Thursday, May 8, 2008

Fictions of Theory

A Preliminary Report on Theory’s Infiltration

of the Contemporary Indian Literary Imaginary

The delicate relationship of literature and theory depends on the way the incestuous demands of one on the other are managed. Whether it is theory aspiring to be literature in the common space of writing, or literature genetically afflicted with the virus of theory, the burden of incest can be heavy and difficult. Theory has to deal with the menace of dissolution of resistance into writing’s self-referential abyss; literature, the more it attempts to conceal its birth marks, ends up exposing a disintegrating body. The fault lines of the intermergence of the two cannot be sealed flawlessly. The irrepressible spectacle of seduction, guilt and betrayal does not easily allow it.

Mimicry is a strategy of survival through self-concealment by resemblance with another. But it is also, in the space of the other as mirror, a self-deceiving trap. As mimesis, it always rises out of and returns to a gap, a crack in which reflexivity dances a compulsive dance that commits the incestuous relationship to the eternal return of damnation. Between literature and theory, neither can finally and adequately be the other. Nor not be the other.

The peculiar nature of contemporary literature’s kinship with theory distinguishes it from literature’s previous affairs with psychoanalysis and Marxism, although the spectres of both also lie embedded in the body of theory as it lives, or dies, today. Psychoanalysis (including the Lacanian) and Marxism did not aspire to be(come) literature, much less did they seek to become writing as understood in the post- age, especially by the poststructuralists. Neither gave up entirely on metanarrativity. Conversely, literature done psychoanalytically or “progressively” exhibited its act proudly and without guilt. The case of the kinship of literature and theory is, however, peculiar. While theory has the solace, however questionable, of trying to escape metaphysics on the wings of literature as pure writing, literature is haunted by a troubling sense of sacrilege, of violation of the order of transgression. Of transgression as its open and shameful secret.

The transgression is literature’s allowing of itself to be infiltrated and inseminated by theory, with implications of secret invasion and reterritorialization that spell a crisis of legitimacy for literature. It may be possible to somewhat attenuate the sense of crisis by a simple and innocuous-sounding rhetorical reversal: if in place of literature’s infiltration by theory, one chooses to talk about its assimilation of theory. But then the way literature today has come to anticipate and preempt its criticism, in a world made politically hypersensitive by theory, cannot be explained away merely as another triumph of literature’s axiomatic universality.

The problem gets really serious when literature becomes a placeholder of theory, and that too of theory reduced to a set of radicalist platitudes. The result is a degradation of literature, which then becomes a junkyard of theory. Reduced and disciplined, theory comes to be the ruination of literature’s creative and playful indiscipline. It would be another matter if it were a quickening and dangerous dis-order, a foreign body in the body of literature, electrifying literature’s mobile and intractable forces ever more.

Perhaps there is a neo-colonial angle to what theory sometimes does to literature in a country like India. Your suspicions are aroused when you notice that what first looked like theoretically informed literature turns out to be, on closer inspection, theoretically deformed – because straitjacketed – literature. The forecasts and proclamations of the death of theory thus take an altogether different meaning in a postcolonial as compared to the global metropolitan literary space. Incorporation may not always be glorious. A corpse inside the system can spread slow death.

It may be interesting to speculate on the fate of theory in the postcolonial context. And one must try to do that not as nostalgia trip or amateur sighting, but as archaeological investigation of a specific literary imaginary as it traces the flight of theory into the underground. Who knows if the fate of theory holds today the secret of a literature’s destiny?

To state my hypothesis explicitly and fully: theory has infiltrated and inseminated and begun to transform the contemporary Indian literary imaginary, with ambivalent consequences for literature. One should be skeptical of globalizing accounts of the literary imaginary; so I shall concern myself with the Indian literary imaginary only, though I concede that Indianizing the problematic too involves a degree of globalizing, at the level of subcontinentalization. What I therefore call the contemporary Indian literary imaginary is a composite formation in which multiple literary and critical imaginaries participate, most of them with different, even disjunctive, temporalities. But I speak here contingently and provisionally and on the evidence of diverse literary texts randomly selected.

Before I explain what I understand by the literary imaginary, I would like to state what may be obvious: that the whole question of the kinship of literature and theory turns on the implicit assumption of literature’s relative autonomy and its possession of literariness, whether conceived metaphysically or post-metaphysically. It is therefore possible to formulate a situated but abidingly relevant question: Can a certain kind of literary writing be called (post-)theoretical, in the sense of being theoretically in-formed? And is there a point beyond which it becomes, or may become, for good or bad, post-literary? And how far is that from the un-literary, the non-literary, or the extra-literary?

