Finding an Archive for a Cultural History II

Posted by sepoy on November 12, 2013 · 6 mins read

I came to Georges Perec (1936- 1982) through his Espèces d'espaces and I have never really left him. Perec was part of the post-War, 1968 generation (with Paul Virilio, Jean-François Lyotard, Raymond Queneau and others) who were obsessed with space, and with narrativity.They all (to various degrees and varying forms) look at the place where events took place and tried to find ways of writing and seeing that place. In a slight little volume published in 1975, Tentative d'epuisement d'un lieu parisien (An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris), Perec sat in a public square in Paris. There, Perec records the banal, the ordinary, that which is not noticed, that which cannot be noticed, time as it passes, space as it modulates with peoples, buses and shadows. Perec sits in varied locations for three straight days, and simply records. He narrates his own boredom. He notices what he noticed before, and finds un-noticeable now. He notices that which has no importance and, hence, is never noticed. For Perec (as for Virilio), looking was not a given act. It required training and it required a discipline. In sympathy with the dérive of Guy Debord and the situationist, Perec's urban nomad is rooted within a deep ecology of the city. When reading Perec's text, I noticed his fixation on the bus routes, their fullness/emptiness, and how in marking the final destinations of these buses, Perec had linked his stationary observer to the moving city. His little bit of fixed space, was connected to all other parts of Paris.

What I took from Perec is not entirely obvious and I want to explain why I invoke him. I began to observe objects as closely as I was trying to observe place and space. Over the course of three years (and those many trips to Pakistan), I have been photographing my surroundings as I conducted archival work or went on research walks. One particular object that I assiduously photographed were book-shelves (inside homes), book stalls (on the street) and book stores. My impulse was archival at first. I wanted to look at what was being sold and I rarely had time to linger at each of the places. But behind that impulse was my own cultural map of Lahore.
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Around 9th grade, I was headlong in love with pulp spy novels (Ibn-e Safi or Mazhar Kaleem) and pulp crime. The only way to access these books was by joining the neighborhood book-club. After a one-time membership fee (five rupees), you were allowed to rent any of the books in the library for 1 rupee/day charge (maybe my memory is off here). At the same time, a friend of mine, was setting up his own business selling pamphlets and steamy novels on the street. The various "sutra" books would often share the same "models" from the spy novels - caucasian skin tone, almond eyes, veils half draped over thighs and long hair. These sex manuals, he would tell me, were doing amazing business. He needed to emphasis to the buyers that these were translations of kama sutra or kokh shastar and they sold like hot cakes. It was not until I began to work on the book, that I started to think about these mini-archives of circulation and consumption. I attended a talk by Veronika Fuechtner who told us about the German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and the rise of therapeutic and pharmalogical sex clinics in the early part of the twentieth century in India. Suddenly, those innumerable signs advertising "German Clinics" for sexual potency drugs began to make sense. These Urdu sex manuals were always written by a "Pandit" (and translated into English by "Alex Comfort"). The other bestsellers were books on magic, on prophecy, on spells, on djinns, on hypnosis, on mesmerism, on palmistry, on controlling jinns, on controlling your sexual strength. Etc.

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I have read most of these books and I have collected a fair amount over the past few years. They constitute for me a rich archive for an urban cultural history - a male archive, which is constantly providing leads on how to limit chaos, on how to control space, on how to situate one self within the built and human environment. In reading these texts as a whole and tracing some of their genealogies, and in thinking about what the category of the "other" does (the hindu-ness, the banglaness, the egyptianness, the germanness of these texts) I want to arrive at something like the Perec ways of seeing - of tracing the very ordinary, the very mundane and the very banal into the fabric of the city. I have often told friends who asked that my chapter was about the spiritual landscape of Lahore but for a long time, I was unsure of what that actually meant. I had focused on reading Sufi accounts of Lahore, and sitting and interviewing various religiously minded individuals (of varied hues). I am now arguing that in constituting the visual and the textual as the archival for the story of Lahore, I am paying closer attention to the everydayness of the city. I am trying to understand how heroes of Islam posters affixed to wall exists in a tangible (market-based) relationship with the interiorities of those who walk the streets of Lahore.

Maybe more soon.(about those serials...)


Ahmer | November 13, 2013

Thanks for taking us along on this journey. I am enjoying it.

anand | December 21, 2013