Is Language Intrinsic to the Humanities?

We need to examine if the language is being used to leverage cultural authority even when the primary material and cultural contexts are not in English.

The reasons why we need the humanities today have been outlined, in schematic form, in these pages before. The crises, as it is often termed, in the humanities, remains the epicentre for debates across the world, and does find its resonances in India too. Contextually speaking, the presumed crises have now found new situations to engage with and in.

With drastic changes proposed in the education system, shifts in priorities but also initiatives such as the UGC’s project on examining the quality of PhD theses submitted to Indian universities (announced in May 2019), we can look forward, as they say, to interesting times. Without claiming to speak for the humanities as a whole but for the field of English literary studies, in the main, one can discern the outlines of ‘problems’ within it that, even if not yet full-blown crises, could explain the less-than-average outcomes in humanities-English.

Much of what follows stems from encounters with PhD scholars, junior faculty just out of their doctoral programs (in Central and state universities), and PhD theses submitted for evaluation across India (to Central as well as state universities), so it is likely that autobiographical basis here limits the scope of the arguments elaborated and therefore not shared by many.

The rapid provincialisation and over-specialisation which, in the global arena, provided sterling and intensive studies of, say, medieval epigrams or religious poetry of a period, has produced in our context, narrow studies that do not enlighten us theoretically or empirically. The ‘discovery’ of folk songs or local story-telling traditions – which itself assumes the power and authority of the discoverer-researcher – stays at that level without making a larger case for, say, folk studies itself.

In the postcolonial rush to examine – and valorise – small histories and local traditions, what is likely lost is this local’s influences (influenced by and influence on) the neighbouring traditions, adjacent geocultural spaces and even the global. As James Clifford cautions us, there are no cultures that have not travelled, so in the pursuit of the very specific and the local, one misses the connected histories that produce all cultures.

This particularisation is often, one suspects perhaps uncharitably, done to ensure cultural authority for the researcher, who can mine it endlessly for all future work and publications and so is not required to address beyond the local. 

Also read: The Humanities Need Wonder, Not Consecration

Linkages of these projects with identity politics and political programs are also central to the formation of these intra-disciplines. As Nandana Dutta argued in her essay in English (2018), the discipline of English has acquired a “national/regional flavour through the incorporation of texts that have emerged out of struggles for visibility and voice by marginal groups”. 

This ensures that, crucially, English studies serve as a forum and form of empowerment for identity groups hitherto excluded. Whether these remain, however, limiting factors in what literary studies has always sought – the study of the ‘other’, the excluded – when it focuses solely on one’s own community, identity and group without seeking to engage with people unlike us is a moot point.

Does provincialisation, then, serve the larger aims and intentions of literary studies, or is it just a mechanism for English researchers to acquire, not just degrees in their own backyards but cultural authority? Thd latter hinges on the absence of adequate interrogations of English PhDs by the ‘parent’ disciplines.

For instance, would a thesis on Malayalam or Tamizh temple songs or travel writing, written or produced in the English department, pass muster when examined by experts from Malayalam or Tamizh? Why did the scholar not undertake this same project in departments dedicated to the study of those languages and cultures? Is it that cultural authority would not accrue if they undertook this project in a field already congested with better-equipped academics and researchers in those departments?

Is English being used then to leverage cultural authority – because very few in English department would even understand the project, and so it would pass unchallenged – even when the primary material and cultural contexts are not English? This does sound as though one is casting aspersions on the motives of such research being undertaken outside the language departments, but it remains a conundrum to be thought through.

Methodologically, this move towards super-specialisation is already open to question, as are its politics. But there are other methodological issues too. PhD theses increasingly substitute summary for analysis and are marked by the pervasive ailment of quotations that, so far, appears to be beyond treatment.

Textual analysis, the oldest form of literary criticism in the field, which entails close attention to language, now appears in one of two forms: large excerpts from the texts under scrutiny and the paraphrased summary. It is almost as though the nuances of language are immaterial, so long as one can come up with conclusions suiting the need of the thesis.

Also read: British Literature Is Tangled With Other Cultures – So Why Is It Sold as Largely White and English?

For instance, one knows of theses that ‘prove’ (as though it was not known before) that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is about – surprise, surprise – race, or subaltern texts are about oppression (this claim may be verified through a cursory glance through English theses uploaded on Shodhganga). The summary concludes with these prescient ‘findings’, and being self-evident, does not require explications of the mechanics of the text.

