- My focus is only on cultural theory in literary studies and mainly, postcolonialism. I don’t know enough to have a problem with cultural studies itself, though indications are that I may just rant about that too someday.
- I am not trying to debunk the work of any theorists. Instead, I will be focusing on the consequences of embedding cultural studies in literature courses and the damage I think has been done, as a result.
- My point of interest is Indian literature, and in some cases more specifically, Indian Writing in English. This is obviously because I’m Indian, but also because I’m familiar with the context of cultural studies in India. I have some knowledge of how it works in Australia/New Zealand, but I’m limiting my rant to just India. For now.
- I use a capitalised ‘West’ to refer to the Western hemisphere and Australia/NZ (though no specific reference is made to Aus/NZ, the school of theory they use is the same as their western hemisphere counterparts).
- Of course, it shouldn’t need to be said that everything on this blog is my opinion and is expressed as such, so people are welcome to respectfully disagree.
WARNING: Loooooong post. I hope you have the time.
So, it’s a melodramatic blogpost title, I admit. I’ve been silent here for more than a month now because I’m in the midst of university applications and narrowing down my research focus, and it’s taken much much more of my time than I’d hoped. In the process, I’ve begun reading up on copious amounts of critical theory and literary criticism. The outcome has been depressing. If anything could kill my love for reading and thinking and dreaming, I fear excessive and uninteresting theory might be it. And the thought that I’m considering spending the next 3-5 years of my life on a career with literary theory is abysmal.
One of the areas which I have been less-than-knowledgeable about — and that seems to abound in Indian universities and in any studies pertaining to Indian literature — is postcolonialism. I have been aware of the long shadow cast by Said, Spivak, Fanon and Bhabha on this field, and I’ve read them (briefly) before, but this last month I have read more postcolonial theory than I’d ever thought I would, and begun to detest the entire area of cultural studies with more fervour than I ever thought I could. And I’ve realised the more theory I read, that this virus is deep-rooted and insidious and shows no signs of progression beyond itself.
To explain the what and why this is so, makes me dissolve into incoherent rambles and eye-rolling. So, like any good research student I will try sum up my issues with cultural studies with a bullet-point list.
Here goes my attempt.
1. ‘Postcolonial’ refers to a historical period of time. Feminism and Marxism are sociopolitical movements. None of these are aesthetic in nature or in focus.
This stance is something postcolonial studies actually came out of, but in the mid-20th century, postcolonial signified nothing more than an event in time – something that may have happened after the end of colonialism. From the 70s onwards though, postcolonialism began to spread over critical studies and particularly literary studies. Edward Said in Orientalism examined writers like Balzac as authors promoting a colonial agenda. With England’s growing interest in Commonwealth literatures in the English language, such as Midnight’s Children, postcolonial studies emerged. It soon mushroomed into an interdisciplinary attempt to view new literature through the eyes of the colonised, instead of the coloniser.
My question – is it also possible to understand literature produced in a time called the ‘precolonial’? Is there an idea of a ‘pure literature’ before we were colonised that is distinctly separate from the postcolonial stuff? As per my knowledge, writers like Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao who wrote in the early 20th century (precolonial), focused on a variety of social conditions such as the arrival of modernity in India, caste oppression, Gandhian idealism, etc, etc. Much of their depiction of India was introspective and portrayed the coloniser in unflattering terms, but more importantly, they were exploring questions of identity, India’s place in the world, philosophical traditions, etc. Their ‘precolonial’ writings were as exploratory about colonial identity as the postcolonial texts are supposed to be, and perhaps even more literary as a result. In fact, the Colossus of Indian literature, Tagore, was viewed in the West mostly as depicting Eastern wisdom and spirituality. His own personal conflict in writing was with language under colonial power, between a Bengali poetry and an English aesthetics, something postcolonialist theorists have already explored in some detail. Writers like Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao had also spent some time in Europe and brought the ideas of India as seen seen in the Western gaze long before India attained independence.
