«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
Widespread concern with the crisis of nationalism and the general confusion of the era welcomed the assimilation of postmodernist tenets and opposed the modernist legacy. It seems that Ghosh‘s manner of constructing subjectivities in his narratives is quite close to the ‗strategic essentialism‘ coined by Spivak (1988). Although she did deconstruct the subaltern subject as it had been built by many of the Subaltern Studies group‘s members, she was not too concerned about its essentialist and positivist characteristics, but saw them as an asset in so far as they were used strategically for political purposes. In her research the subject in the end appears as a politically functional For a description of the group‘s ideology, see the first article (IV.I.).
What later expanded into In an Antique Land, was originally published as a straightforwardly historiographic text in the series. ‘The Slave of MS. H.6’ in Partha Chatterjee & Gyanendra Pandey (Eds.) Subaltern Studies: Writing on Asian History and Society, Vol. VII, New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1992, pp. 159-220.
mixture of deconstructive (postmodern) and essentialising, or positivising (modernist) ideas.5 Rosalind O‘Hanlon is another critic who has examined the group‘s writings. In her view, the reconstructions of subaltern histories by some representatives of the group allow the
traditional Western subject to enter their discourse:
At the very moment of this assault upon Western historicism, the classic figure of Western humanism—the self-originating, self-determining individual, who is at once a subject in his possession of a sovereign consciousness whose defining quality is reason, and an agent in his power of freedom—is readmitted through the back door in the figure of the subaltern himself. (O‘Hanlon 1988, 191) O‘Hanlon ends up by arguing that the writing of subaltern histories requires great skill and subtlety if slippage into essentialist humanism is to be avoided. Narrative subtlety and skill are usually recognized as the characteristics of the writer of fiction, not historiography. But given the fact that they are both narration, O‘Hanlon‘s argument supports the adoption of the traditional techniques of historiography when writing fiction and vice versa, as Ghosh does in In an Antique Land. In O‘Hanlon‘s view, the most important thing in these constructions of subaltern subjectivity is to forget the myth of origins as a means of legitimation. The Cartesian ideas that the subject is selfconstituting and that a being which has its origin outside itself is not a proper being to begin with has to be discarded. Only then is it possible to move on to the idea that histories and subjectivities are constructed from fragments that ―do not contain the signs of any essential belonging inscribed in them.‖ O‘Hanlon further argues that this kind of skill, ―the ability to argue for a distinctiveness of practice without slipping into a metaphysics of presence‖ is difficult to develop (1988, 197). The ability of Ghosh to navigate along the fine line between essentialism and total The notion of strategic essentialism is clarified towards the end of the first article (IV.I.).
dispersal in his textual constructions of subaltern subjects has been noted by Robert Dixon, who argues that ―Ghosh develops a style of writing that is sufficiently nuanced and elusive to sustain the ―theoretical fiction‖ of a recovery of presence without actually falling back to essentialism‖ (1996, 16).
In his critique of postmodernism, Radhakrishnan lists the ways in which the identity problematic has been ―brought to the third world on the postmodern platter‖ (2003, 14). In his view, the question of identity has come across to the subaltern people as a backward, unfashionable, quest through postmodernism. In a sense, the subaltern is forced to choose between a relevant but reactionary (modernist) project and a fashionable subjectivity that is hollow and devoid of any experiential basis (postmodernist subject). Further, among the subaltern groups, the subjectivity problematic is both urgent and morbid: these people have to adopt an alien (colonial, or Western) epistemology to develop self-understanding. And this adoption of alien epistemology results in a situation, where ―identity is divorced from the agential authority of specific narrative projects and their hegemonizing strategies‖ (2003, 14). As a result, subaltern identity and its discourse are epistemically evacuated. They are alienated from their prerogative to make truth claims: the truth claims would come ―from the Self of the dominant West‖ (2003, 14). On the question of essences, or essentialism, approached above, Radhakrishnan notes that, as a Western construct, deconstruction totally misunderstands the burden of the idea of essence as it affects those disempowered by colonialism (2003, 15). It also fails to understand the need for ‗strategic essentialism,‘ as discussed by Spivak. He further observes that essentialism is actually very much a modernist phenomenon and propounds a link, or a continuum, with modernism and its preoccupation with history and origins (2003, 16). Finally, he considers the term ‗strategic essentialism‘ to be redundant, because essentialism is always strategic in and by its very nature, and ―the recourse to essences is a matter of strategy to gain control over processes of history along agential lines‖ (2003, 17).
Reiterating Spivak‘s idea of the subaltern subject as something that cannot be regarded as having an a priori essence, waiting to become activated into agency after discovery can readily be applied to the character of Ghosh‘s slave, Bomma, in In an Antique Land. The narrator constructs the subjectivity of Bomma as a two-dimensional narrative process. On the one hand, he combines and imaginatively interprets and interweaves the textual traces from the scraps of manuscripts he has found in museums and institutions around the world through his narrative process; on the other hand, he relates his search for these documents. He also includes an erudite Notes-section, which bears witness to the empirical philological and linguistic research he has also conducted on the documents. Clearly, this subaltern subject that is put together from textual traces (that is, traces both physically as scraps of paper and discursively as textual fragments) is not an already existing essence made agential after being discovered. Rather, it (or he) becomes agential in the very process of being narrated into existence.
Bomma decidedly belongs to O‘Hanlon‘s subjectivities that are constructed from fragments that ―do not contain the signs of any essential belonging inscribed in them.‖ The idea that the subject is self-constituting and that a being which has its origin outside itself is not a proper being to begin with (O‘Hanlon 1988, 197) has clearly been discarded.
