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Tenth International Conference

Thinking Territory: Affect and Attachment towards Land in South Asia

16-19 December 2007

A Report


We as human beings have always shared an intrinsic though atypical relationship with our territory, and in particular with land. This relationship, as documented in the histories of several cultures and civilizations is reverberated through different ideas, expressions and experiences of attachment, affect, loss and memory. In some way, territory is an effect of complex discourses and local narratives that deal with affect and attachment, longing and belonging, homelands and lost lands. It is such experiences and expressions of affect and attachment that transform spaces into places, real as well as imaginary, and which eventually induce the concept of dwelling as basic to our life and imagination. Politically, the process of territorialization, apart from expressing feelings of belonging and attachment, introduces an important facet in the collective understanding of land in terms of community, nation-state, and culture. 


Such an understanding and imagination of territory and/as attachment raise certain questions: How do material spaces get affectively transformed into places in which one dwells, with love and care, and for which people suffer and die? How do we explain and make legitimate the immense capacity of territories to summon the love of those who dwell in it? How ought we to conceptualize and respond to the logic of conflict and hate which emerge from such affect and attachment to land? How do we comprehend the possibility of a land without affect and attachment? What then is a non-place or a non-territory? How does one relate the enchanted poetry of territory with the prosaic languages of the social sciences? How does one understand and respond to the constant contravening relationship between local and global aspects of land and territory? And how do we arrive at a reconceptualization of territoriality which, by respecting and recognizing the centrality of affect and attachment, transcends the dominant statist perspective of land as geography?  


In an attempt to understand and respond to some of these concerns the Forum on Contemporary Theory, in collaboration with the Department of English, Goa University, organized and held its tenth international conference on “Thinking Territory: Affect and Attachment towards Land in South Asia” between 16th and 19th December 2007 in Goa. Goa today is a state wherein land and territory have emerged as the most important sites of conflict and contestation over issues of development, redistribution and recognition. Accordingly situating the conference at Goa gave added meaning and worth to the discourse.


The conference was conceptualized as well as convened by Sumathi Ramaswamy, Professor of History, Duke University, North Carolina, USA. In her thematic introduction, presented at the inaugural session and chaired by Professor Dilip Deobagkar, the Vice-Chancellor of Goa University, Professor Ramaswamy underscored the issues of territoriality underlying our contrasting social realties, social histories and place-making. Reading from different contexts and narratives of land and territory, she demonstrated how space and/as geography ought to gain precedence over time and/as history so that ‘spaces’ get transformed into ‘places’. She elegantly teased out the place of affect and attachment underlying the relationship between land and history in South Asia.


The conference opened with an eloquent and persuasive keynote address by Dipesh Chakrabarty, Professor of History, Department of History and South Asian Studies, University of Chicago, USA titled “Places and Non-Places: Where Does Thought Come From?” Professor Chakrabarty, while developing a critical reading of land and affect sought to compare the idea of place with that of non-place. According to him, a place may be defined in terms of dwelling, rootedness, (be)longing and cultural traces: a non-place is one which is rid of historical and cultural continuity, which can be achieved through the idea of loss or the modern scientific processes of instrumental rationality and abstract reason. Employing Martin Heidegger’s notion of time and displacement Professor Chakrabarty elegantly brought out the overlapping relationship between place and non-place. He introduced and developed the idea of the politics of ‘movement’, whether of culture or of capital as a crucial determinant in the identification of place and non-place. He demonstrated how the political movement of culture and capital from the west as ‘place’ contributed to the consolidation and sustenance of colonialism and capitalism respectively in the ‘non-place’ of the non-west. According to Professor Chakrabarty it is such movement as well as the shifting logic of places/non-places that constitute a principal characteristic of present-day capitalist societies where cultural differences are transformed into and read as preferences. The question for contemporary projects of theorizing however, as rightly suggested by Professor Chakrabarty, is: can thought transcend the place of its origin? To use the title of his address: “where does thought come from?”  In response, Chakrabarty argues in favor of distinguishing between a subject-oriented history and a species-oriented history. He suggested that thought ought to be contextualized in ‘places’ and histories of rootedness and dwelling. Through his argument, Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty offers a compelling conceptual perspective for exploring and understanding critically the idea and concept of territoriality for our times.   


