“Planetary Entanglements,” Virtual Forum with Achille Mbembe (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research), Boaventura de Sousa Santos (U of Coimbra, Portugal), and Denise Ferreira da Silva (U of British Columbia). Response by Sabrina Yun-Che Lee (English)

[On Friday, April 16, Achille Mbembe (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research), Boaventura de Sousa Santos (U of Coimbra, Portugal), and Denise Ferreira da Silva (U of British Columbia) were part of a virtual forum, the first in a year-long series of events culminating in a conference on Planetarity, March 25-26, 2022. Below is a response by Sabrina Yun-Che Lee (English).]

Localizing Planetarity
Sabrina Yun-Che Lee (English)

Last spring, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory’s much anticipated conference on “Planetarity.” A year later, with the pandemic still raging, in lieu of an in-person event, the Unit hosted a virtual forum on “Planetary Entanglements” with the conference keynote speakers with Achille Mbembe, Denise Ferreira da Silva, and Boaventura de Sousa Santos. Although Zoom has allowed us some measure of connection across social distancing, time zones, and quarantine, we were reminded (yet again) of the fragility of the infrastructures that make our connections possible, when the power outage caused by a massive storm in Johannesburg prevented Professor Mbembe from joining the webinar. Still, Professors Silva and Santos offered provocations to help us think through the pandemic, the theme of planetarity, and the vitality and vulnerability of our connections.

Vulnerability was one of the themes that Santos explored as he discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic is launching us into a new century. The pandemic has prompted a reckoning with a particular idea of human strength, one whose genealogy can be traced back to the Cartesian concept of nature that placed Man as the divine king over everything else. This particular ideology proved an ally to colonialism and capitalism as it justified the exploitation of nature—as well as the exploitation of people who were perceived to be closer to nature. However, the pandemic has challenged this framework by showing how the world’s invaders, especially the US, have been themselves invaded by a virus. While COVID-19 may be a message from Mother Earth, this viral invasion is far from democratic; rather, it intersects with other pandemics, such as those of war, hunger, and climate change, rendering those who are made vulnerable even more so. The task at hand, is to “stay with the trouble,” Santos told us, alluding to Donna Haraway. Part of that staying requires a reorientation of our thinking.

To contend with the multiple, entangled pandemics in which we find ourselves, Santos argued that we must abandon René Descartes and turn instead to his rival, Baruch Spinoza, and draw on other epistemologies as well, including Asian and Indigenous systems of thought. From these frameworks, we can develop an alternative way to think about alternatives. What this different kind of thinking might look like Santos only hinted at, offering New Zealand’s “Rights of Nature” as a model to articulate a new relationship to nature, and suggesting that we begin learning biophony, the languages of nature. The alternatives we embrace should foster different understandings of subjectivity and human–nonhuman relations that will ultimately help us change the capitalist modes of production that are ravaging the world.

Silva’s talk complemented and challenged Santos’s provocations. For Silva, working with the concept of “planetarity” also requires that we examine how we think. Indeed, how we think is perhaps even more important than the concepts we interrogate. As we concentrate on the planetary, Silva pushed us to consider how we can attend to the universal and particular together by asking us to reframe the common slogan, “We are all in this together” with the addition of “but we are not in it in the same way.” For Silva, “planetarity” might challenge post-Enlightenment thinking by preventing us from either falling into the trap of a universality inattentive to difference or the trap of a relativism without entanglement.

Silva drew on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s concept of planetarity to prompt us toward an ethics of untranslatability. According to Spivak, “The planet is in the species of alterity, belonging to another system; and yet we inhabit it, on loan” (from “Planetarity” in Death of a Discipline [2003]). How we navigate this alterity is crucial to how we think the planetary in a way that avoids violence, and as we use such a concept, we should consider what should remain incomprehensible. Paired with Santos’s suggestion of biophony, Silva’s commitment to untranslatability adds another dimension to how we might relate to our world. What if we can’t learn to speak the language of a river? How might our failed attempts help us think differently about our places on this planet?

In the Q&A, Santos and Silva spoke about where they saw solidarity during the pandemic: Santos highlighted how some Indigenous peoples have turned to non-Western medicine to fight COVID-19, and Silva described women-led organizations that were developing a different political discourse. When questioned about the practicality and enforceability of the “Rights of Nature,” Santos further explained how these rights might be secured if the state were to prevent public goods from being privatized; he saw this as a way to create a kind of commons. In contrast, Silva put pressure on this solution by reminding us that the colonial and liberal structures of the state (including the concept of rights) are the same. Finally, each spoke further on the limits of our thinking. Silva’s projects with film are explorations beyond the discursive form—for her, images push us beyond the need to know, the need to connect the dots and instead open up the possibility of something else. These other possibilities might also be expressed in the language of pluriversality with which Santos concluded as he explained that there is no universe but a pluriverse because all the totalities from which we begin or end our analyses are partial. These talks and subsequent discussion offer much to ponder as we anticipate the next events on this theme of planetarity, which will take place during Spring 2022.

