«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
So many words, so many things. On a loom a beam‘s name changes after every inch. Why? Every nail has a name, every twist of rope, every little eyelet, every twig of bamboo on the heddle. A loom is a dictionaryglossarythesaurus. Why? Words serve no purpose; nothing mechanical. No, it is because the weaver, in making cloth, makes words, too, and trespassing on the territory of the poets gives names to things the eye can‘t see. That is why the loom has given language more words, more metaphor, more idiom than all the world‘s armies of pen-wielders (The Circle of Reason 74) In another instance, the history of weaving is presented as the counter-history of Western history of scientific and technical development and expansion (The Circle of Reason 57-8).
The novel shows how colonial power structures and knowledge production strategies become reproduced and subverted when applied in colonial and post-colonial circumstances. It also features the ways in which subaltern people both escape the grip of the political logic of the modern state and fall prey to it. Further, the narrative brings to the fore the ways in which diasporic and migrant connections escape the same logic. In the end, the novel shows how Reason is made to abandon its hegemonic position in the name of practical everyday concerns in many-cultured human encounters comprising multiple customs and traditions. This happens through the dismantling of the discourses of modernist binary constructions (reason/religion, science/tradition, and so forth). I shall examine this process of the disintegration of linguistic totalities in the article on the novel (IV.1.) Although the novel features many cities and villages from India to Africa, places as such have relatively little significance for the sections featuring oral representations, or stories that come through in Ghosh‘s novels. In one of his essays Ghosh comments on the place-connectedness of the Western novel genre and sets it against such Eastern epics as The Thousand and One Nights, which give more value to story-telling than place: ―In these ways of storytelling, it is the story that gives places their meaning‖ (Ghosh 1998b), he states and compares them with Joyce‘s Dublin or American regionalists like Faulkner, whose works would be inconceivable without their specific locations. It seems that although the novel as a genre always needs a location, in these times of constant and rapid changes of place the story is of equal relevance, or even more important. At least this is so in Ghosh‘s way of writing. In his novels the stories can be freely and fluently adapted to various local circumstances that his texts also need to describe to become narrated as novels. In this way, he juxtaposes the Western novel genre with other ways of storytelling (oral stories, poems etc.). And Ghosh‘s manner of giving weight to the settings of his novels is such that it emphasizes the connections, the relations between places and their interconnectedness, not only the separate or distinct places themselves. His description of place/s, then, can be seen as a strategy for connecting two different ways of representation: the delieation of grand schemes and the depiction of the local and particular.
This representation of location, however, requires a certain kind of dislocation from the writer (in this case, Ghosh himself).
In the following, he refers to the paradox of having to go through
an act of dislocation to be able locate oneself through prose:
To write about one‘s surroundings is anything but natural:
to even perceive one‘s immediate environment one must somehow distance oneself from it; to describe it one must assume a certain posture, a form of address. In other words, to locate oneself through prose, one must begin with an act of dislocation. [...] This then is the peculiar paradox of the novel: those of us who love novels often read them because of the eloquence with which they communicate a ‘sense of place‘.
Yet the truth is that it is the very loss of a lived sense of place that makes their fictional representation possible.
(Ghosh 1998b) The goal of Ghosh seems to be to merge the place-dependent representative model of the novel with the story–dependent models of poems and various types of oral stories. This strategy makes the construction of many-sited novels easier: if a certain place does not dominate a narrative, it becomes possible to narrate for instance the journey of the originally Western scientific idea of purity (symbolized by Pasteur‘s discovery of germs, and the carbolic acid used against them in The Circle of Reason) from an Indian village to an Arabian oil-town and on to the Algerian Sahara. In Ghosh‘s novels, places are significant as the crossing-points of various socio-cultural discourses and historical trajectories, but no original, pure society or place from which these discourses spring can be found in his texts. If something appears to be original and pure (nation, race, religion, identity), the narrative will soon reveal that purity to be an illusion. Of course, the change in the position (or even definition) of ‗place‘ is related to the changing world order. In the contemporary world, places are increasingly inhabited by people from a myriad of national, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, all denominators which have lost much of their place-related definitive power.
The article on The Circle of Reason in section IV examines the way in which the narrative strategy of the novel dismantles the idea of binary constructions that Western modernity is based upon. It looks at the way the novel deconstructs the discursive totalities of Western modernity, while remaining alert to questions of voice and agency, and the way in which the narrative constructs new connections by transcending those based on binary models. Towards the end, the article also introduces the concept of ‗ethical deconstruction,‘ which is meant to offer a two-directional, constructive, way of deconstructing that does not merely dismantle, but builds up something new in the same act. The following sub-section, however, is meant to offer overall insight into Ghosh‘s narrative strategy in general, by way of his first novel.
II.1.1. The end of origins: Ghosh’s history of the present
The title of this subsection contains a veiled reference to Michel Foucault‘s notion of genealogy. In general, the starting points for narration in all of Ghosh‘s novels are quite close to the way in which the genealogical approach functions. In an interview he gave in 1981, Foucault urged people to ―fight against the impoverishment of the relational fabric‖ (1997, 158). The interview was about homosexual relationships, but, in the words of Paul Rabinow, it might be transposable to others, albeit with some imagination and tenacity. The problem, as he [Foucault] saw it, was to create new social forms. Why not imagine new practises (and eventually new forms of law) that were not restricted to individual rights but began from a premise of giving new forms to relational activities? This work is not only ethical, it is also political; but it is politics without a program (Rabinov 1997, 37-8).
