«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
The novels and other writing by Ghosh have been granted several major awards and have been nominated or short-listed for even more. He is regarded as one of the most important of the Indian writers in English of the post-Rushdie generations, and in the Bengali tradition within this larger category. His reputation is mainly due to the ambivalent nature of his fiction as both intellectually important and topical, whilst remaining immensely readable for the wider public. He has built a strong profile both as an academic and as a writer of journalism, cultural commentary and fiction. His novels, then, are blockbusters in America and on the Subcontinent, while being eagerly studied by the academia of both continents. The position of Ghosh among the reading public in Britain has not been as strong as within the academia there, but this is likely to change since his latest novel, Sea of Poppies (2008), was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.
This combination of academic viability and popular accessibility is rare and a very important one. It enables Ghosh to sensitively narrate politically and philosophically topical themes for all to read, without appearing to be pedantic or promulgating, and without appearing to endorse any of the views he voices.
Broadly speaking, the themes examined by Ghosh both in
his novels and in his essays and journalism include the following:
the impact of colonial knowledge systems and discourses on formerly colonized people/s, societies and discourses; the ambivalent relationship of the same societies to modernity at large; the restoring of agency and voice to people traditionally regarded as the muted objects of ‗grand,‘ or colonial, narratives;
the (re)construction of histories of the same people and the emphasizing of the heterogeneous nature of various discursive and other constellations. Ghosh has approached these themes in generically very inventive and heterogeneous novels, subversively manipulating literary genres stemming from Western modernity to suit his goal of dismantling discursive constructions that the same modernity stands on.
Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan examines Ghosh‘s writing in his volume, Theory in an Uneven World (2003). I will draw on Radhakrishnan‘s work on several occasions later, as it comes close to my own views on how theory and literary criticism should be written – especially in terms of ethics. In the preface to
his book, Radhakrishnan explicates his idea of theory as follows:
Theory here follows a deeply ethical impulse. Whereas merely historico-political blueprints of progress, development, and techno-globalization can afford to characterize ―unevenness‖ as the hapless shibboleth of ―losers,‖ or justify it as an inevitable result of a worldhistorical and hence unipolar capitalism, an ethically inspired and motivated theory dares to envision cooperations and solidarities across the divide and the asymmetry. (2003, vi-vii) This dissertation focuses on Amitav Ghosh‘s narrative strategies for the ethical representation of co-operation and solidarity across myriad discursive divides and asymmetries in various circumstances. The primary purposes of this dissertation are to clarify how these representational strategies are constructed and how they function. This is done in the hope that such an ethically informed approach to narrative representation might alleviate the problems ensuing from the construction of discursive totalities and power relationships that help to maintain barriers between people/s from different backgrounds.
As will become evident in the articles in this dissertation, the narratives by Ghosh construct epistemologies that transform the poststructuralist idea of language and discourse as power.
They constitute a fictional counterpart to what the ethnographer, George Marcus, describes as an ethical, rather than powerrelated, approach to cultural phenomena (1998, 57-78). Marcus maintains that this kind of approach, though cognizant of discourse as power, ―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‖ (1998, 75). Ghosh‘s novels transform the relationship between self and the other, or observer and observed, into a two-directional act of knowing.
The object of enquiry appears as an active agent who is in a relationship with the observer, instead of being a passive object of scrutiny. Further, the move away from ―structural appropriations of discourse formations‖ to exposing ―the quality of voices by means of meta-linguistic categories (such as narrative, trope, etc.)‖ (Marcus 1998, 66) resembles Ghosh‘s foregrounding of oral stories that are told by his characters.
In addition to examining the representational strategies used to create connections between and within multicultural and multilingual societies and cultures, this dissertation approaches the issues of identity, agency, voice, silence and discursive appropriation in the fiction of Ghosh from an ethical viewpoint.
In general, the articles in section IV are based on the philosophical investigations of Emmanuel Levinas. In Levinas‘s view, the other eludes the cognitive powers of the knowing subject. In other words, the other exists outside the ontology of traditional Western philosophy, which conceives of all being as objects that can be internalized by consciousness or grasped through an adequate representation. The self can only ‗know‘ things by projecting on them through language what it already contains in itself. Knowledge, then, is equal to linguistic appropriation of the object of knowing. Consequently, the other cannot strictly speaking be described in language, but is ultimately unreachable (Levinas 1969). For an introduction on the adaption of Levinas‘s thinking to novels by Ghosh, see III.1.2.
The philosophical ideas of Levinas have their inspiration in the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger on the one hand, and on the religious traditions of Judaism on the other. During the 1930s and 1940s, his work mainly concentrated on the phenomenological concepts of the two aforementioned philosophers, but during the 1950s Levinas rejected phenomenology and turned to writings in the Jewish tradition as the inspiration for his delineation of the relationship between the self and the other. He rejected the ontological basis of the Western philosophy, comparing its way of conceiving of things outside the self to the journeys of Ulysses: the Western self, as Ulysses, journeys far into the strange world outside at considerable risk, but eventually always returns back home, i.e.
back to the self, which is the starting point for the realization of things outside. Against this way of conceiving of the self as both the point of departure and goal of every enterprise, he posits the journey of Abraham, who left for good towards the unknown Promised Land, never to return. Accordingly, Levinas is often seen as standing between two traditions stemming from the cultures of the Greeks and the Jews—Hellenistic and Judaistic.