The Climate of History in a Planetary Age: Author’s Roundtable with Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty (University of Chicago) Response by Arkaitz Ibarretxe Diego (Spanish and Portuguese, UIUC)

[On April 19, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory held an author’s roundtable hosting Dipesh Chakrabarty (U of Chicago) to discuss his new book, The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (U of Chicago Press, 2021), with David Sepkoski (History); Roderick Ike Wilson (History/EALC) and Gillen Wood (English/iSEE) as respondents. Below are reflections on the event from graduate student Arkaitz Ibarretxe Diego.]

Written by Arkaitz Ibarretxe Diego (Spanish and Portuguese)


The Climate of History in a Planetary Age, an author’s roundtable with Dipesh Chakrabarty

Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Climate of History in a Planetary Age argues that we must combine two perspectives in writing history: the global and the planetary. The former centers the human perspective and the latter de-centers it. The question of the difference between natural sciences and human sciences, along with the usefulness of the concept of the Anthropocene generated a stimulating discussion, leading Chakrabarty to preface his remarks with the observation that “every time you finish a book you realize how unfinished it is, and it is really the conversation that follows the book that continues the writing of it.”

David Sepkoski (History), Roderick Ike Wilson (History/EALC), and Gillen Wood (English/iSEE), the three respondents, concurred that Chakrabarty’s The Climate of History in a Planetary Age is a “provocative” book in the best sense of the word. They praised many of the book’s central theses as well as Chakrabarty’s larger claim that the Anthropocene poses a fundamental challenge to the terms and methods of humanistic inquiry. They also agreed with the author in underscoring the need rethinking the relationship between history, ethics, and the non-human.

David Sepkoski argued that, as a historian of science, he found Chakrabarty’s claim that we are currently experiencing a collapse of the distinction between natural and human history to be somewhat problematic. He pointed out that this distinction was not actually as longstanding as the book posits, and that several scholars, including himself, note that the sense of deep geological time that emerged in the 19th century was entirely continuous with contemporary historiography of what Chakrabarty calls “World/Human History.” Sepkoski concluded his response by offering a friendly amendment to the book’s thesis: the Anthropocene should not be considered as a break in modernity, but rather as modernity itself. While Sepkoski echoes the book’s call for the reconstruction of the political, he suggests that this reconstruction should be made “through the critique of the structures that have led us here.” Viewed thus, the concept of the Anthropocene “could be a doorway to something new.”

The second respondent, Roderick Wilson, had two central questions. The first one was whether there was a difference between the threat to humanity posed by climate change and previous large-scale threats, such as nuclear war or a Malthusian catastrophe. The second question concerned the implications and limitations of the author’s extensive use of a pre-climate change “20th century reservoir of political philosophy and theory” to discuss the non-human, or to “imagine our own place and future today.” 

Gillen Wood’s intervention started with an interesting anecdote about a malfunctioning 1950’s air conditioning unit that he found when he was assigned a new office in the English Building on the UIUC campus. Wood used this anecdote to connect, among other things, with Chakrabarty’s discussion of air conditioning and the rise of the Indian middle class. Chakrabarty’s chapter analyzes the seemingly counterproductive trend of citizens in the increasingly hotter city of Delhi, who are installing air-conditioning units that are contributing to further increasing urban temperatures. At the same time, Chakrabarty explained, these families are also enhancing the academic performance of their kids by doing this. Wood cited Montesquieu to comment on this phenomenon: “climate is literacy.” Next, Wood raised a thought-provoking question: “In this planetary neo-environment with technology embedded in the geosphere, can the humanities actually be taken off grid? Can any of us?” Wood then concurred with Chakrabarty’s characterization of anthropocentrism as “our innate assurance that the earth provides a stable ground on which we project our political purposes.” Thus, he concludes, anthropocentrism considers air-conditioning to be “trivial and luxurious, not world-historical and planetary”. 

