An agent provocateur is more than one who is simply provocative: being, rather, one who incites another to break a law and even be punished for it. In English, however, the use of provocateur alone may indicate simply provocation. I offer this eclectic collection of essays and whimsies as both a provocation (of passionate, critical thought) and an instigator of (metaphoric, real) law-breaking in the continuing crafting of the humanities, in the university as much as outside of it – through the creation of an “undercommons”.

A certain irascibility that accompanies the sense of a provocateur is similar, I would suggest, to the idea of the fugitive and the stolen from Harney and Moten: forming an undercommons which destabilises by instigating ruptures and raptures, and aspires to “the beyond of teaching”: becoming “unfit for subjection” and making up an “unsafe neighbourhood”.

The idea of the unfit and the unsafe, I would like to think, connects methodologically with Aniket Jaaware’s idea of “de-stitution”/destitution (which he pits against “institution”) in the practice of the humanities, outside of a “received sociological manner”: he negotiates the question of caste through the signifier of touching and not-touching, and deploys largely the literary method to (re)read a social phenomenon. In doing so, he both touches and does not touch the endemic of caste; and he gives himself the freedom to “oublierr” – to forget, and to err – in his peregrinations toward a goal that is also a no-goal.

As the essays are pulled together – untidily, spilling out of any neat dovetails and chain-links – and I try to write up an introduction that will float some anchoring words and thoughts for the collection and yet allow each of the pieces to breathe in their own skins without packaging and labelling, the world has shrunk before one’s eyes into isolation chambers and quarantine calendars.

As the “novel coronavirus” of 2019-2020 has spun into a rapid action force, we have sightlessly stared into the heart of a pandemic darkness not seen in at least a hundred years. The spectre of breathless death has begun to haunt global waking and sleeping. Is this a good time to think about what a fugitive humanities might do, to stir up trouble against assertions of a pale goodness and a humane, sanctifying touch, rather to endow it with an anarchic power of its own to shake the world of its complacency and its fears, both equally stupefying?

For even as we stare into a Dantesque inferno, we must not, indeed, be afraid – that our fate, our life (a gift, however it may look), might be snatched away from us. The bullet we are staring down resides in the rifle as well as in the poem, as Falguni Roy says with a wonder as well as a certain resignation: we cannot allow the word to be muzzled.


Anil Karanjai (1940-2001), a painter-iconoclast who also belonged to the Hungry Generation of writers and artists from Bengal, repeatedly drew distorted figures, often with more eyes than there are individuals on the canvas. Bodies are contorted and merge with others – not cubist like Picasso’s, but flowing and rounded, with robust colours and chilling expressions – telling stories of hunger and anger, shock and sorrow, perhaps even of love.

There is, in fact, a painted “Homage to Picasso” (1973, oil on canvas) too, in rich reds, maroons and browns, in which Picasso is three-eyed. In each of his misshapen and vibrant images, we are struck, over and over, by the power of their gaze(s). The many, extra, eyes protrude and stare, are sometimes blank, sometimes laden with the pain and knowledge, the grandeur of knowledge.

In an evocative self-portrait (1974, oil on paper)[v], Karanjai has his own face made up of eyes placed askance, at least six eyes can be clearly counted, from cheeks up into the forehead; the rest of the face is chiseled from crevices, channels and dark corners in a deep brown with hints of watermelon red, eerily resembling his face – but not really a living, human one. The channels cutting through his face cleverly move up towards the head forming roots of a plant. And in this astonishing self-portrait, from his forehead, a tree or bush of luminous greens – a few of the many shades that Karanjai uses in his verdant landscapes – sprouts and blooms.

It is a portrait that is riveting and unnerving at once. The eyes, multiple and strange, the dark cracks and crevices, the luscious, luxurious greens: they add up to fantasy bordering on nightmare. We are drawn in, as to all of the arts, seduced by proverbial sirens, lured to our deaths real or imagined. The discombobulated eye haunts us as a symbol of what life holds, what we must see and yet cannot bear to.

Eyes float around us in air and water, separated from faces: we watch and are watched, we are unseeing and we are not seen. It becomes a metaphor, hanging loose, of our making non/sense of the world – nothing at all to do with the physiological function of the eye. We each have our own tales to tell, and our own readings of others’ tales. We do not know what they auger for us in the years we still have to live, but we know, like Dante did, that we cannot be afraid of what our fate will bring us, for it is a gift.

Anil Karanjai: 'Self-Portrait', 1974, oil on paper.

