Alchemists of the Ordinary

Review of Isabel Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading (Harvard University Press) and Archie Dick, The Hidden History of South Africa’s Book and Reading Cultures (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press).

Edited version published in the Mail & Guardian, 23 August 2013.

Two compelling academic works of recent years – both by South Africa-born scholars, both published by Harvard University Press – are concerned with slowness: as idea, challenge and method...

In Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011), it refers to the invisible, unspectacular processes of environmental degradation and climate change: those ‘disasters that are anonymous and star nobody.’ How, he asks, have writers from the developing world tried to bring into conceptual focus those ‘calamities that patiently dispense their devastation while remaining outside our flickering attention spans’  – and outside the frame of a spectacle-driven corporate media?

In Gandhi’s Printing Press, Isabel Hofmeyr asks similar questions about activism, political tactics and global media flows, but in a very different context: the colonized Indian Ocean world of a century ago. Training close attention on just one of the ‘experiments with truth’ that made up the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi, her book gives a detailed treatment of his time as proprietor of a printing operation, first in Durban and then at the Phoenix ashram outside it. Tracking the work of the International Printing Press and Gandhi’s establishment of the periodical Indian Opinion in 1903, it explores a more utopian idea of slowness. Here this comes to figure the kind of meditative and deep reading that Gandhi and his followers attempted to inculcate as a prelude to effective political action: a reading at the pace of the human body; a resistance to the industrialized tempos of modernity.

In the era of Deepwater Horizon, Wikileaks and the Arab Spring, Nixon asks about the possibilities of digital activism when the electronic screen has itself become ‘an ecosystem of interruption technologies’. A century before, the young lawyer Gandhi grapples with similar questions about how to inhabit global networks of transmission and circulation, while simultaneously resisting what Thoreau (regularly excerpted in Indian Opinion) called ‘the macadamization of the mind’.  Working with hand-operated presses, dealing with shortages of type, addressing the challenge of offering a printing service in no less than ten languages (English, Gujarati, Tamil, Hindi, Urdu, Hebrew, Marathi, Sanskrit, Zulu and Dutch) – all of these practical matters concerning the making of texts, Hofmeyr shows, came to have a decisive effect on Gandhi’s prose and political persona.

‘I cannot recall a word in those articles set down without thought or deliberation’, Gandhi recalled in his autobiography, ‘or a word of conscious exaggeration, or anything merely to please’. The experience of running the journal (at times an enormous financial burden for him) became a vital lesson in condensation, distillation and self-restraint. As the living conditions at Phoenix and then Tolstoy Farm outside Johannesburg become more ascetic, so Indian Opinion changes into something different. Advertisements are gradually reduced; careful excerpting of literary, moral and religious tracts is increased, so that ‘what initially looked like a newspaper starts to look like an ethical anthology’. Like some careful aggregator-stroke-curator of an earlier world wide web, Gandhi and his team sift the enormous amount of information passing through the networks of high empire, creating ‘one of the great intellectual archives of the world’.

‘Plaited and cross-hatched’ from a variety of imperial, diasporic and religious geographies, a typical issue of Indian Opinion might contain: weekly almanacs of Christian, Hindi, Muslim and Parsi calendars; excerpts from Pushkin, Dumas and Du Bois under the title ‘The Coloured Man in Art and Letters’; court reports from the Transvaal on ‘Mahomedan Wives’; an assessment ‘The Position of British Indians in the Dominion’; articles on the Jewish family and the Pietermaritzburg Hindu Young Men’s association; book pages ranging from Emerson and Burke to Omar Khayyam, Olive Schreiner and the anarchist Kropotkin. Even within the varied world of Victorian and Edwardian periodicals, some of the articles catch one by surprise: ‘The Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita: A Lecture Delivered before the Transvaal Philosophical Society: By Mr JLP Erasmus, Ex-Commandant of the Boers’ (December 10, 1904).

