Peter J. Kalliney’s The Aesthetic Cold War: Decolonization and Global Literature is, in many respects, a groundbreaking work. It provides a radical alternative to the theoretical frameworks on world literature while also basing its claims on deep and original archival research. It tells the story of an era when a flourishing literary project from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean broke into international production and distribution networks, laying the groundwork for what would later come to be known as decolonial or postcolonial literature. Kalliney’s story unfolds in the mid-twentieth century, when the United States and the Soviet Union waged their battle for “hearts and minds” through cultural diplomacy programs in the postcolonial world. This is the battle that Kalliney terms the “aesthetic cold war”; in the world of arts and letters, it took the shape of courting writers and intellectuals from newly independent nations, with the two superpowers providing them with ample funding for production, networking, and global circulation, albeit accompanied with a disciplinary regime of surveillance, censorship, and imprisonment. Kalliney observes that scholarship in postcolonial, modernist, metropolitan world literature and related fields has either ignored or downplayed the centrality of the “aesthetic cold war,” privileging instead contexts of imperialism, anti-colonialism, and global capitalism. The book, however, asserts that not only do we need to attend to the influence of the Cold War and its aesthetic debates in the formation of the literatures from the postcolonial world, but that it would be a mistake to read them in a “background-foreground relationship.” Instead, Kalliney proposes that the “aesthetic cold war” is constitutive of the literature of decolonization.
At the heart of the book are two chapters detailing the contrasting patronage of the United States and the Soviet Union as it played out primarily in Asia and Africa. The US State Department, by the end of the 1940s, felt the necessity to counter the perceived success of the Soviet propaganda machine through cultural diplomacy of its own. As a result, the State Department undertook some initiatives in this sphere, and they were quite open about their sponsorship. The focus in Kalliney’s book, however, is on a specific program that was hugely influential for Anglophone African writers, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). The CCF was not sponsored by the US State Department; it was a program developed and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency that supported cultural institutions, conferences, and magazines. The CIA was at great pains to conceal its relationship to the CCF because of the belief that its programs would be “more effective if they appeared spontaneous and free from coercion or direct state oversight.” Ultimately, the CIA was unsuccessful in keeping that relationship a secret, but what is of interest is what CCF managed to achieve prior to that revelation.
The CCF started its operation in Western Europe before venturing out into the newly decolonizing world. While it met with “stubborn resistance” in the Indian subcontinent and limited success in the Middle East, it “carved out a distinct niche in sub-Saharan Africa, where it sponsored several international conferences, pathbreaking magazines (including Black Orpheus and Transition), radio programming, and cultural centers.” This included the 1962 Makerere conference, a “generation-defining event” where the birth of postcolonial African literature in English was announced. While focusing on issues of language, culture, and indigeneity, the conference discussions show a “strong preference for detachment, irony, and universality as the standards worth developing in the literature of independent Africa.” If the conference at least grappled with questions of colonial influence and the political possibilities of a postcolonial horizon, the magazines sponsored by the CCF were steadfastly apolitical. Black Orpheus, devoted to publishing literary tracts and reproducing artworks, was described by Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka as “literally non-political…. Its mission was to link the diaspora culturally with Africa without getting involved in politics.” Transition Magazine, edited by Rajat Neogy, drew its inspiration from the interwar European little magazine with the same name. Neogy and his editorial collective embraced the aesthetic of high modernism, damning the “plain reader”; the magazine’s statement excoriated literature “still under the hegemony of the banal word, monotonous syntax … desirous of crystallizing a view point.” Even though African intellectuals and writers were by no means a homogeneous entity, the CCF-funded Makarere conference and these magazines have had an indelible influence not only on the course of postcolonial African literature but on postcolonial literature and theory in general.