Levinas‘s method of concentrating on the way the self constructs itself in relationship to the other, and the way in which language and discourse distort the other resonate strongly with literatures that seek to represent the minorities and ‗silenced‘ groups of the world. Therefore, the ideas of Levinas provide fertile ground for literary criticism dedicated to the examination of literatures emanating from conditions of discursive oppression and obfuscation, like for instance postcolonial studies, ethnicminority studies, queer studies, or feminist studies. Literature and criticism concentrating on the representation/examination of multicultural societies brought about by the neo-colonial circumstances created by movements of global capital and people/s can also benefit from Levinas‘s thinking. And, in this particular instance, Levinas‘s thinking can in my opinion be successfully used to explicate how Amitav Ghosh dismantles and re-constructs the discourses rising from Western eras of Enlightenment, colonialism, modernism and postmodernism. The deconstruction of discursive totalities that are built on binary constructions is at the heart of both Levinas‘s and Ghosh‘s project towards the transcending of power-related discursivity.
At this point, it is useful to briefly list certain elementary aspects of Levinas‘s philosophy of the other and the ethical.
These aspects serve as the constitutive basis for his philosophy as a whole. First, Levinas‘s ethics is non-foundational. It does not endeavour to establish a secular, objective and universal morality on comfortable rational foundations. This aspect of his thinking is directed against the ontological foundation of the mainstream Western philosophy. Second, Levinas‘s philosophy does not set forth cognition as the measure for everything that comes into contact with the self. Ethics is not an issue of knowledge: it does not lean on any categories, codes or principles which would exist prior to the ethical relation, in other words prior to the immediate encounter with that which lies outside us. Third, Levinas‘s ethics is non-ontological: it comprises an endeavour to think ‗otherwise than being‘, to quote the title of his second major work ( 1998). The ethical relation is not founded on static essences, identities or wholes that can be found just waiting there outside the self. Fourth, the ethical relation is immediate and singular. It demands responsiveness and responsibility towards what is at hand at any given moment. It thereby calls our attention to the immediate practical present. The self and the other are fluid and their relationship takes on different forms according to the particular circumstances at different moments. And these ethical instances serve to interrupt and inform essentialized linguistic totalities within the domains of the public and the political.
The above tenets do not seem to correlate with what one would customarily connect with the word ‗ethics‘. Indeed, as Colin Davis has stated in his introduction to Levinas‘s thinking, it is difficult to see why Levinas is linked with ethics in the first
His work fulfils none of the conditions by which ethical or meta-ethical philosophy might be recognized. He does not intervene in the classic debates between consequentialists and deontologists; he does not answer the Socratic question ‗How should one achieve happiness?‘ or the Kantian ‗What ought I do?‘ Although he refers to Plato, he does not explicitly engage with the work of other fathers of ethics, such as Aristotle, Kant or Hobbes. He does not provide foundations or rules for morality, nor does he discuss virtue, or rights and duties, and he offers no account of the language and logic of ethical inquiry. (1996, 47) The last item in Davis‘s list is particularly intriguing from the point of view of literary studies. The study of literature is decidedly about language and representation, which in Levinas‘s view cannot reach the ethical dimension of our existence.
However, as will become evident in sections III.1.1. and III.1.2., it seems that especially fiction with its polyphonic and flexible representative strategies is a useful forum for referring to things ethical, by way of staging them, or hinting at them, or showing them without subordinating these objects of scrutiny to too much defining and thereby distorting language. Levinas‘s language in his own writing (especially in Otherwise than Being) ―maintains an ambiguity, or oscillation, between differing registers of language, that ensures the interruption of ontology‖ (Critchley 8). In a similar manner, Ghosh‘s narratives shatter the linguistic totalities of modernity through their differing registers of postructuralism and humanism, maintaining an open-ended ambivalence that both dismantles and re-constructs various totalizing discourses.
The writing of Ghosh, I shall argue throughout this study, can be realized as a practical example of the coming together of deconstruction and Levinasian ethics. I hope to show that the aporia, or gap, between the registers he enacts opens up a dimension of alterity or transcendence that carries ethical significance.
Seen against the background of Levinasian ethics Ghosh‘s narratives imply that in attempting to know the world we simultaneously change it by projecting onto it meanings conveyed by language and narration. In his narratives, the ultimate experience of truth (i.e. the ethical) is often represented by silence, which can never be gained through knowing, i.e.
through language. Silence also represents the gap between the world and the words that are used to narrate it. For instance, in the ‗official‘ histories that were written by the colonizer, much remains unvoiced because colonial narration and ideology does not match the reality of the colonies. On another level, those left outside colonial history find it problematic to describe themselves and their realities through a language that is linked to discursive domination through imperial and neoimperial practise. Amitav Ghosh, who writes in English, tries to find ways for narrating the realities of people who are outside Western ideology through the language of this ideology. He aims at the ethical levelling and subversion of the political and cultural power-relationships carried by language.
Although Ghosh represents the world as socially constructed and creates discursive realities to examine the movements of power, he is also trying to find a way of escaping the realm of discourse controlled by the hegemonic Western mode of knowledge production and its ways of narrating the world. One of the possible ways of circumventing this powerful and deeply rooted ‗way of knowing‘ is to constitute transcendent, ethical realities that cannot be accessed through a specific language and discourse. Therefore, in meeting the other, we should try to remain open and responsive to it, rather than immediately attempting to define it from our own starting points.
Alterity, meaning the unknowable and unreachable nature of the other, cannot be attained, but it can, and must, be approached. In Levinas‘s view, this ethical approaching of the other‘s alterity is our responsibility. The means by which this can be achieved include the use of a kind of ‗imaginative empathy‘ and reciprocity in the encounter with the other.