admin on 26 Jul 2008
Rethinking Marxism, Volume 17, Number 02
The journal Rethinking Marxism, Volume 17, Number 02, dedicated a special section on Amitava Kumar’s Bombay-London-New York. The brief article below is a response to the symposium on B-L-NY with contributions from Joseph Childers, Evan Watkins, Marian Aguiar, and Gautam Premnath.
Theory By Other Means
I am very thankful to the editors of Rethinking Marxism, particularly to Jack Amariglio, for proposing the symposium on Bombay-London-New York. One feature that unites RM with the project undertaken in B-L-NY is the critique of disciplinary practice—in the case of the former, against an outmoded and reactionary empiricist approach in economics, and, in the latter case, against the language of dominant literary criticism which, apart from being dogmatically abstract, positions itself as politically-correct and free of contradictions. In the pages of RM and also in B-L-NY, the emphasis is on articulating a fresh leftist perspective that is open-ended and exploratory, and yet, at the same time, familiar in its adherence to class analysis. But the resemblance between the two ends there.
B-L-NY describes global material realities that surround the practices of reading and writing. However, the book’s principal idiom is narrative, personal, and sensual. By contrast, the work that is published in RM is, for the most part, highly theoretical and eschews experience in favor of explanations that are severely academic in tone. In other words, RM and B-L-NY arrive at the cross-roads of theory from opposite directions. One enacts an embrace, the other a renunciation. One approach isn’t superior to the other, of course. And if I had any anxiety about readers and critics dismissing the methodological innovation attempted in B-L-NY, then certainly the commentators whose remarks appear in the foregoing pages have been wonderfully reassuring. Indeed, each one of them has been generous almost to a fault. But I want to use this opportunity to recount very briefly the context in which I understand the emergence of other voices in theory‹or, to put it more polemically, why I believe we should have more theory without theorists.
When I first came to the U.S. in the late eighties as a graduate student, most departments of English were experiencing the overwhelming influence of literary theory. Postcolonial critics enjoyed a particularly high profile in this scenario. In the years that followed, a variety of critics, both from the right and the left, wrote fierce critiques charging that theory is merely the name under which intellectuals from the so-called Third World had arrived on the shores of the American academe. I will not argue against this, even though this point, I suspect, springs from a species of internecine academic politics. I am drawn by a different drama in this narrative. It is often repeated that the vocabulary and convoluted syntax of postcolonial theory has its origins in French poststructuralism. So what? What has intrigued me much more is the suspicion that the difficulty of postcolonial writing is a tortured and very material expression of the enormous distance that divides the postcolonial intellectual from the people he or she is so often taken to represent. Defensiveness and also disavowals would only seem natural‹and the move away from the concreteness of lived histories toward more and more abstruse abstractions the most logical outcome. From the position of a postcolonial, therefore, theory is always in part the meta-narrative of migration, displacement, and self-imposed middle-class exile.
It is a terrible fate for a writer to inhabit this narrative. It means the cultivation of an audience limited to the classroom. You are encouraged to repeat, as if by rote, the same half a dozen names of leading theorists. A dead vocabulary of critical terms takes the place of an active imagination. It is as a protest against this dullness and professional straitjacketing that I have adopted in my own work, although not always with the best results, the mixed aesthetic of memoir, photo-documentary, and experimental non-fiction.
In this landscape, theory is an inexact name for finding new ways of plotting the way global culture works and the manner in which it makes possible or impossible particular ways of speaking, living, or working in the world. This stance has also influenced my teaching. I believe that the practice of journalism or ethnography as a part of literary analysis is a corrective to dominant theory, and a gesture not so much of warm-hearted humanism but of a pedagogy that seeks to replace ideological certainties arrived at in seminar rooms with real, often contradictory, complexity of people¹s existence in the world. And yet, I am reluctant to encourage students to see themselves as journalists or as reformed theorists. I would like that they think of themselves as writers. As journalists, my students carry the pretence of objectivity and distance. As theorists, they remain stylistically inert and often formulaic in their invocation of the names of theorists. When they see themselves as writers, however, the same students are more likely to be inventive in their analyses and, departing from internalized norms of political correctness, they are willing to examine entanglement, complicity, and compromise.
