Monday, 30th October 2017

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Planned Violence: The great wall within

Contributors to this volume seek to identify socio-cultural inequalities intrinsic to urban infrastructural planning

By Deeptanil Ray
  • Published 27.09.19, 6:34 PM
  • Updated 27.09.19, 6:34 PM
  • 3 mins read
Perspective Map of Fort Worth, 1891 Wikimedia Commons

Planned Violence invokes Frantz Fanon’s view of the colonial city as a divided world, a spatial template for segregation. It invites attention to the less acknowledged role of urban infrastructural planning, which perpetuates the exclusion and “planned violence” of the colonial project in once-colonial cities and newer dank urban spaces across the world. Like all works of postcolonial literary criticism, this book sees itself as interventionist: it envisages “a literary infrastructure from which new modes of resistance might be mobilized” — at least, the editors presume so.

Contributors to this volume seek to identify socio-cultural inequalities intrinsic to urban infrastructural planning, as well as understand the disruption and repossession of the exclusivist zones by ordinary people — peddlers, squatters, migrants, “placehackers” and protesters who spontaneously downplay infrastructure by ‘being’ in Tahrir Square, next to the Wall in Jerusalem, on Wall Street. The identifying manoeuvres, however, are less inspiring. Most of the essays are extremely self-conscious; they exemplify the literary critics’ characteristic mode of ‘intervention’ in the “capitalocene”: through readings of colonial and postcolonial novels. Influenced by the site of the university, their authors operate within conventions and ‘rules of the game’ accepted by peer groups in the looking-glass worlds of the metropolitan academies, and without the deep emotional turmoils witnessed in Fanon, Edward Said, or for that matter, Henri Lefebvre.

Often, the ethico-political agenda espoused in the book’s introduction becomes a fleeting, mercurial business of predication: a literary critic wanting to connect dots between literature and infrastructural planning becomes too caught up in the act of academic performance so as to lose focus on the issue at hand. Thus, an essay promising an exposition of the “Literary Urban Imaginings of Illegal Migrant Lives in the Global North” offers — “in relation to Michael Weinstock’s definition of infrastructure” — yet another uninspired reading of Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss. Apart from boredom, this ensures that the real-life literary imaginings of flesh-and-blood migrants in the Global North are relegated to background noise as the essayist, without sufficient sociological or architectural query, validates a certain hierarchy of meanings and calls it ‘real’. Another essay stretches the ‘postcolonial’ metaphor to its extremes by locating ‘language as infrastructure’ in the science fiction worlds of China Miéville, a white British novelist. Three essays break away from the project-driven imperative of this collection: Alex Tickell’s critique of the “caricatured version of civic experience” in contemporary Indian English fiction; Michael Rubenstein’s study of water as sign and symbol in Irish modernism; and Hanna Baumann’s explorations of East Jerusalem through the works of the Palestinian visual artist, Khaled Jarrar.

Why use “post/colonial”? The editors explain that this formulation points to the enduring nature of spatial violence: it “draws out for us the historical continuities of the colonial within the postcolonial, especially in its infrastructural guises.” But what happened to the good old hyphen in the “post-colonial”? Or the hair-splitting need for its absence thereof in the run-together “postcolonial” of the mid-1990s, following Bill Ashcroft? And why no one cared for typographical consistency, either Ashcroft in his tome, or the contributors to this volume?

Planned Violence, quite inadvertently then, invites attention to the use of the typographical device of the “solidus”, also known as the “slash”(/). Derived from the virgula suspensiva (a precursor to the modern comma in Western manuscript hands), the solidus found historical continuance due to the needs of mathematics for marking fractions), and the more pressing economic need of colonial-era printers in England and the colonies (for fixing the British shilling as a currency symbol). One has the suspicion that the current popularity of the solidus, perhaps, has something to do with its great “Other” — the violent “backslash”(\) popularized by Microsoft through MS-DOS, and still in use in computers of all alterity to distinguish between folders in an intrinsically hierarchic file system architecture. In the here-and-now world of deeply spun webs, frozen hyperrealities, privileges of access and echo chambers, the backslash perpetuates the unpleasant hierarchy of the world-as-file: an unimaginative imagination of the world represented as a system of ever-expanding dark filing cabinets. The solidus acts out a spectral hiatus: it sets the boundaries of web pages through its occurrence in the URLs; through its absent presence as a separator in broken web pages and linkrots, it reminds us that all obvious overarching structures of comprehension are better understood as problematic constructs.

In brief, the solidus is the new politically-correct in “post/colonial” studies. Be very wary of using the backslash, though.

Planned Violence: Post/Colonial Urban Infrastructure, Literature and Culture, edited by Elleke Boehmer and Dominic Davies, Palgrave Macmillan, Euro 99.99

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