Cryptopolitics and Cyberpoetics: Facebook Pages as Memory Portals
By Ananya Jahanara Kabir
In a recent lecture that explored the connections among bodily vulnerability, coalitions, and the politics of the street, Judith Butler reminded us that “it is not just that this or that body is bound up in a network of relations, but that the body, despite its clear boundaries, or perhaps precisely by virtue of those very boundaries, is defined by the relations that makes its own life and action possible . . . we cannot understand bodily vulnerability outside of this conception of relations.” I want to juxtapose this quotation with a comment made in the very specific context of a long-term conflict zone: “[T]wo moments seem to have entered history. Kashmiris creating a hollow grave as a mausoleum to memory and resistance and India making a craven declaration: that a Kashmiri corpse can be seditious. It must remain in prison” (Waheed, “India’s Message”). These words are of the Kashmiri intellectual Mirza Waheed, writing in the aftermath of the Indian state’s surreptitious hanging of the Kashmiri activist Afzal Guru on 9 February 2013, on the grounds of his involvement in the attack on India’s parliament in 2001, in which nine people were killed (Roy; Haksar). The hanging was conducted inside Delhi’s Tihar Jail, where Guru had been imprisoned, without a fair trial, since 2001. What can these two statements, in conjunction, tell us about the 2014 MLA convention’s presidential theme, Vulnerable Times?
Butler’s words remind us that we cannot analyze vulnerability outside the network of social relations that the body is suspended in. Waheed’s commentary on Afzal Guru’s empty grave illustrates how such vulnerability is tied up with collective trauma and its memorialization. Together, they frame my contribution to our collective consideration of vulnerable times as a reconsideration of the body—specifically, the body as bound up in networks of mutual dependency. While Butler talks of bodies in physical spaces primarily to problematize the “street,” I focus on the virtual realm of social networks. My reconsideration of the body in the (social) network turns to emergent strategies of resistance in Indian Kashmir, a conflict zone since the moment of South Asia’s decolonization in 1947 but with roots in the relationship between colonial modernity and fantasy that formed during the late nineteenth century, a key moment being the entry of the camera into the geographic space of the Valley of Kashmir (Kabir, Territory). In recent years, however, this tenacious history of Kashmir’s being represented to the world primarily through the camera as a space of idealized natural beauty—a “territory of desire”—is increasingly being challenged by a micropolitics of counterrepresentation that is heavily reliant on various forms of social media.
This micropolitics thrives on the disembodiment enabled by the Internet. Simultaneously, it chooses to remain entangled with the body in the landscape that forms the center of the Kashmiri struggle for dignity and self-determination. In the words of the late Kashmiri American poet Agha Shahid Ali:
I won’t tell your father you have died, Rizwan,
but where has your shadow fallen, like cloth
on the tomb of which saint, or the body
of which unburied boy in the mountains,
bullet-torn, like you, his blood sheer rubies
on Himalayan snow?
As this address to a young Kashmiri man who was tortured by Indian security forces reveals, this micropolitics has long turned on the body that celebrates its own vulnerability. In shedding its blood through the violence enacted on it by biopolitical regimes, the body reclaims the contested landscape as its own. In the process, it is sanctified through the heuristics of an indigenous sacrality (the tomb of the saint), apotheosized into an esoteric, translucent, and lapidary durability (rubies). The point I wish to make in this essay is that this tradition of “cryptopolitics” now enters into dialogue with a new “cyberpoetics.” Embracing its vulnerability, the Kashmiri body passes through memory portals to pose new challenges to the political status quo and generate possibilities of a collective posttraumatic existence.
CRYPTOPOLITICS AND THE NEW PASTORAL
In Territory of Desire, on desire and resistance in Indian Kashmir, I noted contemporary Kashmiri literature’s propensity for graves, gravediggers, funeral processions, and phantoms—all symptoms of a “living death,” a suspended condition of uncertainty provoked by the machinations of the state. Finding resonances between this propensity and Achille Mbembe’s concept of necropolitics (itself a step up from Foucault’s biopolitics), I nevertheless found it necessary to distinguish the Kashmiri trope as an example of cryptopolitics. This concept also owed to Derrida’s distinction between the crypt and the forum. The labyrinthine crypt subtending the public forum, which Derrida invoked in his introduction to Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s The Wolf Man’s Magic Word, manifests itself in the complex and highly militarized urban geography of Srinagar, the capital of Indian Kashmir. Through cryptopolitics, the Kashmiri creative intellectual critiqued the Indian state’s paranoid and excessive control over his or her subjectivity through the exercise of power on the Kashmiri body. This body’s surreptitious movement between the crypt and the forum recalibrates its relation to the desiring machines that, through the fantasy of the pastoral, anesthetize citizens to the democratic state’s unacceptable regime of terror that masks its own “nervous system” (Taussig).
