Anyone involved in the business of curricu- lar literature-mongering would agree that English literary studies in most Indian universities still revolves primarily around universalist and liberal humanist notions of essential truths and ‘great traditions’, and textual criticism comprises gut reactions based on outmoded and yet unproblematized aesthetic ‘values’. Furthermore, one would also admit that Indian academics who think otherwise have to either legitimize their existence by publishing (and in all probability settling down) abroad, or remain marginal entities in their own academic industry, for which the ultimate radical positioning is at best a cautious dabbling into ‘commonwealth literature’ with the theoretical assumptions being as unquestioned as ever. While some of the ‘elite’ universities may have organized several conferences on the implications of ‘contemporary theory’ and may have also radically altered their syllabi in the last decade or so.
While some of the ‘elite’ universities may have organized several conferences on the implications of ‘contemporary theory’ and may have also radically altered their syllabi in the last decade or so, on the one hand, these attempts have remained too rarefied to have any significant impact on the huge Indian academic hinterland, and on the other, these have somehow not generated much of a compelling theorization on the imperative of theoretical praxis. It is on these counts that it was such a pleasure to learn that the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda runs a Forum on Contemporary Theory, which, through its more than a decade old Journal of Contemporary Thought, has been intervening meaningfully in debates concerning the globally shifting horizons of English studies, and an Indian publisher has actually thought it worthwhile to publish an independent volume out of a selection of articles from that journal.
The volume is a collection of eighteen articles, all dealing with the theoretical necessity of moving from the earlier discipline of ‘English Studies’ to a more inclusive ‘Culture Studies’, with authors ranging from luminaries like Stephen Greenblatt and Fred Dallmayr to a budding doctoral student. One may argue, from a look at the list of contributors, that my initial elation at something eventually happening in the Indian literary curricular mainstream is a little misplaced, because only six of the eighteen scholars showcased in this volume belong to Indian universities, the other twelve being from Canada or the USA. However, I would still believe that the fact that all of them have been published in an Indian journal and anthologized by an Indian publisher is of great significance.
The volume begins with an ‘Introduction’ by the editors, which apart from stating facts about the Forum and its journal—that the body was established as an inter-disciplinary organization in 1989, that it has been publishing its journal from 1991, that the journal has been co-sponsored by the India Studies Program and the American Studies Program of the College of Liberal Arts of the Louisiana State University in Shreveport, USA from 1993, and that the articles included in this volume are pieces published in the journal between 1991 and 2000—also lays out the basic theoretical assumptions of the articles and the framework of the volume. The Introduction works as a paper in itself citing copiously from several theoreticians to argue its case for a major shift in curricular assumptions behind English literary studies. In ‘countries like India where English studies is situated in a colonial and postcolonial context the debate about the discipline has been particularly vigorous and heated with protagonists and antagonists equally bearing the brunt of the challenge. …[T]here is an awareness that it is no longer possible to take the discipline for granted, as the imperatives of multiculturalism are exerting pressure on the educational planners to rethink the constitution of the discipline and to revise its canon and delivery to suit the requirements of a composite classroom’ (p.11). Having posed the problem it goes on to propose that now ‘areas of inquiry in English Studies indicate it has adapted to changes in the twentieth century well; one may cite African American Studies, Women’s Studies, Post-colonialism, Cultural Studies, Subaltern Studies, Gender Studies (Gay and Lesbian), Ecological Studies etc., as examples of how the discipline has expanded to accommodate new areas of knowledge having relevance to contemporary concerns’ (pp. 14-15).
While the Introduction does set the agenda, it is in the ensuing articles that the issues get really taken up, and it might be worthwhile to briefly mention them. In the opening article ‘Modernity and Postmodernity’, Fred Dallmayr, the well known professor at the University of Notre Dame, enters the usual Habermas-Lyotard debate and argues that some postmodernist reversals from modernist holism are fallacious because they stick on to binaries. For Dallmayr, ‘What these reversals neglect is the complex interlacing of the paired opposites and the ambivalent status of their meaning’. Making the postmodern potential of relativism equable to the politically enabling dreams of Enlightenment social democracy, he says, ‘In my view, postmodernity signifies indeed a farewell to the grand “metanarratives” of metaphysics. But precisely the abandonment of all fixed foundations does not lead to chaos or a general “war of all against all”, but rather to a radical relationism in which no part can claim absolute primacy or supremacy. In this respect (I believe) post-metaphysics seems congruent with the outlook and requirements of social democracy’ (p.33).
In the second article of the volume, ‘Columbus Runs Aground: Christmas Eve 1492’, Stephen Greenblatt, the legendary Harvard professor and one of the founders of New Historicism, takes up different documents pertaining to Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of America to show how the erstwhile reception of the event, fabricated to suit the colonizer’s imaginings of transparent reformable natives, has given way, by its quincentenary in 1992, to serious questionings from an alternative historical perspective. Pointing out the problems of traditional historiography, he says, ‘Contemporary scholarship, by contrast, tries to give to the encounter between Europeans and Americans a new specificity and historical contingency. The Indians are beginning to lose the transparency of allegory (the transparency that made them “Indians” in the first place), gaining instead the density of historical subjects struggling to come to terms with figures from a perplexingly different culture. For their part, the Europeans are no longer understood as symbolic representatives of monolithic traditions, but as figures who are improvising sinuous paths through fiercely competing claims’ (p. 35).
