Department of Humanities and Social Sciences

Indian Institute of Technology Ropar


HSS Seminar 


'Pedestrianism, Sound and Harlem Dwelling'




Dr. Joe Varghese Yeldho 


September 9, 2016 (Friday) at 4:15 pm

Venue: Conference Room 1

This guest lecture is for those undergraduate engineers who are exploring a future career in the management field.  Though their natural progression is in the technology field, thus, they are haunted by a question time immoral, 'To be or not to be?' Even in the management education field, there are multiple courses available at the postgraduate level in India and abroad. Further, they are always in search for an answer on, which is the best course abroad; how good it is to do an IIM course; what is the usual ROI of an MBA course; or shall I start a startup? This guest talk will make an attemptto answer some of these questions. Followed by a question and answer session.


Brief Bio-sketch of the speaker


I work on themes related to the African-American cultural experience; building on my graduate dissertation (2009), which looks at historical tropes of servitude and incarceration as quasi-autonomous devices that figurally emplot narratives by Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. A developing interest relates to the coming into being of social spaces through representations of the city and practices of kinesis. The project pivots on two specific texts, Home to Harlem (1928), by Claude McKay, and The Street (1946), by Ann Petry, with the former documenting the sensory exuberance of Harlem in the Jazz age while The Street is a more somber reflection on motherhood and work in Harlem during the 1940s. The texts’ develop a narrative architecture predicated on the use of ideations of dwelling, mobility and aurality as qualia. These novels at various times have been studied in response to the genre of African-American literature, to the necessity of political expediency (either as protest or as rejection of racial propaganda), or purely as an investigation of the aesthetics of pragmatism (especially in the case of McKay and his iconicity, or lack thereof, within the narrative of the period known as the “Harlem Renaissance”). The text as response to the artefactual grid and soundscape of Harlem remains under theorized and serves as a point of entry for the current project.

Practices associated with the routine of the ‘everyday,’ such as transport and labor are augmented by the interiorized narrative of dreams, fears, and hope that populate the future. The future in the figural horizon created by McKay and Petry, anticipates a more fluid definition of dwelling as Heideggerian habitation rather than as occupation (“Building, Dwelling, Thinking”); of building as essentially life practices aligned to the modalities of cultivation rather than merely construction. There are strong indications in the novels as to what dwelling as habitation would entail. The ability to cut through regulated views and sensations of the urban grid, a tactical capacity to subjectively access and mediate architectural spaces of the interior, and projecting ‘locale’ by staging sounds from the aural environment, are perhaps the most prominent in the fictional narrative of Harlem, and integral to the evolutionary move from symbolic space of racial pride to lived everyday place of struggle and survival. While the texts aspire towards habitation, the inability to reconcile the alienating authority of the grid with the creative mobile shadowing the Black social imaginary enacts the paradox of dwelling as occupation; the ‘freedom’ to colonize the space of corporeal bondage.

The unceasing reality of disenfranchised “bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos” across contemporary America (in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ epistolary jeremiad, Between the World and Me [2015], on racecraft), sets the tone for exploring the idea of urban dwelling. McKay and Petry offer the prospect of raising the question of black subjectivity and dwelling in the build up to the civil rights era and even later. I would argue that their representational agenda furthers the debate on identity, understood [not only] as the desire to scope, in a manner one sees fit, the projection of an intimate social place onto an urban environment. The topological contours of Harlem allow the citizens of these texts to cite, among other instruments, the transient nomadism of mobility models, such as the ‘stroll,’ in a continuing attempt to breach the conflicting and jagged boundaries of majoritarian ‘ownership.’ The trajectory of this subversive intrusion would have us re visit a reading that draws upon the ‘fragility’ of a plurivalent black existence engaged in working out an elusive attainment to dwelling.