The conundrum here is that ‘precolonial’ writings can be equally examined under the label of ‘postcolonialism’. The theorists however, focused intensely on colonial impact suggesting that there was a radical change from precolonial to postcolonial – as if a novel or a poem was now first to be located as a product of a postcolonial culture, and the ideas discussed in it could not be separated from its colonial identity. A similar argument can be made regarding feminist fiction or Marxist approaches to fiction — that critical commentators deliberately seek a sociopolitical commentary in literature, and see the aesthetic components of a poem or a novel as mere tools to achieve a socio-political objective. The need to define a non-feminist literature, or a non-Marxist literature is not of any import. It is the interpretation critics bring that gives significance to the writing.
In my opinion, nothing has been so disastrous to contemporary literary studies, as much as the infringement of ‘cultural studies’ has been. Postcolonialism, feminism, Marxism and other ‘-isms’ that have taken over literary studies, replacing the study of writing movements, styles and traditions with the study of the writers, their lives and the culture that has spawned them. Bringing me to my next point…
2. Literature as art. Literature as culture.
Unlike other forms of art, literature is not a sensory pleasure. It isn’t meant to indulge your senses, apart from a bibliophile’s sniff of ink of paper. It is an intellectual aesthetic, residing purely in the imagination. This makes a study of literature as an art, different from the study of other forms of art. Think of a typical music student. Studying music involves little if any focus on the culture in which music is produced. If you studied tap dance, you learned how to dance, not details of how tap dancing flourished in Irish immigrant pockets in the USA, due to a lack of British influence. If you learn Carnatic classical music, you learn Thyagaraja krithis without having to learn Thanjavur’s courtly musical traditions. So how is it in reading Amitav Ghosh or Vikram Seth or any modern Indian writing at university level, we are suddenly expected to read it through the postcolonial or Marxist lens? Of course, the difference is that music students are expected to participate in their arts as performers as well as scholars, while literature students are the audience of their art, and are expected to be nothing more than knowledgeable conduits.
And where does a theoretical approach to literature begin in such a scenario? Can Aristotle’s Poetics and Longinus’ On the Sublime be placed alongside Gramsci and Marx on a literature student’s bookshelf? Did Marx intend for this theory to be applied to literature? Do his intentions even matter? Are literary theorists meant to be historical experts? It seems no formal student of literature is expected or allowed to ask these questions.
The problem here is that arts and culture have become synonymous in advanced literary studies. Maybe I’m foolish or naive, but I have this old-fashioned idea that art is universal — that A Thousand and One Nights can be read, appreciated and illuminated through any reader regardless of their knowledge of history, politics or culture. Instead, what we have is a viewing of literature through a lens, narrowing down its context and locating it through region, language and social movements.
So what we have now is art as now a mere by-product of culture and culture at the heart of critical discourse. Literature has become a ‘cultural product’ in that horrible reality we call a marketplace, like a commodity, allowed to be sold and purchased and have a certain monetary value beyond its production costs. But more than one critic has pointed out that culture is inherently reactive, a response to the events of our time, while art is pro-active, perceiving the world in a new, unimagined way allowing us to reshape reality. As Bertolt Brecht has said, “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.“ This also involves a need to accept that art is inherently useless – in the sense it serves no practical purpose, unlike something like a stethoscope. And also unlike cultural products, which willingly serve as vehicles for a larger message or commentary. Culture is an ideal way to use art, but art can and should exist outside of a culture. The order of the day is to separate literary studies as a study of an art form instead of a study of culture. The artist-critic relationship is symbiotic and is ultimately what leads to artistic evolution. When we cut off one aspect of criticism, such as an understanding of aesthetics in literature, we are left with a one-dimensional evolution of writing. Which leads me to…
3. Some literatures are more equal than other.
The crucial point of concern when literature becomes utilitarian is that it privileges certain groups’ narratives over others. It can be argued for instance that the postcolonial narrative is valuable as an insight to the native’s POV, which the colonial narrative did not allow. But this also becomes a justification for the social necessity of literatures. Art is now a vehicle to carry out social reform. The artist is therefore, by default, a social reformer. Nothing is a worse label to attach to an artist than to force a moral purpose onto him/her.
And herein lies the problem of modern day Indian fiction, that we have cozily appropriated much of its meanings with the politics and culture of our time, and looked at nothing like artistic tradition, evolution of form, and most of all, experimentation. Who was the last well-known experimental Indian poet or novelist?
