Institute for Study of Texts: A Participatory Initiative

Allan Harold Rex

sam-in-the-cafe

Samuel Buchoul is a Frenchborn researcher and writer based in Delhi. His experience in academia spanned across the fields of information and communication studies, Buddhist studies and philosophy. He has worked as a journalist and an editor, where, combined with efforts in web design and a general attention to online media, he attempted to offer a fresh philosophical lens on contemporary and cultural matters. He is the founder of the weekly, public discussions forum Readers’ Break (www.readersbreak.com), and the founder and first director of the Institute for the Study of Texts (www.studyoftexts.com). His commentaries and creative essays in philosophy can be read on Samvriti (www.samvriti.com).

Excerpts from the interview:
.1. How did the Institute for the study of Texts come about ?
There has been a growing sense of dissatisfaction, to say the least, from the way philosophy and literature, and their study, are approached around us. This concerns largely the education sector, and higher education in particular, but also the media, which should or at least could take up this responsibility seriously. And thirdly, it is the public sphere that has been missing of structures to discuss and contribute to the worlds of philosophy and literature, but first of all, to study them properly. I have personally felt this lack in my own experiences in the university, through classical and online media, and in the public sphere around open events, and I could figure from all these audiences that this was not an isolated feeling. So I started exploring and experimenting with the various elements of these diverse fields, to find the right combination and reach something new and more satisfactory.
After completing my second Masters, in the spring 2014, I wanted to continue having a rigorous and social intellectual practice, while also attempting it away from the classical university spaces and their various limitations. From late 2014 to late 2015, I organized a series of public discussions / study sessions on specific texts of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Simultaneously, towards the end of this series, I thought of continuing the format of public discussions, open to all and free, but to discuss all kinds of books and texts from philosophy and literature. And I also knew, from my time at the university, that starting with what the participating audience is already interested in, is the safest way to ensure an engaging and meaningful reflection. So Tinder Readings took shape, essentially through Facebook, where members would suggest books, and I would organise public discussions on the same — open to the members, but also to the larger audience of Delhi : the discussions would be promoted as cultural events and anyone could attend. It was occasional till spring 2016, and became weekly in May 2016, when it was renamed Readers’ Break. In February this year, we crossed our 50th discussion. We have had face-to-face, substantial and truly enriching, personal exchanges on writing and ideas with literally hundreds of readers in just one year.
As the Readers’ Break initiative became regular and always fruitful, I started thinking about the next step. Many sessions revealed how we faced a dearth of time to cover a text properly — and this was not mentioning the myriads of authors and movements we would discuss and mention, without being able to do justice to them, as most of us still lack the actual, original and extensive confrontation with their texts. There is a pandemic culture of chit-chatting and name-dropping, in the university in particular, and the institutions themselves, because of their various pressures, can only initiate a quest that must later be taken up by the individual itself. Very few degrees, even in Europe and the USA, give the means and the structure to truly take the time and dive deep into texts. Studying and discussing even just a few texts properly requires weeks and months. In philosophy especially, it takes many years to have a proper, genuine and personal first-hand interaction with even just the main ten or fifteen thinkers of the European tradition alone. Because philosophical texts, in this case, are arguably first texts, and not just ideas that can be satisfactorily reduced to ideas and concepts then easily taught in university classes. Thus, I started thinking towards a text-based approach, keeping with the participative methodology of Readers’ Break, and breaking the teacher-student binary one step further : we also found that a passionate reader with a few years of familiarity with a text or an author, can do as good a job in sharing his passion and knowledge — at least to introduce other readers —, as a senior, “professional” and “authorised” professor in the more fixed frames of a university.
The Institute took shape and its conception grew over the following months. You can read more about this process, and its underlying reflections and values, on the Institute for the Study of Texts website (studyoftexts.com). During this time, we figured that doing sessions via Skype would be more convenient for instructors and participants alike, since most of us are not in the university, and thus available only on evenings, after work. It would also cut the expenses of the Institute (and thus the affordability of courses for the participants) — and building an alternative economic model for intellectuals and writers was another major objective of this initiative : an alternative access to study and discussion in literature and philosophy for all, and a new sort of research-cum-teaching fellowship for our instructors.

