«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
I have already referred to Black and her excellent analysis of Ghosh‘s novels (see section II.5. and the beginning of section III.1.). Black discerns in Ghosh‘s fiction ―inceasingly radical textual sacrifices‖ (2010, 16) that appear necessary for imaginative border crossing. This foregrounds the ethical problem of representing linguistic difference. It is necessary to find a solution to the problem of ethically narrating the translingual, multilingual and (certainly in the case of Ghosh) even extra- or antilingual experiences in the English language. In Black‘s view, Ghosh‘s treatment of English in The Glass Palace makes the language ―renounce elements of its own aesthetic privilege‖ (17) in an attempt to accommodate different forms of expression.13 Renouncing obvious markers of linguistic variation, such as dialect and style (still carefully crafted and pointed out in The Calcutta Chromosome) this novel ―flattens the sonic dimension of English to create a tone that different readers are meant to hear differently‖ (17). I agree with Black on this point, and I am also on the same lines with her on The Hungry Tide, as can be inferred from my article on it. I therefore share Black‘s contention that ―the radicalism of this approach deepens in The Hungry Tide, which produces expansive crowded selves and styles to embrace the significant linguistic otherness of hyperverbal translation and nonhuman communication‖ (17). Black concludes her treatment
of Ghosh as follows:
As Ghosh‘s writing asks how fiction in English might accommodate the multiplicity of multilingual and antilingual experience, it copes with the borders between Black (2010, 167) connects Ghosh‘s preoccupation with new practises of textuality with a larger trend of experimenting with the relationship between linguistic form and social difference she discerns within the twenty-five-year span she examines in her book (1980-2005). She mentions novels such as The Bone People (1983) by Keri Hulme, Kafka’s Curse (1997) by Achmat Dangor and Londonstani (2006) by Gautam Malkani as texts occupied with the various ways of depicting socially explicit usages of the English language. Especially Hulme comes close to Ghosh in her delineation of silence and visual arts as forms of representation. Of course, the ‗chutneyed‘ English of Rushdie‘s Midnight’s Children (1981), and the ‘sanskritized‘ English of Raja Rao from earlier decades also come to mind here.
languages by divesting English of exclusive aesthetic privilege. The flattened language of The Glass Palace eschews the hierarchies of dialect, favouring instead the visual techniques of modernist photography, and the crowded selves of The Hungry Tide forge a compromise between the utopianism of the unspoken and the fallible speech of translation. These aesthetic renunciations, paradoxically, expand the capacity of English to represent non-English worlds of experience. They testify to possible strategies for lives lived across the borders of language.
(2010, 199) The Hungry Tide, which among Ghosh‘s novels has received the largest amount of substantial ethical criticism, has been approached from this angle also by Terri Tomsky, whose interpretation of the characters of Kanai and Piya as well as their relationship is strikingly close to mine (see the article in IV.6.).
But Tomsky also examines the way the characters of Nirmal and Nilima in the novel can be ethically approached through Edward Said‘s concept of ―anxious witnessing‖ (Said 2000, xxi), originally conceived as denoting the relationship of the writer to his/her community. Anxious witnessing is in Tomsky‘s view inseparable from ethical inquiry as it brings the creative vision of the displaced (or exiled) writer together with the ethical obligation of the intellectual (58). Consequently, Tomsky foregrounds anxious witnessing as ―a useful hermeneutic for understanding the model for ethical action advanced by Ghosh‖ (Tomsky 2009, 54). She further maintains that Ghosh, like Said, ―recognizes that ethical intervention is only effective when accompanied by the economic agency of the transnational bourgeoisie.‖ In her view, anxious witnessing ―collapses into modes of melancholia and incapacity without financial mobilization‖ (54), thereby emphasizing the importance of this cosmopolitan component. However, Tomsky is observant enough to recognize that Ghosh‘s ethics also comes through as ―a meditation on the transformative power of close human relationships‖, which I highlight in my article and which Tomsky characterizes as having an effect on the political actions (cf. Nilima) and philosophical interests (cf. Nirmal) of the characters. Tomsky also brings the concept of the affect à la Sara Ahmed (2000) to bear on her interpretation of the novel.