In the following part of the roundtable, author Dipesh Chakrabarty tried to answer the questions that were put forward by the respondents. First, he commented on how this was actually the first discussion of his newly published book and he thanked the respondents for their comments and critical thoughts. He continued by accepting some of Sepkoski’s criticisms and commented on how interesting he found it that “earth system scientists experience affect about the system they constructed,” even after trying to distance the object of their analysis from their affect in order to be objective. This, he further explained, is because “as citizens they feel a certain urgency about what they are finding out about the earth system.” Chakrabarty also reflected on how he approached the writing of The Climate of History in a Planetary Age and commented that, perhaps, “the book has many of the birthmarks which [he] hoped that later embalming would not show.” One of the birthmarks was the issue of the opposition between natural history and human history. Chakrabarty further explained that the opposition that, in his mind, held the book together was actually “the one between the globe and the earth system,” the globe being a human construct. Chakrabarty concluded his reflections by pointing out that it started as “a historians’ book, but actually was also trying to address what [he] sees as a change in human condition.” He affirmed that the present predicament lends itself to the kind of humanism that addresses that very change in the human condition.

During the round of Q&A, Chakrabarty answered the audience’s questions with the occasional intervention by the respondents. One such question pertained to the role of literature departments and how they could contribute constructively on the discussion about climate and climate change. Chakrabarty answered by emphasizing the importance of this question and remarked that “literature is everywhere” even in scientific discourses and narratives. He also added that both scientists and literature people could learn from each other. Wood’s and Sepkoski’s comments regarding this question also stressed the importance of narratives and the need for scientists and humanists to work across disciplinary boundaries.

A related question asked whether “academia needs to be re-made to be able to respond to the problems at hand by moving away from knowledge.” Sepkoski’s answer stressed the necessity of questioning the “self-evident”; while Chakrabarty acknowledged that there is a certain degree of change already happening, he emphasized the importance of offering interdisciplinary courses to undergraduate students. Wood agreed with Chakrabarty but noted that the change towards interdisciplinarity and the shift from expertise to competences is not happening fast enough. The author’s roundtable ended, perhaps appropriately, with a discussion of the end times. Chakrabarty concluded that understanding Indian or Chinese frameworks regarding the Anthropocene and climate change through Judeo-Christian traditions of the apocalypse does not make sense, and that “there is an argument to be made about the social heterogeneity of Anthropocene times.”

Field Notes From the Present Blog Series by Austin D. Hoffman (Anthropology)

“Sanctuary is Not a Place”

By Austin D. Hoffman (Anthropology)

We were sitting on the picnic table outside the staff kitchen, watching a spectacular sunset over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. As the radiant mosaic of oranges and purples faded to greys and blacks, Tricia and I were reminiscing about the eccentric cast of human and nonhuman characters that had found sanctuary here. We arose from our seats and began to head inside, eager to be embraced by the heat of the wood-burning stove. Then we heard the snarls.

Illiamna and Merlin
Illiamna and Merlin. By Camille Potts

              The guttural tonality indicated this was no mere scuffle, and we knew exactly who it was. We walked briskly up the path toward Merlin and Illiamna, two wolves who had been paired together in the same enclosure earlier that day. We peered through the twelve-foot tall chain-link fence down into the valley and saw Illiamna, the roughly 130-pound male arctic wolf, pursuing Merlin, a female wolfdog of nearly equal size. Something had set Illiamna off, and he was trying to latch onto Merlin’s haunches with his massive jaws. Merlin drew from the vast vocal and embodied language of her species to dissuade him. She emitted every warning sign, but to no avail. The other wolves in neighboring enclosures were howling with frantic alarm. We had to intervene before things escalated.

              “I’m gonna go around back and open the rear gate. You go down there and push them up towards me so we can separate Illy. Try to get between them if you can.” Tricia was the lead animal caretaker. She knew the wolves better than anyone, and she had to be the one to open the gate because Illiamna trusted her enough to walk past her. Despite my anxiety I was confident in her leadership. I grabbed the Y-pole outside the gate—an elongated metal rod with a padded forked end used for restraining and controlling the movement of large carnivores—and headed inside. I struggled to maintain balance on the icy hillside while also keeping eyes on the tangled mass of growling fur and fangs a hundred yards away. As I approached, Merlin recognized her chance for escape. She disengaged from Illiamna with such a burst of speed that he couldn’t react quickly enough to give chase, leaving a gap between them that I stepped into.

