Saturday, October 16, 2010

Response to S. Malhans's remarks on my review of Shikargah

(S. Malhans's remarks appear below the post 'Book Review of Shikargah' here)

Dear S. Malhans,

I take your observations with gratitude. You have obviously spent a good deal of time and care to comment on my short review.

I will try to respond one by one to the points you have raised.

My ideal reader is not a lazy person. I do not write for those who would expect me to "summarise" the text for them. Moreover, I do not see how a reviewer's summary can be treated as objective and hence relied on by a reader to arrive at a fair assessment of the review.

I do not deny the uses of "structural logic" but I would like to be alert to its own logic. The search for structural logic may, in some cases, arise from a deeply insecure conservative impulse. Structural logic can function as the Great Secret Validator: to explain away and justify everything. Indeed I do not think that in the name of structural logic we can even condone a writer's poor handling of dialogue and lack of homework. The writer as an artist and thinker is answerable to her readers by virtue of her decision to publish; she cannot hide behind any "structural logic".

But I would like to also ask: By what logic can the structrual logic of a text exclude its unconscious and subconscious? 

Your comments suggest that you treat the reviewer's introducing/summarising the text and explaining its structural logic as the essential components of any review. This is, in my opinion, a rather narrow view of the review as a form of critical analysis.

As for your remark about sexuality, it seems you missed my point by a wide margin. I am not commenting on the appropriateness or otherwise of a village girl's reaction to her encounter with lesbians, but on the writer's reluctance to engage with sexuality in this instance and others. And please remember that I have traced a triptych of sexuality, class and war. See them together as I do, and then you may see what I mean.

Your related (un-relatable by me, to speak the truth) admiration of the "exposure" of "'terrorism'" is something on which I cannot go with you. You may disagree but I am of the considered opinion that only a naive reader would be impressed by such an "exposure". Similarly, what you think is a "[delicate handling and description]" of a romantic situation is to me a pedestrian and stock treatment. (It could be a matter of taste, mine being rather perverse).

You ask why my reader should accept my "interpretation" as "objective ...[and] accurate". I shall only say, with all solemnity, that I'd be guilty of a grave logical error if I expected an interpretation to be objective and accurate  An interpretation can only be an interpretation; it cannot claim to be more.

Now to return to where you begin. To state on the basis of only two reviews you have read and commented on that my evaluations are "often harsh" is not a very rigorous way of judging a reviewer. In the present instance, you somehow ignore the several good things I have said about the book. Critical integrity and forthrightness should not be perceived as "harshness". If these are, so be it. Criticism is not the craft of making pleasant noises but the art of a patient and sympathetic surgery.


Rajesh K Sharma


Badri Raina said...

your rejoinder to s. malhan makes explicit what his text might be;
here is where i agree with you:

interpretations are all we have (cf. The Politics of Interpretation, ed Mitchel, Chicago, 1983--subject to correction); one is better than the other to the extent that it is more comprehensive, intelligent, and unsparing without the alloy of the interpreters' supervening ego being allowed to be a factor; yours was not so allowed; or the instinct to falsely please the writer permitted any space;

no review is any good if it does not unravel the interstices of any creative text that bear potential for future work in their insufficient but promising rawness of invention and execution); i believe you did this excellently;

S. Malhans said...

Thanks for your detailed response to my comments on your review of Shikargah. Now, if I am inclined to continue this dialogue, this is obviously because I am not satisfied with some of your arguments. Also please allow me to say that I find Mr. Badri Raina’s intervention rather gratuitous and pointless.

It will be appropriate if I clarify that my criticism was directed against the nature and style of your reviewing; it was not intended as a defense of Shikargah. The novel is good and, for someone like me, enlightening but it has its shortcomings. One interesting lesson of the story, though, is that the fate of an individual or a family cannot be immune from the historical conjuncture – the tragic social and political situation - in which they are embedded.

Be that as it may, I am unable to accept your view that, as a reviewer, you are not supposed to first introduce the author and her text before, as you say, performing surgery, that is, vivisecting it in the true positivist fashion. The second major drawback in your review(s) is that you dish out abstractions without linking them to concrete details. It will be a good idea, for example, if you elaborate on Neer’s ‘evasive approach to sexuality’ by citing details from the novel. It will help the reader appreciate and judge how you approach and read texts.

