«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
This would be the experience of the ultimate truth that has not been changed through knowing, in other words by the meanings carried by language. This would also be an ethical experience.
The ultimate truth in the novel belongs to the realm of the ethical, transcending the divisions created by various linguistic totalities.
A similar response to the problematics of silence and knowing can be found in The Circle of Reason. The scene in which the protagonist, Alu, speaks to a crowd of people in a "turmoil of languages" features an instance of communication which
transcends the claim to knowledge by a specific language:
It was like a question, though he was not asking anything, bearing down on you from every side. And in that whole huge crowd nobody stirred or spoke.
You could see that silently they were answering him, matching him with something of their own. […] Tongues unraveled and woven together – nonsense, you say, tongues unraveled are nothing but nonsense – but there again you have a mystery, for everyone understood him, perfectly […] They understood him, for his voice was only the question; the answers were their own. (The Circle of Reason 279) This mixture of languages does not introduce to the listeners any particular ideology or claim to power in the way a specific language would. It does not ‗know‘, it does not provide a definitive answer. It signifies only the ethical approach towards each ‗other‘ in the group in the form of a question, to which everyone can have their own response. Therefore, it speaks to everyone, regardless of class or language, without treating them as a homogeneous group. As Phulboni says in The Calcutta Chromosome, although this is the world of silence, it is animate, it has a spirit and voice. Consequently, the crowd is capable of answering Alu through silence.
In In an Antique Land, the problematics of knowing the other is approached from the point of view of ethnography. In the novel, the Egyptian villagers, who would normally constitute the target of a traditional ethnographic study, are transformed from passive objects of traditional ethnographic representation and knowledge into active agents/characters with a historical trajectory of their own, while the ethnographer/narrator turns into an object of inquiry. This does not signify a mere change of roles, but creates a two dimensional relationship, which comes through for instance in the following scene with the narrator and
one of the villagers, Nabeel:
[…] It was the first time anyone in Lataifa or Nashawy had attempted an enterprise similar to mine – to enter my imagination and look at my situation as it might appear to me. (In an Antique Land 152) Radhakrishnan, who, like Ghosh, is engaged in a project of dismantling the hegemonic position of a Western-originated discourse (the discourse of postmodernism, in his case), maintains that for genuine transcultural readings to become possible, other realities will have to be "recognized not merely as other histories but as other knowledges." (2000, 58; orig. emphasis) To transcend the incommensurability in worldviews, the participants would have to imagine their own "discursiveepistemic space[s] as a form of openness to one another‘s persuasion" (2000, 61). As can be seen in the above quotation from the novel, the narrator‘s encounters with the villagers constitute this kind of openness through a two-directional act of knowing, a moment of contact between two active participants similar to the idea of the simultaneous discovery in The Calcutta Chromosome. One cannot simply observe the world by either
trying to know it, or by trying to know oneself by looking at it:
the world, or the other, looks back at one at the same time.
Consequently, the other is not merely an inert object to be appropriated to the ethnographer's own discourse by ‗knowing‘ it, or to be used for purposes of self-definition: it is active and looks back at the observer.
The connections Ghosh creates in his novels are primarily those eclipsed by the universalized knowledge-production strategies of Western ideologies and sciences (especially history and social sciences). Even if the present-day cross-cultural communication in the narrative proves to be nearly impossible without these universals, In an Antique Land does succeed in piercing through them and revealing other epistemologies by dissolving and transforming the traditional methods of knowledge production in history and ethnography. Ghosh‘s strategy of representation in the novel is almost identical to the program of "modernist" ethnography delineated by the
ethnographer George E. Marcus and shortly introduced in theintroduction:
Far from ignoring "objective conditions" such as processes of coercion, the play of interests, and class formation, the focus of modernist ethnography on the experiential and access to it through language in context is direct engagement with and exploration of such conditions – without, however, the usual obeisances to the given social scientific frameworks for their discussion. […] But while modernist ethnography operates fully cognizant of the history of the political and economic circumstances in which identities have been formed, it is not built explicitly around the trope of power, but rather of ethics, that is, the complex moral relationship of the observer to the observed, of the relevance of the observed's situation to the situation of the observer's own society, and ultimately the exploration of the critical purpose of contemporary ethnographic analysis.
(1998, 75) It would seem that the significance of ethically tinged representation based on the relationships and connections between people as both observers and those observed lies in "the possibility of changing the terms in which we think objectively and conventionally about power," to use the words of Marcus (1998, 75).
But despite references to an ethical dimension exceeding the abilities of the traditional intentional subject or existing beyond language and discourse, novels are, obviously, very much narration and language. Even though Ghosh has constructed his novels in a manner that tries to preserve the alterity and independence of the other insofar as this is possible, he remains inside language. Especially in In an Antique Land and The Calcutta Chromosome, the choice of what to narrate and how is strongly reminiscent of Derridean deconstruction, which is aimed at opening a certain text up to the blind spots or ellipses within it.
In the latter novel, the dominant interpretation to be deconstructed is that of the history of Malaria research and the breakthrough in it achieved by Ronald Ross. In line with deconstruction, the novel repeats this dominant version through a detailed commentary in the form of Murugan‘s accounts of the official version of this intertwined colonial and medical history and simultaneously opens it up with the narrative of the silent group manoeuvring the whole thing. In an Antique Land deconstructs the representational strategies of the sciences of ethnography and historiography with fictive literary narration to produce a narrative that opens up new ways of realizing the contemporary situation of globalization and multiculturalism.