Illiamna Howling
Illiamna Howling. by Camille Potts

              As I planted my feet and extended the Y-pole at a 45 degree angle, I couldn’t help but lock eyes with Illiamna and marvel at him. Here is a creature that, were he in “the wild,” would be hunting caribou, moose and muskoxen. His bite force is twice that of a German-shepherd, and could easily crush my arm. Yet despite his formidable strength, I could see in his dark-golden eyes that he was scared and confused. He recoiled, flattening his ears against his head in a submissive posture. Like his wild brethren, Illy is wary of humans. As he began to probe for a way to get to Merlin, Tricia arrived at the back of the enclosure and opened the gate. He paced laterally, and I mimicked his movements, using the Y-Pole as an extension of my body to prevent him from sneaking past me. We continued this tense interspecies dance for maybe eight minutes, although it seemed like an eternity. Twice he tried to take an angle back to Merlin, but I was able head him off—just barely. He eventually realized I would not relent, and coyly retreated through the upper gate into an empty enclosure. Tricia immediately shut it behind him. They were unharmed. We finally exhaled.

              This incident happened this past January at Mission: Wolf (M:W), a non-profit educational sanctuary in the remote foothills of southern Colorado established primarily to care for wolves and wolfdog crosses rescued from the exotic pet trade. It is one of the oldest sanctuaries of its kind in the country, and uniquely, it is operated by a small community of live-in staff and volunteers. In this regard M:W is an intentional community, and shares in a long lineage of counter-cultural social experiments originating in the high deserts of Colorado and New Mexico. I lived here and coordinated the sanctuary’s educational programming from 2016-2018. It is both a centerpiece of my scholarly research, and a place I consider home.

people at M:W in winter 2017
M:W staff pose after processing meat for the wolves

              From the moment I relocated from Colorado to central Illinois to begin graduate school, I felt torn between my desire to pursue a Ph.D. and a deep sense of responsibility to M:W and the more-than-human kinship networks I’ve developed there. So I’ve returned every summer to reconnect with my two and four-legged friends, and to help out where I can, whether that be processing livestock donations for the wolves, repairing fences, or giving tours to visitors. These annual trips have become vital to maintaining and nurturing those kinship networks, and also providing me with a much needed respite from the stress of academia. But in summer 2020, I postponed my trip due to COVID-19. I simply couldn’t risk travel, for my own sake and for M:W. If the virus took hold in such a small community, it would be disastrous. I didn’t realize how important going home was to my mental and emotional health until I was prohibited from doing so. In the interest of self-care, I decided to use the winter break to briefly return to M:W. By this time there was more information available about how the virus spread, and the sanctuary had instituted a strict quarantine process to minimize risk.

              All of this perhaps seems disconnected from the vignette I opened this reflection with. I share it because it underscores both the practices of care integral to the sanctuary, and how the pandemic has thrown the importance of such care work into sharp relief. The popularity of M:W and sites like it continues to steadily grow. When the sanctuary was founded in the late 1980s, few people made the trek into the rugged and confusing backcountry roads. Now, 30 years later, the sanctuary sees several thousand visitors annually. Even the ice and snow of winter doesn’t prevent people from finding us. Most of them are drawn by the powerful anthropomorphic aura of wolves as charismatic megafauna, which also contributes to the desire to keep them as pets.  With the closure of the sanctuary due to health and safety protocols, a disquieting calm has settled over the community. The pandemic has held the encroaching forces of commercialization and eco-tourism in abeyance, for now, and has allowed the staff to refocus on long neglected projects. More importantly, without the need to constantly cater to the public and service-learning groups, we can focus on caring for those that brought us to M:W in the first place: the wolves. The pandemic has, paradoxically, “brought some of the sanctuary back,” as one staff member told me.

Wolves are highly social mammals who live in packs that bear a striking resemblance to human familial structures. The canine residents at M:W are, unfortunately, not candidates for reintroduction to the wild, given that they were born in captivity and are habituated to humans—just one ramification of the multi-billion dollar exotic pet trade. In the context of sanctuary, we try to emulate the conditions of wild wolves as best as possible by housing them in at least pairs of two so that they can have intraspecies companionship. Illiamna had lost his elderly mate in 2017, and Merlin, who had recently been transferred from a now defunct wildlife sanctuary, had never cohabitated with another canine. Being that the two are close in age and had seemingly been flirting from across the fence line, the attempt to pair them was made. Although their relationship got off to a rocky start, I’m happy to report they’ve been reunited and are now harmoniously coexisting. They even engage in play with one another and share meals. This companionship will almost certainly improve their quality of life in captivity. This pairing may not have happened, or could’ve been delayed indefinitely, if not for COVID-19, as the energies of the staff are often spread thin by the demands of the public.