The succeeding articles closely follow the route charted out by the ‘Introduction’ and the two opening pieces, and can be broadly classified into three groups. The first group may include six articles comprising forays into theory, which may be further divided into three sub-groups. First, there are examinations into colonial and postcolonial existence like the third article, ‘Unmasking Colonial Linguistico-Cultural Transactions—Whither?’ by S. Viswanathan, a retired Hyderabad University professor, and the fifth article, ‘Home(s) Abroad: Diasporic Identities in Third Spaces’ by Sura P. Rath, a professor at the Louisiana State University. Next, there are articles dealing with the question of gender, as in the ninth article, ‘Feminism and/as Myth: Feminist Literary Theory between Frye and Barthes’ by Barbara Godard, a professor at York University, and the fourteenth article, ‘Break the Sentence, Then Break the Sequence: Lesbian Biomytho-graphies’ by Jaime Harker from Temple University, Philadelphia. Finally there are articles which question theory itself and propose even newer directions, like the sixth article, ‘The Politics of Borrowing Theories in Postmodern and Postcolonial Discourse and Theory’ by John Sumanth Muthyala, a doctoral student at Loyola University, Chicago, and the fifteenth article ‘Postcolonial Theory: A New Ontopology and Radical Politics’, by Pramod K. Nayar of the University of Hyderabad, which suggests a fusion of emergent ecological modes of criticism with existing theory to build up a truly radical literary/cultural politics.
The second group comprises four articles of a more applicational nature, dealing with analyses of particular literary genres or cultural texts. One can locate in this group the fourth article of the volume—‘Play in Culture: Football’ by Rawdon Wilson, a professor at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada—which analyses the institution of American football as a discourse intended to construct American exclusivity, the seventh article—‘The Ideology of Literary Criticism: The Case of Judgement, Transcendence and Clerisy’ by R. Shashidhar of Mangalore University—which deals with the radical potential of the criticism of F.R. Leavis, the eighth article—‘Self-Consuming Art and Facts (Why the Novel Splatters)’ by Robert Newman, a professor at the University of South Carolina—which shows how the basis of the postmodern novel is in what Jameson calls ‘cannibalism’, and the sixteenth article—‘The World Beyond the Book: Theory at the End of the Millennium’ by Kalidas Misra of Sambalpur University—which deals with the world of hypertexts. The third group, comprising six of the eighteen articles, concerns analysing curricular and pedagogic practices in the light of changed theoretical assumptions. The articles that can fall under this group are the tenth to the thirteenth articles—‘Global Intimacies in the Cultural Studies Classroom’ by Ann Neill, a professor at the University of Kansas; ‘Curriculum as Conversation’ by Arthur S. Williams of the Louisiana School of Math, Science and Arts, Natchitoches, USA; ‘Curriculum Wars: Pragmatism as Truce’ by Steven R. Shelburne of the Centenary College, Louisiana in Shreveport; and ‘The Invisible Hand: Structural Politics and the Undergraduate Curriculum’ by Tom Samet of Hood College, Fredric, Maryland, USA—and the seventeenth and eighteenth articles—‘Criticism in Crisis: A Note on the Politics of Pedagogy’ by Hiren Gohain, an ex-professor of Gauhati University, and ‘Where Are We Going from Here? A Note on the Dilemmas and Uncertainties of an English Teacher in an Indian University Today’ by Sarla Palkar of Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda. In short, quite an impressive and exhaustive list.
Though the effort put behind this volume is really commendable, a reviewer’s task is deemed incomplete till he or she finds a few flaws in a book. Therefore, in keeping with what my duty demands of me, I cannot but point out that first, the thematic classification of articles that I have attempted above is not present in the book, its haphazard array of articles, for whose arrangement no rationalization has been offered, often impeding the possibility of a cogent argument. Secondly, the book offers no primary publication details of the articles included in it, which any anthology of pieces from other sources should necessarily do. In the absence of volume numbers of the journal and the original years of publication, it is difficult for anyone to contextualize the articles included herein. Finally, though all the contributors have been provided with brief biographical notes, the editors of the volume (with the exception of Sura P. Rath, who is also a contributor) choose to remain anonymous, and one feels cheated in not being allowed to know anything about Prafulla C. Kar and Kailash C. Baral, who seem to be extremely competent academics having edited a book of this calibre. Any way, nit-picking aside, these flaws are so few and far between in a book which otherwise holds such great promise, that one should refrain from prolonging this any further and end with a vocal recommen-dation for the volume to all involved in dispensing the theory or praxis of literature and culture. However, a critic is a critic is a critic, and even at the end of it all, I could not suppress a lingering thought bothering me for some time—probably the recommendation could have been stronger had the publisher taken the pains to indicate the price of the volume somewhere within its pages.
Saugata Bhaduri is Associate Professor at the Centre for Linguistics and English, School of Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.