What makes your reading strategy suspect is your clearly flawed understanding of what I called the structural logic of the text. I know of no sensible method of analysis, which can proceed without determining the deep, unconscious structure of the text. It is quite possible that a text undermines its own structure and therefore displays incoherences and contradictions. This may always be the case, but how does one know without first attempting the structural exercise? Levi-Strauss’ structure, Althusser’s problematique, Foucault’s episteme or Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm are homologous notions, which have

been applied in both synchronic and diachronic analyses with great success. In what sense is ‘problematique’ immanent in one or more texts ‘conservative’ or born of insecurity? How did ‘paradigm’ prevent Kuhn from studying scientific revolutions?

Even the notion of ‘dialectic’, according to Bert Ollman, implies structure + history.

I think the notion of ‘hermeneutic circle’ may illustrate better what I had in mind when I

mentioned structural logic. One has to move dialectically from whole to the parts and vice versa to achieve a rounded view or interpretation of a text. The meaning of a text is inexhaustible (Gadamer) and so is the possibility of diverse interpretations. However, to

assert that interpretations cannot be judged as rich or poor, accurate or inaccurate, etc.

will be too naive.

Thanks and regards


Rajesh Kumar Sharma said...

Let the dialogue continue, as you say in your forwarding letter.

But can it really, when you choose to dismiss a reasoned intervention such as Badri Raina’s without giving any reasons? To dismiss his intervention with the mere words “gratuitous and pointless” does not indicate a will to dialogue. You could ask yourself why your response takes this form, and maybe give a better account of your disagreement.

Allow me to add that you have not really answered my points in your response: I’d entreat you to read my submissions a little more openly and receptively, though certainly not uncritically.

I do not suggest that you defend the novel, and that if you do you are erring. My response is to your response to my reviewing of the novel, if you would look carefully.

Shall I (I am honestly seeking your assent) understand that your deriving a “lesson” from the novel and deriving that particular lesson is an instance of “structuralist” reading? If it is, it is something that requires no application of mind. And it is banal, to boot.

“An art of patient and compassionate surgery” is not the same as “vivisecting it in the true positivist fashion”. Do attend to the sahridayata implied in “compassionate”. And also do not pass too quickly over “patient” either, if you think (as you said earlier) that Derrida is a legitimate authority to evoke in this case.

The quest for “the deep, unconscious structure of the text” is no longer, and rightly so, treated with the awe that it once upon a time was treated with. You would agree that among the lessons of “post-” structuralism is that we need to discard our misguided search for a structure outside, above and under the structure there. You may know of “no sensible method of analysis which can proceed without determining the deep, unconscious structure of the text” (and I respect your conviction), but I think that it does one good to know things about and other than a given method.

You once held me guilty of “verbosity and jargon”. I shall not throw those words back at you. Yet I wish you would consider what the catalogue of names in the latter part of your response does.

I never claim to be using the structuralist methods, nor do I obviously possess your training in the use of those methods (I wish you would demonstrate your skills for the benefits of others, including myself, by undertaking a structuralist review of Shikargah). But I may have a point – not a big one – in taking the position that the structuralist method is not the sole one possible or available.

Finally, did I say “interpretations cannot be judged as rich or poor, accurate or inaccurate” ? That is what the practice of structuralism, grown into a habit and constraining vision can do: it can make us see things that may not be there.

Derrida bemoaned precisely this, didn’t he?

S. Malhans said...

Dear Rajesh Sharma,

I’ll turn away from irrelevancies and focus on the two issues that stand out in our exchange, namely, structuralism and shikargah. As for Badri Raina’s intervention, it was gratuitous because it was intended merely to express agreement with your rejoinder and
extol your excellence – something he had already done in his first laudatory comment on your review.

