Published Winter/Spring 2009
Declarations of Independence
by Amitava Kumar | ns 71-72
I'm in an overheated hotel room in Beijing, reading a New Yorker travel piece about China by Jonathan Franzen. The essay is describing the ecological devastation caused by rapid development, but what stops me is a remark that Franzen makes about his Chinese guide. David Xu has "the fashionably angular eyeglasses and ingratiating eagerness of an untenured literature professor." In that throwaway phrase, in its quick malice and wit, I come home. Whether this is revealing of the traveler's loneliness abroad or not, I find myself thinking that I belong not to India or to the United States but to the academy. I realize that I'm a sad provincial; for years, I've been living in a place called the English Department.
Which leads me to declare my first credo. The most significant turns in my scholarship, and in my writing, have been attempts to first fit into, and then violently move away from, the existing codes of naturalization for gaining citizenship in the English Department. Of late, this movement of mine has appeared very much like a person lurching away from an accident—for anyone who has just arrived at the scene it is impossible to judge exactly where the screams are coming from, but what is undeniable is the fact of the twisted wreckage and the smoke and the shock.
"Haven't you noticed how we all specialize in what we hate most?" This is the question posed by James Dixon, the protagonist of Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. If there is abjection and fine defeatist humor there, it gets even better toward the end of the novel when Dixon is getting ready for his public lecture and quickly getting incapacitated with drink. In the course of his climactic, doomed lecture, our anti-hero will have proven himself unfit for the teaching profession and, more happily, drawn the approval of a rich patron who will offer him suitable employment in faraway London. But before this happens, while in conversation with said patron, Dixon declares:
I'm the boredom-detector. I'm a finely-tuned instrument. If only I could get hold of a millionaire I'd be worth a bag of money to him. He could send me on ahead into dinners and cocktail-parties and night-clubs, just for five minutes, and then by looking at me he'd be able to read off the boredom-coefficient of any gathering. Like a canary down a mine; same idea. Then he'd know whether it was worth going in himself or not. He could send me in among the Rotarians and the stage crowd and the golfers and the arty types talking about statements of profiles rather than volumes and the musical...
We know from Dixon's experience—and sadly, our own—how this talent for discerning boredom is the result only of a long intimacy with it. An intimacy nurtured over countless departmental meetings, lectures, corridor conversations, numbing conferences, not to mention attendance at academic parties, where neurotics are nearly as numerous as blowhards.
You'd think there would be regular revolts against this culture of oppression. But we hardly witness any institutional uprisings. A few novels written about poisonous campus life, sure, but no prison breaks. In fact, going by what I have seen at the places where I have worked, it is more common to see the formerly oppressed slip easily into the role of the new, more brutal jailers. The behavior of some of my coercive colleagues in a department where I worked was regularly explained away as only the result of "past wounds" inflicted during the process of acquiring tenure.
But I digress. I was talking about boredom. One of the things that can be said about much of postcolonial criticism is that it is boring, although it'd be more accurate to say that it is often unintelligible and boring. However, when I arrived in this country, in the late eighties, and read postcolonial critics for the first time, I was intrigued. They seemed such a welcome change from my teachers in Delhi. As an undergraduate at Hindu College, I would take a bus to the university. I'd look out of the window, and when we were crossing the gates of Nigambodh Ghat, I'd sometimes see men carrying in their arms little bundles wrapped in white. Each bundle was a child whose corpse was being taken to the river by the father. A small mute procession would follow some men, but often a man would be alone with his enormous burden. I would watch for a few moments from the bus—and then I'd arrive in class. My professors would be delivering lectures on Locke or Rousseau from notes held together with tape—the yellowing paper would flake off in little pieces when shaken in the air.
The pedagogical climate appeared dramatically different when I came to the US. In this country, I suddenly felt that criticism was something that was both fresh and live. My teachers were the critics whose writings one read in academic journals. What I was being taught was original work. In some classes, such work also felt urgent. I had never read Edward Said before, or others whose names brought them somehow closer to me in my imagination, critics like Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. But I didn't share the belief, seemingly dear to the editors of special issues devoted to postcolonial theory, that the 3.2 million poor in Chiapas or the half-million beggars in Calcutta hungered to read debates between the elite of New York and New Delhi in the pages of scholarly journals. My indifferent education in Delhi meant that I hadn't received any real training in writing, academic or non. But it became clear to me, as the years passed, that I wanted the words I wrote on the page to be worldly, sensual, even personal. I was trying to make postcolonial theory look more like what the larger world associated with postcolonials like Salman Rushdie. Couldn't our analyses become more exuberant, imaginative, and even playful? I wanted very badly to be a writer, and any writer needs readers, but it seemed impossible that postcolonial theorists would ever acquire a real audience.