2. What kind of student profile are you looking for through the application process for the courses of the Institute ?
Keeping up with the spirit of Readers’ Break, there is no filtering of participants for the programmes of the Institute. But this does not mean that the Institute caters to all, and offers everything under the sun that would touch even remotely literature and philosophy. All the programmes and courses are based on the very genuine initiatives of we, the instructors, on the authors or texts for which we have a real feeling. It is at that level that the ‘curation’ process happens : the course design. Within each course, in order to make of the learning process something at once introductory and inviting enough for the novice participant, and conceptually or textually substantial for the participant who has more experience. But also before that in the selection of courses, as I try, with the other instructors, who are essentially friends met through the growth of Readers’ Break, to think outside the box, and offer a growing catalogue of courses that may complement each other. The idea is not to create an all-in-one recipe (like perhaps in our universities where entire centuries of a literary or philosophical tradition may be packed into one semester course) ; it is, rather, to reach out and respond to many profiles of readers. One term may offer simultaneously a course on an American fiction author, another developing a comparative approach around a Continental philosopher from Europe, a third on a novelist from South Asia and finally one on a classic book of political philosophy, while the crash courses would consist in short programmes offering close readings of important texts of Greek philosophy, or Russian literature, or perhaps a crossed-discussion of a text adapted into a film. The sky is the limit… The courses are all independent from one another — a student can just take one term course this time, and a crash course six month later ; and if our approach speaks to her more, she of course can register for more, and discuss these works with us several times every week.

17 Writers Atelier Session 2.jpg

3. What are you teaching this term, and how does your course work?
This term (Jan-March 2017), the main course I am guiding is titled “The Early Derrida : Down the Play”. It is a term course, meaning that we have over 25 hours in total of sessions to explore this body of texts — which I have selected as the first three books of Jacques Derrida, all published in French in 1967 : Writing and Difference (a collection of 10+1 essays written in 1962-1966), Of Grammatology (his first, and perhaps only ‘theoretical’ ‘treatise’, on the relation of speech and writing in the history of western philosophy) and Speech and Phenomena (a short text indicating Husserl’s large inspirations behind Derrida’s most important intuitions). These are only three books from a philosopher who wrote tens of them across four decades of writing career… and this is just one author ! But this is where the study of texts starts. And in fact, unlike some of the other Term Courses, which look more closely and patiently at shorter texts, there is still in this course a lot to cover… So my job is to prepare for each session a selection of the best or most engaging quotes from the chapters or sections to be read each week, to present and explain these passages, and, as much as possible, to orient them towards interpretative discussions with the group of participants.
In January, I also held a Crash Course for a total of 6 hours, on the Discourse on Method of Descartes. This is a classic of western philosophy, and a defining moment of rationalism in the 16th century. The two sessions of this crash course happened physically at the Institute in Noida ; other crash courses, like all our courses, can be attended via Skype for participants from outside Delhi. This kind of setting, and this length of programme, allows the group to really explore a close reading of a text such as this one, relatively short. We could read, line-by-line, most of this historically major text, and attempt to understand, and deepen our receptivity, to this thought, its context, and their subtleties.
Continuously, myself and Akshansh Singh, another instructor at the IST, conceptualise and publicise new Crash Courses — this is a format that offers a lot of flexibility, where we can attempt intellectual, conceptual or aesthetic experimentations more often than with the Term Courses, and over a shorter span of time. We are, for instance, preparing a crash course on the adaptation of Birdman from Carver’s short story to the famous movie by Innaritu ; another one on Plato’s Phaedrus, where the father of Western philosophy expresses his anxiety about writing, and another one on Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages, which is critiqued in Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Certain Crash Courses, such as the last two mentioned here, expand the discussions elaborated through one of the Term Courses, thus offering a value-added study and reflection to those participants, while also being possibly attended independently by other participants. The setting of the Crash Courses is decided dynamically with the participants. At the time of registration, we ask them which timings would suit them the best. Once we receive enough responses to set up the programme and freeze dates, it is promoted publicly on facebook and the registrations remain open.

2-derrida-skype-session

4. What is your most popular programme, and how long does it take for someone to complete it ?
Our term course “Dwelling at the Cusp of Modernity : Heidegger and Urdu Poetry” is the most popular so far. It counts 8 registered students, plus a few more participants, as the instructors of each term are invited to attend all the running programmes for free. This course spans over three months, and includes 12 sessions of 1,5 hours each of textual analysis, on Thursday evenings ; 2 sessions of film or documentary discussions (called CineWords) on Friday evenings ; and 3 Q&A sessions on Saturday afternoons, where one can also attend physically in our space in Noida — to enjoy a change from the group Skype sessions ! — but these too are livestreamed for participants unable to attend physically. There is no final exam : the goal here is to learn or explore authors you are interested in. In some other courses, there may be exercises and “assignments” of creative writing, or similar things.