The fantasy of the pastoral reiterates and reifies a long-standing discourse on the Kashmir Valley. The valley has been celebrated in precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial periods alike as exemplary in its natural beauty and, from urban plains dwellers to Mughal emperors and British imperial administrators to domestic tourists in independent India, as a place to refresh and reimagine the self. I have demonstrated in detail that the discursive processes that thereby evolved, and their relation to the genesis and prolongation of political conflict, were the conditions and consequences of the valley’s being a “territory of desire” (Territory). In that context I noted that attempts to reclaim Kashmiri landscape by Kashmiris have been a powerful way to rethink the much used but not often clarified concept of azadi (“sovereignty,” “freedom”). Cryptopolitics, as evidenced in the quotation from Ali’s poem, often carried with it an implicit resistance to the pastoral mode, which nevertheless encoded a strategic essentialism (rather than rejection) of the landscape as the autochthon’s birthright. Since 2010, however, we can glimpse a new pastoralism in conjunction with an evolving cryptopolitics of the body, through which cultural producers from the Kashmir Valley now stake their claims anew to a much praised, much fought-over space. Two striking examples of this emergent counterdiscourse are Waheed’s fictional depiction of a nomadic shepherd community in his novel The Collaborator and the Kashmiri cartoonist Sajad Malik’s iconographic use of the endangered Hangul deer in the graphic novellas disseminated through his Web site, Kashmir in Black and White.1
Doubling back on the pastoralization of Kashmir, these and other texts participate in a movement that asserts both the constructed nature of Kashmir’s desirability and the need to reclaim Kashmir for collective healing. This new phase within Kashmiri resistance emerged by 2010 through the combined stimuli of unfolding events in the Arab world and increased recourse to Internet resources. Facebook, YouTube, blogs, and online journals proliferated, enabling a new generation of Kashmiris to talk relatively freely among themselves, to engage in dialogue with older generations and Kashmiris in diaspora, and to invite the world to eavesdrop on the conversation. This conversational “multidirectionality” (Rothberg) was engendered by Facebook, in particular its comments and sharing functions. Facebook profile pages of individual Kashmiris as well as event pages began functioning as memory portals, or interfaces between users and new forms of collective memory. Suffused with the memory of earlier modes of memorialization (the repetition is deliberate on my part), these portals open into concurrent digital and print forms: books that anthologize online essays, essays uploaded to online journals, YouTube videos of soldiers cracking down on youth and essays about those videos, Kashmiri protest rap and documentaries on Kashmiri rappers, and planned events on the ground whose ability to take place remained dependent on the daily political situation but whose Facebook existence exhaled a fragile hope of change.
BODIES, BEHIND THE CANVAS
These developments of “Facebook Kashmir” (as some have called it—fittingly—on Facebook) are stunningly visualized by the veteran Kashmiri artist Masood Hussain’s mixed-media work Behind the Canvas. Hussain calls his piece a “demonstration work” for the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Barmahani’s documentary, Look behind the Canvas, shot on location in Kashmir during Barmahani’s two visits to the valley and subsequently produced by Al Jazeera. As its YouTube promotional video reveals (“Look”), the film splices scenes of the work’s making with scenes of curfew, stone throwing by Kashmiri youth, and military shooting. The artist painting on the canvas in the secluded studio is contrasted with long sequences in which his daughter navigates delicately the troubled lanes of downtown Srinagar. The scene is set during the days of the kaani jung (“stone-throwing war”) that erupted in 2010, when Kashmiri youth and the Indian army were once again pitted against each other in a volatile and unequal pitched battle. Yet daily life must go on. Through the eye of the artist, looking through the house’s windows to follow his daughter’s journey through the streets as far as his eyes can see, the enclosed house becomes endowed with an aura of vulnerability that connects it to the persona and body of his daughter. This vulnerability also seeps back into the body of the artist as father.
