Musing about being a Calcuttan

A quote from Simon and Rupert Winchester’s Calcutta: A Brief History

The burgeoning wealth and importance of Calcutta during the nineteenth century meant that gradually it began to move beyond its colonial roots for the first time, and started to become a city that blended the influences of both East and West. The Bengal Renaissance, as it is known, is central to the pride Bengalis feel about their city, and a litany of names, most unfamiliar in the West, are known to everyone in Calcutta. Social reformers, educationalists, poets and nationalists became, and remain, household names in Calcutta, in a manner unknown in most other major cities of the world, but which seems entirely natural in Calcutta, high-minded as it is.

One of the drivers of the new attention to matters social and spiritual was the growth of printing. Bengalis have long been addicted to the adda, a group gossip and discussion session that can last for hours, and the printing press and periodicals allowed more Bengalis to participate in virtual addas. Around the bookshops that sprang around Dwarkanath Tagore’s  Hindu College a culture began to grow that, not content with having addas, began to talk to greater numbers of people, through pamphlets and periodicals. All of the great names of the Bengal Renaissance used periodicals for both polemical and creative writing. Between 1818 and 1867 there were some 220 different periodicals published in Calcutta, mainly in Bengali, freely discussing politics, culture and spirituality.

Markets. Conversations. Interest in education and social matters. Using technology to scale up into virtual conversations. In and around bookshops. Based on journalism and pamplets. You can see why I got interested in blogs.

Blogs are addas. On a digital scale. Without the caffeine and nicotine.

6 thoughts on “Musing about being a Calcuttan”

  1. Developmental psychologists will tell you that intense involvement with your children in the form of ongoing discussions (conversations) can do much to improve their intelligence.
    Which raises a very interesting conjecture, that the virtual conversations, enabled by the Internet, are collectively raising the social intelligence of our species.

  2. Interesting that I read this right after Joel’s post that claims that blog comments do more harm than good.

    Peter, the social intelligence of our species isn’t being raised by virtual conversations any more than it is being lowered by them. Both the wheat and the chaff of our conversations are here for our benefit (and detriment). It is up to us to make the distinction. Some of us succeed, some don’t.

  3. Yes, I know it was a weak conjecture.
    But one needs to see ‘conversation’ as more than blog comments. The ‘conversation’ includes also the blog postings themselves, news group discussions, web site pages, youtube, etc. It is the entire world of online interaction The hostile and vacuous responses we often see are only part of the picture. Sponsky, with his usual provocative flair, makes a good point but it is a small part of the picture which does not characterise it.
    But back to my original point. It is just that I feel something extraordinarily important is happening to our species and that it will change our species.

  4. Let me take my usual elliptical approach to this question! On March 1, 2006 I was invited to give a seminar talk at the IBM Almaden Research Laboratory. This was at a time when the IBM effort in “services science” was charging forward with great vigor; so I saw this as an opportunity to exercise some sound argumentation on the basis of a contentious position. That position was that INTERPRETATION was a critical skill in providing effective service. There was nothing new about this, since Karl Weick had been saying the same thing for several decades; but I then argued that the capacity of a service provider for interpretation was impeded by a lack of understanding in five fundamental disciplines. Those disciplines (which will not be found in the department names of any university catalog) were phenomenology, semiotics, hermeneutics, narratology, and emotive valuation. This is my lengthy (Wagnerian?) prelude to the assertion that THIS discussion is being impeded by a failure to grasp one of the most fundamental principles of semiotics.

    That principle is the idea that any SIGN has a dual nature, whose two aspects are the SIGNIFIER and the SIGNIFIED. Everything that has been said about conversations, whether it involves printed matter in Bengal or Peter’s enumeration of the many things we see on our computer screens, is about signifiers. Those signifiers are the artifacts without which conversation would be impossible, but the conversation itself resides entirely under the aspect of the signified. Each of us relies on our capacities for interpretation to make sure that we are conversing about signifieds, rather than quibbling over signifiers.

    This is why it is pointless to argue about whether or not the signifiers of virtual engagement (not just conversations) raise or lower “the social intelligence of our species.” Such an approach is a distraction from “where the action really is.” One has to take a broader view of the acts of interpretation (yes, I’m talking about verb-based thinking again) in order to grapple with a concept like social intelligence. (Indeed, one also needs that point of view to address the question of whether the crowd is wiser or madder than any individual member.) This is no easy matter; but, if we do not confront it, we are no better than the drunk looking for his keys where the light is better, regardless of where he dropped them.

    To provide an example, let me try an exercise in examining the context in which interpretative actions take place. JP’s description of Calcutta in the middle of the nineteenth century invokes memories of similar descriptions of coffee-house Vienna at the end of that same century (again heavily seasoned with caffeine and nicotine). This was not just a scene of conversations; it was also (in Chomskian language) the “surface structure” of a “deep structure” of cultural ferment. The “fermentation” would eventually burst out of the vessel that contained it, Europe would be consumed by a “war to end all wars,” and the conversations of the coffee houses would be forever silenced. I am not interested in what is happening on the “surface” of the Internet, because I am too worried about what kind of brew is NOW fermenting!

  5. Stephen, you provide an important approach to clarifying a ‘conversation’. And in particular I like your emphasis on interpretation. Interpretation though is a layered approach where the layer of interpretation depends on the context, scope and values of the interpreter. Each interpretation, though seemingly at variance, can be valid within the given context and values.
    So in this case we are bringing different (and unstated) context and values to the conversation. In my experience it is the (concealed) differences in context/values which often creates the appearance of a dispute when in fact it is only a comparison across layers.
    Phew, that was a long prelude. What I really wanted to say was that the (unstated) context of my assertions could be found in the works of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins who popularised the concept of memetics. But I wont elaborate here since that would be a major undertaking.

  6. Peter, much of what you said about interpretation is actually covered by current thinking about hermeneutics, which is why I included it in my list of “five fundamental disciplines.” There is even a school of thought that that extended hermeneutic thinking from texts to actions, which I find quite promising. Nevertheless, there are all sorts of challenges in sorting out context, scope, and values, which is why we need all the help we can get!

    I’m still trying to get my head around memes in a meaningful way; but I do not feel too bad, because I am sure that Dennett has really “got it” either. As you may have noticed, I have this really thing for verbs; and I am worried that Dawkins has tried to cram too many verb-based qualities into what is basically the noun-based construct of the meme. On the other hand I really like some of the recent thoughts from Freeman Dyson (Esther’s dad) on the emerging paradigm shift from physics-based to biology-based thinking:

Let me know what you think