On “Seismography of Struggles, Toward a Global History of Critical and Cultural Journals” at INHA, Paris

— Morad Montazami


Doin Dien, 1973, Vietnam

“Seismography of Struggles. Towards a Global History of Critical and Cultural Journals”
Curator: Zahia Rahmani INHA, Paris, November 10, 2017–January 20, 2018

“Seismography of Struggles” is not only an exhibition, it is the result of an ambitious research project inaugurated in 2015 by Zahia Rahmani, the director of the Globalization program at the Institut national d’histoire de l’art (INHA), Paris, about the global and postcolonial history of critical journals published from the eighteenth-century to the end of the twentieth-century. We can credit Rahmani with creating pioneering projects in the field of Francophone universities, such as the 2007 conference on Edouard Glissant at INHA, and more recently, the 2016 exhibition “Made in Algeria: Genealogy of a Territory” at Mucem, Marseille, an incisive look at the French colonial “invention” of the Algerian territory through the use of geographic and military maps. Zahia Rahmani and the team at INHA, who have been seasoned by projects that break with media- or university-brand academicism, have renewed the epidemiological contexts of a discipline which lack cultural diversity, cross-fertilization of languages, and a political message. This has also led to Rahmani spearheading the collective GAP (Global Art Prospective), a group of researchers consisting of Devika Singh, Mica Gherghescu, Estelle Laborie, Lotte Arndt, Annabela Tournon, Emilie Goudal, Marie-Laure Allain Bonilla, and myself, Morad Montazami, whose fields of investigation aim to set up a dialogue between Africa and Latin America, China and West and South Asia, and the Mediterranean, as well as the Indian Ocean and the Caspian Sea.

“Seismography of Struggles” is based on a project consisting of surveying and archiving critical journals and gives us an audiovisual presentation of insights into a broad history of modernity that includes antislavery movements in Haiti, communism in Tehran, Négritude in London, and anarchism in Algiers. For the exhibition, what makes Rahmani’s contribution remarkable is her effective use of the public form of the slideshow, in which an ocean of texts, graphic symbols, and fragments of cultural subversion are reunited and reassembled “as if by magic.” Incidentally, a slideshow of digital archives has given the impression of fresh ink still drying on these documents. (The question has already arisen of what future uses this exceptional online resource may have for all fields concerning the social sciences and global history.) For the exhibition, Rahmani employs three slideshows which unfold along a chronology that reaches back to 1817 and L’Abeille haytienne, a French journal of politics and literature that is the oldest trace of “this eminently modern exercise, the critical journal.”[1] Along the way, the slideshow also intimately implicates, through journals and other “samizdats,” the French oppressor in this history of emancipation movements.

But far from operating as a unilateral and inert chronology, the system of the triple slideshow—by simultaneously projecting images on the same physical plane of journals published in the same year, from Madagascar, Cambodia, and Egypt, for example, which then light up like traffic lights—spatializes historical temporality like a cartography of crystallization points: a seismography of struggle. By combining the fluidity of the system and the discontinuity of the intellectual genealogies, Rahmani lays equal claim to theoretical (Edouard Glissant) and artistic affinities (Lothar Baumgarten). Her collaboration with Thierry Crombet, for the “mechanically” subtle editing of this slideshow, which therefore prevails over not only the open and multi-focal chronology but also the atmospheric soundtrack that accompanies it, has the effect of suggesting these partnerships and affinities. Indeed, one of the most obvious virtues of the slideshow and its dynamic style of legibility is that it is open to all possible interpretations. And for those who are trying to reveal truths, there are “uncolonial” references in which subversion still plays a role, at the very instant we are watching this slideshow, in 2018. Elisabeth Lebovici says the following with regard to the slideshow in an enlightening piece published on her blog: “Women are very present, such as Zitkala-Ša and Doria Shafik, founder of the Bint Al Nil Union, in 1945 and of two journals in French and Arab (which were banned at the end of the 1950s) or Paulette Nardal, her Clamart salon, her Revue du Monde Noir … These three screens are accompanied, or rather bathed in a soundtrack made by Jean-Jacques Palix, blending the voices of Sekou Touré, Patrice Lumumba, Malcolm X, Myriam Makeba, Nina Simone, Kateb Yacine…”[2]

What is striking is the musical character of this series of signs that some people will consider to be a total “creolization” of a sky full of forgotten and resurrected stars: artists, chief editors, intellectuals, kept alive through the quotes and excerpts of manifestos that complete the multi-slide show. It is the musicality of a nomenclature freed through the effects of geographical decentralization and cartographic disclosure: ABA: A Journal of Affairs of Black Artists (USA, 1971); Aboriginal or Flinders Island Chronicle (Australia,1836–38); Actual. Hoja de Vanguardia (Mexico, 1921–22); Ad-Diya (Egypt,1898); Aryadarshan (India, 1874–85); Asé pléré an nou lité (Martinique,1981–ongoing); Capricorne (Madagascar, 1930–31); Dîcle-Firat (Turkey, 1962–63) Kambuja Suriya (Cambodia, 1926–27); Revista de Antropofagia (Brazil, 1928–29); La Nation Arabe (Switzerland, 1930–38); the Syro-Palestinian diaspora…