I know that with the suggestions of contamination I am grazing the forbidden territories of literary brahminism and am likely to raise the postmodernists’ heckles. But these are important questions, especially in view of the way theory has in our times come to mediate, in historically formative ways, memory practices in the literary and cinematic imaginaries (Huyssen). There is a rash of imaginary memories, unreal histories, de-temporalized pasts, and other re-narrativizations. My anxiety -and I hope it turns out to be unfounded- is: Does this threaten to rewrite literature as primarily a site for the rewriting of histories, a convenient point of backdoor entry into the social imaginary because the gateways of historiography as a rigorous discipline are rather impregnably, because contentiously, guarded? Is literature in danger of being used as a tool to install in the social imaginary new myths, some of them quite blatantly neo-fascist across a whole range of positions including the subalternist? And, does literature, hitherto the privileged space of open-ended innovation, subversion and transformation, face the prospect of its own subversion and usurpation by narrow ideologies and myopic discourses entering by way of theoretically framed horizons and perspectives? Is, therefore, myth recovering its pre-Barthesian “innocence” and complicity in a post-mythological age in which critique faces the threat of instant cooptation as just another commodity? I think these questions retain their relevance even after we have settled, if that is at all possible, the question of whether theory today radicalizes the literary imaginary or itself ends up de-radicalized and de-realized in the fictionalizing space of literature.

That the literary imaginary undergoes transformations may not be easily noticed, especially in an (un)critical ambience in which radicalness serves almost like a collective hallucination flattening out the distinctions of time and place. The will to read everything as if it is radical paralyses our senses in front of radical differences. A cursory reading of literary texts from the past, set beside readings from recent and contemporary texts, is enough to demonstrate the transformations that have been sweeping through the literary imaginaries in our times.


I derive the concept of the literary imaginary from Charles Taylor’s concept of the social imaginary. Taylor derives his concept from a critical engagement with Cornelius Castoriadis’s who, in The Imaginary Institution of Society (1998), sketches a universalist and transcendental social imaginary. Taylor’s intervention, with roots in Heidegger’s philosophical legacy, brings out the multiplicity of imaginaries on historical and cultural grounds, particularly as these underlie multiple modernities.

Taylor describes the imaginary as “not a set of ideas” but as “what enables, through making sense of, the practices of a society” (91). An imaginary is “shared by large groups of people”, unlike theory which is shared by members of a relatively small specialist/elite group. It is the way people imagine their existence both factually and normatively, and hence it legitimizes and gives meaning to their everyday practices. A normative moral order, Taylor emphasizes, is a very important constituent of the imaginary. But the imaginary is not strictly definable because, having “no clear limits” and being “largely unstructured”, it does not lend itself to be articulated neatly. Indeed, it is vastly greater than “the immediate background understanding” and exists as a “repertory” of “images, stories, and legends”. A “theoretical overview” of the imaginary is, therefore, not possible. As Taylor puts it, “We understand the ritual.” The imaginary, thus, gives us an “implicit” sense of our social surroundings, enabling us to carry out our everyday practices with a sense of legitimacy (106-08).

It is important to understand that the imaginary is neither static nor closed, but always changing and open to intervention and innovation. In fact, it has a dialectical relationship with theory, receiving and exerting influences that bring about change. Theory is, therefore, not mere reflection of the imaginary, or its superstructure, or an excrescence; but neither does it have the absolute and transcendental authority of a so-called divine mandate in relation to the imaginary. As Taylor explains, theory articulates a new outlook which gives sense to certain new practices improvised or adopted by the people. This makes available to them a new way of understanding their world. Over a period, the novelty gradually wears off and the new practices are installed in the imaginary at the level of people’s “self-understandings” (91). Taylor builds his thesis with illustrations from political philosophy, particularly the new theories of natural law that were propounded in the seventeenth century by Hugo Grotius and John Locke. He demonstrates how the modern Western imaginary, as distinct from the pre-modern, was shaped largely in response to its penetration and transformation by these theories.


The literary imaginary is arguably a part of the social imaginary, but there is a distinction to be made. The distinction may be glimpsed in the fact that the normative moral order of the literary imaginary is often at variance with that of the social imaginary. There may be any number of reasons for this variance, one of which is that the literary imaginary is the space in which the impossible becomes possible. Part of the seductive power of literature derives probably from the lack of a perfect fit between literary and social imaginaries. Indeed, it can be suggested that the force exerted by the literary on the social imaginary arises in the territory of excessive desire that marks the former in relation to the latter. But it is also this very territory that may invite theory’s colonizing attentions and the subsequent infiltration because it is precisely here that theory can expect to hold the social imaginary in its thrall. In this charmed realm, literature and theory play a dangerous circular game of seduction. And mimicry is at its best here: as concealment, subterfuge, mimesis.