As I have endeavoured to establish, the writing of Ghosh is affiliated both with postmodernism and liberal humanism. In general, the criticism written on his works tends to adopt one of the following four stances in relation to this ambivalence: the avoidance of both postmodernism and humanism (eg. Dixon 1996), affiliation with both (eg. Mondal 2007), or seeing his writing as primarily humanist (eg. Viswanathan 1996) or postmodernist (eg. Kaul 1995). In addition to his own argument, Mondal offers an apt discussion on the views of the other three scholars mentioned above (Mondal 2007, 169-172). The presence of both postmodern and humanist sentiments in Ghosh‘s output is quite evident and, as will be shown in the next sub-section, this duplicity does not indicate an escape from both realms by avoiding affiliation with either, as Dixon would have it. On the contrary, it ―denotes a strategic commitment to both‖ (Mondal 2007, 171; original emphasis). Ghosh‘s texts cannot be defined solely as postmodern or humanist without eclipsing a significant amount of important material in them. His texts weave together elements of both ideologies for certain purposes. The articles in this dissertation chart the historical and cultural contexts of this ambivalent approach, while trying to establish the goals of the ensuing ideological texture.
As Mondal (2007, 171) observes, although Ghosh‘s writings have been explored thoroughly from theoretically and politically informed angles, their political status and viability have largely been left unresolved. Of the four above mentioned critics, Viswanathan, Kaul and Dixon respectively maintain that Ghosh either fails to consider political problems in his forced humanist syncretism (In an Antique Land), proposes the use of amorphous imagination that has no consequences on material reality (The Shadow Lines), or lets his text flow free of any affiliation, be that humanist or postmodernist. The central thesis proposed by Mondal is that Ghosh has a strategic commitment to both humanism and postmodernism, and that this explains the ambivalent attitude that his texts reveal towards both. My own stance in this respect has been explicated in the articles and will be returned to in these concluding remarks, but suffice it to mention here that I am closest to Mondal on this issue. But a caveat is in order: with Ghosh, it is only safe to say that his narratives are equally preoccupied with matters pertaining to both liberal humanism and postmodernism, not so much with these two as theoretical disciplines or sets of methodological tools. Ghosh the writer of fiction is not to be confused with Ghosh the academic.
In addition to the concern about the political implications of Ghosh‘s writing expressed by several critics, the matter of gender in Ghosh‘s output merits a mention since it has clearly been neglected by critics in the subcontinent and the West alike. This is commented on by Mondal, who briefly discusses the representation of gender in Ghosh‘s novels (2007, 165-169). In addition to Mondal, texts on Ghosh that specifically take up gender include those by Nagesh Rao on cosmopolitanism, class and gender in The Shadow Lines; Suchitra Mathur on third-world women and the politics of science, that includes The Calcutta Chromosome as one of three examples on its theme; and Shameem Black (2006) on The Shadow Lines. This dissertation does not concentrate on questions of gender in any detail. But it is worth noting that Ghosh‘s narratives are mindful of gender and that the significance of gender in his output has been on the increase.
As I have attempted to establish, Ghosh‘s works resonate strongly with the history of the assimilation and/or refutation of Western ideas (be they modernist or postmodernist) in India and especially in the Bengali tradition from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The ambivalence inherent in this tradition between the initially successful creation of cultural/political strategies for facing colonialism and the resulting defeat in the form of the failure of the construction of a politically functional Indian nationalism comes through in Ghosh‘s writing. What creates the more positive dimension of his fiction is the outlining of strategies for transcending or avoiding the boundaries set by modernist knowledge production strategies and the political systems based on them.
