The futility of formally studying literature today (Rant Rant Rant)

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Some disclaimers:

– 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.

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Of a certain Kuzhali Manickavel and other insectoid thoughts

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So, I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but somewhere online I stumbled across the gold nugget that is Kuzhali Manickavel’s blog. I suspect it is through the Café Irreal website where she is published, or perhaps through the network of hyperlinked blogrolls that exists across WordPress and Blogspot, but it no longer matters, because I suspect there has been an inner Kuzhali in me all along, just waiting to be discovered.

Kuzhali is what is known as an emerging writer; she hasn’t written a full-length novel or book yet. But she has flash fiction and short fiction published across the Internet and the wonderful Blaft Publications found her and published most of those stories as a collection, Insects are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings. Blaft also tweeted twice about my Charu Nivedita review, so I am gratefully (and shamelessly) plugging another worthy book of theirs.

I have long maintained that writing humour is one of the hardest genres to write, satire even more so. I have also secretly harboured a dream of writing the modern Indian version of A Modest Proposal. Well, I was SO wrong; clearly, Kuzhali should be the one to write it. Not only has she got the incision skills of a surgeon with her words, she has that sense of tragicomedy, a certain je ne sais quoi that makes satire tick. Read the rest of this entry

Roland Barthes: ‘The Metaphor of the Eye’

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Note: Since my review of Charu Nivedita’s Zero Degree, much vitriol is being generated in my comments section against the ‘sick’, ‘perverted’, ‘disgusting’ writing in the novel. Several theorists in the past have made numerous arguments for the use of pornographic imagery in literary writing, debating if pornography is literary at all. One of the essays highly relevant during its time was Roland Barthes’ essay on Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye

 In India, the pornography-literature discourse is a debate well ahead of its time. I am reproducing Barthes’ essay in its entirety here (it isn’t available in full form anywhere online – and it is long, be warned) to shed some light on the differences between writing porn and writing pornographically. 

The Metaphor of the Eye

Although Story of the Eye features a number of named characters with an account of their sex play, Bataille was by no means writing the story of Simone, Marcelle, or the narrator (as Sade, for example, wrote the stories of Justine and Juliette)[1]. Story of the Eye really is the story of an object. How can an object have a story? Well, it can pass from hand to hand, giving rise to the sort of tame fancy authors call The History of my Pipe or Memoirs of an Armchair, or alternatively it can pass from image to image, in which case its story is that of a migration, the cycle of the avatars it passes through, far removed from its original being, down the path of a particular imagination that distorts but never drops it. This is the case with Bataille’s book. Read the rest of this entry

‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ — Herman Melville

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This is not a review, so much as some delayed contemplation.

I took a course in my Masters called “The Literature of Sadness: The Mind-Body Crisis”. Of course, it wound up being my favourite subject. One of the elective readings was Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. Having come across Moby Dick, and not been too blown away by it (as an angsty, fantasy-obsessed teen, mind you) I was skeptical about how good this book would be. But as the only other option was to write a paper on Freud and melancholia, I opted for what I assumed was the shorter, simpler Bartleby. Needless to say, it is probably one of the most disturbing tales I have ever read and that came out in the 19th century, no less. Read the rest of this entry

J.G. Ballard’s (1995) introduction to ‘Crash’

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I’ve been thinking of novels that have been deemed pornographic, thanks to ‘Zero Degree’, and I think J.G.Ballard’s introduction to his novel ‘Crash’ makes a great case for sexual literature, particularly, where Ballard says, “In a sense, pornography is the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other, in the most urgent and ruthless way.” Ballard’s main interest was with the fetishisation of technology, but his intuition is tremendous. 

Credits: I’d taken this text from the Ballardian website (http://www.ballardian.com/) a while back, but for some reason it is now no longer available there. I highly recommend the site for anyone who may be interested in other writings by/on Ballard. 

INTRODUCTION

The marriage of reason and nightmare that has dominated the 20th century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world. Across the communications landscape move the spectres of sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy. Thermo-nuclear weapons systems and soft-drink commercials coexist in an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudo-events, science and pornography. Over our lives preside the great twin leitmotifs of the 20th century – sex and paranoia… Read the rest of this entry

On Charu Nivedita’s ‘Zero Degree’ (Trans. by Pritham K. Chakravarthy & Rakesh Khanna)

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NOTE: This review quotes some adult content and contains text that may be offensive to you. Please do not read further if you’re easily offended by dirty language, bodily functions or graphic  descriptions of sex. Also, this is a LONG review, so you may want to make some time for it.

If you are now compelled to read on even more, I like you already. 🙂

This novel gave me nightmares, literally. And I’m not entirely sure that’s a bad thing.

