To Write About and From Within the Ineffable, the Unthinkable, the Unimaginable–Can You?

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“religious arguments, expertly retrieved by the Nirenbergs, remind us that questions about counting are not merely technical disputes, but involve agonizing metaphysical uncertainty: human frailty confronting the shadow of everlasting permanence.”

Charlie Tyson, “Do the Numbers Lie?
A defense of humanistic learning against quantification retreats into mysticism,” CHronicle of HIgher Education, January 27, 2022

A few days ago I was wondering—on another platform—about language, its possibilities and its limits, in an age of threats to global and planetary existence.

I wrote

“How can we write under the shadow of planetary extinction? What contemporary writers are doing this best? Who and what are they drawing upon? Did those inspirations and influences tackle similar catastrophic conditions or ideas?  How did they find the language to articulate these encounters? For today’s writer, what is the most usable, needful language for unimaginability?”

Recently I came across this reference to Uncountable: a Philosophical History of Number and Humanity from Antiquity to the Present, by David and Ricardo Nirenberg (historian-mathematician-literary scholar-philosophers), in the essay by Charlie Tyson cited above.

What most struck me in the discussion was the tense and antagonistic juxtaposition in the title of the words ‘Number’ and ‘Humanity.’ I am a literary scholar and writer, always acutely math-phobic. The Nirenbergs have argued in their book that an over-reliance on counting, numbers, and quantification is at the root of our existential malaise and crisis, in some sense. The basic premise of the Nirenbergs’ book is that “Instability…is at the foundations of everything” (Tyson).

In other words, mathematics and numbers, grounded on principles that imply universality and eternity—”In numbers, human beings have sought a realm of eternal sameness, a refuge from the mutability of the world and the body” (Tyson)—are the nodes of intellectual mutation of our madness in a sense.

In denying the Heraclitean principle of eternal flux, and privileging Aristotelian and Platonic ‘certitudes’ and ‘Forms’–the Nirenbergs argue in their survey of early modern and modern STEM learning–mathematics and quantitative analyses founded on prophylactic dreams of fixity and immutability have led us to the madness we inherit and manifest today: a collective urge to count rather than value, even if the count is of the number of days left to us, the planet’s most destructive, brilliant bipeds.

We forget that counting doesn’t involve, necessitate accountability.

Is there an answer to my search for a usable language in a time of chaos and catastrophe—countable or not?—in the issues the Nirenbergs have raised? Have we, in some elusive way, been using language as not expression but as count? Even semiotic and postmodern theories of meaning that illuminate language as at least somewhat arbitrary, random, subjective, and unmoored, still infected with the urge to count, to quantify, to measure? And is that why we are in such trouble, ecologically, morally, planetarily?

I will be thinking about this in my search for a language for the time of existential catastrophe. In my own profession, higher education, I certainly see the diffusion of a surreal number-addiction in the endless diktats trickling down from top administration to us lowly mine-workers—the faculty and staff—to ‘count, count, count’ everything rather than ‘value’ anything: intentions, performance, utterance, or ideas. Which has led to what someone recently brilliantly described as ‘The Great Resignation.’ People are leaving academia in droves, not trickles.

And what is social media but the dominance of numbers rather than qualities? A marketplace of the count?

Are we doomed unless we can come up with a collective language that returns to qualifying, not quantifying? And fast?

What do you think?

The itty bitties:

Folks, I was born and raised in India and have called the United States my second continent for the last thirty-odd years. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve generally turned to books for the answers to life’s questions, big or small (that includes philosophy and recipes). My first novel Love’s Garden was published in October 2020. Some nice people have said some nice things about it (Buzzfeed; Medium.com; Foreword Reviews; Goodreads). I’m currently working on Homeland Blues, my second novel, about love, colorism, racism and xenophobia in post-Donald Trump America.

My short stories have been published or will be in in Oyster River Pages, Sky Island Journal, the Saturday Evening Post Best Short Stories from the Great American Fiction Contest Anthology 2021, the Good Cop/Bad Cop Anthology (Flowersong Press, 2021), the Gardan Anthology of the Craigardan Artists Residency, Funny Pearls, The Bombay Review, Meat for Tea: the Valley Review, Storyscape Journal, Raising Mothers, The Bangalore Review, PANK, OyeDrum, and more. I’ve attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop, the Vermont Studio Center residency, the VONA residency, Centrum Writer’s Residency, and others. I was first runner-up for the Los Angeles Review Flash Fiction contest (2017-2018), long-listed for the Disquiet International Literary Prize (2019 and 2020), a finalist for the Reynolds-Price International Women’s Literary Award (2019), and received Honorable Mention for the Saturday Evening Post Great American Stories Contest, 2021.

In a related avatar, I’m Professor of English at Texas A&M University, USA and teach and write about English literature, South Asia Studies, Indian Cinema, Postcolonial Studies, Colonial Discourse Analysis, Gender Theory, Film Studies, and Critical Theory. I founded and directed (2007-2017) the South Asia Working Group of the Glasscock Humanities Center at Texas A&M University, and rom 2012 -2014 directed the Graduate Studies program of the English department at Texas A&M University. I’ve published three academic monographs and many articles on film, world literature, feminism and visual culture, colonial and postcolonial discourse analyses of literature from the eighteenth century onwards, gender in South Asia, and travel writing. The latest of these is Hindi Cinema: Repeating the Subject (Routledge 2012). I’ve received grants and fellowships from the Huntington Library Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship, the Regional Worlds Program of the Globalization Project (Ford Foundation) at the Chicago Humanities Institute, and the Lilly Foundation.

I also play at Youtube; Amazon; Author’s Guild; Twitter; Instagram; Facebook; Blog; LinkedIn; Goodreads; and Nandini’s Writing, Treehugging and Reading Outfit

I was sighted at these spots recently:

Featured Panelist on “Shapes of History” panel, 3rd Tasveer South Asian LitFest (TSAL), part of Tasveer Festival: Watch, Read, Talk; October 1st-24th, 2021; also available here with a ticket or pass; October 19th, 2021, 9 pm CST

Featured Reading of Love’s Garden, Bright Hill Press Reading, July 8, 2021

Invited Reading at Lit Balm: an Interactive Livestream Reading Series, February 27, 2021

Invited Workshop and Reading with a focus on Love’s Garden at Dev Samaj College for Women, Panjab University, India, February 2, 2021

Featured Reading from Love’s Garden in the Hidden Timber Book Reading Series, January 24, 2021

Reading from Love’s Garden at Readings on the Pike, December 10, 2020, 7-8 PM EST

Reading at the KGB Bar, New York City, Nov 15, 2020, 7-9 PM EST

Reading at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, Nov 13, 6-7 PM CST

Book Launch at Brazos Bookstore, Houston, TX, Oct 27, 2020, 7–8 PM CST

Cambridge Writers Workshop and IEE Benefit Reading, July 24, 8-9 PM:

Podcasts: Desi Books Episode 21

Interviews: Nandini Bhattacharya speaks on “Tell Me Your Story” Digital Conversation, April 10, 2021, 8 am CDT, on MONEY/MOOLAH/THAT THING THAT THEY SAY MAKES THE WORLD GO AROUND, and Colonialism, Gender and Writing; Oyedrum; Lois Lane Investigates; Tupelo Quarterly; Critical Flame

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