Contributing to the richness and substance of the conference were three plenary sessions on different though equally relevant aspects of the relationship between territoriality and affect. Shuddhabrata Sengupta, a fellow of Sarai, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, in his plenary address titled “Wanderlust and Farsickness: Travelers, Horizons and the Longing for Distance” engaged with a nuance reading of longing which he labels “farsickness.”  Farsickness here represents the longing and desire for displacement, distances and wandering. It also represents the imagination of the world wherein the distinction between the conquest of space and the desire for space is manifest.  It involves the existential and experiential feeling of distant lands. The idea of farsickness then serves to explain and help comprehend the limits of emotion and attachment to territory. Subverting the language of belonging and affect, Sengupta revisits the politics of displacement and space as contributing to and marking the authenticity of mapping, affect and attachment, and making sense of the self and/in the world. Differentiating the idea of farsickness from the logic of globalization, Sengupta argues that farsickness does not suggest the movement of the local to the global; rather it suggests the engagement with the world that is located outside one’s own framework. The question that such a notion of farsickness compels, according to Sengupta is how does one attempt to set foot on a land which is unknown and unfamiliar? 


Professor R. Radhakrishnan of the Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of California, Irvine, USA in his plenary address on “Gendered Heterotopia: Space and Place in Ambai’s Veetin Maalayil Oru Samayalarai” engaged with the distinction between sovereign and experiential but non-sovereign spaces. Drawing from Foucault’s understanding of heterotopia and other spaces, Radhakrishnan reads the notions of gender as performance and the power of a resistant feminism in the work of Ambai. He underscores the presence of valid distinction between sovereign spaces and phenomenological non-sovereign spaces. According to him, such heterotopias appear more as placeless places even though it may be possible to indicate them in reality. The notable aspect here, he argues, is where one is not – in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface. Radhakrishnan here makes an innovative exploration into the intersection between Foucault’s theoretical discourse and Ambai’s fiction to trace modes of solidarity between utopianism of feminist theory and transgression in literature.


The plenary address by Professor Lee Schlesinger of the Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor titled “Lok and Location: Peopling Places, Placing People, and Tropes of Terrain in Some Western Indian Fiction” developed a sociological ethnographic study of the relationship between territoriality and people in terms of groups, cultures and their interrelationships, rather than in terms of individual characterizations. Reading critically from fictional novels and narratives on the rural Konkan region, especially Pundalik Naik’s Upheaval, Schlesinger analyzed the relationship between people and location, a relationship in which culture and cultural values occupy a significant place. He reflected on the manner whereby people and places get characterized and identified in an intrinsically interdependent way. To put it differently, people identify with and understand themselves through their association with places by getting attached to them though cultural practices.     


The conference included worthy and meaningful papers presented by participants from different disciplinary perspectives. These presentations were made within such thematic considerations as  “Naming, Placing Displacing”; “Exile Longings, Disappeared Homelands”; “Hybrid Landscapes, Re-Territorialization”; “Post-Colonial Renderings”; “Borders and Boundaries; Cinematic Terrains”; “Terrains of the Past; Language of the Land”; and “Affected Lands.” The presentations rendered thoughtful and innovative ways of reading the notion of land, territory and attachment. The concern of the papers included gendered and cultured perspectives of territory, the politics of imagining lost homelands and spaces, and the representation of territory and affect within cinematic and narrative discourse. Through their presentations and interventions the participants underscored the place and significance of memory in influencing the reinvention and territorialization of homelands and lost lands. The discussions enhanced the understanding of land and attachment as symbolic and real markers of individual dignity and cultural representation. The concern for working out a theory of land and territory devoid of the sentiments of affect and attachment was sincerely considered.  In a significant way, the conference engaged with the territoriality of South Asia where concrete geographical boundaries defined politically by nation-states co-exist with imagined communities that are outcome of long-lived cultural lives. As always the conference facilitated formal and informal interactions between distinguished and upcoming scholars in the absence of structures of hierarchy. Such interaction also provided the ground for introducing and learning about one another’s intellectual pursuits.