The danger in this, is that we have now created and are sustaining a reading market for certain literatures which are more ‘valid’ and ‘literary’ than other forms. For example, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger was a novel published at an ideal time in the ideal place and lends itself marvellously to cultural studies in literature, but if you were to examine it from a purely literary context, you could not locate any literary tradition that he fits under (other than post-globalized new Indian fiction). Nor is his form consistent, nor is his language or tone, and perhaps more telling than anything else, is whether this is a novel that is years ahead of its time. It’s not. It’s the novel of today (and perhaps yesterday) that says very little of a universal human condition. It is a cultural novel, not an artistic one, and therefore lends itself to cultural studies most conveniently, and not at all to any artistic technique.
The one writer who did attempt something radically experimental was Salman Rushdie, but the arguments around the blasphemy, censorship and irreligiosity of his novels have dominated the discourse to an extent that attempting to discuss Rushdie’s imagery at a critical level has taken a complete backseat. Could Rushdie have started an experimental approach to writing in India? We’ll never know, because the only thing readers got fired up about was his blasphemy.
I also blame cultural criticism to an extent for the death in the studies of the vernacular literature in India. If the emphasis in India’s reading culture had been on novelty of form and expression, we would have welcomed our vernacular writers as heroes, who inherited a diverse range of literary traditions; be it bhakti poetry in a range of languages from Tamil, Kannada, Marathi to old variants of Hindi like Brijbhasha; or the folk and tribal literatures of various regions; or Bengali street poets who performed futuristic satirical spoken word poems; or of course, the classical Urdu poetry of Ghalib. What is infinitely worse, Indian English-language universities which are arguably better resourced to push for critical inquiry and placed ideally for producing original research to the rest of the world have ignored much of our diverse linguistic traditions and serve to teach literature programs identical to the West. Is there a single respectable Comparative Literature program in India that allows inter-linguistic research? Are there many English literature scholars in India who are as well-versed in the literatures of their regional languages? When we have dozens of multilingual students who apply to study literature, how is it we do not hone their skills to produce comparative analyses so we can understand our own literary traditions better? And are we capable of bringing a non-feminist literary approach to poets like Mirabai and Andal? Instead, what we have cheerfully appropriated are the ways of Western universities that can have the same set of theories (read: Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze) applied to it again and again. The overwhelming preoccupation of Indian universities is a self-discovery of our literature through the outsiders’ eye and mind. Our own non-English literatures and literary theory therefore, get a backseat. For instance, we have no compunctions in bringing Derrida’s deconstruction to Indian novels, but can we bring Rasa theory to western forms of theatre?
Recent developments – such as this article by Saty P. Mohanty in The Hindu - suggest that I am not alone in asking this, and that new approaches may be developing for Indian writing. BUT, not in Indian universities, which is a shame. This excerpt in particular is telling of what is possible:
Ananthamurthy’s call — or rather, his challenge — to scholars and critics of Indian literature led to the collaborative work of this volume. The authors’ hope is that the close readings and theoretical explorations will inspire more such engagements with important literary works and their multiple contexts. As critical analyses, all these essays depart from the ‘colonial discourse’ approach that dominated and defined the field of postcolonial studies in the 1980s and 1990s after the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978). The essays’ emphasis on the subaltern’s voice and agency suggests a framework that may be called ‘radical humanist,’ a framework that departs in particular from aspects of the Foucauldian theory on which Orientalism had drawn.
So where are Indian academics and critics placed in our own critical tradition? That raises my next point…
4. Cultural theory seems to ironically prove its own point.
Cultural theorist Anthony D. King has noted something contradictory about postcolonial studies:
What might be called the modern history of postcolonial (literary) criticism, informed by poststructuralism, began seriously in the 1980s. Its early exponents (Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak) focused on a critique of literary and historical writing and… were located in the humanities of the western academy. The critique was directed especially at Eurocentricism and the cultural racism of the West. Subsequently, the objects of the deconstructive postcolonial critique expanded to include film, video, television, photography, all examples of cultural praxis that are mobile, portable and circulating in the West. Yet, given that such literature, photography, or museum displays have existed for decades, why did this postcolonial critique only get established in the 1980s?… The answer is apparently simple. Postcolonial criticism in the West had to wait until a sufficient number of postcolonial intellectuals, an audience for them, was established in the Western academy.
