anecdotage

This post is part of Long Sunday’s “Carnival of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak”.

Before I attempt to bring some threads together, a bit of anecdotage, that may also prove illuminating about value and global communications.

Blair, The Third WayA few years ago, at a time that I was working in Manchester, England, I happened to be in North Carolina for a conference. There I received an email from my friend Jean Franco, who taught for many years at Columbia (she is now emerita) and is one of Gayatri Spivak’s closest friends. She’d just got back to the States from London and said she had “an immense favour to ask.” Gayatri had phoned her from Hong Kong, “in a state of agitation,” because she needed to get hold of a book by Tony Blair, The Third Way, in advance of her keynote at the British Sociological Association conference in Manchester at the weekend. It was now Wednesday. Jean passed along Gayatri’s temporary email address in Hong Kong so we could make further arrangements.

I forwarded all this back to my partner, Susan, back in Manchester, to see if she might be able to pick up the book and drop it off at the relevant hotel. And I wrote to Gayatri to assure her that measures were being taken to ensure the text’s arrival. She wrote back:

My Ma always tells me, in her heavily (Bengali)accented Sanskrit: swadeshe pujyate raja vidyan sarvatra pujyate (a king is worshipped in his own kingdom, a learned man everywhere). I laugh at her, usually. But Giddens’s books are all over the place, but neither Blair’s nor Clinton’s offerings are to be found in any library or bookstore in Hong Kong or New York! O tempora, o mores.

Susan then chipped in with the information that

I’ve managed to track down a copy of The Third Way for you–though even in his own land, this king’s publications are hard to find!

For it had turned out that a copy of the book was not to be had in Manchester for love or money, either, but that a phone call to the Fabian Society meant that the book would be sent North post haste. And indeed, Susan picked it up and left it at the hotel for Gayatri to collect.

A little while later, a note arrived in the post, written on the back of a scrap of stationery from Air India’s Maharajah Lounge in Hong Kong. Enclosed was the money that the book had cost, thanks to Susan for her trouble, apologies for a “peculiar smudge” (circled and arrowed) and the explanation that “this is the only piece of paper I have, would you believe. My paper was awful. Best, Gayatri.”

I like this story for a number of reasons. First because it shows something of the worries, the charm, the humour, and also the self-deprecation of someone so often described as “difficult” (with all the overtones that such a description carries).

Second, because it’s an instance of a fairly extraordinary ad hoc network coming together to get something done: a phone call from Hong Kong to New York; an email from there to North Carolina, and then on to Manchester and back to Hong Kong; a phone call to London, and a series of deliveries to and within Manchester; and finally the note, its textuality and materiality physically marked and commented upon, and money repaid. It’s a dizzying circulation of information, people, commodities, and money. All kinds of debts and favours and friendships or affects are called in and granted or extended, in a circuit that overlaps with and enables the purchase, distribution, and consumption of a particular commodity, but that is in no way simply reducible to the economic.

And so third, there’s a moral about value–intellectual, academic, cultural, and political as well as financial–as it is translated across borders and across generations, even across languages. “Swadeshe pujyate raja vidyan sarvatra pujyate“: a fable about the relativity of prestige, at first “heavily [. . .] accented” in a language I at least do not understand, gently laughed at by she who does, perhaps because it seems an “inadequate” or naive view of the world; but it’s a saying that becomes more than adequate, something like a durable snippet of wisdom from “Ma” about the limitations of temporal power, even in an age of Empire and globalization.

Cross-posted to Long Sunday.

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