The painting’s commentary on the transmission of vulnerability and memory brings together three generations of women. The oldest, Mugli, “was found dead in 2010, in her house in a sitting position, with her eyes open looking towards the door” waiting for her disappeared son.2 Represented as a “black-and-white portrait,” which, as a “representation within a representation,” draws attention to her hypericonicity, she “still awaits her missing son.” The second woman, Rafiqa, waits with her own young son for her disappeared husband, whose ID photograph she holds. Finally, Mehvash, Hussain’s daughter, “who grew up in the period of turmoil . . . look(s) towards the sky at the dove which is carrying an electronic gadget in her beak, represent[ing] the age of technology” and the hope of a “better and peaceful future.” The electronic gadget is not defined, but its small size points to its probably representing a smartphone. These negotiations between iconicity and the real short-circuit the painting’s status as “mere representation” and charge it with talismanic power. Newspaper cuttings pasted on the lower edge of the painting and dating to the time of its making forge a further link among the indexical, the iconic, and the talismanic.
This oscillation between metonymy and mimesis defines the entire painting. The clock “signifies endless waiting,” but a tear in the canvas conveys Hussain’s anguish. “I feel that this work of mine is not really complete and I am really trying to find somebody who will heal our wounds; I am not signing this painting; I am just tearing it.” This self-inflicted wound is also a cry for help: “I have put a needle here with the hope that somebody will come and stitch this painting for me.” Meaning seeps out to the obverse, hidden from the casual eye: “I will write something here (behind the painting). . . . This is ‘The Paradise Lost.’” Hussain has been using this work as his Facebook profile picture, whose frame grants new significance to the depicted window (an old leitmotif of his). Instead of having to travel to Delhi and Srinagar to view Hussain’s work, as I did several times between 2006 and 2008, I could now access this image and discuss it with him on Facebook. Yet this new ability to communicate and converse across time and space cannot forget the body. Indeed, in the case of Kashmir, it continues to focus on the disappeared body—represented in Hussain’s artwork by the son of Mugli and the husband of Rafiqa.
AFZAL GURU’S EMPTY GRAVE
The new cryptopolitics of “Facebook Kashmir” has been best literalized by the crystallization of commentary around the empty grave of Afzal Guru. Guru’s was a special category of disappeared body: Guru was hanged in prison by the state, without notice given to his family in Srinagar. In uncanny populist response in Srinagar, an empty grave in the memorial site known as the Martyrs’ Graveyard spontaneously appeared (Fayyaz). This empty grave mimicked one created a generation earlier for the original Kashmiri martyr, Maqbool Bhat. Waheed reports:
[T]he text of the epitaph was the same as that of another epitaph, erected in memory of Maqbool Bhat, the founder of Kashmir’s main pro-independence militant group turned political formation the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, who was hanged in the same jail 29 years ago. The epitaph reads, “The martyr of the nation, Mohammad Afzal Guru, Date of Martyrdom: 9th February 2013, Saturday, whose mortal remains are lying in the custody of the Government of India. The nation is awaiting its return.” (“India’s Message”)
The triangulation of embodiment, disembodiment, and reembodiment through entangled online and offline modes continued. On 13 February, continues Waheed, “Kashmiri news websites reported that the police had removed and destroyed the tombstone and then, after the news spread via Twitter and Facebook, a replacement tombstone mysteriously reappeared.”
The viral transmission of the news through social media took overwhelmingly, and swiftly, the form of poetry. One of the first poems to be written, on the day of the hanging, 9 February, was “Epistolary Multitudes,” published on 19 February on the blog of a Kashmiri writer bearing the nom de plume Pharmakon. “We are yet undelivered,” it declared, “[b]ut your letter, little late though, reached safely.” The reference here is to the last letter written by Guru to his family, which was posted to arrive after the news of his death (“Revealed: Last Letter”). This belatedness took on portentous status for Kashmiris and became a foundational trope for subsequent poems—many bad in literary terms, some good, all emotionally taut and angry. Most were written in English (hence addressed to multiple non-Kashmiri audiences); even when a Kashmiri poem appeared, it was swiftly translated, often within the same day. Poems, translations, and commentaries were thus shared, reposted, commented on, and linked in various ways to the scandal of the prisoner’s hushed-up hanging and the corollary scandal of the belated letter. By 17 February 2013, Guru’s last letter had gained the status of a cyberrelic: links multiplied on Facebook to its scanned and uploaded photograph, along with transliterations of the original Urdu and translations into English. A stream of poems acknowledging the letter continued to circulate; the ones that attracted multiple “likes” were always reshared.