– King, A D, (1995), “Writing Colonial Space. A Review Article” in Comparative Studies in Society and History, pp. 541-554.
Herein lies the problem — how can we trust theorists who seem to have fallen into their own theoretical trap? Spivak, for example in ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ suggests that a group of ‘subaltern’ people (or the economically/culturally dispossessed) are dependent on the western intellectual to speak for them, and on the off-chance that they do speak for themselves, they’re in danger of subordinating themselves even further to the western intellectuals. So ultimately, who speaks for the dispossessed? The First World, western-educated intellectual, despite being criticised for her privilege. What I like to call this postcolonial gaze (with respect to Lacan’s concept of ‘The Gaze’) refers to the gazer viewing the postcolonial object through the lens of postcolonial theory. But when the person doing the gazing is herself a product of postcolonialism, she becomes both the self and the other. Both the subaltern and the mainstream. A Western-educated Indian projecting the Western gaze upon her own culture. In straddling those two worlds, could the commentator not become dangerously ambivalent in speaking for both sides? Pot and kettle much? Are we allowed to say “The Empress is Naked”?
It seems inevitable that Indian postcolonial studies that seek to give the world an ‘authentic’ Indian narrative of postcolonialism have themselves become Westernised, and are in danger of monopolising the discourse. In particular, it is Indian writing in English that is prioritised and deconstructed, but of late, vernacular literatures are equally in danger of being appropriated under the same ‘cultural studies’ phenomenon (Narayan Murthy’s whopping $5 million grant to Harvard to translate and publish Indian classical literatures comes to mind.). Take for example, the fact that Indian literatures are usually examined under the purview of ‘South Asian Studies’ departments in most Ivy-League universities, and not English studies or Comparative Literature departments. This division of arts and culture, I suspect emerges entirely from the development of Western literary theory, and maybe someday I will research that angle enough to produce a loud and verbose critique about it. But Indian universities are more, if not equally culpable in this state of affairs, as they subscribe to the school that examines the culture of literatures far more than the art form of literatures. Which leads me to conclude…
5. Where is the beauty? Where are the aesthetics of literature?
I subscribe to Keats’ “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” as the best possible definition of art. Anything that rings with truth is equally a work of beauty, whether through words, notes, colours, lines and shapes, movement or through expressions. A truth that is not aesthetic is philosophy, and that is fine. But in art, aesthetics is at the core of our emotional reaction.
In literature, this has been explored through form – poetry, for example, has defined its aesthetics through simile/metaphor and words within specific rules and meter, and now it uses free form to define a new aesthetic. Prose has an aesthetic that is slightly more complicated, but (I believe) centered around the friction between form and content. Some solid content is essential for prose – rarely are there stories with no character, no plot, no dialogue – but, equally essential are the shape and form of narrative. And most importantly – language. The use of language in prose is to create images, rhythm and meaning that are beautiful and therefore resonate through both beauty and meaning. This is where our relationship to the best texts originate, through something beautiful and meaningful that is profoundly personal. It’s a one-on-one means of communication and the ideas of beauty are therefore also unique and solitary. Let me stress, I do not ‘interpret’ what is beautiful to me, but accept that the best fiction and poetry are beautiful and it is a reader’s joy to find beauty and celebrate it. Beauty needs to be part of the argument when we say a certain work is literary. Beauty in a piece of writing needs to be illuminated and clarified, and importantly, defended in literature.
Does this mean all literature is inherently aesthetic? No – the focus of literary studies is to define an aesthetics of the time (underscoring the idea that notions of beauty in poetry and prose will change with the times), and to subject new writings to the aesthetic theory of the time, and dutifully criticise works that do not possess certain parameters. My argument is to bring beauty back to the centre of the discourse, to define a postmodern literary aesthetic instead of harping on a postmodern meaning/meaninglessness.
