without exercising a selection…

The only thing needed…is to find a principle of choice…And such a principle is found…in the future… the true object of realism is what has no reality yet….This aesthetic that intended to be realist therefore becomes a new idealism… a revolt against everything fleeting and unfinished in the must be a perpetually renewed wrenching apart…..The loftiest work…maintains an equilibrium between reality and man’s rejection of that….the artist can value the myths that are offered him only in relation to their repercussion on living people…our only justification…is to speak up…for those who cannot do so…Let us not look for the way out anywhere but in the wall against which we are living….” - See more at: /oneworld/trauma#sthash.d0Pt7wWe.dpuf

White makes the point that Ghosh's novel is concerned with "ways of knowing," in particular
with the difference between detached observation of and extended immersion in a place.
She points out that the opening scenes of The Hungry Tide juxtapose a map of the Sunderbans
and a scene of travelers orientating themselves to the area. The map provides a precise,
visual representation of the Sunderbands, but it also represents the type of distinct overseeing
that Ghosh distinguishes from a lived sense of place. The map arrests time, providing a static
representation…a contrast with the opening narration that accentuates movement…in a transitional
space, a crowded train platform….Kanai reads a written text while riding on a train…his deceased
uncle Nirmal’s…narration disrupts the linear movement of the train by imposing the time of myth….simultaneously, he offers numerical measurements …..

An instrumentalist understanding of the land causes outsiders to view it in terms of fixed,
economically valuable assets….In contrast, the label bestowed by the inhabitant conveys
a different understanding…their name focuses on...the shifting interaction of the tides
With this complex introduction…Nirmal accumulates various ways of knowing the land:
through metaphoric visualization of the divine, through numeric calculation, and through the
meaning of names—also distinguishing between reading a map, hearing a story, and seeing it first-hand

I wanted to take time ("wait!") with this opening section, in
order to prepare you for the technical innovations in the novel:
"the multiplicity of time frames and perspectives in these opening scenes
also introduces Ghosh’s formal innovation, his challenge to linear ordering,
and his counter-strategy of rhythmic movement that reflects
the watery geography of the Sunderbans….

Ghosh’s descriptions of the landscape do evoke a palimpsest…mangroves reshape the land as they
“silt over the past”…Images of a layered past recur through the novel….Ghosh critiques the primacy
of the visual and offers the tide as an alternative that reflects auditory and kinetic experiences….
vision fails to orient inhabitants…the tides create shifts in position and perception…..the landscape
confounds the ability of the human eye to oversee and compose order…preventing the single point
perspective that is necessary for linear mapping...

the novel arrived in India as a European import…privileged a ‘rational outlook on life,’ and required a ‘commitment to naturalism and realism’…Ghosh’s rhythmic organization must be considered in this context
as continuing negotiations between the novel form’s colonial heritage and the alternate ways of knowing
that emerge from specific embodied and geohistorical locations

“Part of the idea…was to shine light on this area that is little known within India….
even within Bengal, the Sunderbans is really a kind of area of darkness…”

Ghosh proposes that alternative practices facilitated by extended immersion in the place could
enable viewers to see the Sunderbans…novels can help to achieve this necessary transformation of vision.

The Hungry Tide…interrogating the intersections between local and global knowledges…
a concept of epistemic disobedience…practices that challenge the “detached and neutral point of observation”…the epistemic zero point, the position from which the knowing subject maps the world
while erasing his own specific, embodied location….disrupting the illusion of neutral, universal knowledge….

his own use of English…his Western education and part-time residence in the USA…afford Ghosh
a view of India from both inside and outside…uses his position between cultures to circulate a
multifaceted picture of the Sunderbans to middle-class Indian and global English speaking readers…

V. Other initial impressions....? What strikes you here??