The publication’s masthead provides a vivid graphic of the world Gandhi saw his press as both addressing and bringing into being: the Indian Ocean in the centre, crown above and Union Jack billowing behind. This was a world in which the Indian subcontinent was both colonised as part of the British Empire, but also occupying the position of a metropolitan ‘centre’ or mainland with regard to the many indentured, diasporic and sub-imperial communities of the Indian Ocean rim. In the dialogue between cultural multiplicity and singleness of political purpose conducted in the pages of Indian Opinion, Gandhi refines ideas of self-rule from a place where he had to endure the insult of white settler nationalism, while also pondering who could be Indian outside India. Satyagraha he remarked, ‘would probably have been impossible’ without this printing venture and its lessons. And so what seems to be ‘an apparent footnote to a titanic career’ is revealed as a formative experiment in how to distil a grounded and concentrated language of social justice.

This approach of addressing the big and complex via the small and focused is characteristic of Hofmeyr’s work. The Portable Bunyan (2004)reconstructs the travels and translations of A Pilgrim’s Progress through mission stations in Africa and beyond – the inner journey of the Christian allegory becoming entangled in larger extra-textual migrations. A scholar who has always had a good eye for the academic hook, she has written cultural histories that take as their starting points matters as diverse as: Boer War graves in the Punjab; Nelson Mandela’s penchant for quoting Shakespeare; the runaway success Leon Schuster’s Mr Bones on Indian TV.

This historicist, even new historicist attention to resonant detail, anecdote and the everyday finds an ideal subject in the workings of Phoenix, a community inspired by Gandhi’s ecstatic reading of John Ruskin’s Unto This Last while on a train from Johannesburg to Durban. This was a place in which all tasks were to be shared, and where Gandhi experimented with a process of text-making that might be ethical at every stage of its production.  His nephew Chhaganlal recalled that a typical day might involve bookkeeping, compositing, translation, editing, gardening and bush clearing.  And cleaning the toilets, as a scene from Attenborough’s biopic reminds us. The Mahatma’s wife Kasturba is angry when asked to ‘rake and cover the latrine’ – ‘That is the work of untouchables!’ she protests, before submitting to his saintly charm. Spaces like Phoenix and Tolstoy Farm in which thinkers concerned with social justice do their own dirty work – this alone seems to preserve the radical charge of Gandhi’s ‘ethical experiments’ in a contemporary South Africa.

Yet at the same time, we are shown the limits of the Gandhian vision: that his generous vision of a greater Indian Ocean world was never extended to Africans. Although his views were to change later, the question of ‘civilization’ and who belonged to it still marks the horizon of Gandhi’s political thought and imaginative sympathy. We are given an image of this in the way that Phoenix had very little to do with John Dube’s Ohlange Institute, located just next door. The simultaneous proximity and distance of these two remarkable communities – ‘admiring each other’s projects from afar but deprecating each other’s “people”’ – seems ripe for a historical novel along the lines of T. C. Boyle, a writer who has always been drawn to communes and experiments in alternative living – with all their possibilities, problems and micro-politics. ‘Our jungle school’, Prabhudas Gandhi recalled, ‘had the atmosphere of an international university’.

All of the above is a reminder that the most important intellectual labour in South Africa has often happened outside academies and formal institutions. This is an insight extended into many other spaces by Archie Dick’s account of The Hidden Histories of South Africa’s Book and Reading Cultures. Literacy in the Cape Slave lodge in the 18th century; books for the troops in the Second World War; reading patterns among political exiles in Tanzania; Charles Dickens among student activists in 1970s Soweto; ‘the Bible in solitary confinement’ – all of these are meticulously reconstructed via archival sources, interviews and a careful combing of Struggle memoirs.

Dick’s work joins that of Hofmeyr in the field of ‘book history’ – although both reveal the inadequacy of that term in paying more attention to ephemeral and fugitive works.  In this sense, D. F. McKenzie’s idea of the ‘sociology of the text’ is more helpful – an enquiry into who writes, who reads, who can afford to read, and how attempts to regulate or censor such activities interact with unexpected, historically specific acts of engaging with texts.