The three texts I have selected here to pursue the problematic relationship of literature and theory are Amita Kanekar’s novel A Spoke in the Wheel (2005), Girish Karnad’s play The Dreams of Tipu Sultan (1996) and Mahasweta Devi’s collection of short stories After Kurukshetra (2005).

At least three apparently trivial instances indicate the theoretical matrix of Kanekar’s narrative. The first is the Orientalist orthography of “cummerbund” (99). The second is Angulimala’s account of his previous terror among the people of Kosala where harassed mothers would send their children to sleep with the warning, “Be still, or I’ll call Angulimala!” It is an adaptation, duly acknowledged in the preface by the novelist, of Gabbar Singh’s notoriously popular dialogue in the Hindi film Sholay (5). The third is the opening of Chapter 9, titled Buddha, with an invocation of the Nasadiya Sukta proclaiming absolute skepticism about the possibility of a subject of knowledge (256). These three instances are the three signs, or signatures, of theory’s triptych of postcolonialism, popular culture and subaltern studies.

A Spoke in the Wheel is in fact two novels. One is about the making of the Buddha. Its author is Upali, a monk from Kalinga whose personal project of writing a rational and historical, though fictional, narrative of the Buddha’s making attracts the Emperor Ashoka’s one-eyed gaze. The other is a novel about Upali and, through him, about Ashoka’s imperial cultural politics. The two fictional worlds, separated by three hundred years, manage to produce, between themselves, the illusion of historical perspective, which appears to be untouched by Kanekar’s own historical time and its politics. The illusion makes easier Kanekar’s task of rightsizing the Buddha and Ashoka, a task that can only be described in the present instance as a native project of inverted Orientalism. To the extent that the novel endeavours to humanize Siddarth [sic] and rescue him from the dubious accumulations of godhead, it is a praiseworthy work of historical fiction. But the rightsizing is actually indistinguishable from the contemporary Western, and increasingly global, project of normalization and standardization. Interestingly, and ironically, this happens by way of the discourses of Freudian psychoanalysis and Althusserian Marxism. How else does one account for the rather loud hints of Siddarth’s Oedipal rebellion and homosexuality? And for Upali’s grotesquely anachronistic vision that comprehends Ashoka’s Dhamma as an instance of the Ideological State Apparatus commandeered by the Magadh Empire? What Ashoka is trying to accomplish, according to this narrative, is the cultural homogenization of the Indian subcontinent through cultural genocide of the other who is identified as “savage” against the self which is complacently regarded as “civilized”. Magadh thus emerges as a gigantic panopticon, a society of surveillance, with the Edicts of the Emperor functioning as his omnipresent and omniscient eye.

But Kanekar does not stop here. She brings in even the favourite critical-theoretical problematic of writing. Ashoka is strangely obsessed with writing, apparently for the purpose of clarity and freedom from controversy in matters of the Buddhist canon, but actually - as Upali can see through it all - for controlling the production of discourse. Upali’s narrative is, thus, showcased as a narrative of the subaltern, aiming to subvert and replace the dominant and officially legitimized narrative articulated by Ashoka. Hence the barely suppressible postmodernist symptoms of the vengeance he dreams of in retaliation for Ashoka’s devastation of Kalinga and his alleged abduction of the Buddha’s Dhamma for political purposes: he would fight the Murderer of Kalinga in the battlefield of discourse.

The ultimate fictionalization of theory comes towards the end when Upali, who has been trying to save his narrative from Ashoka’s secret agents Devadina and Harsha, throws it into fire moments before he dies of some chronic stomach ailment. His narrative, in this way, dies with him, metaphorically undelivered and poisoning him like a dead foetus from inside. Yet half the novel is that imaginary narrative only.

Kanekar’s novel is extremely powerful and complex. As a work of historical fiction, it is probably incomparable in the crowded world of contemporary Indian English fiction. But she is unable to manage the creative possibilities opened up by the fissure of fiction and ideology. She seems to be too self-conscious to not worry about political correctness. As a result, her project turns out to be something tailor-made for the specific sensibilities of the theory-bespectacled professor on the one hand and the metropolitan readership of a global world of corporate de-nationalization on the other. Theory not only informs but seems to have dictated the practice of literature in this case. In the name of reason and historicity, the novel conjures up another imaginary history, suitably divested of national pride and its heroes. The project, despite its cunning, gives itself away when it launches a kind of programmed assault on the national emblem of the Republic of India. The wheel, which is both Dharma Chakra and Ashoka Chakra in the secular mythology of modern India, is reinvented: it becomes the genocidal wheel of war-chariots and imperial urban expansion. The customized desi version of the critique of European Enlightenment has finally arrived, via theory, to rewrite the legend of the Enlightened One and his famed royal follower.