May I posit a second credo here? A part of the search for readers is a search for venues that will publish you. I was fortunate to receive valuable support from this journal. As a beginning assistant professor, I published in these pages one or two critical pieces but also poems, photographs, and even a bit of doggerel verse written on the evening of Princess Di's death. And during those years, the journal's editors, Jeff Williams and also Mike Hill, collaborated with me in several discussions about academics and intellectuals who wrote for a wider public. While this was an often repetitive, and even self-congratulatory, exercise on our part, it also represented a demand for legitimation, and a search for a broader argument on behalf of a brand of writing that would earn us, if not hordes of readers, then at least tenure.
I'm talking of events that occurred more than a decade ago. The book that earned me tenure was Passport Photos, a multi-genre report on what has been called immigritude. The book was published at a time when not only postcolonial theory but the entire enterprise of pure theory was beginning to lose its hegemony. I was very much aware that there were no people in postcolonial theory, and I tried to put in my book details of ordinary lives, including photographs and poetry about migrants. Tenure should have freed me to pursue more unconventional writing, but I have never again attempted the formal experimentation of Passport Photos. What tenure really allowed me to do was to quietly settle into the habit of writing what, til recently, I would have considered unexciting because it wasn't fragmentary or hybrid and relied on narrative, the style more associated with memoirs and long-form journalism.
In this turn toward more old-fashioned writing, I was helped by the emergence of a new, younger body of Indian writers who were just then making their mark in India as well as abroad. I'm talking now of the latter part of the nineties and names like Arundhati Roy, Pankaj Mishra, Amit Chaudhuri, Raj Kamal Jha, and Jhumpa Lahiri. I remember reading these writers and experiencing a great deal of excitement; I made an effort to get in touch with them, and some of these writers also became my friends. It couldn't have happened overnight, but in those days it seemed as if this single fact had allowed me to escape the small world of the English Department. For years, I had not read a single novel; now I began to read fiction written by both well-known and emerging Indian writers. This was also the time when the Internet arrived and, suddenly, the Indian newspapers I was reading were no longer two weeks old. This meant that the new fiction I was devouring no longer seemed to be reporting on an impossibly distant country. Cricket matches, riots, the deaths of politicians, murders as well as mergers, the release of Bollywood films, literary gossip, everything that was happening in India acquired an immediacy again. It became easy for me to write for the Indian newspapers and magazines that I was regularly reading on the Web. "Location, location, location" sounds very much like a postcolonial mantra, but it has amazed me—and this, too, amounts to a credo—how profoundly a writer's sense of the world, and also of fellowship, has been transformed by the emergence of the World Wide Web. You can be working at a disgustingly badly-paid job in an acrimonious English Department at the University of Florida, but when you sit down at the computer and are able to file a story for a newspaper in India, a story that will appear in its published form on your screen only a few hours later, it becomes easy to imagine that you have escaped your immediate setting.
A few years prior to the period I've been just describing, I had read an article by Frank Lentricchia that had been published in the now-defunct journal Lingua Franca. Lentricchia's essay, which was entitled "Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic," was an odd, slippery text. One moment it seemed to be arguing against overly political literary criticism, but just when you were expecting an elaboration of an alternative literary approach, Lentricchia slipped into a more vociferous railing against the incompetence of all literary critics. In the end, you could forgive the essay's incoherence because the argument Lentricchia was putting forward was against any system or method of literary appreciation. All one could hope to do, and all that Lentricchia himself wanted to do, was become a worshipper of great literature.
But this was not my aim. Unlike Lentricchia, I had much still to learn. About theory and criticism, and also about literature and the world. I didn't see myself reading the Indian writers I liked without exercising my judgment, and I certainly didn't want to write while pretending that I was in some kind of a trance. For good or bad, I was still very much a part of the academy.
The best allies I found in developing a language of reading not only texts but also people and places were academics from my field, or fields close to mine, who were writing long narrative pieces as well as books that mixed memoir and analysis.