Hidden History is both more and less ambitious than Hofmeyr’s work. More so because of the wide range of case studies that it considers: paragraph by paragraph we are taken into a startling array of different contexts (one anti-apartheid reading group in 1980s Cape Town, we learn, would meet to discuss banned books in the caves of Devil’s Peak). Less so because it is hesitant to move from the empirical data into any larger theory. It offers itself simply as a portrait of non-elite, ‘common’ or ‘ordinary’ readers in southern Africa – even though most of its subjects are in one sense anything but ordinary. Slaves, political prisoners and exiles were all reading under duress, and often having to work with whatever was to hand. Such uncommon readers had to be ‘poachers’ within the guarded enclosures of Literature, in the phrase of De Certeau; or as Gramsci put it in a letter about the random contents of prison libraries, they needed to ‘squeeze blood from stones’.

Some wry comedy surrounds these case studies. At the library of the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Tanzania, Marxist-Leninist pamphlets were recommended by the political educators; but borrowing histories show that magazines like Drum, Ebony, Playboy and Beano were far more popular.  In a fascinating chapter on reading in prison, we hear about the attempts of warders in Pretoria Central to be librarians: ‘An even stranger arrangement later was chief warder Du Preez’s catalogue of purchased books.  Over time the books could not be traced because most were filed under “T” since so many titles started with “The”.  There was little improvement by the 1970s.  The library catalogue, for example, listed The Tempest as science fiction, and Romeo and Juliet appeared as “author anonymous”.’

In Dick’s wide-angle survey, each of these emerge as rich caches of data that might still require further processing. Hofmeyr’s book-length focus on a single case study allows her to move beyond the flatly descriptive paradigm that can attend both book history and Indian Ocean studies. In the latter, amid the breathless enumeration of various ‘transnational’ linkages and ‘south-south’ connections, to use the current buzzwords, it is sometimes difficult to see what the theoretical yield is, or how such lingo differs from the neo-liberal language of, say, The Economist.

Gandhi’s Printing Press, however, closes with a strong argument about the information economy, copyright and intellectual property. Noting that the first edition of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj (Home Rule)bears the words ‘No Rights Reserved’ – and that this first incarnation one of the most consequential books in world history cannot be located in any major library – Hofmeyr makes a case for Gandhi as a free trade pioneer, ‘copy-left’ activist and proto-Wikipedian. The ‘open source’ model of the 21st-century, she argues, represents a turn southwards toward ideas of literary circulation that have for a long time been normative in the world beyond Euro-America: a ‘textually demotic condition’ which cannot be policed by previous structures. ‘Everything appears to be sinking back into the lower empire of periodicals where – if we turn to Gandhi – it has always been’.

At the same time, the book evolves a provocative theory of how one might read less, more slowly, and less instrumentally: ‘slowing down the headlong rush of the industrial machine to the pace of the human body, pausing the addictive tempos of market-driven life, and creating small zones of independence outside the realm of the nation state’. What seems like a minor episode about a printing press outside Durban widens out into a consideration of ‘slowness as a politics that is emerging across a number of domains: slow food, slow cities, slow schooling, slow sex.’

Finally, it seems that Hofmeyr’s ability to metabolize enormous amounts of data owe much to her skills as a writer. In this sense, she has absorbed something of the Gandhian ethos, writing a prose that is unaffected by jargon or complexity at the level of the sentence, and yet is at the same time bringing into being the most richly textured and unexpected cultural history.  I finished the book with the unusual feeling of having been nourished by an academic work, and a sense that rich intellectual histories might open up wherever one might care to look.  Throughout we are reminded of the material, workaday dimensions of Gandhi’s message – that a man who went on to lead the greatest anti-colonial struggle in history was (to use a word that recurs as both so desirable and so impossible in South African cultural history) – ‘ever an alchemist of the ordinary’.