Arrow, By Mark Dornblaser

Crisis precipitates change. Illiamna and Merlin’s newfound relationship is but one small example of how the current convergence of crises have forced us to (re)establish bonds of friendship and solidarity that help us survive, and, hopefully, flourish with one another. As for me, what I take away from my brief but intense confrontation with Illiamna is a realization that the precondition for Tricia and I’s ability to effectively respond to this conflict was the trust we had built both with the wolves and with each other. I had every confidence that her instructions were the right ones, and she knew that I could accomplish what she asked of me. This mutual confidence emanated from years of laboring together for the benefit of another species and learning how to communicate with nonhumans through the medium of our bodies. The impulse to care, to resolve conflict, became inscribed in our muscle memory. 

This is, I think, instructive for our times as conversations about the necessity of mutual aid and alternatives to state structures proliferate. The muscle memory of nonhuman care defies taxonomic boundaries and is also practiced between and among the human residents of M:W. It has become a sanctuary for people who are struggling under, and disaffected with, neoliberal capitalism, as well as members of the LGBTQ community, some of whom feel unsupported or unaccepted by their families. The impulse to care also extends beyond the confines of the sanctuary proper; one recent example is M:W’s support of the newly established Tenacious Unicorn Ranch, a nearby alpaca rescue run entirely by queer and trans people, which has been under threat by far-right militias and other reactionary groups. In this case there was an immediate recognition that our communities, our experiments in multispecies living, simply had to protect one another. And we were ready to do so, because we had been practicing. Maybe COVID-19 did restore some semblance of sanctuary—for all its contradictions—to M:W, or maybe it just revealed the reciprocal relationships that have always been at the heart of the place, which are now more vital than ever.

While I can’t say that my experiences at M:W prepared me for the pandemic (because what could?), they did help me recognize the necessity of regularly practicing care, building trust, and cultivating equitable and loving relations. They did remind me that such processes, while often occurring in subtle and mundane ways, accrete over time. In crisis, this accretion might help us have confidence in one another, and find solidarity across difference. This has been the case for me at least, and I trace this back to my time among wolves, where I was taught that sanctuary is not a place, but a practice.

Field Notes From the Present Blog Series by Dr. Nikki Usher (College of Media, Communications/Political Science)

“Tiny Homes in a Room of One’s Own”
By Dr. Nikki Usher (College of Media, Communications/Political Science)

For the holidays, I bought my wife a tiny tiny house kit.  

It sits, a promise of leisure time, a promise of personal space in a miniature box, and it is being built slowly…very slowly, with the spare moments carved out from parenting, research, teaching, and exercise (a genuine, if not enthusiastic, effort at self-care).

Photo of some of the Tiny Homes on sale at Art Mart, Champaign

The joke is that we’re Victorian ladies, trapped inside our homes and unable to leave.

She would have been the type to deal with her hysteria by building those tiny rooms you can find in museums. 

At the Art Institute of Chicago, the genre is best exemplified by the Thorne rooms that are decorated for the holidays. [Thorne herself was a 1930s artist with her own workshop, so these are more mythically Victorian rooms of feminist sublimination than actual ones, but bear with me for the case of reference]

These elaborate miniature rooms are built matchstick by matchstick, handcrafted porcelain dish by woven tiny persian rug, but there are also no people inside these homes — it is what separates them from children’s doll houses. In my much mythologized understanding of these miniatures, this makes the pain that inspired the labor so evident: these are not for play, but one of the few sanctioned expressions of creativity and expression these women had.  

Empty, perfect spaces that women trapped inside their gilded castles could call their own –all that they were allowed to dream of as free and under their control in a diorama-sized perspective– the literal instantiation of Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s The Yellow Wallpaper

This is not a joke, of course. That our present capitalist landscape has produced the context for a market for pre-built tiny houses so people can pass pandemic time building tiny houses. And that they are being micro-targeted to me, on my Instagram feed, during this pandemic, seems to be a particularly postmodern turn of events, given the origins of these tiny houses as a way to deal with tedium, depression, and a felt lack of actual personal space. [Again, this is more my own a-historical retelling, although you can see the feminist renarration of this act for the 21st century here.]

Unlike Thorne or any of the other women in the US and the UK (and elsewhere) who built these miniature rooms, we do not have time to actually build the homes. That’s the amusing bit of it – there is no time left to build brick by brick because the machinery of obligations that we owe to our institutions, our students, and ourselves. Trapped in our privilege, the way to deal is to buy a prefabbed version of the Victorian tiny house, a fantasy of some space we can call our own. But even that space (my wife’s is a greenhouse) is a copy of a copy, and I hear Adorno and Horkheimer shouting at me, judging the tiny tiny house version of a Yale lock. 