How does the language of literature – and where it resides primarily for us still, in books – struggle to reflect the fragmentations, distortions and contortions that fate continually throws at us? Intriguingly, there are books in fragments, perhaps returning in a long wide arc to Sappho’s dismembered lines of poetry on faded and torn papyrus leaves composed in Greece in 6th century BC Anne Carson’s Float (2016) comes in a stiff clear plastic cover filled with booklets, loose sheets, cover pages and even a contents page, which can be read as a series of short and long writings or any picked out at will, of reading notes, jottings, poems, translations, essays, plays.

In a stream-of-consciousness poem in the pack “Wildly Constant”, Carson writes of Iceland, glaciers, and a library:

The library contains not books
but glaciers.
The glaciers are upright.
As perfectly ordered as books would be.
But they are melted.

What would it be like
to live in a library
of melted books?

With sentences streaming over the floor
and all the punctuation
settled to the bottom as a residue.

It would be confusing.
An adventure.

Carson’s chosen vehicle for her collection of writings – a hard transparent folder with one end open, booklets and sheets snugly fitted inside but calling out to be strewn around the bed or the grass, to allow the sentences to stream and the punctuation to settle – bears to her the gift of letting go. She can write in verse or prose or throw a handful of words across a page, and all of it will dive into the folder and become one of a bunch of wild grasses and fruit to be picked out at whim. The three-sided box invites us to let ourselves go, too. It describes itself as

A collection of twenty-two chapbooks whose order is unfixed and whose topics are various.
Reading can be freefall.

And, ‘Reading can be freefall’…

It is this freefall that fantasy, nightmare and the humanities entice one into, and aid and abet. This collection of essays – with no prompt from the editor other than asking for the writers’ ways of “doing the humanities”, engaging with chosen texts, thoughts, theories, senses and sensations – invites you all to such a freefall.

I have not tasked myself in this Introduction with summing up each contribution to Humanities, Provocateur for you, or even with establishing connections between them or with my vision for the book. To be honest, I had no clear vision, except that I wanted a varied bunch of people – each of whom I know to be passionately engaged in thinking about the humanities in their own very original and creative ways – to record an experience of such engagement, its methods as much as its deviations from “method”.

I have not touched upon the artists or writers or filmmakers or thinkers or texts that my contributors have written about. Instead, I have grouped the essays in couples and triples under section headers that I would like you to interpret in abstraction, which coincide with the ones used to separate sections of this Introduction – sections where I follow some erratic leads to what I have read and seen and thought and felt and learnt, in my own unruly forages in the humanities.

At worst, I hope that such errant ruminations will spark echoes for you in similar – or indeed, diverse – directions. At best, I wish that they coagulate in liquid patterns that will pick up colours and voices and images from the ones let fly by my contributors in their essays. Together, if they add up in some haphazard, scrambling way to invoke humanities practices that break the laws set for the study of the arts across a wide spectrum, and impel a few to move out of cushioned cubby-holes lined with weighty theory and packaged with styles taught in formulaic academic writing courses, my work will be more than done.

We come to this collection – and everything that we read, or watch, or listen to – as equal learners, like Jacques Rancière’s “ignorant schoolmaster” in multiples, and everything we put in or take out from each page we turn, and return to, will enrich us with its traces. The traces shall remain in us, shall germinate new ideas, shall go with us to new places and people and pieces of art, among garbage and flowers.

Invisibly we shall draw cobwebs between us – those whom we know and those whom we don’t – for carrying these traces, and they will connect us in innumerable ways through stray dreams and sharp observations that have touched us in the essays. For as Rancière’s schoolmaster Jacoctet teaches, “Everything is in everything. The power of the tautology is that of equality, the power that searches for the finger of intelligence in every human work.”

Humanities, Provocateur invites you to Anne Carson’s freefall of reading. To read the pieces together or separately, as and when the mood takes you. To be struck by fresh connections and intriguing inferences. To argue and to disagree. To cherish or to distrust. To be led to texts you do not know, or back to some you know well. To be lured to the undercommons, to read against the new tides that come in to you with a line or an essay, and then to flow with them awhile.

To be adventurous, and destitute, at the same time. To never be afraid, for our fate is our gift. To wield, and hold, the poem in our lives like a rifle – or perhaps like a beloved one is losing. To snatch an elusive, odd thought from the mouth of the mundane, and to make the ordinary extraordinary with a sudden, astonishing, wondrous word or image that kisses you on a page at which you have, momentarily, taken pause.

Humanities, Provocateur: Towards a Contemporary Political Aesthetics

Excerpted with permission from the Introduction, by Brinda Bose, to Humanities, Provocateur: Towards a Contemporary Political Aesthetics, edited by Brinda Bose, Bloomsbury.