In July 2019, I will join the Department of Art History at UCLA as Assistant Professor in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European art. With this appointment, I will return to academia from a very different path on which I embarked on July 31, 2017, when I began a 16-month stint as Community Development Director for the Town of Bennington, Vermont. Rural southern Vermont is one of the most Lynchian landscapes in which I have ever lived. Here, I could look above and lose myself in the majestic procession of the clouds and moments later be jolted by their foreboding shadows as they animated the mountains below.
Life in rural Vermont is a daily performance of the picturesque—what art historians might call the mediation of history through landscape. One way to describe my responsibility as a Community Development Director would be to say that I was tasked to grapple with the challenges of a present in which history is naturalized as landscape—what some might reductively call “decline.” As a scholar of the interconnected histories of art and visual culture in eighteenth-century Britain, South Asia, and France, I have learned from and contributed to a growing South Asian historiography that studies the eighteenth-century fragmentation of the Mughal Empire through lenses other than that of “decline.” Relatedly, I have traced how eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophical debates about the origins of language link an aesthetics of breath to the vitality of black bodies. I thus came to understand my role as Community Development Director as one of fostering a culture of \ ˌas-pə-‘rā-shən \ [aspiration], because there is no vitality without the release of breath.
In Vermont time, which starts for many (primarily those descended from European settlers) in 1749 and is measured in durations of generational belonging to this region, my sixteen months counted as a \’stint\: that voiceless release of breath whose quick and hard closure marks its enunciation, that is, its duration. And yet, for me, those were sixteen life-changing months. Writing about why is neither the closure nor the reflection that makes sense at this moment. Instead, The Rambling’s invitation to share a list of what I read during this time has lead me to retrace some of the lessons, joys, and pains from those months without having to take full inventory of them.
In my life as a bureaucrat, lists were endless tallies and enumerations of things “to do.” But a \’list\ is also a release of breath, one that—unlike a stint—prolongs its duration by playfully deferring its own closure. Often, during those sixteen months, I read books and articles that I enjoyed, slowly and in tandem, because I didn’t want them to end. They accumulated around me, like the “to do” post-its that proliferated around my office desktop screen. There were books and articles in front of the couch, next to the bed, and on the dining table. They seemed to be everywhere except on my desk (at home), that relic of my academic life. And, in the constellations that they created across my home and in my mind, these texts began to give form to some of the ideas of community that I found myself trying to understand (embrace? challenge? accept?) both in my municipal job and in my own book project.
Lauren Berlant, “The Commons: Infrastructures for Troubling Times” (2016)
My friend Kris Cohen shared this essay with me, I think, in sympathetic response to a text that I sent him complaining about the bureaucracy and misanthropy that often overwhelms public infrastructure projects such as the creation of parks, sidewalks, bike lanes, etc. In the geography of public spaces, the commons are typically those in which people are expected to transcend their differences and forge connections on the basis of what they have in common. Infrastructures are the material, physical, and social links for such conveyance. Berlant counters the language of identification implicit in these configurations and notes the tragic function of acclimatization that is the conventional (modern?) response to “sensory saturation and physical exhaustion.” Instead, she traces examples from poetry and film of formal relations in which constituents (an expression that she doesn’t use but that gains political and social force in light of her essay) move with and bear the space of their differences with each other and with the world. Berlant’s provocation to think of the commons as infrastructure rather than public space especially resonated with me. The latter invites rules of admission; think of all the things one isn’t allowed to do in public parks. The former, in Berlant’s iteration, puts us into relations of movement. It is in accepting movement out-of-step with one another that we can endure the world without acclimating to it.
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (2016)
I picked up this book after I read Amia Srinivasan’s beautiful review of it in the LRB. Godfrey-Smith offers a moving defense of the ocean by tracing in the nervous system of cephalopods an evolutionary history of consciousness that also sheds light on that of our own. He argues that consciousness is not the manifestation of an a priori reason; instead, it is among the many forms of subjective experience borne of how cephalopods and humans have (re)organized themselves internally in habituating to the world. As I looked at the books scattered around my home, the sprawling body of the octopus struck me as an image of the sensory dispersion that belies any unified experience.
Graham Swift, Waterland (1983)
Swift’s novel transformed my relationship to the nineteenth-century English landscape painter John Constable, even though Swift’s book is not at all about Constable. However, Waterland ruminates on the relationship between landscape and history, a subject of enduring interest to Constable, and is set in the Fenlands, not far from where Constable lived and painted in Suffolk County in the southeast of England. Swift’s novel, in which the history of industrialization is told through a history of land drainage (and, through a parallel history of brewing, an account of how humans use drinking to profit from and cope with such drainage), shares a singular insight about the amphibian lives that Fenlanders lead as they battle to retain the land that’s sliding into the sea. Swift made me linger over the sluices and locks and muddy banks of Constable’s paintings like I never had before, and see in the grimy aesthetic and materiality of his paintings their sense of place. I wondered how we might describe the landscapes of this amphibian painter. Perhaps the theater of the clouds offered Constable a gasp of breath from the eternal (modern?) drama of land and water in which he was immersed.
Carol B. Stack, All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community (1975)
For most people in Bennington, it made little difference whether or not my work was in economic or community development. Typically, the former is measured in terms of property tax revenues, employment rates, and job creation, but surely, as I was often asked, the two were inter-related? One expression that I often heard and could never bring myself to repeat was “generational poverty.” That expression seemed to suggest that impoverishment was an outcome of inertia rather than ongoing structural disenfranchisement. Stack’s book, although written nearly forty-five years ago, has tragically if unsurprisingly not aged in some important ways. Its findings on racism, dispossession, and survival still ring true. One of Stack’s insights particularly stood out to me: that a condition of surplus is essential for moving out of poverty. All Our Kin poignantly traces the structural forces that make such surplus impossible, including the expedient cancellation of forms of assistance to individuals/families should they experience even the slightest improvement (that expression itself being a misleading one) in their circumstance. Stack astutely prefers the term “equity” to “surplus” in the book. Surplus, after all, as the recent subprime mortgage crisis attests, was the promise of predatory lending—and it only led to more dispossession.
Khadija Mastur, Aangan/The Women’s Courtyard, trans. Daisy Rockwell (2018)
About a year and a half or so ago, I asked my friend Daisy if she had heard of an Urdu novel called Aangan. It was a ridiculous question to pose to an individual who has been tirelessly translating Partition novels from Hindi and Urdu into English for years, and who taught me to love Vermont as Vermontistan. Daisy had not only heard of Aangan, but was in the middle of completing a new English translation of the novel. I received my signed copy from her in the Fall. It took me about eight months to read a novel that, when I picked it up, I never wanted to put down. We often treasure books for how they transport us to worlds other than our own. Although Aangan unfolds through exchanges between its protagonist Aaliya and other characters (all family members), I mostly read the novel as conversations between Aaliya and her mother. Sometimes we’re not ready to end our conversations with our mothers. Especially when we never figured out a way to talk to them while they were living.
Zirwat Chowdhury joins the Department of Art History at UCLA as Assistant Professor in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European Art in July 2019. She is currently working on a book manuscript that traces within the intertwined networks of eighteenth-century British and South Asian art and visual culture an alternative history to the late Enlightenment conceptualizations of common sense and sympathy.
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