But of course, the academy has killed the idea that literature is beautiful, because we live in a culture where objects of beauty are meant to be admired and appreciated from a distance. See, genuflect, but approach with caution. But meaning, on the other hand is easier. It can be extracted, dissected and worst of all, interpreted. Theories of interpretation have suffocated our reading of literature.
You see, the futility of formally studying literature today is that you don’t study literature at all.
Susan Sontag says it most brilliantly in her essay Against Interpretation when she talks of hermeneutics, and I would like to end with five excerpts from the essay:
The fact is, all Western consciousness of and reflection upon art have remained within the confines staked out by the Greek theory of art as mimesis or representation. It is through this theory that art as such – above and beyond given works of art – becomes problematic, in need of defense. And it is the defense of art which gives birth to the odd vision by which something we have learned to call “form” is separated off from something we have learned to call “content,” and to the well-intentioned move which makes content essential and form accessory.
Even in modern times, when most artists and critics have discarded the theory of art as representation of an outer reality in favor of the theory of art as subjective expression, the main feature of the mimetic theory persists. Whether we conceive of the work of art on the model of a picture (art as a picture of reality) or on the model of a statement (art as the statement of the artist), content still comes first. The content may have changed. It may now be less figurative, less lucidly realistic. But it is still assumed that a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition says something. (“What X is saying is . . . ,” “What X is trying to say is . . .,” “What X said is . . .” etc., etc.)
Though the actual developments in many arts may seem to be leading us away from the idea that a work of art is primarily its content, the idea still exerts an extraordinary hegemony. I want to suggest that this is because the idea is now perpetuated in the guise of a certain way of encountering works of art thoroughly ingrained among most people who take any of the arts seriously. What the overemphasis on the idea of content entails is the perennial, never consummated project of interpretation. And, conversely, it is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art.
Interpretation in our own time, however, is even more complex. For the contemporary zeal for the project of interpretation is often prompted not by piety toward the troublesome text (which may conceal an aggression), but by an open aggressiveness, an overt contempt for appearances. The old style of interpretation was insistent, but respectful; it erected another meaning on top of the literal one. The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs “behind” the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one. The most celebrated and influential modern doctrines, those of Marx and Freud, actually amount to elaborate systems of hermeneutics, aggressive and impious theories of interpretation. All observable phenomena are bracketed, in Freud’s phrase, as manifest content. This manifest content must be probed and pushed aside to find the true meaning – the latent content – beneath. For Marx, social events like revolutions and wars; for Freud, the events of individual lives (like neurotic symptoms and slips of the tongue) as well as texts (like a dream or a work of art) – all are treated as occasions for interpretation. According to Marx and Freud, these events only seem to be intelligible. Actually, they have no meaning without interpretation. To understand is to interpret. And to interpret is to restate the phenomenon, in effect to find an equivalent for it.
Thus, interpretation is not (as most people assume) an absolute value, a gesture of mind situated in some timeless realm of capabilities. Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness. In some cultural contexts, interpretation is a liberating act. It is a means of revising, of transvaluing, of escaping the dead past. In other cultural contexts, it is reactionary, impertinent, cowardly, stifling.
It is always the case that interpretation of this type indicates a dissatisfaction (conscious or unconscious) with the work, a wish to replace it by something else.
Interpretation, based on the highly dubious theory that a work of art is composed of items of content, violates art. It makes art into an article for use, for arrangement into a mental scheme of categories.
Once upon a time (a time when high art was scarce), it must have been a revolutionary and creative move to interpret works of art. Now it is not. What we decidedly do not need now is further to assimilate Art into Thought, or (worse yet) Art into Culture.
Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life – its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness – conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.
What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.
Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.
The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and, by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.
In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.
– Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation” (1966) [ALL EMPHASES ARE MINE.]
Just do yourself a favour and read the whole brilliant thing. It’s a call to arms for any student of the Arts, and a sign of how bad things have become since she wrote it.
There are other brilliant people who have said what I have, a lot better and with a lot more humour, so for further reading –
*H. L. Mencken, “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism”
*Carol Lloyd, I Was Michel Foucault’s Love Slave
*Wendy Steiner, “Practice without Principle”
*Frank Lentricchia, “The Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic” [lamentably, there is no online version available]