How Stowe employs racism, or how a subaltern author employs specific tropes and narrative modes to represent oppression and resistance become redundant questions. In other words, the elements of literary expression which one assumes are key components of its politics, become unnecessary as long as a summary of the ‘story’ and a foregone conclusion is made.

A second methodological problem is the extensive employment of incomprehensible jargon in lieu of analysis. In PhD theses, it appears adequate if ‘interpellate’, ‘hegemony’ or ‘discursive construction’ (preferably all three) are employed at carefully plotted intervals, as though the theorists from whom such jargon emanates would explain the text or passage to the reader, absolving the researcher from doing so.

Theoretical terms that come with their own baggage, especially philosophical, also serve as self-fulfilling prophecies. Once you state that a ‘subject has been interpellated’ – a common phrase of the English PhD – the text, wonder of wonders, can be seen to do so!

As part of the postcolonial assertion of methodological sovereignty, canon-bashing is integral to the literary. Nobody in literary studies has denied – apart from a few apologists like F.R. Leavis, Ian Watt and Harold Bloom– the authority and oppressive power of the canon. Yet, postcolonial methodologies in literary studies assume that the Global South writer is (i) the first to make insightful comments on the human condition and hence should be valued for this, (ii) writing in a vacuum without ever having read the oppressive canon herself.

No postcolonial writer worth her salt has written good literature without a sense of the canon in their bones, however. One needs only to look at the greats from the Global South to recognise this: Derek Walcott, Salman Rushdie, R.K. Narayan, Wole Soyinka, Margaret Atwood, Gabriel Marquez, Amitav Ghosh, to name a few. Their erudition in the ‘vile’ texts of Defoe, Shakespeare, Twain is obvious, even as they proceed to debunk the myths – of Empire, race, patriarchy, etc – those canonical texts built on or endorsed.

Preserving a language. Credit: gregwalters/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: gregwalters/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Further, the postcolonial myth of their literary sovereignty also does not wish to address the thorny problem of how even their ‘regional language’ authors (with apologies for what sounds like a derogatory term) such as Bankim or Tagore were themselves informed and influenced by the white man’s canon. Derek Walcott put it thus in his Nobel speech, ‘The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory’:

what delight and privilege there was in watching a literature – one literature in several imperial languages, French, English, Spanish – bud and open island after island in the early morning of a culture, not timid, not derivative, any more than the hard white petals of the frangipani are derivative and timid. This is not a belligerent boast but a simple celebration of inevitability: that this flowering had to come.

Soon after, with his not uncontroversial claim that a ‘culture is made by its cities’, Walcott would map the Caribbean Port of Spain:

Its docks, not obscured by smoke or deafened by too much machinery, and above all, it would be so racially various that the cultures of the world – the Asiatic, the Mediterranean, the European, the African – would be represented in it, its humane variety more exciting than Joyce’s Dublin.

Walcott’s celebration of multiple traditions that shape the region’s history militates against the xenophobic nativism that lurks just under the surface of the ‘local only’ postcolonial theme in literary studies. Walcott is presciently leading us to the question: is not the current era of compulsory, ethnically driven majoritarian nationalism a logical outcome of the claim that only the local matters?

Isn’t that what totalitarian states do: claim privileges for only one tradition or culture or identity? The postcolonial literary studies’ emphasis on ‘doing’ one’s own literary cultures, never proceeding beyond one’s linguistic or ethnic community, when pushed far enough is exactly the agenda of an exclusionary democracy.

Finally, if one were to cast one’s eyes on critics like Stephen Greenblatt, Gillian Beer or Jonathan Bate in literary studies, we find them taking apart the canon’s politics, often locating continuities of these politics in the present: see, for instance, Greenblatt’s work, Tyrant, on Shakespeare’s obsession with monarchic power, which Greenblatt sees as replicated in Trump’s America in the 21st century.

Also read: In 2016, Hindi Literature Became the Voice of the Marginalised

The democratisation of literary cultures (‘my language writings’, ‘my identity politics’) that marches without a matching advancement of rigorous theoretical and methodological lines of inquiry does not serve the cause of literary studies. Democratisation, that does not have a transformative agenda, is no less demagogic than the regime it critiques solely by widening the number of analytical categories it employs (gender, race, ability, caste, class, lifeforms).