Solidarity movements and singular identities seem to multiply themselves in order to better attack the seminal idea of a “universal history” at the heart of the ideology of the Lumières. But on the contrary, like a grammar of cultural subversion that takes form in real time as the documents scroll by, where each partition exists for the sake of its own singularity, a “de-naturalization” of art history begins, starting with its archives, its libraries, its documentary corpus, its aesthetic concepts, and its protagonists. This turning point, which is not geographical but, above all, post-nationalistic and of a “global” art history, is what Zahia Rahmani imagined and will continue to imagine in the form of different exhibition strategies, of which the work of the GAP group and “Seismography of Struggles” are steps. This is a world in the process of defining itself in which archipelagos of artistic and intellectual activity enter more and more into interaction, breaking away from the model of the nation-state and colonial empires still dreaming itself into being after the fall of the two Blocs, like third world nations, nonaligned countries, and anti-colonial forces.

Yet the polymorphic and seismographic territory of critical journals eludes, in essence, all ideological reductionism, even though these journals are still characterized by the same desire to “give voice” and “go public”—even in a murky and clandestine network. An edifying observation is that research (presiding over the exhibition installation) enables one to reveal or say that counter-discussions can, in reality, slip into colonial journals just as easily as into anticolonial journals, and into party journals and “emancipated” magazines. As a consequence, one must know how to flush out a certain mixing of the official and officious word, partisan stances, and the poetic cries of the writing individual, in order to better understand the political fractures and conflicts that run through quite a few of these publications. The role of communism and Marxism, or rather their multiple faces all over the globe, from India to the Sudan, by way of Maghreb, is still a good example (but one could also study the way in which Surrealism spread a certain aesthetic across the globe with doubtless some misunderstanding and as much allegiance as contradiction). These stormy definitions of commitment and critical speech or, more generally, “socially committed art” can be observed through the role played by these journals in Arab nationalism and pan-Arab networks. That is to say, through journals such as Souffles in Morocco (published from the 1960s to the 1970s), or those born from the effervescence of a pan-Arab capital such as Beirut, with its two concomitant journals Shi’ir (ca. 1950s to the 1960s), and Hiwar (ca. 1960s), to which Lebanese, Iraqi, and Palestinian intellectuals contributed, and in which poems by Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, who inspired free prose in the Arabic language, could be found side by side with translations of T.S. Eliot’s poems into Arab (as attested by Rasha Salti’s magnificent presentation on Hiwar during the seminar organized in parallel to the exhibition). So many of these journals contained members or espoused ideas that sometimes had to break apart or condemn one another over questions of the orthodoxy of a certain Marxist discourse. On this point, the slideshow even enables us to go back to the period of the 1920s to the 1940s with the avant garde New York review New Masses, in which these internal ruptures and ideological reorientations were determinant. Let’s take another example, for the pleasure of the pilgrimage into this immobile voyage we are on: the Iranian journal Coq Combattant (ca. 1950s). The journal participates first in the grassroots movement supporting the project of the nationalization of gasoline, which the United States will oppose through the coup d’etat of 1953 against Mohammad Mossadeq. But it also positions itself in firm opposition to communist-inspired art that is remote controlled by the party (which in Iran is called the people’s party: Hezbe Tudeh) and ultimately to the style of socialist realism; paradoxically, communism held a very strong influence on Iran’s intellectual class (in Iran it is customary to say, with regard to the communist party, “Everyone entered, and everybody got out”). Through this heterodox tropism, did the members of Coq Combattant cultivate the notion of the “inorganic intellectual,” defined by Gramsci as “a literate person without attachments who feels neither loyalty toward the Bourgeois class from which he/she comes, nor a real ideological disposition for the working class”? It is surely in the subtle and complex link between all of these contradictory voices—of an intellectual class deprived of forms of anti-imperialist aristocracy, between cosmopolitism, anti-racism,and anti-colonialism—that one can retrace the crackling crevasses of a seismography of struggle.

Searching today for the operativity or up-to-datedness of it, through these more than four hundred journals saved from the footnotes of history (the number identified being much higher than the number presented in the exhibition), let us, therefore, follow the program: “Today one must, in the era of all-digital, restore their contribution and put their formal, critical, aesthetic and political function into perspective on a global scale.”[3]

Translated from the French by Patricia Chen

  1. [1] www.inha.fr/fr/agenda/parcourir-par-annee/en-2017/novembre-2017/sismographie-des-luttesvers-une-histoire-globale-des-revues-critiques-et-culturelles.html.
  2. [2] Elisabeth Lebovici, “Le Tout-Monde des revues repense la modernité occidentale (Sismographie des Luttes, INHA, Paris),” Le Beau Vice (blog), www.le-beau-vice. blogspot.fr/2018/01/repenserla-modernite-occidentale-par.html?view=sidebar (author’s translation).
  3. [3] Communication text in the exhibition (author’s translation).