Ideally, deconstruction aims at a reading which is neither a commentary nor an interpretation. It is meant to open up a textual space that is ‗other‘ to commentary and interpretation, by this means creating distance to logocentric conceptuality. A deconstructive reading of a text exceeds the totality of the dominant version. Seen in this way, the goal of deconstruction is to locate a point of otherness within logocentric conceptuality and then to deconstruct this conceptuality from that point of otherness (Critchley 1999, 20-31).
The above characterization of deconstruction comes quite close to what Levinas aims at in his self-other relationship: in his model the other remains an undefinable alterity interrupting the totality of the same. Levinas differs from Derrida in that for Levinas the other exists ultimately beyond discourse. Derrida‘s model, although resistant to the language of logocentrism and traditional philosophy, is decidedly about texts and discourse.
The Calcutta Chromosome as a whole represents the coming together of ethics and deconstruction: in it the dominant version of the history of malaria research is deconstructed from a point of alterity (Mangala‘s subaltern group), which resists definition or interpretation by remaining secret and silent outside of discourse.
The novel is highly remisniscent of Critchley‘s delineation of clôtural reading. Critchley is here outlining a manner of
interpretation which would combine deconstruction and ethics:
Clôtural reading articulates the ethical interruption of ontological closure, thereby disrupting the text‘s claims to comprehensive unity and self-understanding, a procedure which [...] extends all the way to a reading of Derrida‘s and Levinas‘s texts. A clôtural reading of a text would consist, first, on a patient and scholarly commentary following the main lines of the text‘s dominant interpretation, and second, in locating an interruption or alterity within that dominant interpretation where reading discovers insights within a text to which that text is blind. My governing claim is that these insights, interruptions, or alterities are moments of ethical transcendence, in which a necessity other than that of ontology announces itself within the reading, an event in which the ethical Saying of a text overrides its ontological Said. (Critchley 1999, 30) Consequently, instead of producing a tension or vacillation between each other in the novel (or within Critchley‘s concept of clôtural reading), Levinasian ethics and Derridean deconstruction seem to support each other in their goals of disrupting and transcending discursive totalities, be they those of the self or those of logocentric narratives.
As a waypoint, it should by now be clear that Ghosh is engaged in a project which raises our awareness of alternative ways of constructing the world based on ethical connections that dismantle the traditional binary constructions of Western modernity. As I stated in the introduction, the primary purpose of this dissertation as a whole is to examine Ghosh‘s ethically informed techniques for transcending the borders between various discursive totalities. The articles in section IV break down this larger question by examining the ways in which Ghosh represents the encounter with the other, be that a person, a discourse, a literary genre or an animal. On the other hand, the articles form a whole by approaching the main research question of the dissertation from slightly different angles that are dictated by the thematic emphases of each novel.
Levinas‘s meta-ethics and poststructuralist deconstruction are both highly abstract theoretical constructions. In this dissertation, they are placed in the context of Ghosh‘s narratives, to show how fiction and ethico-political theory can explicate and back up one another and set examples for how we conceive of the world. Although the relationship and possible bias between the personal and socio-political within theories of the ethical is in dispute, all parties agree on the fact that the only space where the personal ethical action is conceivable is the social space of being with other/s. The defining of ethical action demands that it be contextualized in specific socio-cultural and political circumstances. The following section ties Ghosh‘s output into the intellectual climate of the Subcontinent through examining the coming together of modernist and postmodernist ideas in the cultural and political history of India.
III.2. Modernism, postmodernism and the idea of India
In the West, the concepts of rationality, knowledge and truth that were developed during the Enlightenment period became the building blocks of the metaphysic of modernity. The ideology of modernity is heavily dependent on binary constructions (e.g.
science/religion, or rationality/irrationality). The world is largely conceived through separate opposites divided into two antagonistic poles. Various modernist tenets were also inherent in the colonial project. Later, postmodern ideas were developed with the goal of destabilizing such ways of thinking. As a consequence, the postmodernist dissolution of modernist, separate, individual subjectivity, the dismantling of the ideology based on binaries and the highlighting of the textuality and the representational character of different versions of reality were eagerly adopted by many postcolonial intellectuals as useful tools for deconstructing the colonial legacy. But this does not mean that the ideology of Western originated postmodernism was necessarily assimilated as such. In India, as in many other areas, the process of adopting postmodern ideas is more aptly described as a process of translation, in which the local discourses blend with modernist and postmodernist ways of thinking, producing idiosyncratic amalgamations. In the following, I shall offer an overview of how the process of interweaving modernism, postmodernism and the indigenous discourses of the Bengal area and culture proceeded in India.
One modernist discourse that people in the subcontinent had to assimilate was that of nationalism. Sunil Khilnani (1997) presents the striving for Indian unity mainly through the ideas and influence of two men, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlar Nehru. Their notions of Indian identity and unity were in many respects oppositional. Gandhi refused to separate religion and politics in the secularist manner of the colonial power, and opted for traditional tales and religious legends to find a common basis for Indian identity and unity. He was against Partition as a violation of the common cultural inheritance of the population.
His was an idea of a self-produced unity and an identity free of the problems of the Western mode of history and nationalism, a unity produced on the level of everyday life on the basis of the common inheritance of tradition and legend. The Prime Minister, Nehru, on the other hand, operated on the political level. His idea was to create a common history for India that would present its past as leading through a gradual unification of various cultures towards participation in the universal development of mankind.