Needless to say, writing often fails and can sometimes only provide a reductive metanarrative of what I had earlier called “migration, displacement, and self-imposed middle-class exile.” I can make this point clearer by discussing the retellings of a singular event that had taken place in the eighties in Hawkes Bay in Pakistan. I had first read about the incident in an essay by Hanif Kureishi that was published in 1985:
An eighteen-year-old girl from a village called Chakwal dreamed that the villagers walked across the Arabian Sea to Karbala, where they found work and money. Following this dream, people from the village set off one night for the beach … where the men of Chakwal packed their women and children into trunks and pushed them into the sea. Then they followed them into the water in the direction of Karbala. Soon all but twenty of the potential émigrés were drowned. The survivors were arrested and charged with illegal emigration.1
The details of this report stayed in my mind but it would be many years before I would read another account about this occurrence. This was in a book of literary criticism written by Sara Suleri. The report cited by Suleri had offered the following additional detail about the villagers who had followed Naseem Fatima, their young prophet, into the waters of the Arabian Sea. In the notoriety that followed the Hawkes Bay case, “rich Shias, impressed by the devotion of the survivors, paid for their journey by air for a week to and from Karbala. In Iraq, influential Shias, equally impressed, presented them with gifts, including rare copies of the Holy Quran. Naseem’s promise that they would visit Karbala without worldly means was fulfilled.”2
In the time between my reading the two reports, a space of seven-eight years, I read Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses.3 Rushdie’s novel told the story of a young woman in a village in India who was naked except for the butterflies that covered her body. She had had a vision—the Archangel Gibreel spoke to her in the idiom of Bollywood film songs—and by the book’s end she had led her followers into the Arabian Sea near Bombay. Rushdie¹s retelling of the story angered me. Magical realism could add little to the story that I had first encountered many years ago. In fact, Rushdie’s tale had removed the material context of the story that had been present in Kureishi¹s essay. Kureishi had called it “the Gulf Syndrome.” It was the desire to leave, to flee their country, which gripped so many people in Pakistan. The people wanted to be abroad; they wanted to go to the oil-rich Gulf. Kureishi wrote that it was “a dangerous psychological cocktail consisting of ambition, suppressed excitement, bitterness and sexual longing.” I missed all of this in Rushdie’s account. There was eroticism and ambition in his telling but it had to do with the romance he had invented between a skeptical landlord and the village-girl who had become a prophet. Plot had replaced politics. Out of all the disturbing truth of the world, Rushdie had created only a novel.
I am not making an argument for foisting on our students a realist aesthetic. I also dislike vast sections of, say, Rohinton Mistry’s novels, which I think of as examples of dull realism, even though the writing is often faithful to news accounts. The choice, then, is not between magical realism and dull realism: Rushdie and Mistry both, despite their strengths, remain most unsatisfying when their writing reduces rather than enlarges what is fictive about our world. Theory, in the forms that we most often recognize it, generally does the same. I’d like to encourage my students to be inventive and experimental, and I’d want them to produce writing that is as fabulous as they would like it to be, but I cannot do this without insisting that they establish the singularity of what they are addressing and, at the same time, explain as fully as possible how it came to be. To my mind, the story of the villagers drowning in the Arabian Sea had been trivialized and made insubstantial in Rushdie’s imaginative act of displacement. While the London-based writer had used the occasion to make some profound statements about peasants in India, these pronouncements had already been emptied of the shock of the actual and rendered merely academic.
Let me now come back to B-L-NY. At its book-launch in New Delhi, I was asked by a member of the press about a statement I had made in a newspaper interview—something about how the number of good critics writing in English in India was so small that they could easily fit into a tiny Maruti car. My charge was that Indian critics routinely reached out for the lowest hanging fruit. The remark generated a controversy that quickly replaced any discussion of the merits and demerits of my book. I felt that my earlier declaration had been proved correct. But, certainly, the behavior I had described isn’t limited to India alone. We can easily find ad hominem attacks on writers as well as dismissive reviews of books penned by academics in the U.S. In this context, I am especially grateful to the participants in this symposium for their generosity. I say this because although nearly each one of them has read and responded to the book with chiefly academic stakes in mind, it is also obvious that each one of them has tried to say something critical and useful about the ways in which it asks to be read otherwise.