But it is that craving for space – I would like to think I’d have been the sad, poetic-Bloomsbury type of woman – that has me coming back to the one thing I miss so much, the one thing that is just so basic, the yearning of having a room of my own. I keep returning to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, though only conceptually – it sits on a shelf outside my office, a floor below – there’s nothing for me in there in my “real” life as a scholar of elite media and evil tech platforms. I haven’t opened the book, just thumbed its back, and remembered its contents. It is laughable to me that the reason I own this book is because it was on Harvard’s prefrosh summer reading list. That’s everything, isn’t it? That it is still applicable is a reminder of that continued and now accumulated privilege I carry with me. 

That said, still, even having an office in pandemic life, one from which to do at-home work, the epitome of pandemic privilege, that space is not my own. 

This week, my child decided to take over my desk. He has colonized my office, just as he has every space in the house, but this was the week where he sat down at my desk and took to typing on my computer (he cannot read, so “typing”). Most afternoons, I am primary parenting, but at some point I do need a Thursday, just a few hours on a Thursday, for an afternoon to be a professor, just one weekday afternoon.

I have kept him off of Zoom. He wishes his other mom had “ten-year” so she could play more. He thinks I have “thirteen-year.” 

So he sat, in my space, sucked in by ABC Mouse, a software program heavily marketed to parents and children as a learning tool. Some schools have even purchased bulk subscriptions for stay-at-home learning. 

The chatter was endless, the software is designed to be addicting, and he happily spent two hours narrating the quest for 150 tickets to buy an ABC Mouse dog. He has a real dog, sitting in a crate. That’s another trapped animal in a room, another source of guilt, but there’s only so much she can be left unsupervised without a puppy’s reign of terror unleashed on an unwitting couch, now bleeding its foam.

His best way of playing in our space is to model our labor, working on a computer, typing something — for what?  And then the guilt, the constant guilt of not doing enough, not being enough, making bad decisions – it all hits, my wanting him to leave my stuff, my space, alone.  Space for work? Why? 

This morning that I write this, I have space because we have broken the moral code and have hired a babysitter (half-vaccinated, like me, tested within twelve hours, like us, masked)…the office space now mine, his “pseudo” i-pad, “leap pad” case splayed on the floor while the hand-me-down device rests charging. This is free writing – for me, unpaid. Am I wasting my time? Am I not using my time that I am paying someone else to give to me? Am I filling my space the wrong way?

The guilt hits again like a wave, his voice outside my door, narrating a story of teddy bears and a stuffed giraffe. They all play parenting roles in his ongoing imaginary story: a large bear is a designated uncle, while the giraffe (Charlotte, a large FAO-Schwarz-inspired, Melissa and Doug-knockoff provided by the grandparents) cooks for the rest of the animals.

Why does the giraffe have to go on a survival mission to feed the stuffies, who have run out of food? More guilt, am I not a good parent? What is he not getting from me that he is asking of his stuffed animals to parent him? 

And all he wants is to play, play at being a grownup, playing at work, playing at being in this grown up space, and as he does, this room of my own I crave slowly fills with love, no longer mine, and while spoiled by traces of guilt, is undeniably better than being alone. 

Field Notes From the Present Blog Series By Dr. Anustup Basu (English)

“Some Reflections on the Webinar Explosion in South Asia in the Time of Covid”
Anustup Basu (English)

At this point we are well aware of the extent to which the ongoing pandemic has unsettled intellectual lives and disrupted academic relationships and rhythms. It has closed off spaces, isolated bodies, and scattered established institutional and collaborative arrangements. These latter have been and are being re-tooled and reconfigured, primarily by way of web-based technologies. As a person who grew up in a small North Bengal town, did not see a television set till he was ten years old, wrote his first essays with a fountain pen, typed his graduate applications on a Remington, and drafted the first email of his life at the ripe old age of 27, I appreciate the historical perspective that while we are not the first set of humans on earth to face a pandemic of this magnitude, the internet is one of the many existential advantages we have today that our ancestors did not. I say this with the necessary skepticism and critical detachment with which we should approach internet and social media cultures. For good reason, most of us expect some of the forced innovations of this time — like participating in a graduate seminar over Zoom or researching online instead of visiting a library — to be temporary. Some, including me, are also wary that the corporatized academy will try to preserve some emergency measures (like a drastically increased percentage of online education) as permanent cost-cutting fixtures for the future. Nevertheless, these reflections on the webinar form, based on recent experiences, are prompted by two considerations. First, it would be fair to say that so far, such platforms of engagement have not been accorded the professional prestige of traditional conferences and talks. The pandemic has given us pause to wonder whether we should perhaps alter or qualify our views on this matter. Secondly, whether, in some circumstances, the webinar can be conceived of as a mode of intellectual engagement with its own set of values, its political and moral economies, rather than as a virtual substitute for the real thing.  For instance, can it be seen as a form that may be deployed, with needful caution and skepticism, to critically address the international division of academic labor and initiate a new culture of exchanges with the global south?  

