A Moment of Revelation

On February 16, 2011 by admin

 Prasanta Chakravarty

(A Report on ‘The Everyday Life of a Discipline’- a colloquium on contemporary English Studies that took place on February 4, 2011, at the Department of English, University of Delhi)

Unlike the social sciences, humanities in India at least, have been less systematic and meticulous about introspection. This is slightly odd owing to the fact that the onslaughts on humanitities, from both outside and from within its own quarters, have been quite relentless and ballistic of late. Besides, it is a good idea to take stock of things from time to time as disciplines morph and change gear. So, when I was asked to be part of a group of practitioners of humanities who were at the forefront of the last bit of stock-taking that took place during the late nineteen-eighties, I was curious to know how they see their own transition at this point of time and also get a sense about their assessment of English studies now, apart from my own contribution to the current debates. 

Alok Rai, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan and Gauri Viswanathan are literary critics and scholars who in their own ways, along with many other fellow scholars, actually helped make a strong case for various changes in the way disciplines and departments of literature function. Chief among them were vital questions on the politics of canon-formation, the role of language in literature, issues of vernacular articulations and translation, forms of colonialism—including homebred ones, identifying markers of gender and identity politics and so on. In 2011, many of these issues are quite relevant and yet doing literature today also means dealing with fresh challenges and innovations.

For one, we now inhabit a much more fractured global world with more surreptitious forms of literary activities and attacks on it. The deeply invested local author is as much rooted in his own milieu as in other networks that mediate continuously with his own output and imagination. A dynamic scholarly document no longer resemble a linear narrative. There is a challenging task to identify and tackle this whole new field called digital humanities where literature intersects with documentation, visual media and other interactive literary production. There are issues of power equations involved with such innovations and yet these areas and paratactic associations could be explored effectively and critically.

There is now a tremendous investment in areas like textual and print studies, new aesthetic formalisms, detecting renewed ideals of empire formation in texts, studying subjective spaces (from diaries to autobiographies to blogs), invoking sacred spaces or looking for legal implications in literature and reconfiguring the political in literary utterances—say, looking closely at the way political poetry (a genre often not recognized adequately by postcolonial criticism) has been able to galvanize people in Middle East or parts of South America, of late. These concerns are not necessarily new to literary studies, but the times demand a fresh historicization from the practitioners.

So, it was interesting when Alok Rai started the proceedings with a mea culpa: that he feels like Hardy’s Jude—a hapless prisoner, in this case, implicated in the trajectory of literary criticism the way it has played out. What combination of sweetness and light led him to think that the outside is free and vigorous and the academe is not so—he asked himself. Even as he acknowledged the valuable works of the literary critics (on forgotten scandals and caste autobiographies) in the past three decades or so in cahoots with, what he marked as the cruising gangs of philosophers and social scientists, he came down heavily on the fake benignity (ah! English is so oppressed by Shelley) of such high moral endeavours. To study literature has become surrogating on a certain idea of reality, to gain a purchase on how one can affect the proceedings around oneself, even if that is through exploring tributaries of power or micro-studies of texts and textualities. Scholarship has become a matter of conviction rather than appreciation: ethically bankrupt, overtly politicized and thoroughly without joy. The world itself has become a text and the idea of representation is eroded. No appreciation for the subtleties of speech or rhetoric there. This Rai feels to be a kind of textual-political imperialism.

The price to pay then is a gradual erosion of appreciating a certain cognitive purchase that the ‘word’ provides. This expanding world of textual imperialism on the word, that forces us to forget the joys of discovering the turn of the phrase or the craft of lucid composition, is now being gutted down by the grim managerial class. The accounting protocols of footloose capitalism, which is not even deliberately cruel, is completely oblivious to the loss of this shared world. He invoked the multifarious life-world of Milan Kundera and John Keats’ idea of negative capability—the ability to dwell in uncertainties, mysteries and half-knowledge that literature provides us—in order to appreciate the role of literature in a world away from the capitalists and their vulgar opponents. 

Rai is essentially asking for two things: by means of getting back into the specificity of the word, he seeks to reconnect literature with a communitas of connoisseurs. There is a certain repossessing of an enshrined certainty of the experiential or the aesthetic in this act. But since he is at the same time arguing against the righteous certainty of literary activism, he also celebrates the complexity of the life-world that revels in its uncertainty of the fantasy, away from verisimilitude or truth hunting. There is a lament for the world that we have lost and a clarion call to restore a certain complexity within that very world, by capturing the nuances of literary hermeneutics. Rai’s project is philological, a historicization of the text after theory!

Rajeswari Sunder Rajan does not see humanities to be in a mode of crisis at this point. The crisis she finds in rather two concomitant developments: in the ideas that claim a of clash of civilizations even in the literary world and a rampant provincialism in literary-critical activities on the other hand. As an antidote to both—she offers a particular kind of secular-multicultural critique—one that will be sensitive to different cultures and values. She is aware that such renewed attempts to translate cultures and ‘collect’ literary data (say, a fresh lease of life that Arabic is having after 9/11, which is likely to increase manifold after developments in Tunisia and Egypt) has an underside—anthropological tools to be used as soft targets and future propaganda.

