October 30, 2012

Remembering Agee in the time of Despairing America

I first wrote this as a class commentary in Michael Dove's class on Disaster, Degradation, Dystopia in 2008. Then wrote a longer version, based on a re-read of the text, in an ethnography class in 2009. Reworking it as a blogpost now, for I think it speaks to the moment of despair in the metropolitan locus of America.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
- James Agee and Walker Evans

James Agee’s writing on small-farmers in the cotton country of Alabama in southern United States comes across after a second read as war on words, as a war of words. Maybe even a festival of words. And not as much a journalistic or ethnographic account on the lives of poor farming families.

It is ironic that at this unearthly hour in the night, reflecting on Agee’s text and Evans’ images, I find myself listening to an angsty Bangladeshi late teen popstar sing:
            Shobdo tomar dhushor moleen besh
            Bajaar dore bikou doshta haate
            Chhotphote paye elomelo paaychari
            Shobdo ami ghumobo tomar shhatthe.          

                Words, you are dusty, ragged
                You sell yourself in the market in ten hands.
                 Restless footsteps here and there
                 Words, I want to sleep with you.

James Agee portrays a somewhat erotic relationship with the written word in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. He challenges all possible norms of publishable writing. He never gets to the point. He rambles, repeats, endlessly expands on a theme or a metaphor. He talks to his audience casually. He talks to his subjects. Casually. He deviates. Meanders.

I skimmed through Agee’s book for a class on the politics of writing in Michael Dove’s class, and vaguely remember the heated arguments about authorial/ethnographic responsibility in that class. Re-reading Agee, keeping in mind the mandate of the class of having to comment on his writing, opened many new windows into Agee’s perspective. I found many parts of the book annoyingly lengthy, unnecessarily descriptive, betraying in many places an adolescent fascination for the ‘literary’.  But Agee’s textual conversation is one that I cannot disaggregate simply as having an argumentative component, an ethnographic component, and a desparingly reflexive component. It is impossible to compartmentalise the literary, the descriptive, the analytical, the babble in Agee’s writing. For it is all of that all at once.

Agee journeyed into Alabama as a young Harvard graduate, in an infant journalistic career in the summer of 1936. He writes in the Preface:
 Page. VIII

Before any acknowledgements, prefatory material, publishers’ paraphernalia are displayed, the book throws at its audience close to two dozen photos taken by Walker Evans. Agee defies the moral fabric of a ‘book’ from the very start.

I strongly disliked the overly self-reflexive early pages in the book where he is flamboyant and yet apologetic for taking on the flippant and artful luxury of writing. About real people. For assuming a certain tenor of moral banter to justify the brutal entry and voyeurism into people’s moral, emotional, aesthetic lives that he undertakes. He adds though a sardonic two pages about the brutality and audacity of the business of books.

What follows is a most gracious inquiry into the experience, if albeit, reified, of being human. He creates beauty in the pathos of the lives of three sharecropping families- Woods, Ricketts and Gudger. Eccentric, exaggerated and disarmingly endearing character. In doing so, he deliberately the questions surrounding ethics of representation. He argues that one would rather border on the fictional/the imaginary, than revel the confidence of reporting ‘fact’. For what is ‘fact’ about a person’s interiority anyway?

He describes in great detail the range of discomfort that is negotiated by him and Evans, their intermediaries and the common people. My favourite part in the book is his account of silent and hostile conversation he and Evans had with a local band that was called in to perform for them.

A good part of the book is divided into the predictable categories in which a predictable ethnography of cotton sharecroppers would have been divided into. Agee talks about their houses, their clothing, their food, their work, their education in separate sub-sections. Almost sardonically. The architecture/ housing section is written in careful detail. Making for almost boring reading. And pushing forth a powerful comment on the aesthetic life of dire poverty. Agee’s unraveling of the aesthetic/material world of these families subtly weaves in a philosophical argument about deprivation and despondency without throwing in any theoretical jargon.

He oscillates between the description of the families’ attempts to aesthetically enact ‘humanity’ within deprivation, and the attempt to script despair, helplessness and daily experiences of shame that inform their lives. He scoffs at pacifist analyses of poverty that pin the experience of deprivation down to a sense of ‘cultural’ comfort of the Other.

I find the most interesting and troubling, the section on labor, where Agee goes to great lengths to describe the mundaneness of physical labor. He describes the action of tilling and planting cotton in great detail, in a way that would invite Marxist enthusiasm. But his overemphasis of the immediacy of hard physical labor seems colored by intellectual romances of livelihoods that involve hard labor. Needless to say, Agee is a victim of bourgoise romance in his intense self-reflexivity, but his quest for the aesthetic and emotional lives of deprivation pan out his canvas making it far wider than the ordinary self-reflexive anthropologist. Does he achieve his goal? I can’t quite say. I sense Agee to be having a parallel goal of expressing his contempt for the ‘written word’. With which he sets out to capture the lifeworld of the Other, all the while knowing that the only thing he can do is weave an aesthetically pleasing account for the introspective metropolitan consumer of published writing. The last few pages of continuous words are meant, I believe, to convey just that. The impossibility of his task. And the aesthetics of impossibility that he takes refuge in.


