«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
Hogan‘s universalism moves in the opposite direction from that of Marcus; in Hogan‘s view, respect for different cultures is to be gained through universalism, whereas Marcus promotes the view that universal features become visible through the examination of multiple particular sites and their connections.
It would seem that the model of Marcus is closer to Ghosh‘s narration than that of Hogan. Ghosh does not set out to search for universal features, but to construct multiple historical trajectories and connections among them. For him, the clothing (to apply an example used by Hogan) of his characters is certainly socioculturally specific, and he usually describes the garments of his characters, as well as their circumstances of living (e.g. the descriptions of the apartments of the characters in The Calcutta Chromosome examined in section II.4.1.). But the fact that there are so many differing kinds of clothing, of which none are presented as being more significant or neutral than the others, lessens the definitive power of clothing in relation to the characters‘ ethnicity or origin. To the characters in Ghosh‘s novels, ethnic or racial differences, although acknowledged, are of surprisingly little consequence. Ghosh‘s way of narrating multiple histories and the creation of connections where they usually have not been discerned circumvents the traditional postcolonial discourse contemplating racial and ethnic differences. This has been noticed by Ranjita Basu in her article on Ghosh‘s novels: ―It is curious to note that no false note is struck in Ghosh`s delineation of Egyptian or Arabic characters and this is because their emotions and passions are related to their universal humanity rather than to their racial identity‖. She describes this universal dimension as ―a broader, more human context that transcends the boundaries between Indian and foreign‖ (1994, 152-53). In The Circle of Reason, for instance, we only learn towards the end of the novel that Zindi is Egyptian. As Basu points out, ―this knowledge does not help to define her in any way, for Ghosh has already defined her in a broader, more human context that transcends the boundaries between Indian and foreign‖ (1994, 153).
For Ghosh, then, to create connections between various socio-cultural and historical discourses is a deeply humane action that also indirectly constitutes the universal dimension of his narration. What is universal is revealed through ethical connections between various particularities (see the ethically framed discussion on substitution and universalism versus particularism in section III.1.2.). Since there is no straightforward access to these universals, one cannot just adopt a universalist approach; one has, rather, to narrate, often painstakingly, the intertwined histories and socio-cultural circumstances of various groups, to avoid the appropriation of discourses, and to secure for these groups their own agency and voice. The common humane features of mankind are gained through particularism.
As can be seen from the above discussion, the idea of universal experience has expanded considerably from the Western-based concept propounded by Goethe. Similarly, the status of nations has changed dramatically since Goethe‘s times, and trade and communication have multiplied in quantity and speed. Arif Dirlik succinctly lists the typical features of the
global motions of peoples (and, therefore, cultures), the weakening of boundaries (among societies, as well as among social categories), the replication in societies internally of inequalities and discrepancies once associated with colonial differences, simultaneous homogenization and fragmentation within and across societies, the interpenetration of the global and the local (which shows culturally in simultaneous cosmopolitanism and localism of which the most cogent version may be ‗multiculturalism‘), and the disorganization of a world conceived in terms of ‗three worlds‘ or nation-states. (1997, 93) If literature is produced under such circumstances, I think it is fair to say that we now live in the era of global multicultural world literatures. But the question is, are we reaching a cultural synthesis through the merging of literatures, or are we witnessing a dispersal and fracturing of cultures. And what does this ‗multiculturalism‘ mean? Postcolonial theorists such as Homi Bhabha (1994) see multiculturalism as a positive concept and celebrate the border areas of cultural existence as a fertile ground for creating new narrative strategies to account for the new kinds of fragmented ‗hybrid‘ experiences. Marxist theorists warn us against such abstract concepts and claim that multiculturalism is just a new name for marginalization and racism, this time dictated by the late-capitalist mode of production, which depends on globalization, not on colonial expansion. In their opinion, postcolonialism eventually serves to strengthen the ideology it claims to subvert. For this line of argument, see e.g. Edward San
What strikes me as fatal is the repudiation of foundations and objective validity that undermines any move to produce new forms of creative power and resistance against global inequalities and oppression. Hybridised, heterogeneous and discrepant lifestyles, local knowledges, cyborgs, borderland scripts - such slogans tend to obfuscate the power of the transnational ideology and practise of consumerism and its dehumanizing effects. Postcolonial discourse generated in "First World" academies turns out to be one more product of flexible, post-Fordist capitalism, not its antithesis. (1998, 8) San Juan further characterizes globalization as "a recently retooled program of universal commodification, imperialism for the twenty-first century." (1998, 198). Dirlik, in turn, criticizes postcolonial theory for its abstract concepts and accuses it of rendering "into problems of subjectivity and epistemology concrete and material problems of the everyday world" (1997, 76).
He sees multiculturalism as a trick performed by global capitalism to include within its sphere areas that might otherwise turn against it.
The globalization discussion seems to indicate that there are elements of both homogenization (especially the political and economic levels) as well as diversity and tension (especially the cultural level) present in this new ‗global village‘.11 As Doris Bachmann-Medick has noted in her study on intercultural communication, it seems that although we may have a relatively free trade zone in our post-national world, this has not resulted in "free cultural trade" of the kind Goethe thought could be achieved through the trans-national concept of world literature (Bachmann-Medick 1996). The directions, or narrative strategies, of this new world literature are varied. There is the alternative of aiming at a peaceful fusion of all difference into some kind of homogenic multicultural experience (Western postcolonialism).
Then there is the option of building discursive barriers to resist this multiculturalization that acts as a smoke-screen for economic exploitation directed from the West (´the Empire writes back‘ type of thinking). Most works naturally end up as something that has elements of both these extremities in them.