We may now turn to Mahasweta Devi’s After Kurukshetra.

‘Souvali’, the third and last story, begins thus: “On the margins of the town live the marginalized.” (41)

This is not only bad literature, but bad theory as well. I guess Nietzsche would choose just that word to describe it: vulgar. It cannot be fairly called subaltern writing, nor even subalternist writing. Perhaps subalternistic would be the right qualifier to capture the high degree of stridency and abstraction achieved by the phrasing.

Here is another example, from ‘Kunti and the Nishadin’: “Kunti can now look back . . . . The role of daughter-in-law, the role of queen, the role of mother, playing these hundred roles where was the space, the time to be her true self?” (26)

I thought that literature always possessed a degree of refinement, that theory had a minimum amount of grace and sophistication, until I read these lines and saw that both could be equally reduced to a set of sentimental and politically correct assertions. Despite the proclamations of her cultivated distance from theory, Mahasweta Devi cannot resist, at least in these stories, the temptation to let gender and class, as categories, overtake and supplant the human. She was not doing this when she wrote ‘Dopdi’, or ‘Stanadayini’, or The Mother of 1084. Perhaps the Spivak factor has finally begun to take its toll.

Of the texts I have chosen, the one that best copes with theory is Girish Karnad’s The Dreams of Tipu Sultan. It juxtaposes, under the floodlights, two ideologically and politically divergent historiographies, the native and the colonial. The native historian’s trauma completely wipes out his memory’s most crucial moment: with all his efforts, Kirmani cannot recall Tipu’s expression at the time of his departure for the final battle. Against this hole in memory is juxtaposed the imaginary memory of the Malarctic adventure, Tipu’s embassy to the French Governor of Mauritius, which never really happened but which the British invented as an excuse to get rid of their treaty with Tipu and attack him.

The British are thus shown to be dreaming up convenient falsehoods, and Kirmani almost says this in Mackenzie’s face. Yet there are other kinds of dreaming, Tipu’s for instance, that can redeem as well as ruin. Tipu is a dreamer; he can look far into the future and he can see through his enemy. Yet he cannot sometimes read a dream, his last dream for example. And for such inscrutable dreams he keeps blank pages in his diary: the diary that is “sacred” to Kirmani but merely “an odd little book” for Mackenzie – a quiet juxtaposition that lays bare the inhuman vanity of an objectifying imperial epistemology (17). Caught between violence and inviolability, memory and dreaming thus move in a random circularity between being spaces and non-spaces, between colonization and pure inaccessibility.

From this amazing flight and the delicate balancing of wings, Karnad seems to drop momentarily, threatening to fall headlong into the gaping trap of theoretical posturing when Tipu cries anxiously that he wants to quickly conclude a treaty with the British and bring back his sons, aged seven and eight, taken hostage by the British, because he does not want them to learn English. His reason: English is “[t]he language in which it is possible to think of children as hostages” (43). The seductions of “the linguistic turn” in theories of subjectivity are almost overwhelming at this point. But Karnad averts the fall. He does not buy the self-congratulatory postcolonialist reading of Caliban’s “profit” on Prospero’s language. Caliban’s “profit” is really no benefit, for he does not realize that he has already entered the colonialist regime of violence through language as violence. Indeed, his quick and unthinking purchase on the language of profit and loss indicates the fait accompli of his unconscious initiation into the colonialist metaphysics and commerce and its accompanying ethics.


In Mario Vargas Llosa’s In Praise of the Stepmother, the middle-aged stepmother succumbs to the seductive gaze of her young lover, her husband’s son. Before the novel ends, she has been turned out of her husband’s home.

What fate is in store for literature if it succumbs to theory’s seductive gaze?

Works Cited

Huyssen, Andreas. “Present Pasts: Media, Politics, Amnesia.” Public Culture 12.1 (2000): 21-38. Huyssen offers insightful observations on the widespread recourse to memory in our times in the context of the changes in our experience of temporality under the impact of information and communication technologies. The ideological deployment of theory insofar as it inflects the practices of memory (particularly in the production of literature) is, however, outside the purview of his work.

Devi, Mahasweta. After Kurukshetra. Trans. Anjum Katyal. Calcutta and New Delhi: Seagull Books, 2005.

Kanekar, Amita. A Spoke in the Wheel. New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2005.

Karnad, Girish. Two Plays by Girish Karnad: The Dreams of Tipu Sultan; Bali: The Sacrifice. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Taylor, Charles. “Modern Social Imaginaries.” Public Culture 14.1 (2002): 91-124.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma


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