Many hats have tipped on this shore.
It roared on the night of gold
Purred on the glimmer of sand
On the nights that salt laughs buoyed about.
Paint slick on the decks
Tar on the fingers.

Our friends gave us gold and silver
Took from us salt and silk.
We smelt them close
Before they went out.
The silks of our bosoms.
The bosoms of our women
Scented and pink.
Well, not quite,
but nice on warm nights by the jetty
on wet wood and tar hands
on wet lips and knot hair
our legs knotted.
Moongphali was wet now
No fun when it’s wet like that.
On salt evenings, she un-knotted
unfurled and sailed.
Sumatra, canton and lisbon – they said.

We sold moongphali on the ferry
to the city.
And sang songs to foreigners
children ponytails and waistpouches.
We sang to them for salt and silk
Silk we smell in our mosquito-nets 
on such salt nights.
It is all so sad – they say – history.
It is, we say, and show them our postcards.

July 25, 2012

October 20, 2012

The Hilltract of Revolution

The production friend who accompanied me to the show of Chittagong, pointed, after the first ten minutes that the ‘finish’ of the film wasn’t quite right, it seemed more like a telefilm rather than a product tailored for big screen. Chittagong, by ex-NASA filmmaker Bedabrata Pain, tells the story of Jhunku, a boy born with a moderately silver spoon, turns against the alignments of his father (a lawyer who works closely with the imperial establishment) and joins the order of Master-da, Surjo Sen. The film details the training and heroic acts and events of a boy-army raised in the jungles on primitive armaments. Clearly, the chapter of revolutionary nationalism in the Indian nationalist histories.  This is also a prehistory of the Indian forest-insurgent – Maoist, ethnic and language insurgency, timber smuggler among others. Small capsules of rebellion, mostly teenaged ones, are harnessed into a sizeable machine of armed resistance. Sovereign power is broken down so its shards can be appropriated for the new mushrooming sovereigns. An implicit history of power told through the lens of insurgency.  Bengali gunmen of Chittagong, fight, on the frontier, with Mongoloid men (only some British men) - recruits, presumably of the Gurkha regiment. A counterscript of Gandhian nationalism, aswing in the 1930s, is woven.

The growing and strengthening teenaged boy becomes the key metaphor in this script – one that is put through ordeals, solidifed and tested again. Like steel hardening from ore. New subjects are created for the tentacles of power to operate upon – women are inducted. Na├»ve, soft ones hardening into the mould of the conscientious objector – the politicized receptacle of power. The story begs for a basic point of conflict, or an unexpected turn of events. The rhythm of the forest doesn’t quite beat to the lyrics of revolution. The scene of a circle of trainee revolutionaries warming themselves to a bonfire, doesn’t quite emit the fragility of homesick youth. But Pain manages to strike a chord somewhere  in me, prodding me to think of an imaginary young grandfather, well-read and politically aware, the only graduate in his village.  Funny, there is never a mention of the Bengali place-name Chattogram, whose dense dialect was often spoken in our household. A fire-eyed girl strikes a lifelong chord with a gangly boy. Rivers and mountains speak consent to this covenant. The covenant fuels the Tehbhaga movement, years later, where peasants raid the imperial grain-storehouse.  Jhunku, son of a barrister, remains their leader. Were they all Bengalis – the faceless serfs? Were there no Gramscian ‘organic’ intellectuals risen from among the toiling class? Jhunku grows up a metonym for the organic spread of sovereignty – when the shell breaks, the most powerful of the powerless grab at the grains. Pain offers historical astuteness about India and empire, if not visual indulgence of the Wasseypur or Barfi kind.

October 17, 2012

This Fissured Land

It is a time when hidden creases in Bengali consciousness come to the fore. A preppy lad declares on a billboard on the EM bypass that this is first pujo after having a started a ‘live-in’ relationship. A range of such faces of the hip Bengali peep put of the precarious geography alongside the EM Bypass that has been included into the cityscape only recently. An anxious public is cited in these billboards, that speak of a hip new tabloid, a cellphone, an adventure holiday and mother worship. We are on the ball, they say. Look at us in our trekking gear and with our ‘live-in’ partners. We’ve crossed some more hoops in the modernist training manual. Glory to our fathers who taught us to jump hoops in the nineteenth century. And we wear red and white saris, and let our tresses down in the autumn air. For the mother returns now. To address our fears and fantasies. We like this manufactured sentimentality. So we don’t have to scratch our bruises and reflect. Times are a’changin. As we make a choc-a-bloc schedule for the five-day festivity, replete with saris and halters and friends and lovers and compassion and compradorness. We will feel a little more alive when the mother comes. We hope. We must. We hang in there, in the muggy air.