During the 1990s, the Marxist branch of postcolonial theory (Aijaz Ahmad, E. San Juan, Dirlik, etc.) gained a prominent position beside the variant based on poststructuralism, which was the leading paradigm during the 1980s and part of the 1990s.
The methods of Marxist theory are more practical and historically informed than those of the often abstract poststructuralist-based postcolonialism. With its emphasis on the movements of capital and work force, and with its insistence on the importance of the historical perspective, Marxist theory is also relevant and methodologically suitable for the examination of the globalization process. On the other hand, traditional postcolonial theory, with its basis on language and discursively constructed realities, is a useful tool for examining questions of power. As I am dealing with literature here, it is quite reasonable to take as a starting point language, and more specifically narration. In reference to the problem of synthesis versus diversification, it can be said that we have one world but several narrative realities that For a good general overview of the globalization discussion, see e.g. King (1991).
inhabit it. These narrations are constructed through language, which carries with it cultural, political and power-related overtones. So, in the end, this seems to be a question of agency and power, of whose voice is heard and whose voice and ideology get to map the world. Those who are conquered, in a military or ideological sense or otherwise, are thrown into silence.
In his writing, Ghosh uses stories to indicate diversity in the social and cultural backgrounds of his characters. By using stories, he also tries to deal with the problem of appropriation. By giving away his narratorial responsibilities, in a way, he tries to give authentic voice to various kinds of people coming from different social classes and cultures. Through their stories, Ghosh tries to avoid appropriation on several levels. One of these is narratorial appropriation. The narrator in Ghosh‘s novels is often from the middle or upper-middle class of Indian society, belonging to the privileged group that has had Westernized education and is fluent in English (like Ghosh himself).
Describing the lower classes from this position in a language they often do not know at all can be seen as an act of appropriation that makes them part of the privileged discourse, both linguistically and ideologically. Ghosh tries to give these people agency and their own point of view by locating them as the narrators of their own stories, instead of relating their lives from a privileged point of view. Consequently, Ghosh‘s attempt at avoiding narratorial appropriation is tantamount to the avoiding of appropriation over class differences.
In his study of Indian English fiction, Tabish Khair (2001) makes a distinction between the privileged and Westernized "babu" class and the "coolie" classes that are lower in the social hierarchy. He has also examined Ghosh‘s use of language in relation to appropriation (Khair 2001, 314-17). He points out that Ghosh does not "stage" the coolie and his/her use of English, or any other language. In other words, Ghosh does not use anything like the Rushdian chutney or Sanskritized English of Raja Rao to represent the language of the coolie, be it Bengali or some form of English. Everything is translated into English grapholect, with an indication in the text of the kind of variety in question.
Vernacular words and Indianisms are used only to explain something or to "fill a gap in the English grapholect" (2001, 316).
As Khair points out, this is a good way of representing the subaltern without "appropriating a sense of authenticity" (2001, 316). Khair‘s reference here is to The Calcutta Chromosome only, but this feature seems to be present in Ghosh‘s other novels too.
If the stories help to maintain and create diversity, Ghosh‘s representation of his characters can be seen as creating common ground, or as moving towards a kind of transcendent unity in his narration. As I have attempted to show, Ghosh circumvents the traditional postcolonial discourse contemplating racial and ethnic differences by narrating his characters on the level of a kind of universal humanity, or experience. As will be seen later, the relationship between diversity and wholeness, or particularity and universality, in Ghosh‘s writing is quite complicated. Suffice it to say here, that in these days of discursively constructed realities, and of discourse as power, the delineation of this kind of transcendent ethical universal experience connecting people may appear to be out of place. But this is exactly how Ghosh seems to want it. He does not remain tied up only with the constructionist discursive epistemology, because this would mean conforming to the hegemonic Western way of narrating, or constructing, the world.
The stories narrated, or focalized, through individual characters in Ghosh‘s novels, although not superfluous to the narrative as a whole, often appear as distinct from the main stream of narration, and their contents represent the world of the character through which they are focalized. As indicated, the stories also have to do with agency. In The Circle of Reason, narration creates the world, makes it real, even corporeal. This implies that by changing the narrative, the narrator changes the world. To use one of Ghosh‘s favourite expressions, already encountered in the introduction to The Glass Palace, a change in a narrative is like the potter‘s thumb on the malleable clay whirling on the wheel. The Circle of Reason, then, concentrates on the importance of narration and the power of language to signify and to create alternative realities. The reference to clay also marks the material, corporeal and substantial nature of these narratively constructed realities (The Circle of Reason 212-213). Silence, apart from the fact that it is a feature of Alu‘s character, does not play a significant role in the novel. There is, however, one scene where narration and silence are presented as parts of the same communicative process (this is a scene I shall be returning to several times). Uncharacteristically, Alu has begun to talk. He sits at the loom, weaves ferociously and speaks in a strange mixture of languages. The usually talkative group of people gathers around him to listen in silence (The Circle of Reason 279).
Amazingly, people in this multi-lingual crowd seem to answer him through their individual silences. The scene is typical of the magic-realist spirit of the novel, but it also has relevance to Ghosh‘s theme of diversity in one - this is an example of all the languages in one.12 This kind of mixture would also do away with the problems of agency and appropriation. It raises a question that has relevance to Ghosh‘s later writing: what is the nature of silence - is it the opposite of speech and narration, or does it have communicative potential? I will come back to this question later.
While it is not significantly thematised in In an Antique Land, in Ghosh‘s fourth novel, The Calcutta Chromosome, silence is given a prominent role. The theme of diversity in one is present once again, this time for instance in the form of the heterogeneous congregation dedicated to the goddess of Silence.