5. Has internet helped in making alternative spaces for literature such as the Institute ? Will that affect the future of literature ?
Facebook especially has been the main space to connect with other individuals from the public sphere, in Delhi to start with, towards developing a different kind of event and approach to texts. When it comes to philosophy and literature, their dissemination and their participative life in a public sphere, I discovered that other very contemporary initiatives reflected the same demands, and the same intuitions. Movements like Coffee Table Romanticisms or Bring Your Own Book (BYOB) have shown and proved how much the online medium can connect and enliven the passion of individuals who would otherwise often find themselves isolated in these subtle interests. Those individuals connect virtually, may meet physically in a city and inspire branches in other cities (as in the case of BYOB) or explore now modes of collective creativity and meet virtually through online video discussions (as in the case of Coffee Table). In our case, it was necessary to register and open a structure within which we could organise daily programmes, since that is the scale of time and investment that is required when it comes to studying texts of philosophy and literature.
I don’t know if this new kind of outreach, and to some extent, this new approach to literature and philosophy, will change the form of literature in the future. My hope, at least, is for individuals from outside the university to feel as legitimate and confident as the more ‘validated’ communities of academia, in exploring, and responding to, great works of our heritages of literature and philosophy. If we go beyond our everyday opinions, or even our initial intuitions about works and authors, and actually delve into the questions they involve, and read these perspectives patiently — this will surely enrich the quality of our contribution, in our political reality just as in more atemporal aesthetic or spiritual quests. And this, naturally, will get reflected in the literary productions of tomorrow.

6. Is the Indian milieu a special context within which the Institute for the Study of Texts could take shape ?
The study of Buddhism was the original purpose of my visit in India, almost eight years ago. Since then, I have gone more seriously into the various branches of western philosophy, through a Masters degree and then more independently, but with as much seriousness. My initial naivety about India has evolved, and the years have shown me the deep tensions of this cultural and societal milieu. But the very perpetuation of my intuitions, now in the form of this institute, also shows how open-minded people can be here. Cultural institutions are quite strong in the West and in Europe especially, and some of them have brought imaginations and practices outside of the box in their own eras. But for reasons financial and especially, I would say, because of the mentality of these societies, an initiative such as ours would have faced much resistance there. For its idealism, but also because of the regularity and intensity its execution demands. For all these reasons, undertaking this experiment here, however initial or modest it may seem, is a real blessing. And it calls us everyday for all kinds of gratitude.

PRINT VERSION (approx. 1200 words)
Please place an explicit mention that this is an abridged and edited version of the interview, which can be found unabridged on the website of your journal.
1. How did the Institute for the study of Texts come about ?
After I left the university in 2014, I have been wanting to continue having a rigorous and social intellectual practice, while also attempting it away from the classical university spaces and their various limitations. Later that year, I started organising open-to-all and free sessions or public events of discussions/study of various philosophical or literary text. Those events were occasional till May 2016, when they became weekly (every weekend), the initiative being re-baptised Readers’ Break. In February this year, we crossed our 50th discussion. We have had face-to-face, substantial and truly enriching, personal exchanges on writing and ideas with literally hundreds of readers in just one year.
But a meeting per week is not much — this is not enough time to get deeper into the world of each author, as we discuss a different book every Saturday. The desire to take more time to delve properly into such texts grew, and I thought a new kind of structure should be designed specifically for that purpose. In fact, that is not a dearth of time proper to the public sphere alone. Very few degrees, even in Europe and the USA, give the means and the structure to truly take the time and dive deep into texts. Literary and philosophical texts, I believe, should be studied first as texts, and not just contents that can be satisfactorily reduced to ideas and concepts then conveniently paraphrased in university classes. I started thinking towards a text-based approach, keeping with the open-to-all and participative methodology of Readers’ Break, and inviting all passionate and serious readers to take the initiative of instructing their own custom course. Thus came the idea for the The Institute for the Study of Texts.