Over the summer and fall of 2020, I delivered seven invited webtalks for various institutions in India. I have given talks in India before, but I can say that had it been any other year, I would have ended up appearing only in a couple of premier institutions in the list: perhaps at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Ropar and the Center for Studies in Borders and Movements (CSBM). As for the rest, they are, from a metropolitan vantage point, obscure colleges and universities in the suburbs or rural quarters of West Bengal with modest to meager resources. Under normal circumstances, they would not have thought of asking either me or my various First World colleagues from Canada, UK, Germany or New Zealand who participated in these engagements. Conversely, in practical terms, we would perhaps not have been able to go, even if we wanted to. It would not just be a question of having funds to buy an air ticket. It would be the more elementary question of having an airport within a few hundred miles of the institution. In one case, I had to speak on a Sunday morning, when it was late evening in India, because the organizers had decided that this was the hour in the week when their local internet connection was at its most reliable.           

It is necessary to consider the state of uneven development in the Indian context to understand why exactly, in various ways and in different degrees, this was a novel experience not just for me or my former college-mate, Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee, now a professor at Warwick, but also scholars of a different generation like Partha Chatterjee or Dipesh Chakrabarty, as well as relative outsiders to immediate South Asian experience like Bill Ashcroft. Within a spectral reality that is bookended by slumdogs and millionaires — between brave new silicon valleys on the one hand, and the world’s largest hungry population on the other — higher education in India presents a stark picture of gross inequality. It features a handful of elite state and private institutions concentrated in major cities, developed suburbs, or colonial hill stations on the one hand, and a vast hinterland comprising thousands of colleges and universities lacking funds, amenities, infrastructure, and basic resources on the other. The divide is deep, historical, and runs along the lines of caste, class, gender, and borders separating the metropolis from the countryside. It is therefore not exactly the Global South we are talking about; rather it is a global south inside the erstwhile geopolitical global south of decolonization, neo-imperialism, and the Cold War. This is what is called a vernacular ‘Bharat’ inside an ‘India’ identified by the Anglophone knowledge system. 

In existentialist terms, my own position in this universe is a bit complicated, given my small-town origins. But after growing up in a small town, I went to an elite Indian university and then came to the United States for my doctoral education. Professional realities, family circumstances, and indeed, a lack of urgency and will have prevented me from returning to my hometown for more than two decades now, even though I visit metropolitan India almost every year. I now belong to a community of American-based intellectuals from South Asia. There is a game that I play from time to time, especially in big conferences like SALA or the annual affair in Madison, to reaffirm the essential homogeneity of this community. It pertains to whether one can place a complete stranger within three or four degrees of network separation, in terms of institutions, friends, colleagues, teachers, or students. So far it has worked out every single time; someone knows someone that I know, or someone is from somewhere that someone I know has been to. At the University of Illinois, we have had several PhD students from the subcontinent so far; most of them are not just from the same university, but from the same department that I went to. This whole phenomenon is frightening in a sense because ‘we’ – South Asians in the North American academy — in nominal terms represent a population of 1.4 billion people. It is not that ‘we’ in the first world academy do not have anything to do with that multifaceted universe in small town and rural India.  We take a deep, even conscientious anthropological and ethnographic interest in it. It is our object of study. But it would be fair to say that we are rarely able to engage in equitable transactions of knowledge with it. 

My seven engagements were a small droplet in a veritable flood of Indian webinars in the summer of 2020. I could gauge that through my social media feeds. This global network was itself established largely through Facebook. It was in that platform that I was initially approached by the organizers; a formal email arrived once I said a tentative yes. I understood quickly that the terms of engagement with the overall phenomenon were very simple: if you said yes to one, more requests would inevitably follow. I had quite a few more invitations that I had to turn down for one reason or the other. The talks were very well attended in each case, with hundreds of people from all over the subcontinent logging in, not just from all over India, but also Nepal, Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka. It was a radically mixed population that ranged from premier colleges and universities to disenfranchised faculty and students in the academic hinterland. In terms of North American parallels, it encompassed a population that included Ivy League coastal elites as well as people from the hundreds of community colleges that dot the landscape of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegies. Sounds too good to be true? Indeed, there was another aspect to this phenomenon.  