The representational strategies developed by Ghosh advocate the establishment of connections through ethical principles, which help to avoid the pitfalls lurking in the mechanisms of an unguarded discursive representation of the other. Ghosh explores the colonial and post-colonial situation through an amalgamation of postmodernism (politics of difference) and humanism (ethics of connections). As I clarified in section III.2., both humanism and postmodernism are an integral part of the ideological history of India. As I shall attempt to show in the following section, in Ghosh‘s writing this ideological fusion comprises an ethical project not indicative of political failure, or a failure to cope with political discourses. It is, rather, representative of the simultaneous representation of both ethical and political dimensions of human existence.
V.2. From ethics to politics – political viability in the writing of Amitav Ghosh As I mentioned above, certain critics (especially Viswanathan and Kaul) of Ghosh‘s writing have dismissed his work on the grounds that it is incapable of taking political responsibility and/or confronting political realities. Presumably, this dismissal is motivated by a certain kind of ‗activist‘ conception of what constitutes political behaviour or responsibility. This conception presupposes that politics automatically involves action and that a discourse is politically significant ―to the extent that it can be acted upon‖ (Mondal 2007, 172). Politics would then require choices that make for a certain course of action. Ghosh‘s ambivalence, his concentration on both the ethics of connections and the politics of discourse and difference causes a problem in this respect, because he seems to be espousing two political positions, making two choices at once. Mondal connects this ambivalence with Ghosh‘s dislike of binary models evident, as I have shown in the article in IV.1., right from The Circle of Reason.
Mondal claims that Ghosh chooses to pick both stances: he chooses not to make a choice based on a binary model. According to the ‗standard‘ view, in politics people cannot follow two allegedly opposing courses of action simultaneously. Ghosh‘s model remains open-ended when examined from those premises.
Mondal‘s explanation concerning Ghosh‘s two-dimensional representational strategy, or as he characterizes it, Ghosh‘s ―politics of ambivalence‖ (2007, 173), is quite close to the interpretation I proposed in the introductory sub-section on ethics and language in Ghosh (III.1.2.) and later in the articles. In Mondal‘s view, postcolonial circumstances are best met with such an ambivalent political attitude, because they demand two registers: one that acknowledges the metaphysic of modernity, its institutions and its governing ensembles of knowledge such as the state, citizenship, equality, social science and the rule of law etc.; and, on the other hand, another register which exceeds and resists that metaphysic because it does not observe the forms of rationality that inhere in the emancipatory projects of modernity. Indeed, this politics recognises that those projects involve an epistemic violence against other ways of thinking and being in the world – hence the strategic value of alignment with postmodernism – whilst also acknowledging the importance of modernity‘s universal frameworks in any struggle to establish social justice on a global scale. (2007, 173) I have referred to this ambivalence on several occasions (e.g. subsection III.1.2.; the articles in IV.4. & IV.5.), but shall repeat the main purpose behind these two registers again here. It seems that Ghosh is above all attempting to create narrative representations that establish connections across totalities constructed by modernist discourses. He does this by narrating into existence ethical relationships ensuring agency and voice to all while avoiding the appropriation of these voices to any one discourse.
This is achieved by juxtaposing representative strategies and deconstructing the hegemonic position of certain versions. The transcending of borders inevitably requires a certain emphasis on difference, as well as an awareness of realities as discursive constructions in the poststructuralist vein. In a sense, Ghosh has to play the postmodernist games of textuality and of ‗discourse as power‘ in order to deconstruct modernist totalities and to be able to avoid discursive appropriation and abstract homogenizing of heterogeneous groups. But this recognition of difference is effected on the basis of ethically conceived relationships that transcend the discursive totalities created by representations.
As Mondal acknowledges, Ghosh‘s choice of both these registers proposes a commitment to ethical problems involved in the encounter with the other. And this two-dimensional representation refuses ―the subordination of the ethical to the political, the means to the ends, theory to practise, and deliberation to action,‖ all of which are set up by the ‗activist‘ branch of politics in the form of oppositions that bring forth a certain kind of concept of politics (Mondal 2007, 173). Ghosh‘s political ambivalence opens a way to the ethical negotiation of cultural difference that would be blocked by political activism, which is set on achieving ends at the cost of exploring the means.