From the forthcoming essay by R. John Williams
Click here to read the essay online.
What can I say today about Invention of Hysteria, my first book, published over thirty years ago? Never have I reread it. I might even say that I have never read it. Of course, I developed, constructed, wrote, and then discussed it in detail with Jean Clay, the publishing magus of Éditions Macula. Until, finally, I let the book go to its fate. I soon found its style insufferable, at once too strange and too familiar. I recognized far too quickly, far too clearly, the anxious voice of the searching young man, in search of a style, a style which sought a response—as to a psalm—to its formidable object, this feminine terrible of hysteria at the Salpêtrière. Mine was a painstaking and highly dramatized search. During my research, I sometimes heard the cries of pain of the female and male patients admitted to the wings adjacent to the Bibliothèque Charcot where I was exploring the archive of all these pains past. That very place where Michel Foucault died in 1984; it is he to whom my book is indebted; and it is he who endorsed its publication in 1982. Unbearable those shrieks heard now, imagined then; unbearable, the weakness of my voice in their wake. Glancing over the first few lines of the book, I am caught up in the same excruciating feeling, as if hearing a recording of my own adolescent voice grappling with the difficulty of entering the world of adult discourse. It is a first book, a coming of age book. And it has its moments of daring and gaucheness. Consequently, I am utterly incapable of judging the book today—or even rereading it—from any improbable overlook achieved in the meantime. All I know is that my work began here, in this initial fork in the road, with the decision that determined everything.
In the 1950s and 1960s a vast number of Anglo-American institutions and strategic planners began turning more aggressively to the question of the future. This new field was called futurology. But as recognizable as the future might have been conceptually to the new discipline (and as common as it is for us today to remember how deeply these institutions were concerned with predicting it), to frame the period in these terms may actually conceal the most transformative quality of the discipline’s discursive practice. I want to argue, rather, that we can more productively refer to this period as having initiated a new mode of ostensibly secular prophecy in which the primary objective was not to foresee the future but rather to schematize, in narrative form, a plurality of possible futures. This new form of projecting forward—a mode I will refer to as World Futures—posited the capitalizable, systematic immediacy of multiple, plausible worlds, all of which had to be understood as equally potential and, at least from our current perspective, nonexclusive.
In “The Body and the Archive,” now a classic study of visual culture, Allan Sekula concludes his comparative study of the uses of photography by Alphonse Bertillon and Francis Galton with a brief remark invoking two semiotic categories originally proposed by Charles Sanders Peirce. Bertillon and Galton’s respective approaches to photography, Sekula suggests, follow this distinction relatively well. With his extended system of card catalogs containing information about individual characters—notoriously, criminals—and by subordinating the singular image to the explicative function of language in the annotations accompanying the cards, Bertillon “remained wedded to an indexical order of meaning.”
What was the Indian “art film”? In answering this question, this essay tracks the career of the term in India while analyzing the aspirational nature of the global category of “art cinema.” “Art cinema” did not reference any specific set of style or filmic devices in India; rather, it expressed a desire to see films articulate a distinction between high and low art. The category received a degree of stability in a historical conjuncture where a middle-class project of creating "good" cinema coincided with the new Indian state’s project of forging a national cinema in an unmanageably diverse country. What rendered the category both national and cosmopolitan was the promise that cinema held out, due to its particular relationship to sound and image, of superseding the heterogeneity of Indian language-worlds. This desire for universality, present in early Indian writings on cinema, resonated with the activism of Marie Seton, an English film society activist, biographer, and filmmaker who visited India and worked with missionary zeal to establish “art cinema” as a universal idiom through formal lessons on “film appreciation.” These different tendencies coalesced to give “art cinema” a provenance in the 1950s and 1960s but not before the diversity of Indian filmic practices had actually rendered the ascribed universality of the category impossible to achieve.
Looking out the window—a practice that might now seem monotonous and even trivial—was a favorite pastime in premodern times. This article explores how a history of this cultural practice can open, quite literally, a new window on the history of vision. An inquiry of this kind requires close attention not only to the culture of everyday life, but also to legal and social history, material culture, and the history of art and architecture. The exploration begins in the ancient Near East and ends with the modern West, linked through the story of medieval and early modern Europe, where the practice of looking out the window became a particularly contested issue and sparked larger questions about the relation between urban space and the individual, as well as about human perception and religious world views.
Recent debates on World Literature (or “new” Comparative Literature) have routinely ignored colonial histories to secure both its internal coherence and pure European origin. This essay suggests that attention to colonial archives reveals a more complex genealogy of comparatism as a paradigm and literature as an object of knowledge. Using the case of British India, this essay charts a chequered history of the comparative method from William Jones to George Abraham Grierson and proposes that by the end of the nineteenth century the colonial state in the subcontinent produced fundamental rules of comparative literary studies. This happened through two different notions of comparatism—chronological and territorial—and both emerged in the course of myriad contingencies and needs of colonial governance. The monumental Linguistic Survey of India, this essay concludes, synthesized these different methodological approaches to produce a field that was later institutionalized as the discipline of Comparative Literature after the Second World War and that is being resurrected as World Literature after the Cold War.