As everyone knows, it is not enough to read differently. It is equally important to have different readers. None of the four commentators here have dealt with the issue of audience—that is to say, with the struggle to produce more readers for our writing. But that is at the heart of what I am trying to do, even if only through a process of trial and error. Once the question of a wider reading public has been drawn into the foreground, especially a search for a readership that spans the different parts of the globe, it no longer seems most important to be able to place all one’s theorists in a row. (I say this even though I will readily recognize, especially after reading Evan Watkins’ dynamic and demanding commentary on B-L-NY, that it is important to do academic work well.) The issues that become paramount for me are linked to an impure practice which mediates the needs of tenure and promotion with the desire to work outside the academic marketplace, risking the loss of academic prestige through the sacrifice of a narrowly-defined scholarship by scouring for the gains that result from the exercise of imagination and artistic cunning.
A part of this impure practice is the willingness to find even within the space of the theoretical the value of what is taken to be its opposite. Consider Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s oft-footnoted essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”4 As I understand it, the main argument advanced there is that the figure of the subaltern in society is so far removed from the center that it would be impossible for her to emerge into subjecthood. To paraphrase Spivak, to think of the subaltern speaking is a bit like Godot arriving on a bus. The argument is an important one—and it has engendered many debates in the last two decades. It has often seemed to me, however, that the force of the essay was primarily conveyed through the brief narrative that appears at the end: in the anti-humanist landscape of poststructuralist theory, it marks the emergence of a woman’s story. It is a story of a suicide. A young woman named Bhubaneswari Bhaduri had hung herself in 1926. Her suicide was read as a sad result of illicit love. But, the young woman had waited till she was menstruating—it would be impossible for anyone to say that she had been pregnant. Bhuvaneswari had been involved in the nationalist movement against the British. Unable to carry out a political assassination, Spivak suggests, Bhuvaneswari had hung herself. The young woman’s intervention was erased, however, in the persistence of the understanding that the melancholia of failed love was the reason behind the death. “The subaltern as female cannot be heard or read.” Spivak’s conclusion would be meaningless without the narrative about Bhuvaneswari. And yet, in all the copious theorizing that has followed Spivak¹s essay, there has been much to-and-fro intellectualizing about the question of subaltern agency but very little by way of exploring modern-day subjectivities like Bhuvaneshwari’s.
I want to end by presenting a story as an example, an example not only of what I am saying but one that invites a rather literal interpretation of Spivak’s question and is a corrective, I think, to the endless circulation of theory without any reference to real lives. In Srinagar last year, I met Parveena Ahangar who is the founder of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in the Kashmir Valley. Parveena’s sixteen year-old son Javed had been picked up during a military raid. This was in August, 1990. He has never been seen again. Parveena believes that the army was looking for her neighbor’s son, who is also called Javed, and who was a guerilla in the separatist movement. Instead, the army took away her boy. Parveena has very little education. For years, she waited outside jails and interrogation centers. She also got help and submitted petitions in the courts. But nothing came of her efforts. She was asked to approach the district administration and claim compensation for her son’s assumed death. Parveena said to me, “I do not want money. I want my son.” Today there are more than 3000 young men who are believed to have been disappeared by the armed forces in Kashmir. Their families have been consigned to the hell of waiting. Their wives are called “half-widows.” What made me think of Spivak’s article while sitting in a modest house in the washermen’s colony in Srinagar was not so much the tale of the helpless citizen-subject of the militarized nation-state. Instead, it was Parveena’s telling me that Javed had a bad stammer and when he was disturbed and could not speak he would strike his foot against the ground. She wakes up at night thinking about how her son would have fared during interrogation when anger or fear would have frustrated his attempts to speak and all he could do was hit his foot on the floor of the cell.
Amitava Kumar is the author, most recently, of Husband of a Fanatic, forthcoming from the New Press.
1. Hanif Kureishi, “Erotic Politicians and Mullahs,” Granta 17.
2. Sara Suleri, The Rhetoric of English India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
3. Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (New York: Viking, 1988).
4. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg, eds., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), pp. 271-313. Also see Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 199-311.