My point about structuralism was that structural analysis is a necessary step in any interpretative or explanatory exercise, be it in literature, anthropology, archaeology of discursive formations or history of science. What you regard as the catalogue of names was meant to emphasise this very fact: That whether it is structuralism proper or materialist dialectics or hermeneutics, the validity of the notion of structure or structural analysis stands. I wonder where does the question of verbosity or jargon arise
in all this. There is certainly no substitute lexicon for homology, diachrony and synchrony. The uses of technical vocabulary in certain contexts need not be discounted.

Turning to post-structuralism, it is neither anti-structuralism nor pre-structuralism. Post-structuralism carries forward – dialectically if you like – aspects of structuralism in the same way as postmodernism carries forward aspects of modernism (Callinicos). It is well-known that Derrida radicalised the implications of Saussurian structural linguistics (language as a system of differences) and conjoined the latter with Heidegger’s destruction of metaphysics – the metaphysics of presence – to produce ‘deconstruction’. Initially, deconstruction too was labeled grammatological structuralism. As I view it, deconstruction is a variety of structural analysis, which is predicated on a necessary tension between structure and anti-structure within texts. I would say that often dilettantish and subjectivist impressionism of the pre-structuralist kind, which eschews rigorous textual analysis of any kind, masquerades as deconstructive or postmodernist analysis. Please do not take it as a reference to your work.

As for Shikargah, what had Nikky or Lal Haveli (or others like them) done to deserve the tragic fate thay meet . Where does the thread lead us? To the present historical conjuncture? to Partition? to British imperialism? Where do we stop? This aspect of the novel disturbed me above all and that’s why I mentioned it. To ask if this is structuralism or structural analysis is plain sophistry, to say the least. Would you like me to supply you with another catalogue, this time of books and articles, showing what structural analysis is like, what it amounts to?
By the way there are few Punjabi novels that similarly connect the fate of the individual and the family to larger historical or political forces. The tensions between the family or the civil society and the state is not a banal framework if Hegel’s commentary on Antigone is any instance. We know how it impressed Goethe.

And that is all, Mr. Sharma. I must take leave of you and attend to my classes at IIT, New Delhi. I have said what I wanted to. Thank you. Have the last laugh !


Rajesh Kumar Sharma said...

No, I renounce that privilege. You had the first laugh. You'll have the last.

I fully endorse your understanding of poststructuralism. What I could not agree to, and and still am unable to, is a tendency to separate the text from a "deeper" 'truth' with reference to which alone the text can be read. I felt that tendency lurked in your approach (maybe it was a delusion on my part). The kind of reader I am I just cannot bring myself to ignoring issues of style, focus, visibility/non-visibility etc in a literary text. Perhaps history and society do not constitute the exclusive or privileged contexts in my readings,though I would not throw them out.

May I request you to send the list of some recent important structuralist studies for my bebefit?

Thanks for the exchange. I appreciate your efforts. And hope you are not signing off permanently.

S. Malhans said...

Dear Rajesh,

I return to your blog briefly and hurriedly to answer the following observation of yours:"What I could not agree to and am unable to, is a tendency to separate the text from a "deeper" 'truth' with reference to which alone the text can be read. I felt the tendency lurked in your approach."

I hold Althusser's problematique to
be an instance of deep structure or
structural logic of a text discovered through symptomatic reading. This kind of reading renders intelligible both
the manifest discourse(including form and content)and the silences of the text.

Problematique (or problematic) is not separate from the text but rather immanent in it. That is why stuctural analysis is also known as immanent analysis.

On the other hand, there is a sense in which problematique or deep, unconscious structure is also transcendent.Take Althusser's argument that Marx's writings were
first situated within Hegelian problematic. It means that in his early work, despite his critiques
of Hegel, Marx shares the underlying ideological framework with the latter. Thus, the same problematique may underlie a variety of texts.

I think for further methodological guidelines one has to turn to both Althusser and Levi-Strauss. One may seek furthe help from a host of other writers such as Barthes and Todorov. Levi-Strauss remains the best, however.

It was left to deconstruction to
take cognisance of the dialectic of
structure and anti-structure (chaos, catastrophe) within texts.

I am sorry - professional obligations do not allow much time for such debates, but I'd like to hear your views on what I have said above.