Duke University Press, 2022
Reviewed by Da Ye Kim
Reviewing Lata Mani’s Myriad Intimacies feels almost antithetical to the book’s purpose. The book does not ask for an assessment, critique or even a straightforward reading of its contents, but instead invites readers to view, sense, experience, and embody the world and all of its related constituents anew. In contrast to its succinct style of writing, the book calls for a prolonged contemplation of the vast scope of the subjects Mani covers, from theoretical and spiritual studies on human desire, love, nature, interaction, identity politics, and politics of images and languages to more current issues including the #MeToo movement and the COVID-19 pandemic. The contents and the concepts addressed in the book move in and out of pages, often transporting the readers into the audiovisual medium of video poems through the inserted QR codes. The video poems, also created by Mani in collaboration with Nicolás Gradi, are not supplements to the written text but play an equally important role in putting the readers in conversation with the world the author presents through multimedia and multi-genre exploration. The prose and poster designs in-between the chapters and videos further play with the book’s rhythm. In this way, the act of reading itself is challenged. The book breathes in and out along with its readers/audience. It feels, moves, imagines, and connects with its audience. Mani opens the introduction by stating that the book is “conceived as an offering” in a spiritual sense. Building on the book’s “unapologetic exploration between the sacred and secular registers,” Mani remains critical, spiritual, and reflective toward her subjects until the last page. Therefore, following Mani’s unique characterization of the book, I offer this review as a reflection on my sensuous experience of traversing through the words and images of Myriad Intimacies.
The book opens and ends by using the COVID-19 pandemic to exemplify the tantric understanding of the world. As a philosophical perspective, tantra conceives the universe as sentient, honors embodiment as sacred, and embraces senses as a form of intelligence. As sensuous beings in the interrelated world, even an act of inhalation is related to the lives of others, as exemplified in the COVID-19 pandemic, which the author theorizes was caused by the lack of understanding of the world as a connected whole. Starting from how our breath can be related to death of another on the other side of Earth, Mani’s tantric examples continue to multiply in scale and scope throughout the chapters, from personal and political reflections on human desires to identity politics and diverse activist movements in the recent years, while maintaining the central concept of “out of the one, many.” Humans and nonhumans are related in an infinite number of connections that we have overlooked for centuries. Mani argues that in order to tap into the boundless possibility of ‘re-cognizing’ the in-between intimacies among both human and nonhuman beings, one has to embody and activate the senses on both an infinitely small and extremely large global scale.
Upon introducing the core idea of tantra in the first chapter, Mani lays the foundation for her critical approach towards her subjects by challenging the idea of critique by critiquing the limited method used by critics: language. Mani claims that language is a ‘threshold’ that structures our sense of the world in a restricted manner. Starting from rethinking the language and by disrupting its grammar, Mani calls for a more relational, ‘re-cognizable,’ ‘response-able’ interrelationship between all human and nonhuman objects in the world. Then Mani moves on to discuss human desires, namely love and hate, as relational, sensual processes that are simultaneously personal and political on infinitely multiple levels.
Mani’s conceptualization of such multi-scalar sensual understanding of the world is truly original. One needs to read it in multiple sittings with a duration of time in order to understand and embody the book’s calling for a renewed experience of the world. The inserted video poems and proses offer meditative breaks from each chapter, allowing the readers to reflect further through images and sounds. The book invites the readers to take time to really feel the message it aims to deliver: “Our lives are composed of myriad intimacies.” Mani argues that we are only fragments of the larger whole, inseparable from the elements that compose this world/life. The tantric understanding of the world provokes us to realize that we are parts of one wholeness. The final poster design that visualizes the message of “out of the one, many out of the one” resonates effectively with the book’s message of tantra—we are sensuous beings in this sensual world who breathe in and out in relation to each other.
Although the writing delves into critical, controversial sociopolitical issues, such as the politics of representations and social justice rhetoric, the undertone of the text is very serene, meditative, and optimistic, almost hopeful. Due to the meditative nature behind the book’s creation, it reads as if the author is at the perfect distance from the subjects. Each part is only loosely connected so that each section can stand on its own and/or in relation to the whole, thereby staying true to the idea of tantra. The tantric design of the book was at times difficult to read because of its unfamiliar structure. I felt as if I were intervening in the writer’s own meditations, which could be an obstacle for those unfamiliar with meditative practices. Interestingly, because the book is set out to be an offering, the religious undertone of the book sometimes made the content difficult to digest. Mani assumes the role of a mediator, or a priest, throughout the book and although such a unique position of the author may have been appropriate for the book’s premise, the parts where God and afterlives are actually discussed felt quite hubristic. The author may have been conscious of this when she pointed out that it was not her intention to convince all readers. Not only the book’s contents and form, but the positionality of the author/narrator, is unique.
Myriad Intimacies reflects an ambitious endeavor to rethink the time, form, and structure of our lives and the interrelated world we live in. The focus on multimedia and mixed-media creation makes me wonder if the print medium is adequate as the central platform for the author’s project. Considering the boldness of the central message of Myriad Intimacies and its attempt to move beyond a single medium to suggest the intimate links among various media, the project might have been realized more effectively through the integration of more non-print media. In this way, the book’s form felt limiting, as if the words wanted to escape the pages.
This book is a suitable example of interdisciplinary work, not only because of its diverse content, but also because of its form and structure. Scholars in postcolonial studies, anthropology, critical race theory, linguistics, media and communication studies, and creative writing will find this book useful. The mixed media flow feels very natural, and the book is well-structured, despite its unique approach to the presentation of its contents. This book will be particularly valuable to those interested in alternative style of critical writing because it sets up a good example for those who want to perhaps challenge the standards for the ‘rigor’ of academic writing, in terms of the modes of critique and presentation.