Mohit Chandna | Spatial Boundaries, Abounding Spaces

 Mohit Chandna

The colonial project is far from over and it continues to determine our lives through the borders that surround us. In order to understand here and now, one needs to start with there and then.

In his monograph Spatial Boundaries, Abounding Spaces, Mohit Chandna focuses on the French colonial context and analyzes how film and literature record the human interaction with colonially marked spatial borders. “Through analyses of works by Jules Verne, Patrick Chamoiseau, Ananda Devi and Michael Haneke, this project argues that to understand colonialism – an exercise in spatial expansion – one must unceasingly analyze the interaction of space with the colonial subject.”, clarifies Chandna.

Briefly and concisely explain in plain language what the book is about.
Today’s Western world is defined by the ‘immigrant crisis’. Political entities and organizations across the world, whether they be at the local, national, or global level (UNHCR for example), are in the process of finding solutions to this ‘crisis’. All discussions of this ‘crisis’ (peppered with terms like citizenship, aliens, exiles, intruders, refugees, tolerance, intolerance, cultural differences and similarities etc.) presume borders as natural and some human beings as undesirable flotsam.

These arguments favoring and opposing the entry of ‘immigrants’ depend on a vocabulary of belonging and displacement and accord enormous powers to physical borders. One forgets that immigrants exist because we choose to have borders. The 21st century definition of borders relies on human exclusion and turns human presence into a crisis, which is the result of an evolution in which the European colonial conquest played an important role.

More specifically, Spatial Boundaries, Abounding Spaces: Colonial Borders in French and Francophone Literature and Film, focuses on the French colonial context and analyzes how film and literature record the human interaction with these colonially marked spatial borders. What one discovers is the various ways in which creative works perpetuate and challenge the knowledge paradigm that undergirds these spatial borders. As it examines spatial practices within colonial paradigms across the world, Spatial Boundaries, Abounding Spaces, also focuses on the historical and material conditions of the colonizing mission to display the spatial workings of colonialism.

The borders that we see in today’s world are not the same that one saw at the beginning of the 19th century. Through analyses of works by Jules Verne, Patrick Chamoiseau, Ananda Devi and Michael Haneke, this project argues that to understand colonialism – an exercise in spatial expansion – one must unceasingly analyze the interaction of space with the colonial subject.

Today, in the confrontation between borders and people, the onus of proving one’s belonging has been placed on the person. These debates need to be about the pertinence of these borders to human society. The creative works that I analyze in my monograph are not only registering changes in the meanings of borders but also figure as part of a creative response that forces these spatial divides to contend with the everyday of human beings.

Could you speak in some more detail about the contents of your books, and the authors you are working on to show how exactly your book analyzes this interaction between literature and space?
When taken as a larger whole, this book compares the end of the 19th century and the turn of the millennium as two particularly important moments. These two moments - placed as they are, one at the beginning of the colonial-capitalist project and the other in the present in the midst of frenetic globalization - display the spatial itinerary we have followed to arrive at the contemporary definitions of borders. In each chapter, I look at the different ways in which the colonial subject is negotiating the deeply ingrained spatial logic of capitalism and colonialism. In the first chapter, I present the theoretical reasoning for this book and, in the following chapters, I take a chronological path to understanding different moments of colonial spatiality. I do so by anchoring representative arguments alongside my analyses of the works of one author.

The title of Jules Verne’s famous work, Around the World in Eighty Days, is a good example of how creative expression interacts with space. This title (that I analyze in greater detail in the second chapter on Verne) presents a global space that is measurable in uniform units of time: eighty days. The representation of British colonies (India in particular) in this novel shows how colonialism worked in tandem with nascent capitalism. It puts on display a newly created reality of the globe that institutes a numerically defined understanding of the world and human subjectivities. Both are flattened out into a universal familiarity of numbers, temporal as well as spatial. Ananda Devi’s work, which is the focus of the third chapter, challenges this kind of abstracted colonial-capitalist spatiality. Her work narrates alternatives to the India of modernity that Verne presents. Similarly, the fourth chapter analyzes the conflictual relationship with the French borders that Caribbean writers unceasingly recall. In the very last chapter, through an analysis of Michael Haneke’s film Caché, I show how in the postcolonial world our understanding of each other is also influenced by a spatial knowledge.