One of my earliest models was Manthia Diawara's In Search of Africa. It was an inventive book and yet it performed the old task of story-telling. In the book, Diawara goes back to Guinea looking for his childhood friend. This search, spanning over the course of the entire book, becomes a way of introducing the reader to everything from the legacy of the dictator Sekou Touré to the traditional arts of the griots and mask-makers. Diawara also exercised an additional fascination over me. I had tried my hand at documentary photography for several years, and Diawara interested me because he was making documentaries about Africa. In a wonderful example of counter-anthropology, he had made a film called Rouch in Reverse about the classic French filmmaker Jean Rouch. Even In Search of Africa was actually the result of a documentary project of the same name. In elegant essays on photography, particularly in his studies of West African photographers like Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe, Diawara would offer a language that I had wanted to use for so long. He wrote simply and yet with sensuous precision. Equally important, departing from the kind of sour, astringent critique that quickly becomes second nature to academic critics, Diawara celebrated the practice of art. He found joy in the work of street photographers, and his writing eloquently communicated that joy to the reader. After a decade of metacritical discourse about the constructedness of culture, it was refreshing to find in Diawara a sophisticated but honest search for authenticity and the good life. When I finished reading In Search of Africa, I couldn't wait to begin writing about Hindi poets struggling in obscurity, or the Indian novelists that I admired, and even the Bollywood filmmakers I had adored since childhood.
There were also other writers from inside academia who helped me give shape to a narrative voice. The names that readily come to mind are Amitav Ghosh (In An Antique Land), Michael Taussig (Nervous System), and Edward Said (Out of Place). But perhaps the example that meant the most, and which I also offered to my students as a model, was Dreambirds by Rob Nixon. As a graduate student, I had read Nixon in the pages of the Village Voice or the Nation, and later still I pored over his magisterial book on V. S. Naipaul. But in Dreambirds, which came out in 1999, Nixon successfully enacted the turn I had been practicing in the privacy of my room, the transformation of the critic into a memoirist and travel-writer. Brilliantly using the ostrich and its migration across history and continents, Nixon had produced a book that was as much a rich cultural history of capitalism as it was a deeply affecting memoir about his own South African childhood.
Later, when offering a course for graduate students that I had entitled "Top Ten Reasons for Doing Cultural Studies," I used Nixon's Dreambirds as a prime example. Apart from some of the books mentioned above, the other books on the course-list that semester were Michael Bérubé's Life As We Know It, Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed, Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, and Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life. These weren't all books by academics, nor were these the only books used in that course; but these titles most clearly represented what I wanted my students to attempt in their writing. Not simply the range from the journalistic to the philosophical, or from the overtly political to the very playful, but also the right mix of the personal and the public. God knows, I was trying my best to do the same. I had long complained that ideological certainties arrived at in seminar rooms needed to be replaced by the real, often contradictory, complexity of people's lives, and now I wrote narratives that relied a great deal on reportage. This turn toward journalism, in some instances resembling what Andrew Ross calls "scholarly reporting," seemed to be the right response to the dead end of postcolonial theorizing.
In the face of a dead critical vocabulary, what was needed were works of imagination. And I began to think that maybe even journalism wasn't the right answer, not conventional journalism anyway, with its pretense of objectivity and distance. We needed writing that examined entanglement, complicity, and compromise. In other words, writing that said clearly that there is no clean independence from anything. That too would be a sort of declaration of independence, I think.
That there is no escape into pure certainty or into some antiseptic haven of academic political correctness. That radical statements made at venues like the MLA Delegate Assembly falsely assume that bold posturing will change the profession and indeed the wider world. That, if we were more honest, there would be in what we say or do more self-questioning and doubt. And that our writing should express that condition. I'm putting this down, somewhat crudely and almost like bullet points, and yet I realize that I should perhaps be doing a better job of it because for some years now I've adopted this position as a credo.
This position is far better described in a passage in V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River. The narrator is an African of Indian origin; he is named Salim and runs a shop in a turbulent republic that resembles Zaire. One night Salim is at a party at the home of a Western intellectual favored by the country's dictator. Two or three couples are dancing in the tastefully darkened room. There is music playing, Joan Baez is singing "Barbara Allen." And then other songs. Here's how Naipaul describes the scene:
Not all songs were like "Barbara Allen." Some were modern, about war and injustice and oppression and nuclear destruction. But always in between were the older, sweeter melodies. These were the ones I waited for, but in the end the voice linked the two kinds of song, linked the maidens and lovers and sad deaths of bygone times with the people of today who were oppressed and about to die.
It was make believe—I never doubted that. You couldn't listen to sweet songs about injustice unless you expected justice and received it much of the time. You couldn't sing songs about the end of the world unless—like the other people in that room, so beautiful with such things: African mats on the floor and African hangings on the wall and spears and masks—you felt that the world was going on and you were safe in it. How easy it was, in that room, to make those assumptions!