Nevertheless, Sunder Rajan bestows a certain salvational role to literature. Literature, as it were, is a secular correlative to religion. One must look for a space of literature and literary pursuits outside of the university precincts in order to reclaim its position. This is also important since, Sunder Rajan announced—much of the oppositional impulses of the left or feminism is now spent, thanks to changes in geopolitical arrangements. As a good example of a contemporary contrarian she referred to Simon During and his book Exit Capitalism: Culture, Theory and Post-Secular Modernity—and During’s ideas of using imagination as a bulwark to the forces of crass capitalism. Literature is a stabilizing force, rather than disruptive and utopian in such an imagination. In fact, Sunder Rajan was quite upfront about literature’s elite and selective preoccupations and affirmed the new spirit to conserve these preoccupations, which, she felt, store the most social power against democratic state capitalism.

If we look carefully at Simon During’s book or his recent utterances (in the SSRC blog—The Immanent Frame), we would notice that During, not unlike Sunder Rajan, feels that literature allows us a dizzying moment in which the frontiers between the real and imaginary, the ordinary and the exceptional, are broken in a way that cannot be accommodated by a non-secular lexicon. It’s not sublime, or an epiphany, or a visitation of grace that literature provides. But it carries its own ecstatic and unworldly charge. Literature is a world unto itself, observant but detached—a classic liberal humanist position to take. Sunder Rajan is once again moving towards an affirmation of the autonomy of the written word, but unlike Rai, is calling for a return to comparative philology in new forms—say, via world literature or global studies.

Gauri Viswanathan was not very enamoured by the idea of the salvific and individual national literatures. She kept on arguing for de-nationalizing literature in a different fashion. As a classic example of such a mode of writing, she cited the South African scholar Isabel Hofmeyr’s book The Portable Bunyan: A Transnational History of the Pilgrim’s Progress, published in 2003.

What happens to a literary artefact as it is translated into different languages, contexts, and societies? How is it changed by the intellectual environments it encounters? What does the transnational circulation mean for its reception back home? Hofmeyr follows John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress as it circulates through multiple contexts–and into some 200 languages–focusing on Africa, where 80 of the translations occurred. In the process, the book crucially accounts for how The Pilgrim’s Progress travelled abroad with the Protestant mission movement, was adapted and reworked by the societies into which it travelled, and, finally, how its circulation throughout the empire affected Bunyan’s standing back in England. It weaves together British, African, and Caribbean history with literary and translation studies and debates over African Christianity and mission.

Here we have another example of “world literature” which denies nationhood but gives critical importance over translation, both linguistic and cultural. Viswanathan has a particular transcendental idea of freeing literary studies from the moorings of the nation state (and not filling with a literary content as Rai and Sunder Rajan would have it) and yet refilling it with a notion of portability and travel. But in this notion of portability and circulation, there is not much space for the local, which she too felt was another name for the narrowly provincial. There is also little critical questioning of the notion of the transnational. The work of art or literature is a matter of multiple productions and circulation, rather than any unified hermeneutic entity, as Viswanthan would have it.

What strikes me is the particular halo that literature is being given here with very little investment in the everyday. The lived and material moorings of the text, the writer, the receptor and the critic are gone and gone. What we have instead, are some worrying inferences: that blueprints of refusing capitalism are to be salvaged by reclaiming an ethical community or a hermeneutic practice that will at best be moments of deferral or ways of stonewalling the onslaught, and at worst, a pacifism of the shady grove of the word that would cocoon itself off completely from the attacks on literature per se and in the process, provide a field day to the marauding band of libertarians and their sell-out cronies.

The idea of multiculturalism, imagined in terms of a secular-philological enterprise, is another idea of literature that not only keeps itself secure from the blood and grime of literary transactions but the very cultural specificity and close-reading that it champions, becomes anthropological rather than getting grounded in the literary cultures of a place or movement or specific confrontations. It is no wonder that the names of Amitav Ghosh or Orhan Pamuk comes up as frequent examples in this kind of an old-school comparative philological enterprise. Once you begin by being suspicious of the vernacular for being provincial (which well could be at times), you have finite and cautious possibities, some of which we notice here. You also begin to undermine alternative networks and genres of literary pursuits.

The idea of circulation of texts, on the other hand, though a promising one, can hardly stand on its own as a form of critical scholarship. Portability itself is no justification for literature: the reading of the text against its grain is a vital aspect of literary scholarship, not merely noting the various movements across time and space. And then the issues of production and labour are vital in critiquing ideas of consumptive and circulating texts. The whole idea is to note and overturn the transnational conformities and banal consumerism that we see in airport lounges and literary festivals—so that one can carefully distinguish such half-hearted median fad from both the classical and the popular.

This is by no means a representative group of scholars who are thinking about humanities at this moment, but it is still instructive to watch out the way they are think and direct, because their pronouncements matter. What newness do such speculations bring in their wake? What fresh questions can we ask in the classroom and how do we innovate while sketching research methodologies? Most importantly: what are we asking the fresh minds to ponder on, even as they wish to critically delve into the stories and poems that are part of their very existence?

Prasanta Chakravarty is Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Delhi.

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