What or who inspired you to choose this topic?
My childhood was filled with stories of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent that led to the creation of two nations – India and Pakistan. My grandparents were among those who were forced to leave behind their meagre belongings in Pakistan to establish anew their lives in India. In the process, they (and those who moved to Pakistan from India) lost scores of loved ones and suffered psychological scars whose presence can be found in creative production till date.

While I was growing up, these personal stories of life before Partition, frequent spurts of communal violence in India, India-Pakistan border skirmishes, all of these just existed as a natural part of my childhood. I accepted them as givens. However, as I grew up, I understood and saw better the inherent interconnections between all these instances of violence and their origins in the spatial border dividing the two countries. Even today, the violent workings of the borders created several decades ago are clearly visible for all to witness.

As I grew up and went to University, I realized the global omnipresence of the violence inflicted by borders. Be it Europe, Africa, or the Americas, tussles over pieces of lands were exacerbating race and gender equations and unleashing newer forms of violence. The unbridled growth of capitalism was only adding to the woes of the marginalized. It was only natural that I saw parallels between India’s struggle against the British, and Algeria’s quest for independence from the French. The debate about the role of the colonizer’s language in the formation of a postcolonial identity; the role of nationalism; religion as a determinative factor; exploitation of women - I found their intertwinement with borders all over former French colonies much in the same manner as I had experienced during my childhood in India. The initial childhood desire for my grandparents’ personal stories had become an intellectual curiosity by the time I began my doctoral work. Slowly, it took the form of a research project whose results have taken the form of my monograph.  

How did the writing process for this book go? Did you experience anything surprising, amusing or strange?
For me, the biggest surprise was, and still remains, the realization about how little human beings have changed in their attitude towards each other over the last couple of centuries. National borders allow us to both exploit and justify our indifference toward other human beings.

It has become commonplace for people to rejoice at how much the human kind has ‘progressed’ over the last couple of centuries, and how much easier our lives have been made by industrialization and rapid globalization. Making physical comfort purchasable is misunderstood as human progress. What we do not realize is that the way in which capital is intertwined with national borders is creating dangerous new forms of exploitation. The ‘free will’ that residents of the global North exercise in big malls and shopping complexes, is inherently dependent on the easy and continued exploitation of the most underprivileged in the global South.

National borders not only enclose landmasses, by disallowing free human movement, they also serve as containers of exploitable human labor. They are turning into malleable conduits for global capital and are imposing on captive populations ever increasing inequalities that accompany capitalism. Today’s borders also make it easier for us to shirk our combined responsibility towards human kind. We use terms like free trade and globalization to arm twist nations economically, and also simultaneously wash our hands off our ethical responsibility towards exploited populations by appropriating terms like sovereignty, democracy, freedom and national autonomy. Dollars need to flow freely across borders but we shrug our shoulders because solidarity and support should remain hindered by borders.

What would you like readers to remember about your book?  
The underlying message of this book is very simple – the colonial project is far from over and it continues to determine our lives through the borders that surround us. In order to understand here and now, one needs to start with there and then.

Your book is published open access thanks to the support of the KU Leuven Fund for Fair Open Access. How did the open access publication process go? What makes open access so attractive for you/your book? Have you thus far noticed that your book reaches a wider audience?
The only reason a scholar writes is so that others may read and benefit from the research. I am tremendously grateful for the generous grant by the Paul Druwé Fund and the KU Leuven Fund for Fair Open Access that has made this book freely available to readers all across the world. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the wonderful people at Leuven University Press who worked with me to make my manuscript available in open access format. Under any circumstances, making scholarly research freely accessible to all is always preferred to charging hefty sums to access it. Now more than ever, because of how severely the Covid pandemic has affected academic research and physical access to libraries, it is even more important that scholars be able to access intellectual content at the click of a button. Thanks to the open access format, scholars from all across the world are reading and commenting on my work. It is a great feeling.

Do you have any plans yet for another publication? What will it be about? Would you consider publishing the book open access?
There are several projects at various stages of completion. Ideally, I would like to write a series of articles about the French colonization in South Asia; in particular, about the experience of the Indian diaspora in former French colonies all across the world. Once these articles take the shape of a manuscript I look forward to publishing it as an open access book as it provides for a much larger readership.

 

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