Afzal Guru’s letter, in fact, allowed copious citation of Ali’s foundational poetry anthology, The Country without a Post Office. Facebook pages often began resembling an oral poetry recitation session, where not merely poems but also comments on poems cited, alluded to, and riffed on central ideas from Ali’s poetry concerning letters, graves, disappeared bodies, and eternally waiting mothers. Guru’s last letter began to function metonymically as his corpse being ritually prepared for Muslim burial—the memory portals through which this letter-corpse passed became, accordingly, the grave that was no longer empty. Through this chain of substitutions, the cyberpoetics of “Facebook Kashmir” augmented an established cryptopolitics, even troping users of Facebook as mothers and lovers. The memory portal function of Facebook and its multiplying functions lent themselves particularly well to this inherited cryptopolitics, which ultimately is shaped by a particular nexus of affect, body, and place in this part of the world—a nexus that in turn is deeply contoured by a long-standing mythopoesis of Sufi love, unrequited and leading to self-annihilation (see Kabir, “Affect”).
It is of interest to me to bring to memory studies, or whatever form this scholarly work is transforming into, an awareness of this layering of affective resources, vernacular and global, persistent and newly emergent, by individuals in conflict zones such as Kashmir, who forge ways to move themselves and their communities toward posttrauma. Hussain’s gadget-carrying dove signifies his hope of “a better and peaceful future” for his daughter’s generation through new and unpredictable lines of communication. New instabilities of memory also arise thanks to our lack of precedent for storing, accessing, and destroying Facebook data (Parmar). We need to find ways to conceptualize as well as mobilize these developments, which mesh virtual and real through a porousness of embodiment and disembodiment. I have elsewhere analyzed how molecular change in contemporary Kashmir is proceeding through rhizomes and small platforms that involve the body in quotidian acts of labor, pleasure, and collective reclaiming of the Kashmiri environment, while using Facebook as a memorializing and mobilizing facility (“‘You’”). Thinking anew about memory, trauma, and vulnerability must attend to the transformation of our bodies by social networks that are daily generating new archives, repertoires, and poetries of resistance and solidarities.
- Malik’s Web site is currently under construction. ↩
- All quotations about the painting in this and subsequent paragraphs are taken from personal communication between Hussain and the author on Facebook in January 2013. ↩
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Posted May 2014
Ananya Jahanara Kabir
Ananya Jahanara Kabir is Professor of English Literature at King’s College London and Director of the ERC Advance Grant Funded project, “Modern Moves” (www.modernmoves.org.uk). Her work involves memory, post-trauma, embodiment in the Global South with a current focus on social dance and cross-creolisation processes. From the year 2000 onwards, she has been preoccupied with questions of how societies, and individuals within societies, remember and forget in the wake of large-scale traumatic events. The locus of her interest moved from the conflict zone of Kashmir to the continuing repercussions of the Partition of India and, more recently, has settled on the ‘Black Atlantic’ (with an interest in marrying its theorisation to that of the Indian Ocean). At the same time, as a literary and cultural historian who likes the challenge of moving between the written text and alternative forms of creative expression, she has analysed a range of primary materials to elaborate on her hypotheses and premises: the visual and plastic arts, recorded and live music, and, now, the entirely protean realm of the moving, dancing body. Through this diversity, a central question has emerged: how do we theorise postcolonial remembering, and of course, those other attendant processes—forgetting, and memorialising? Where do we, as researchers, find the most useful repositories of memory— the classic archive? Oral histories? Creative expression? The body? Or might we analyse these different repositories as dialogic— sometimes complementary, sometimes antagonistic? (Original source: Academia.edu)