Book Review: The Aesthetic Cold War: Decolonization and Global Literature by Peter J. Kaliney
In The Aesthetic Cold War: Decolonization and World Literature, Peter J. Kaliney explores how the use of soft power during the Cold War played an intrinsic role in the development of intellectuals working in decolonized regions. This book is an intriguing read for those wishing to understand the Cold War and situate the relationship between the state and anti-colonial writers, writes Christina Obolenskaya.
The Aesthetic Cold War: Decolonization and World Literature. Peter J. Kaliney. Princeton University Press. 2022.
Historically, politicians have both feared and embraced the book. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union launched cultural diplomacy programs aimed at orienting readers to their respective ideological sides through literature, influencing decolonial thinking. In The Aesthetic Cold War: Decolonization and World LiteraturePeter J. Kaliney explores how soft power during the Cold War played an intrinsic role in the development of intellectuals working in decolonized regions.
In the past, literature on decolonization has been isolated from the propagandistic pressures exerted by the state during the Cold War. Kaliney insists that developments in decolonial thought and the Cold War must be discussed in conjunction with conversations around the emergence of a global literary culture. Kaliney analyzes how authors such as Eileen Chang, Doris Lessing, CLR James and Claudia Jones were caught at the intersections of the state and aesthetic autonomy as they attempted to pursue their own creative freedom in a politically tense.
The United States and the Soviet Union granted writers from sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America financial support, the publication of literary journals, the organization of literary lectures, etc. Cultural goodwill programs have given a platform to dancers, authors, musicians and artists. There is a large literature on how Martha Graham promoted Cold War propaganda through danceand jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong were used to fight communism.
According to Kaliney, the Cold War exerted opposing pressures on writers in decolonizing regions. Both parties have created unprecedented opportunities for authors to circulate their works globally. Authors like Eileen Chang have partnered with the United States Information Agency (USIA), the cultural diplomacy offshoot of the U.S. State Department, and received financial support to continue their publishing efforts. .
But strings attached to this wave of support in the hope that the authors would take a stand for or against communism. Intellectuals were watched, censored and imprisoned for writing words. It was not just the practice of Soviet and Chinese forces to censor authors – the FBI in the US and MI5 and MI6 in the UK monitored intellectuals, with particularly close observation of queer and diaspora writers. African. MI5, Britain’s counterintelligence and security agency, had spies checking Doris Lessing’s travel documents, tracking her calls and correspondence and limiting her right to travel. However, Lessing was subject to a lesser degree of scrutiny by British security forces compared to the treatment of black dissidents in the United States who were more closely watched. The FBI has collected more than 1,000 pages of notes on Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian journalist and activist, who was incarcerated at Ellis Island and then deported from the country.
Image Credit: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Division of Photographs and Prints, New York Public Library. “Claudia Jones giving a speech while traveling in Japan.” The New York Public Library’s Digital Collections. 1955 – 1964. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/9079debf-e885-31d1-e040-e00a18066980. No known copyright restrictions.
Writers from decolonized regions led lively debates around the meaning of indigenity and the importance of indigenous languages in response to cultural imperialism. There was a big difference in how the United States handled the issue compared to the Soviet Union. The American diplomatic system insisted that English should be the primary medium of literary exchange, while the Soviet Union worked with an expansive model of linguistic plurality. One of the successes of the Soviet cultural effort was the translation industry, which “may well be the largest more or less coherent translation project the world has ever seen” (91), according to the literary scholar Susanna Witt.
The United States had innumerable branches of government disguised as cultural programs, but created for the attempt at propagandistic control of the masses. In 1962, a public exposure took place when it was revealed by investigative journalists that the Conference of English-Speaking African Writers, held at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, was sponsored by Congress to Cultural Freedom (CCF), a program run by the CIA. . The conference heralded the birth of postcolonial African literature in English and was part of a larger program run by the CCF to be active in the region, launching magazines such as black orpheus and Transition. The CCF had positioned itself without any pretense on its general political affiliations, highlighting the mission of the program to be the protector of intellectual and aesthetic freedoms. Although the CIA has covered up its efforts to fund cultural programs, the US State Department has been open about its sponsorship, supporting artists like writer Langston Hughes.
Backed by the Soviet Union, the Association of Afro-Asian Writers (AAWA) was one of the most influential post-war networks designed to develop an anti-colonial literary tradition in a global context. An intriguing facet of AAWA was its lack of reliance on metropolitan circuits of cultural exchange between the expected cities of New York, London, and Paris. Instead, AAWA built a global network with interconnected routes between intellectuals in Almaty, Beirut, Cairo, and Colombo. In addition, Soviet cultural agencies helped launch the international quarterly, Lotus: Afro-Asian writings (1968-1991), which was published in Arabic, English and French. Lotus remains one of the most successful examples of a diverse international literary journal.
On the American side, black orpheus and Transition were similar journals, but Kaliney maintains that Lotus and Transition should not be pitted against each other because of their Cold War state affiliations. The CCF was not strictly capitalist and AAWA was not strictly communist – instead, the two operated as international patronage networks. Anti-colonial writers would appear in both CCF and AAWA, signaling that there were no hard limits preventing writers from choosing a side to work with during the Cold War.
The Cold War created an atmosphere that allowed the state to impose its ideals on all aspects of life, including the medium of art. Kaliney’s book is an intriguing read for those wishing to understand the Cold War and situate the relationship between the state and anti-colonial writers. Other books exploring the intersections of state politics and literary circles are UNESCO and the destiny of literature by Sarah Brouillette, Beyond the color line and the iron curtain: reading encounters between black and red, 1922-1963 by Kate A. Baldwin, The Program Age: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGrul and The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand. It is essential to recognize the interaction between government agencies and artists – governments have sometimes facilitated artistic work, but they have also been the ones to silence thought.