First, remember everything you are told and have believed a novel is, particularly the Indian novel. Some things on the lines of:

  • A novel is a work of fiction.
  • It contains several common elements such as character, plot, narrative.
  • It explores what is loosely called the human condition.
  • It  may sometimes be an instrument for social change.
  • It is a socio-political reflection of its times.
  • It entertains, informs, educates, etc. Read the rest of this entry

Yevgeny Zamyatin – ‘We’ (Trans. by Natasha Randall)

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It’s hard to believe that this is a book that was written in 1921 and came out  first in English in 1924, as it was banned in Soviet Russia. We  reads like it could have been written any time in the last fifty years. But that a book written in Soviet Russia four years after the Bolshevik Revolution should be able to predict the nature of nation-states of the 20th century so accurately, is astonishing.

In the evening, later, I found out they had taken three ciphers off with them. However, as with all occurrences, no  one would talk about it aloud (the instructive influence of our invisible, ever-present Guardians). Conversation, for the most part, concerned the rapid fall of the barometer and the change of weather.

The book begins at an unknown time and place introducing the central character D-503, the Builder of the Integral, and one of the mathematicians of the One State. People’s names have been replaced by numbers, called ‘ciphers’ in this translation. D-503 narrates the sequence of events as diary entries, or a kind of log kept by the Builder, building a sort of spaceship for the One State. In the very first record, D-503 tells us that these records exist to keep the facts, tell us — the readers — the truth, tell us what the people of the One State think. And this makes D-503 acknowledge something:

As I write this: I feel my cheeks burn. I suppose this resembles what a woman experiences when she first hears a new pulse within her — the pulse of a tiny, unseeing, mini-being. This text is me; and simultaneously not me. And it will feed for many months on my sap, my blood, and then, in anguish, it will be ripped from my self and placed at the foot of the One State. Read the rest of this entry

Jaipur Literature Festival 2012: Day 5

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There is a moment in Vahid Mousaian’s 2011 film Golchehreh when the central character Ashraf Khan, who owns a cinema theatre in early 90s Afghanistan, is informed that the Najibullah Communist-led government has fallen and the Taliban have control of the city. Ashraf Khan has struggled to keep his cinema alive in the early part of the film, and the news that the increasing opposition by Taliban mullahs will now ban anything cultural etches a profound sadness on his face, along with worry and angst.

Much of that sentiment was echoed at 4 pm in JLF’s central lawn yesterday when festival organisers had to announce that a video link by Rushdie would not go through as planned, because the increasing protests by orthodox Muslims across India had escalated to the point that there were Muslims in the audience who were threatening violence if the video conference was aired. There were rumours also that a large crowd of Muslim protestors was heading towards the venue to create problems. The organisers called it an ‘idiotic situation’, and that they were ‘pushed against the wall’, but made a call to put the safety of attendees first. The responses have been covered over numerous TV channels, including the blistering impromptu panel discussion by Tehelka editors and public figures that included Salim Engineer, secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami explain his side of the protest. For the first time in my life, I started to look around me and actually spot the Muslim faces in the audience, and wonder if a riot would break out any moment. This was bad, we realised, not only, because of free speech, but because we were looking at Muslims as potential rabble-rousers, not as spectators. Couldn’t it have been possible that several Muslims were here to view the conference, to hear what Rushdie had to say? Read the rest of this entry

Jaipur Literature Festival 2012: Day 4

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Many sessions have been cancelled or rehashed due to the early exit of the 4 controversial authors. Annie Proulx couldn’t make it due to bad weather in Canada. This only makes my ‘avoid the big names’ theory more valid.

Anyway, Day 4 has been an up and down sorta day.

To start off, we had the Bollywood-focus session with Javed Akhtar, Prasoon Joshi, Gulzar and Vishal Bharadwaj titled Kahaani Kise Kehte Hain: Script, Story, Screenplay. It seems like crowds from Delhi had arrived only for this one session. A catfight erupted in the row in front of us regarding seats, and had to be settled by security staff. And then the MC Catriona introduced the session totally butchering the Hindi title to much laughter from the audience. I have a theory about the use of British Council people introducing sessions that I will elaborate on a bit later. Read the rest of this entry

Jaipur Literature Festival 2012: Day 3

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And the drama only continues around JLF.

First, let me link to a couple of statements surrounding the Satanic Verses issue, if you haven’t already read about the whole thing through Twitter.

Hari Kunzru’s statement on the events: http://www.harikunzru.com/archive/reading-satanic-verses-jaipur-2012

William Dalrymple’s statement on how things unfolded: http://www.firstpost.com/india/i-had-no-idea-reading-from-the-satanic-verses-is-a-crime-dalrymple-189924.html

I’ve already said much of how I felt in yesterday’s post, but this quote by Dalrymple is quite telling, “We can support free speech right up to the point that they break the law.” Really, should anyone have to point out the fallacy of that statement? Either free speech IS the law, or it isn’t. Read the rest of this entry