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Book Review

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Point, counterpoint

Sampurna Chattarji

This reader is shaped around the theme of the letter of the law stripped of annotative, interpretative gloss

SARAI READER 05 — Bare Acts: Pub. by Sarai Programme, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, 29, Rajpur Road, Delhi-110054. Rs. 350.

Following the Sarai tradition of being what the editors call `a strange attractor' of diverse views and voices, a collision-point for `unlikely encounters', Sarai Reader 05 is shaped around the theme of the `Bare Act' — the letter of the law stripped of annotative, interpretative gloss. This notion gets examined and re-examined over 13 sections. Covering a vast and vastly over-exposed terrain (ranging from piracy and encroachment to censorship and media-spectacle) the best essays are the ones that offer the unknown fact, the unseen perspective, and the unorthodox opinion. Deciding which ones to talk about within the confines of this review has been an act almost as tricky as the notion of the `bare act' as pure verb or `naked deed'.


Language as a site of conflict and disputation forms the basis of Alexander Karschnia's essay `Down by Law: A Critique for the 21st Century'. Hamlet's existential question (`to be or not to be' is really to act or not to act) springboards a dissection of key words that reveal the complexities of violence and control. Gewalt indicates both violence and governance. Opfer indicates both victim and sacrifice. Force enforces order. The `godly force' that Walter Benjamin talked about becomes horrifically resonant post-9/11, where the `war against terror' becomes a vivid demonstration of war and peace conflating into one awful spectre. With the bare act of the martyr/murderer becoming the symbol of a time wholly `out of joint', perhaps the only refuge is in what Karschnia terms `a politics of joy'. Maps, poems and laws. Bonaventura Santos would have it that these three, respectively, "distort social realities, traditions or territories." Kai Friese's excellent essay `Marginalia' talks about the mapping of personal geographies and the incarceration of Chinese POWs in a Bihar asylum with insight and empathy.

Be it Al-biruni's invention of the `Egocentric Map', James Rennell's 1782 `Memoir of a Map of Hindoostan' or Karl Haushofer's concepts of the `Organic state', Friese's peripatetic prose traverses the emotional, historical and geo-political with a cheerful irreverence for borders. And yet, this essay is located in the specificity of his encounter with Chinese prisoners in Chungthang Jail and, the inflexibility and lethargy of Indian law and officialdom.

Mapping as an act of possession, surveillance as `drama of acquiescence', self-surveillance as hyper-real performance — these are some strands that emerge as one reads on. Iram Ghufran and Taha Mehmood's dialogic/diaristic text `The Act of Leisure' sees police video-cam surveillance at the New Friends Colony Community Centre in New Delhi as an insidious comment on acceptable notions of `spending time' in public spaces.

Regaining control

Geert Lovink's interview with Amsterdam-based artist Jill Magid examines the opposite approach to invasive scrutiny. Dressed in a red overcoat, Magid inserts herself into the footage captured by the Liverpool CCTV network. By creatively `embedding' herself into a city's memory, by actively choosing to be recorded, the artist reverses, and, regains control. The kind of video-activism that Matteo Pasquinelli wants to push to its ultimate anarchic-constructive limit in his explosive essay `Warporn Warpunk! Autonomous Videopoesis in Wartime'.

In this Ballard-and-Cronenbergian piece, he sends out a clarion call for `digital anarchy' where the omnipresent video-phone resists the Empire's stranglehold over mainstream media. Not through the `proliferation of cameras in the hands of activists' but rather by `the creation of video narratives' that are `cruel, lucid and affirmative'. In one word, `warpunk' where `radical images' get used as `weapons of legitimate defence'. One may disagree with Magid and Pasquinelli, but one cannot fail to be seduced by their subversive agenda.


Subversion then informs a lot of the texts in the Reader. Take the piece on the Humsafar Trust, the only gay organisation in South Asia that is located inside a government building. Partnering the Bombay Municipality in a campaign against `disease' and `deviance', it becomes active proof that survival for the marginalised can simply mean negotiating mechanisms that "accommodate and subvert the legal framework."

Caught in a warp of compliance and resistance, legitimacy is often `living between laws', as the Indian slum-dweller knows just as well as the Zimbabwean farm-worker. Connections, cross-connections: structured in a very specific way, the Reader allows the reader to subvert that structure by crisscrossing the territory as randomly (or as rigorously) as she chooses.

In much the same way as interpretations, negotiations and disputations (some of the section heads in the book) erode and elude the textual foundation of the `Bare Act' of the law, the reader's relationship to the individual texts and subtexts, picture-essays and cyber-logs, statistical-chart and comic-strip, erodes and eludes the heavy, bound-between-covers materiality of the book you finally put down, after many wrist-wringing days.

Considering that you could have just as easily read it on the Internet, tiring only your eyes, this becomes in itself an act of affirmation, a bare act of belief in the written word.

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