2. What are courses offered this term, and how does it work ?
This term (January-March 2017), the Institute is offering 4 Term Courses, and 4 Crash Courses (some of the Crash Courses have several editions). Our Term Course “Dwelling at the Cusp of Modernity : Heidegger and Urdu Poetry” is the most popular so far. It counts 8 registered students, plus the other instructors, who are invited to attend all the programmes of the term. This course spans over three months, and includes 12 sessions of 90 minutes each of textual analysis, on Thursday evenings ; 2 sessions of film or documentary discussions (called CineWords) on Friday evenings ; and 3 Q&A sessions on Saturday afternoons. There is no final exam : the goal here is to learn or explore authors you are interested in. In some other courses, there may be exercises and “assignments” of creative writing, or similar things.
I am personally taking a Term Course titled “The Early Derrida : Down the Play”. It looks at the first three books of Jacques Derrida : Writing and Difference, Of Grammatology and Speech and Phenomena. My job is to prepare, for each session, a selection of the best or most engaging quotes from the chapters or sections to be read each week, to present and explain these passages, and, as much as possible, to orient them towards interpretative discussions with the group of participants.
In January, I also held a Crash Course for a total of six hours, on the Discourse on Method of Descartes. The two sessions of this Crash Course happened physically at the Institute in Noida — we offer this physical modality occasionally, but in any case all our courses can be attended via Skype for participants from outside Delhi. We could read, line-by-line, most of this historically major text, and attempt to understand, and deepen our receptivity, to this thought, its context, and their subtleties. Continuously, myself and Akshansh Singh, another instructor at the IST, conceptualise and announce new Crash Courses — this format offers a lot of flexibility, where we can attempt intellectual, conceptual or aesthetic experimentations. We are preparing a crash course on the adaptation of Birdman from Carver’s short story to the famous movie by Innaritu ; another one on Plato’s Phaedrus, and a third on Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages. Certain Crash Courses, such as the last two mentioned here, expand the discussions elaborated through one of the Term Courses, thus offering a value-added study and reflection to those participants, while also being possibly attended independently by other participants. The timeline of the Crash Courses is decided dynamically with the participants. At the time of registration, we ask them which timings would suit them the best. Once we receive enough responses to set up the programme and freeze dates, it is promoted publicly on facebook and the registrations remain open to other prospect students.

3. Has internet helped in making alternative spaces for literature such as the Institute ? Will that affect the future of literature ?
Facebook especially has been the main space to connect with other individuals from the public sphere engaged in literature and philosophy. In fact, other very contemporary initiatives have been reflecting the same demands, and the same intuitions. Movements like Coffee Table Romanticisms or Bring Your Own Book (BYOB) have shown and proved how much the online medium can connect and enliven the passion of individuals who would otherwise often find themselves isolated in these subtle interests. In the case of the Institute, it was necessary to also register and open a structure through which we could organise daily programmes, since that is the scale of time and investment that is required when it comes to studying texts of philosophy and literature. I am not sure how to qualify the literature of the future, and if these new modalities will change its nature radically, but I hope that if we — students of literature and literature from all walks of life — go beyond our everyday opinions, or even our initial intuitions about works and authors, and actually delve properly into the questions they involve, and read these perspectives patiently — this will surely enrich the quality of our contribution, in our political reality just as in more atemporal aesthetic or spiritual quests. And this, naturally, will get reflected in the literary productions of tomorrow.

4. Is the Indian milieu a special context within which to start something like the Institute for the Study of Texts ?
The study of Buddhism was the original purpose of my visit in India, almost eight years ago. Since then, I have gone more seriously into the various branches of western philosophy, through a Masters degree and then more independently, but with as much seriousness. My initial naivety about India has evolved, and the years have shown me the deep tensions of this cultural and societal milieu. But the very perpetuation of my intuitions, now in the form of this institute, also shows how open-minded people can be here. For reasons financial and especially, I would say, because of the mentality of societies in the West, an initiative such as ours would have faced much resistance there. For its idealism, but also because of the regularity and intensity its execution demands. For all these reasons, undertaking this experiment here, however initial or modest it may seem, is a real blessing. And it calls us everyday for all kinds of gratitude.

Bio
Samuel Buchoul is a French-born researcher and writer based in Delhi. His experience in academia spanned across the fields of information and communication studies, Buddhist studies and philosophy. He has worked as a journalist and an editor, where, combined with efforts in web design and a general attention to online media, he attempted to offer a fresh philosophical lens on contemporary and cultural matters. He is the founder of the weekly, public discussions forum Readers’ Break (www.readersbreak.com), and the founder and first director of the Institute for the Study of Texts (www.studyoftexts.com). His commentaries and creative essays in philosophy can be read on Samvriti (www.samvriti.com).

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