I’ve not visited this blog, let alone write anything in it, in a long while. But here’s a one-off posting on some of the issues at the top of my mind while I try to churn out a book précis in the next couple of weeks to send out to publishers. I have till about mid-July to finish most of the manuscript – why mid-July? Cause that’s when I teach a 4 week (5 days a week) summer course, and that’s also when my mother will be in town. I need to teach in summer because, well, I need to be recompensed for the lean, hot, dry months (the lifestyle of a junior professor is expensive: you try putting together a wardrobe for the next colloquium or faculty meeting or conference and tell me that preparing for these exclusive see-and-be-seen paparazzi-plagued events is not expensive: you probably will try to say it’s not expensive but I’ll simply ignore you).

Putting together the précis has clarified and even transformed the way I think about the substantive relevance and disciplinary/methodological/historiographical orientation of my book manuscript, which is an account of early cinema and 19th century visual culture (mostly photography) in South Asia (mostly Bengal, but no, not about Bengali modernity, don’t worry).

The core problem for me has been acquiring enough distance from the manuscript. At the broadest level, I think I’ve learned to move beyond a narrative and descriptive historiography of early cinema in South Asia, and its pre-history in photography and other screen practices, towards a problem-oriented historiography. I’m relying of course on François Furet’s famous distinction between the two kinds of historical writing.

Put simply, narrative histories are accounts of “what happened.” But this preliminary and presumptive objective results in a cascading series of restrictions on what this history can and cannot do. This history is defined not “by an object of study but by a type of discourse”, Furet tells us (54). If the focus is on “what happened”, then the historian is choosing to keep alive what he or she chooses from the past, rather than reconstructing objects from the past. So rule number one: narrative history “deals with moments, not objects” (55).

Rule number two: Those moments (or events) are only intelligible along the axis of narrative. This is what William Sewell would call a “path dependent” conception of the event. Or as Furet puts it, “all history of events is teleological history; only the “ending” of the history makes it possible to choose and understand the events that compose it” (56).

We need not of course accept Furet’s seeming recourse to “experience” as an ineluctable and determining ground for narrative history: “As [the event] belongs to the realm of experience, of what has happened, it cannot be organized or even simply named except in relation to the external and general significance of the historical period of which it is one of the features” [55]. But his broader point still stands: narrative histories are unable to offer alternative conceptualizations of the event that are not path-dependent; and that are not bound to teleology. Arguing as I did once as a grad student that the earliest years of the cinema in South Asia, as well as its “pre-history”, remain unexplored hardly frees me from narrative historiography.

For me, the point of interest in Furet’s observations is the difficulty of reconstructing objects within the parameters of a narrative history. And the choice and contrast, between objects and moments, so perfectly nailed by Furet, encapsulates the problem of how to pitch my manuscript: Pitch it as an early and pre-cinema book, which would essentially involve writing a narrative history? Or should I pitch it as a genealogy of an idiosyncratic media-present laden with objects that serve as, at best, mnemonic devices for the historian (I’m quoting myself here) and only in the most tenuous and unstable way as an archive?

[Archives involve some sense of futurity, some assumption that the materials in an archive will be consulted at some point in the future, as Paula Amad as observed in her wonderful recent book. If so, then the objects in my study point towards a past not in order to construct a historical tracing of their persistence into the present, but as a provocation to explore the past as a storehouse of still uncertain futures, rife with counter-factual outcomes at every turn, and of the present as a momentary resting point towards still unknown lines of flight into uncertain media futures.]

The objects I’m referring to here, are assemblages of man, machine (often vintage in provenance), expertise, client/audience, and location, that are at the crux of the micro-practices of traveling film exhibition and fairground photography in contemporary India. It is this assemblage, which coexists contemporaneously with other micro-practices of “new media” and the macro-institutions of the cinema and television in India,  whose “origins” I seek in an earlier historical moment, in my manuscript. In fact actually, I’m not interested in origins. I’m interested in a genealogy of these micro-practices starting perhaps in the mid-19th century, with the arrival of photography. As Deleuze put it: the events that restore a thing to life are not the same as those that gave birth to it in the first place. (No question of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, here). Why then have these samizdat micro-practices survived?

An immediate problem here is the structure of the book manuscript: the first half pertaining to the circulation of apparatus; the second with the circulation of images. Both are interrelated components of a genealogy of practices that produce value, confer viability, to film and photography. I consider both as objects in circulation that outline, as Patrick Geary put it, the “cultural parameters of commodity flow”. But I don’t think I’ve quite pinned down a problem about images that is equivalent to, and as compelling for me as the one I posed about apparatus above. Perhaps the issue is of how images, as they circulate, reveal the frangible boundaries of an imperial iconocracy. But if the circulation of apparatus affords important insights into questions of obsolescence, of patronage, of material culture, what comparable insights does the circulation of images carry, that, together with the first half would give the manuscript an overall conceptual unity beyond the dubious one of apparatuses-that-produce- images? Technology and the logic of technical transformations spanning photography, film, and even print, is important for me and I shed considerable light on the necessity of paying attention to this aspect of photographic and film history: and it does tie the two sections together as an underlying thread, but only as a set of events that  enable me to explore the issues and problems I want to explore, not as an end in themselves.

At least one of the overarching circumstances that shaped film and photographic history in South Asia, is common to both apparatus and image. I’m referring to South Asia’s imbrication in the networks of empire: its status as, on the one hand, an emplaced entrepôt, and on the other, as one among numerous interrelated points sustaining flows of apparatus and image along multiple scalar and spatial registers. This shaped the genealogy of India’s idiosyncratic media present, and the genealogy of the apparatus that has survived today. But it was also instrumental in the way images circulated, in the way they became material objects whose values were contested, and became embroiled in questions of cultural authenticity, originality, authorship, at a moment of heightening nationalist tension in the early 20th century. But I’m really not sure I want to say that the book is ultimately about a “struggle over geography”, as Stephen Legg put it elsewhere. Then the technical transformations also resulted in the emergence of snapshot photography, photojournalism, home movies, photo-illustrated books, and point to the fascinating intersections between three crucial methods of mechanical reproduction that haven’t been really studied in their own right. I want to insert these “marginal” genres and formats into regimes of value, into networks of circulation, as I do with the apparatuses, but I’m not sure how at the moment.

At any rate, all of this is simply evidence enough that I have shifted decisively from a narrative historiography (I hope), to a problem-oriented historiography: one in which the historian chooses what to examine from the past rather than presuming to narrate it as it actually happened; one that therefore requires a “minimal amount of explicit conceptual elaboration” (Furet, 57); one that breaks away then from the unique event and instead chooses to explain a problem; one that requires “inventing” sources since problems after all require pertinent sources or imaginatively shaping an archive (now in the more conventional sense of a storehouse of “evidence” that any historian needs) where one might not readily exist for the problem at hand; and finally, one in which – gasp! – the conclusions are closely bound “to the verification procedures upon which they are based and with the intellectual constraints imposed by those procedures” (Furet, 57). This is true of narrative history too, but as I’ve already noted, Furet seems to think that narrative history has a transcendental referent – that of experience in time and the experience of time, that he believes problem-oriented histories do not have. But nevertheless it may be worthwhile retaining some sense of surprise at the observation that problem-oriented histories require “inventing sources” and that their conclusions are dependent on the nature of the archives and the procedures used, to draw on this “invented” archive. More on the archives that have sustained my research, certainly more on Deleuze, and more perhaps on micro-history. Check back in a year.