A noteworthy event of the conference was a special session devoted to revisiting and recognizing the contributions of D D Kosambi, the eminent historian, on his birth centenary. D. D. Kosambi (1907-1966) though professionally trained as a mathematician, merits acclaim for his contributions towards indological studies as well as for his interpretation of India’s historical past. Kosambi is understood to be among the first in India to employ an interdisciplinary method in historical investigation. His publications include An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (1956), Exasperating Essays: Exercise in the Dialectical Method (1957), Myth and Reality: Studies in the Formation of Indian Culture (1962), and The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India in Historical Outline (1965) among others. The Forum must mention here that the idea of organizing a special session on the work of Kosambi, a Goan by origin, was of the Government of Goa. We at the Forum were happy to respond by organizing a special session on “D D Kosambi’s Approach to Indian History” on the evening of 16th December. The panelists at this session included Ram Bapat, J V Naik and Pratima Kamat. The Chief Minister of Goa, Digambar Kamat, hosted a dinner for the conference participants that evening on board the cruise Santa Monica. The evening was one of pleasure and enjoyment, with participants dancing to a live orchestra while sailing on the river Mandovi and the Arabian Sea. The Forum in fact gained intellectually from this event and appreciates and thanks the Chief Minister for his endeavor and invitation.


It has become in some way customary for the Forum during its conference to release the published papers of the previous conference. The conference volume of the Ninth International Conference organized on “Knowledge Systems in a Climate of Creativity: Indian Perspectives” was released by Dr. Lee Schlesinger. The volume titled Forms of Knowledge in India: Critical Revaluations is edited by Suresh Raval, G M Mehta and Sitanshu Yashaschandra and published by Pencraft International.


In an attempt to add to the critical reading of land, territory and attachment a plenary session on Pundalik Naik’s work of fiction titled The Upheaval was organized. The Upheaval is an engaging narrative about the ecological transformation of Goa in an age characterized by the compelling forces of capitalism and globalization. This work as such is a significant mark of the local narrative of Goa. Papers engaging with a critical reading of this work were presented by C Jahagirdar, Mabel Fernandes, Nandkumar Kamat and Kiran Budkuley.


The conference included a post-dinner interactive session with Subramanian Shankar, Professor of English, Department of English and Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Hawaii, USA. At this session, Subramanian Shankar read from his novel titled No End to the Journey. His reading from the text was followed by a rich discussion with the participants.


An equally worthy moment of the conference was the play titled “On the Holy Trail” performed by a local cultural group called Mustard Seeds. This play sought to bring out the profound conflict over issues of land, affect and development in Goa. The script of this play, which was written specially for the conference, dealt in a balanced yet nuanced way with the issues of insider and outsider as well as with the sentiments of affect and loss which Goa finds it self engaging with. The Forum deeply acknowledges the effort of Mustard Seeds. The Forum also expresses its gratitude to Milind Malshe, Professor of English, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, for his marvelous recital of Hindustani classical music, which left the participants totally enthralled.


The organization of the Tenth International Conference on the theme “Thinking Territory: Affect and Attachment towards Land in South Asia” is an expression of the Forum’s commitment in the second phase of funding by the Ford Foundation to engage with issues of the social sciences as well as be attentive to the political, social and cultural concerns of South Asia. As such, reiterating its conviction to leave forever open intellectual pursuits and endeavors the Forum is committed to continue engaging with the ideas of territoriality and affect.


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