As will become evident later, The Circle of Reason (as well as later novels by Ghosh) does attempt to create new forms of relational activities. The tendency of Ghosh‘s writing to move somewhere between the dimension of ethical relationships and the poststructuralist realm emphasizing difference and ‗discourse as power‘ has been commented on by several critics and will form the central area of examination in this dissertation. Parallel with the search for interhuman relationships there is an awareness of the world as a narrative and discursive social construction where knowledge is produced discursively by those versed in the hegemonic language/discourse.
Through the examination of subjects, objects and the relations between them at a particular moment in time (not so much through time), Foucault‘s genealogy is capable of becoming a kind of ‗history of the present.‘ In a similar vein, the narrative strategy in The Circle of Reason is not to examine the intermingling of discursive formations and practices through time, but rather to examine them as existing side by side at a particular moment in time. This breaks the idea of teleological cause-and-effect chains by denying that these phenomena are tied to certain points on a temporal continuum. In the novel we have for instance the ancient market area, the Souq, juxtaposed with the modern part of Al-Ghazira with its shopping centres governed by global capital based on oil.
In contrast with traditional archaeology, genealogy concentrates on particular events rather than world-embracing systems. In the novel, world-embracing systems come into being as the natural off-springs of connections between particular circumstances. But, like archaeology, genealogy remains detached from the individual human intentions expressed within those particular events. Therefore it does not idealize or vindicate anyone, which Foucault saw as an asset compared to more traditional historiography. In the novel, the numerous alternative versions of the same events (for instance the collapse of the shopping centre, The Star) are narrated in a style which is characteristic of the discourse and narrator in question, but at no point does Ghosh prioritise any one of them. It can be said that in a way the narrative adopts a neutral position in relation to these various viewpoints by giving equal space to all of them.
Neutrality in relation to the narrative strategy of the novel would then mean refusing to privilege any of the views that are represented. Genealogy further differs from archaeology in its focus on a much wider area of interaction. It is not restricted to the internal development of specific discourses, but examines the interaction ―between the proponents and the antagonists of any discourse or discursive formation; between discursive formations and their functional milieux‖ (Faubion 1998, 33). In The Circle of
Reason, discourses interact in several functional circumstances:
proponents of the discourses of science, religion, socialism, capitalism, tradition and modernity are described in the settings of an Indian refugee village, an ancient market area (the Souq), a modern oil-town and a village in the Algerian Sahara. And the narration is certainly not restricted to the internal developments of these various discourses. On the contrary, the borders between the discourses vanish and they seem to merge into one another creating new relational fabrics.
Whereas archaeology is capable of explaining historical discontinuities and ruptures only at the expense of historical continuities, Foucault‘s genealogy allows for the depiction of historical processes as neither continuous nor discontinuous, but as ―a multiplicity of timespans that entangle and envelop one another‖ (Foucault 1998, 430). In the words of Faubion (1998, 33), it allows one ―to conceive of history as a plurality of encounters and temporalities.‖ As will be seen in section II.2., this comes to the fore most clearly in Ghosh‘s second novel, The Shadow Lines (1988). The Circle of Reason comments on the continuity of historical processes, for instance, in a scene where Bhudeb Roy, who wants to close the village school, voices a call for straight lines. In a mock analogy of the change from the period of colonialism to neo-colonialism, he shouts: ―A new time beckons.
The time to teach is over. The time has come to serve the people‖ (99). But despite the unselfish tone of this declaration, Bhudeb Roy is clearly motivated by money in much the same vein as the Western states which taught and promoted Western culture during the colonial period; a project they continued by ‗helping‘ the newly independent ‗third-world nations‘. In honour of the Western teleological model of history, Roy demands for straight lines in the manner of Europe, America and Japan. But this is not consistent with the strategy of the novel, where there are no straight lines. Its idea of history is circular and it relies more on ―the details and accidents that accompany every beginning‖ (Foucault 1998, 373).
And, finally, genealogy does not search for origins, or the ultimate truths implied by the concept of origin. Behind every illusion of ‗origin‘ there lies more history and interaction. This is consistent with the strategy of the novel, where, as Robert Dixon (1996, 7) has pointed out, there are no pure origins. For instance, the village of Lalpukur in the first part does not represent original or pure traditional village life: it is inhabited by refugees fleeing the violence of the Partition and later the war that resulted in East-Pakistan becoming Bangladesh (pp. 59-60). And the Souq in the second part is the crossing-point of various ancient trade routes inhabited by people from a myriad of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.
All the themes that come to the fore in later writing by Ghosh are budding in this first novel in one way or another. The transcending of distinctions following from the idea of purity anticipates the more obvious thematization of partitions and borders in his next work of fiction, The Shadow Lines, where they are viewed from the points of view of politics, geography, imagination and historiography. The unnamed and undescribed first-person narrator of this second novel is, in a way, a more developed version of Alu, on the one hand providing a kind of nexus or crossing-point for different persons, events, places and stories, and on the other hand functioning as an active agent who gives these intersecting strands a configuration of his own. Yoti Das‘s interest in birds and the analogy between the migrating birds and the migrating characters in The Circle of Reason are reminiscent of the connection between Man and nature and animals that is developed further in The Hungry Tide (2004). And the fact that the travelling in this first novel mainly happens within the colonies is, in addition to being reminiscent of the strategy adopted in The Glass Palace (2000), consistent with the thematics of ignoring the Oriental/Occidental polarisations, or the typical postcolonial theme of migrating between the colonies and the West. An interest in science comes through quite prominently in all novels by Ghosh, but is most obviously thematised in The Calcutta Chromosome (1996), as is the motif of a quest (Yoti Das tailing Alu in The Circle of Reason).