A transformative agenda would employ literary studies to interrogate the mechanisms of power in the postcolony by asking scrupulous questions of how meanings are generated, how interpretations are proscribed by the state, how authors advance specific political agendas, in order to fuel much larger questions of rights, national identity and belonging.

The battle for meaning is very often the battle for sovereignty and freedom, and demands attention to language, narrative and storytelling as material practices in a nation. When literary studies refuse to pay this attention, focusing instead of generating blanket statements about ‘this text is about oppression’, it loses its greatest asset: a scrutiny of the processes of meaning making.

It is no accident that Amnesty International seeks to popularise human rights through fiction. In 1992, and later as well, the Amnesty Lectures were focused on human rights and interpretation (see Barbara Johnson edited Freedom and Interpretation, 1993), and these lectures were delivered very often by literary scholars (Edward Said, Terry Eagleton, Wayne C. Booth, Homi K. Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak), philosophers interested in narrative and stories (Paul Ricoeur, Kwame Anthony Appiah), and others.

Booth went so far as to define the self’s freedom as follows in his talk:

“What is essential about that self is not found primarily in its differences from others, but in its freedom to pursue a storyline, a life plot, a drama carved out of all the possibilities every society provides.”

And Paul Ricoeur would say elsewhere:

“We have the right to speak of life as of an incipient story, and thus of life as an activity and a desire in search of a narrative”.

They were speaking of the link between freedom, narrative and life itself.

To probe the intricacies of meaning-making in texts is to develop the ability to understand the nuances of language in its functioning, to refuse to take words at face value, to recognise frames of thought. Thus ‘text’ is not simply the printed or online book, but refers to language-in-operation: reading the ‘word’ for its construction of reality through interpretation, framing.

Literature produces storied selves in this fashion, and this storying is what we should be alert to so that we can see when a self is reduced, by conditions of oppression such as racism or caste, to a non-self, an alertness demanded of us in times when political rhetoric and texts – exercises in language too – set about relegating several people to the category of the sub or nonhuman.

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Thus, literary studies when it examines texts and explores language, is invested not just in meaning-processes but in regimes of value that texts encode. This entails examining rigorously how – in what language, through what metaphors, in what forms of representation – stereotypes of race or gender, for example, operate to produce cultural codes that then impact social relations.

To see a character in a novel experience her age in particular ways due to her identity-markers (gender, race, class) is to understand the impact of social, economic and political events on people powerless to design the plot of their lives. This understanding, arrived at through analysis, is instrumental in the readers’ empathy towards others, fostering our ability to imagine being in the characters’ shoes.

That is, to read is to imagine, to immerse oneself in a world often unlike ours’, but to also imagine the quantum of joy, suffering, distress that we too could have experienced in that world. To imagine others could, possibly, lead to sympathy and understanding, and perhaps alleviate our fear of those unlike us. J.M. Coetzee summarises this function of the imagination for us in Elizabeth Costello:

The heart is the seat of a faculty, sympathy, that allows us to share at times the being of another … There are people who have the capacity to imagine themselves as someone else … and there are people who have the capacity but choose not to exercise it … there is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another. There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination

The crisis in literary studies, the queen of the humanities, is then to do with the way the discipline has grown minus a concomitant growth in methodological rigour, the substitution of terminology for insights (terminology as insight?), the use of the summary in place of the analytics and the resolute stance against its key method of paying attention to language games in order to produce, in large quantities, vacuous claims about every text.

If we wish to understand what we are and mean, as a community, nation, culture, group, it demands that we pay attention to how ‘we’ are defined in the language of texts – legal, political, economic, mass media. In that language lies the plot options, that are foreclosed to some, open to others. Literary studies teach one to understand that language constitutes selves, ours and others’.

When we have forsaken this method in favour of sweeping generalisations masquerading as ‘research findings’ we engage in the same authoritarian, ‘big picture’ obfuscation that costs people their identities – something we see in national discourses that lumps and identifies all people of specific communities as ‘terrorists’ or ‘anti-national’.

Those, too, are words, but those words do not discern, they discriminate (as the philosopher once said about ‘Racism’s Last Word’). Until we recognise the process through which these options for freedom and identity are opened (or not) in the language of national discourses, we run the risk of not recognising it when some of that we are erased from language, and the world.

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad.