«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
To sum up, then, it would seem that at the level of narrative strategy Ghosh has found fresh ways of representing the global multicultural societies and experiences. His refusal to foreground nationality, ethnicity and race (even class) as the principal definitive features of fictional characters, and his search for a way to represent different social groups that ensures their authentic voice and agency seem to be particularly good methods for the new world literatures to reduce the clash between cultures and, conversely, to avoid homogenization in their representation of multiculturalism. Furthermore, his project of narrating silences produced by nationalistic discourse, or the discourse of Western historiography, has acute cultural and political relevance in the context of many areas of the world that have so far been presented only as parts of ‗grander‘ narratives. And, at an epistemological level, he is trying to find a way of escaping the realm of the hegemonic Western mode of being and narrating the world. It seems that one of the possible ways he has found to circumvent this powerful and deeply rooted ‗way of knowing‘ is to turn to silence as a means of achieving realities that exist outside the hegemonic narration and epistemology.
Silence has traditionally been considered as the absence, or failure, of agency in literary criticism. But when the difference between being silent and being silenced was foregrounded, silence began to be presented as a site of resistance. It was considered discursive and agential; it had communicative potential. The voluntary silence, the ―will to unsay‖ (Duncan 2001, 28-30), became prominent as a subversive act, a token of resistance towards hegemonic discourses. In a literary text, the unspoken was seen as having ―the potential for decoding that which is hidden by and from the dominant discourse‖ (Huttunen et al 2008, xv). Conceived as a textual site that has the potential to create alternative meanings, this performatively functioning silence needed a reading strategy of its own. (Huttunen et al 2008, xv). But, as should be evident from the above discussion of silence in the narration of Ghosh, this view of silence as discursive does not entirely exhaust the significance that silence has in the narratives under examination here.
For Ghosh, silence ultimately has an ethical function, which basically posits silence beyond, or outside, discourse. Silence in Ghosh‘s narration comes through as ethical rather than discursive. For instance, the silent group in The Calcutta Chromosome functions beyond discursive knowledge. If its silence were discursive, it would already have been defined by the discursive methods of meaning production. The group is not straightforwardly defined in the novel, which in a way remains on the shadowy line between defining and remaining silent about it. The fact that it is symbolized by a clay figurine also highlights the non-discursive character of the group, which is represented through an image instead of language. Of course, the outside of language cannot be reached by using language, but it can be approached, or staged and hinted at, to the extent this is possible.
In the hands of Ghosh, the novel has a meta-discursive function, as it blends the discursive methods of sciences and literary genres. The idea of a non-discursive narration, although a contradiction in terms, maybe possible to attain by readers through the use of the ‗precise imagination‘ put forward by Radhakrishnan in his study of The Shadow Lines.
IV. The Articles
The following articles revolve around the simultaneous presence of modernist and postmodernist discourses in Ghosh‘s fiction, while concentrating on specific themes raised in the six novels.
The articles are arranged in the order in which the novels were published, and so they also offer a sense of how Ghosh‘s writing techniques have changed through time. The deconstruction and subsequent reassembly of discourses in unexpected forms is Ghosh‘s strategic methodology. The resulting narratives, I shall argue, are ethically informed: they break discursive totalities and refuse to allow the other to be subordinated by the self.
The first article, on The Circle of Reason (IV.1.), examines how the dismantling of the modernist epistemology based on binary constructions enables the construction of ethical connections. In this article, I argue that the novel represents the coming together of ethics and politics in its deconstruction and reassembly of the poles of modernist binaries. I also argue for the use of Spivakian ‗strategic essentialism‘ as a viable ethicopolitical alternative for the construction of subaltern subjectivities.
The second article is on The Shadow Lines (IV.2.). It concentrates on the importance of imagination and narration in the construction of personal versions of events. It examines the way narration weaves together hegemonic ‗given‘ versions of events with imaginative personal narrative constructions. I argue that Ghosh‘s suspicion about the capacity of language to ultimately represent emotions or the other comes through in this novel for the first time. I further argue that relationships based on love and desire, which are central themes in the narrative, are ethically constructed in the novel.
The next article, written on In an Antique Land (IV.3.), looks at the manner in which Ghosh delineates the encounter between different cultures and ideologies while examining his way of juxtaposing and amalgamating established discourses. I present the novel as a representative of the simultaneous provincialization of European history and re-moulding of traditional ethnography, following the ideas of Dipesh Chakrabarty and George Marcus, respectively. I argue that there is in the novel an awareness of other people‘s realities not only as other histories but also as other knowledges, towards which we have to remain open so that genuine transcultural reading may become possible. This openness to other knowledges also comprises an ethically noteworthy narrative principle.
The fourth article (IV.4.) takes as its object of investigation The Calcutta Chromosome. It examines the ethical outcome of the merger of universal humanism and postmodernist textuality through the themes of silence and knowledge. I argue that, in the novel, silence represents the ethical dimension beyond discourse and language, while knowledge is indicative of discursive totalities. I aim to show that the narration in this novel proceeds though the principles of both deconstruction and ethics. I also argue that the narrative uses image/vision as a tool of representation for the ethical, while language, discourse and knowledge point towards the closed and eclipsing totalities of Western discourses, and of the traditional self.
The fifth article on The Glass Palace (IV.5.) sheds light on Ghosh‘s method of setting different ideologies against each other both on the content level and as regards the discourses used to narrate this content. The novel proceeds through discussions, which, I argue, form an ethical way of representing interhuman relationships. I further argue that here, as in the previous novel, image and vision are chosen as metaphors for the ethically informed representation, this time in the form of photographs and photography.
The last article (IV.6.) covers The Hungry Tide and seeks to clarify Ghosh‘s views on language as the communicative medium for the encounter with the other human being, and with animals and nature. I argue that there is a heightened awareness of the inability of language to represent the encounter with the other in the novel. Again, I argue that a form of vision is used to signify ethical understanding in the narrative. All in all, I further argue, the novel depicts animals as being more in tune with themselves and the world than humans, who are inhibited by a deceiving bag of tricks: language as a communicative apparatus.
V. Concluding Remarks
The above articles approach Ghosh‘s novels simultaneously from the viewpoints of humanism and poststructralism, or ethical humanism and political postmodernism. Poststructuralist tenets are applied to the deconstruction of discursive totalities, and humanist ethics is laid as the ground on which new, ethically constructed, relationships are built. Beyond claimig that the novels form ethico-political wholes, the articles do not, however, comment on the political implications of the merging of the two in any significant detail. It is my contention, however, that the coming together of ethics and politics in Ghosh‘s writing has interesting effects on how human societies could be constructed and on what principles they might function. It is precisely on this point that a certain kind of dubiety, or uncertainty, concerning the political implications of Ghosh‘s narratives seems to surface when the criticism on his works is examined as a whole. The final subsection of this dissertation provides an explanation for this uncertainty by explicating how the narrative strategies of Ghosh function in relationship to politics. There I shall examine his writing with a view to the passage, or move, from ethics to politics in Levinasian ethics.
In order to situate this study within the field of criticism on Ghosh, the first part of the following final section provides a short general overview of the critical reception of Ghosh‘s novels.
I shall not comment on the schools of thought that have surfaced on the Subcontinent, especially around the The Shadow Lines. The purpose is rather to chart the main lines of argument in international criticism on his works in order to evaluate the potential impact and relevance of my findings in the articles.
V.1. Critical overview
The criticism written on Ghosh clearly establishes him as one of the most prominent in his generation of Indian writers in English (see e.g. John Thieme‘s excellent writings on Ghosh). Although Ghosh‘s writing does not define them in any obvious ways, it nonetheless deals with many of the urgent political and theoretical issues of the contemporary academic world. Ghosh himself does not acknowledge an affiliation to postcolonial theory, or at least to its poststructuralist variant propounded by such theorists as Homi Bhabha. Nevertheless, he examines issues that form the area of interest of postcolonial theorists and critics.
It is evident that he explores the colonial and postcolonial themes and eras, but not from the viewpoint of the various sub-branches of postcolonial theory.
On the other hand, Ghosh does consider Indian writing in
English to be an apt characterization of his work:
I think of myself as an Indian writer in the first instance. By this I mean that my work has its roots in the experience of the people of the Indian sub-continent, at home and abroad.
I think I would be uncomfortable with any categorization of my work that did not acknowledge this. In this sense 'Indian writing in English' seems to me to be a perfectly acceptable categorization of my work. (Ghosh in Dougal 2001) Possibly due to his endeavours in the university world, it was precisely within academic circles that his work was first acknowledged as a prominent voice in the Indian writing in English. As Mondal observes (2007, 164), the publication of The Shadow Lines coincided with academic interest in the interrogation of nationalism and national identity, which were fast developing into a major concern within postcolonial criticism. In an Antique Land finally made apparent Ghosh‘s intellectual preoccupations, which, incidentally, largely overlapped with those of this new generation of critics. Ghosh came across as a writer ―whose innovative textual experiments offered new insights and openings into the cluster of conceptual and theoretical concepts that had been developed to describe, analyse and interpret the complex of colonial and postcolonial relations‖ (Mondal 2007, 164).
The first really important and influential piece of criticism on Ghosh‘s writing was probably by Dixon in 1996. I have referred to this article in many of my own articles. Another important and more substantial endeavour came from Tabish Khair in the form of a chapter on The Calcutta Chromosome in his published PhD in 2001. The two very different monographs on Ghosh by Mondal (2007) and John C. Hawley (2005) were an important addition to a body of edited volumes that has been growing especially in the Indian subcontinent. There have been unpublished dissertations, parts of which have found their way to various journals. Some of the most notable journal publications in this line come from Claire Chambers, specifically on The Circle of Reason and The Calcutta Chromosome. In general, criticism on Ghosh within Western academia has concentrated on In an Antique Land and The Calcutta Chromosome, whereas the criticism stemming from the Indian subcontinent has found its main target in The Shadow Lines and its preoccupations with nationalism.
Decidedly ethical criticism on Ghosh‘s novels worth mentioning here has been provided among others by Black (2010) on The Glass Palace and The Hungry Tide and Kumar (2008) on The Shadow Lines and In an Antique Land. Kumar juxtaposes In an Antique Land with Rushdie‘s The Moor’s Last Sigh praising both for their successful imaginings of a more ―inclusive and hospitable world‖, and congratulating Ghosh for his transnational cosmopolitanism that calls into question ―the post-Partition binaries of ―Indian‖ and ―Pakistani‖‖ (xxiv). She draws attention to Rushdie‘s version of cosmopolitanism and its tendency to dissolve differences altogether in its desire for a borderless world.
Paradoxically, Rushdie in Kumar‘s view also manifests an inability to move beyond the idea of modernist nation-state. In this vein, Ghosh in her view ―offers a more complex account of the intermeshing of religions and cultures, one that is not limited by, and indeed exceeds the bounds of, the nation-state‖ (2008, xxiv). Kumar further maintains that Rushdie fails to do away with fundamentalist and regressive lexicons in his representations of religion, while Ghosh appears unable to selfreflectively question the secular universalist position of his narrator. The Shadow Lines is examined by Kumar in juxtaposition with Looking through Glass by Mukul Kesavan, highlighting the radically defamiliarized version of Partition created by the two novels.