Boimela, Books and the Fetishistic Share

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The virtual world regularly startles us with new trends and phenomena. The great Kolkata Book Fair, an integral component of the fair-ly crazed Bengali cultural landscape has spawned yet another of such trends. This time it’s not just the inane boimela selfie, itself a part of the compulsive need to exhibit every aspect of one’s life and that too almost as it happens, especially with the advent of ‘live’ streaming; but rather the ‘boimela buys’ that are thronging one’s homepages and walls. The boimela buys refers to those pictures through which the reader as consumer shares with facebook friends names of all the books he or she has bought from the book fair. The question is,  is this yet another avenue of declaring and sharing one’s love of books or an invitation to intellectual discussions based on recently acquired books or yet another manifestation of the pervasive consumerist culture of commodification? The question takes us into an inscrutable zone of intent, on the part of the person sharing the pictures and how he/she represents the act of sharing itself. But if I indeed buy the book for my own intellectual curiosity and spiritual succour, what need is there to share the pictures of the bought books in the first place? But perhaps I am too much of an antisocial introvert to understand the gregarious outpouring of bibliophilia that seems to engulf the educated Bengalis of all ages during this time of the year. But then again this is a rumination based on personal unease and hardly a definitive assessment of evolving fads. But from where I stand, it might be argued that the three dimensional tactile presence of the book and the world of experience it contains, becomes flattened into yet another ornamental commodity, in a typically postmodern manouevre, which has been overwhelmed by its sign-exchange value to such an extent that the original utility or use value becomes irrelevant and almost spectral. Since reading a book means participating directly into an emotional and spiritual experience, the flattening of the book into a euphoric image of one’s latest acquisition, might well suggest an intensified alienation on the part of the reader as consumer, for whom the mere act of reading is no longer sufficient but must be supplemented by proliferated images of acquired books and the consequent flooding of likes and congratulatory comments. Perhaps, yet another proof of such alienation becomes visible when one reader, that too an academic, rather enthusiastically exclaims: “19ta holo” (bought 19!). Through such quantitative exclamation, the book, once defined by Milton as “”the precious life blood of a master spirit””, an almost quasi-human extension of the sentient but mortal human self, becomes reduced to a mere number, in this case a digit between 1 to 19, almost reminding one of the numerically identified labourers in Rabindranath’’s Jakkhapuri in Raktakarabi (The Red Oleander). The book in this case becomes yet another commodity, like shoes, golden earrings, pairs of jeans or cartons of milk and declares the inevitable disappearance of that aura of wisdom, enjoyment, delight or consolation that it perhaps once had. This is not to suggest that books are no longer capable of ensuring such responses, but rather that in the interpellated psyche of the reader it has undergone a transformation of its identity. And of course the infection is contagious. One declaration of 19 is immediately followed in comments by a day-wise breakup of another person’’s acquisition of books, perhaps numbering 21 or 33, with a dutiful nod to little magazines which operate as signifiers of cool nonconformity without necessarily being radical. In the process the Facebook wall becomes a veritable auction house of commodified books with each bidding to prove him/herself a greater bibliophile than the other. This becomes possible because the book, more than being a product of human creativity or thirst for knowledge or myriad moving experiences of one hue or another, becomes yet another appendage to the digitally manufactured self which remains ever insecure, ever unstable and strives to arrive at an ever-receding terminal of fullness which remains ever-receding because the quantitative calculation of acquisitions only serves to chimerically mask an insistent void at the heart of the self through an illusion of cultural refinement and intellectual erudition. Volpone counts his gold and jewels, the modern gulls count their books but the underlying malady perhaps remains similar. The fetishistic drive inherent in the dynamics of capital thus devours even those books as commodities which once perhaps became celebrated precisely because they were trying to guide the readers towards realms of experiences free from the clutches of capital and its cronies. In the process we are offered another glimpse of the complex intersections of literature and capital in which most of us are consciously or unconsciously enmeshed. This is neither new nor surprising. In a world where authors of fiction may be provided with millions of dollars as advances, where cinematic versions of books and associated merchandise captivate people around the world, making an author one of the richest women in her whole country, already replete with enough filthy rich, how does the precious book retain its autonomy and resist the machinations of dominant consumerist ideology which privileges spectacle, numbers (note here the sublime gratification received from a substantially high number of ‘likes’) and individual acquisitions? One of the reasons why the call to read and buy books, regularly aired in the Kolkata Book Fair, seemed so enchanting and gratifying in the past was the misplaced hope that through greater immersion within literary worlds, it would perhaps be possible to develop a sensibility that refutes the consumerist commodification generally proliferated through video-games (computers weren’’t common in our childhood), televised soap-operas and run-off-the-mill cinematic potboilers with their alluring combination of opulence, individuality and fantasies of instinctual gratification. Such a conception seems utterly naïve and misplaced from the vantage point of today’’s ruminations and again indicates how no supposed sanctuary is actually safe, no refuge actually immune from the insidious logic of the market, unless there are systemic upheavals. Of course, I am merely a jaded academic with hardly any solution in sight. So I end my rambling and turn as always to Eliot, who asserts his relevance even now:

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;

The world revolves like ancient women

Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

– Abin Chakraborty

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