The excitement and the energy was palpable, but there is no reason to romanticize the webinar explosion itself. I was warned by reliable peers in India that the outbreak was, for a good part, being driven by a spirit of opportunistic academic entrepreneurship. Conference organizers were soliciting funds from India’s University Grants Commission (UGC), asking for unfair registration rates, and, in the process, either advancing their own professional interests, or fleecing government money. The audience too, to an extent, was a captive one in some cases, with junior faculty and part-time lecturers being compelled to register for a certain number of conferences in order to get promotion or salary increase points. I tried, and successfully managed to steer clear of anything that looked and sounded dubious. From the glut of announcements that arrived every day, I could see that a lot of the talks were what might be called ‘cliff note’ lectures on single classic texts or undergraduate-friendly surveys on periods and movements. Perhaps it would be unkind to generalize that sentiment; in some cases it came with a seriousness of purpose and an aspirational horizon which would be fulfilled if, one day, Gayatri Spivak agreed to discourse on Wild Sargasso Sea or Frederick Jameson on Dog Day Afternoon. There was another set on the pandemic itself, to which I contributed my bit on epidemics and governmentality, that is, on how Europe, in the age of high imperialism and maritime trade, instituted a new regime of power (involving mass health measures, hygiene, nutrition standards, public sanitation and waterworks etc.) to combat small pox and cholera. But this ‘bio-political’ regime of security against the disease also assumed a mass genocidal form in Hitler’s Nazi cult, when the gas chambers were set up to protect the health of the race and the body politic against Jewish infection. Then there were serious explorations of recent shifts in disciplines and new critical interfaces (Humanities and Science) solicited by an academic population who wanted to engage with such matters in earnest, but often suffered a ‘lag period’ when it came to accessing latest books and journals on such developments. Finally, there were occasions where scholars were asked to share their latest work, no matter on what subject that might be. Two of my talks were on Hindutva as Political Monotheism, my latest book from the Duke University Press, that came out in the fall of 2020. It was at this point that things got really interesting for me. On one occasion, an organizer cheerfully informed me via Facebook that a pirated pdf of my book was being widely circulated. He quite helpfully sent me a copy. I could see that the document had been carefully redacted before circulation. The title page and table of contents were missing.  It began with the relatively bland and innocuous acknowledgements section and thus, if seized by the new overtly communalized police in North India, would not, in the first glance, come across as material as seditious as War and Peace for example.

My book, Hindutva deals with a particularly toxic brand of Hindu nationalism that has assumed the form of a classic fascist movement in India. The persecution and outright murder of intellectuals and journalists like M. M. Kalburgi or Gauri Lankesh, the imprisonment of octogenarian poet Varvara Rao or the scholar and civil rights activist Anand Teltumbe, on charges that are impossible for any rational mind to accept (for example, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, seized from a personal collection of books, was produced as evidence of surefire sedition in court) are examples of the political reality of violence, intimidation, and censorship now prevalent. So it is against this backdrop that one of the organizers called me a couple of days before one of my Hindutva talks. Ever since it was publicized on social media, they had been inundated by requests for the Zoom password from unidentifiable sources outside academic circles. There was thus a concern that we would be “Zoom-bombed” by zealots who have, in recent years, disrupted seminars, trashed exhibits, destroyed artworks, and beaten up students and faculty. I found out that mysterious unaffiliated profile visitors to my academia.edu page had increased the total count by 143% in 24 hours; it would climb to 2,664% eventually. I was open to the idea of changing the title of my talk in order to avoid a vitiated atmosphere, but the noted historian, Tanika Sarkar, who was chairing the event, did not agree. The event was shifted to Streamyard instead of Zoom with a fresh set of posters etc., and went off smoothly. I was well aware that being in the United States, I was not in immediate danger, but the organizers were. On another occasion, when I was asked to speak, I asked the coordinator whether I should pick a relatively non-controversial portion of my book. After all, he was located in a sensitive region of the country. What he told me in response will remain with me forever: “As it is, we will not live long. Please speak about the most controversial part of your book.”   

My experience with this summer’s webinar explosion in India was sobering and rewarding. I say this with a keener awareness of a mantle of paternalistic authority and entitlement inevitably and historically bestowed upon me by the international division of labor. There was no magical coming together of worlds. During Q&A sessions it became clear on occasions that sections of my audience did not understand me fully, nor I them. Sections of the audience itself did not understand each other sometimes. But if there was a poverty of conceptual language in the middle, all of us shared it, albeit in different ways. It alerted me to the quest for a new political vernacular in the era of globalization crisis and climate change that all of us should participate in, to the best of our abilities. This is an overall impelling – many-armed, eclectic, confused, and, at times animated by monstrous energies and babel – that comes from a new cartography of the global south. That is, the different global souths in India, in the United States, and elsewhere.