Spivak concludes that the subaltern subject would benefit from the use of strategic essentialism, the ―use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest‖ (Spivak 1988: 205). Radhakrishnan‘s ―recourse to essences [as] a matter of strategy to gain control over processes of history along agential lines‖ (2003, 17) refers to the same thing. The identity of Bomma is narratively built upon traces by the narrator, both practically (his search for the manuscript scraps) and theoretically (a poststructuralist subject as a crossing point of textual traces). But this is not all there is to this subject. It is by no means twodimensional. Radhakrishnan criticizes the postmodern ―essentialism-narrative nexus‖ for its polarity: it offers either essentialism or a mere subjectless process. What is missing, in his view, is the politics of representation (2003, 19). This seems to be what Spivak, too, is asking for when she voices a call for the adoption of essentialism in a political interest.
So far, I have sketched the formation of Bomma‘s subjectivity as a narrative process that combines textual traces.
But history, like identity, is a narrative construction, and thus a product of a deeply imaginative and interpretative process. It is not a place for fact-based empiricism. What happens when Ghosh narrates Bomma into existence is that the textual traces are glued to one another through imaginative principles, so that together they form the meanings the narrator wants to create. In Ghosh‘s narration, this process results in an ethico-political subject. As Radhakrishnan explains, ―Value‖ thus presides over the narrative project (also, the identity project), both as an epistemological and as an ethico-political imperative. The imperative is epistemological insofar as the ―subjects‖ involved in the process need to be able to think of their intended identity as a worthy object of knowledge, and ethico-political since the value is also related to questions of representation, hegemony, authenticity, correctness, and fairness. (2003, 18) I shall examine the way Bomma‘s identity is narrated also in the article in section IV.3. The ethico-political nature of Bomma‘s, if I may, essentialised, subaltern identity can, however, be briefly outlined as follows: The narrator‘s construction of Bomma is clearly meant to disturb the colonial historiographical legacy: it creates a subaltern subject, a slave, who lived in the era before the European expansion and the appearance of colonialism and its dividing epistemology of modernism. Further, Bomma represents a world that was inter-connected by trade in a manner quite far from the capital-dictated connections of Western modernism or globalization. Bomma also represents an ethical call for syncretic connections between such geographical places, people/s, social classes and religions that nowadays seem quite distinct as the outcome of the partitioning of the world after Western expansion.
Further, the narrative is self-reflexively open about the way this subject is created through its meta-narrative of tracing the manuscripts that have been spread around the world.
In the prologue to In an Antique Land, the narrator juxtaposes the presence in the Middle East of ―the greatest Crusador army ever assembled‖ of 1148 and the German and Allied forces of the World War two of 1942 (In an Antigue Land 15). Amidst the military manoeuvrings of the summer of 1942, an article examining letters from the year 1148 appears in a Hebrew journal in Jerusalem. The article contains a mention of a letter written by a merchant in Aden: ―Within this tornado of grand designs and historical destinies, Khalaf ibn Ishaq‘s letter seems to open a trapdoor into a vast network of foxholes where real life continues uninterrupted‖ (In an Antique Land 15-16). These foxholes provide a route to the realm of the ethical: Towards its end, the letter has a mention of a slave belonging to the
addressee, Ben Yiju in Mangalore, India:
That is all: no more than a name and a greeting. But the reference comes to us from a moment in time when the only people for whom we can even begin to imagine properly human, individual, existences are the literal and the consequential, the wazirs and the sultans, the chroniclers and the priests—the people who had the power to inscribe themselves physically upon time. (IAL 16-17) But in the case of Khalaf Ibn Ishaq, it is merely a chance accident ―that those barely discernible traces that ordinary people leave upon the world happen to be preserved.‖ (17). And then, the even more imperceptible trace of Bomma appears at the end of the letter. The epistemologically and materially postmodernist as well as the ‗essentialising‘ ethico-political components of Bomma‘s subjectivity are neatly represented in the above quotations from the prologue: We have ―a trapdoor into a vast network of foxholes‖ (postmodernist) ―where real life continues uninterrupted‖ (material). The block quotation above is an indirect reference to the ethico-political drive behind the construction of Bomma‘s subjectivity: Bomma as a subject is directed against this prevalent discourse on ―the consequential, the wazirs and the sultans, the chroniclers and the priests—the people who had the power to inscribe themselves physically upon time‖ (In an Antique Land 16-17). And then there is the coming together of epistemologically postmodernist (more specifically post-structuralist) ―barely discernible traces‖ with the ethico-politically informed ―ordinary people leave upon the world happen to be preserved‖ with its emphasis on the haphazard way in which people who fall outside the powerful discourse of the ruling classes are acknowledged.
All in all, the process of constructing Bomma is quite poststructuralist in nature. It is postmodern both physically, or materially, as the process of finding and collating the scraps of manuscripts and epistemologically as the process of connecting textual traces. But it is equally ethical in its creation of imaginative formations transcending this discursive realm.
However, the outcome of this process is a subject in his own right, not an epistemically void knot amidst discourses. Bomma is not an example of the postmodern ―epistemological revolutions at the expense of organicity and the solidarities of representational politics‖ (2003, 19) that Radhakrishnan sees as ill-befitting the needs of postcoloniality. In an Antique Land as a whole is an example of ethical solidarity between representational strategies as it combines several discourses into an unprecedented ethico-political whole. And the way Bomma is narrated a historical trajectory of his own intervowen with that of Ben Yiju makes him appear quite organic and, for a want of better term, essentialised subject with an ethico-political meaning and purpose of his own. Bomma as an essence is a token of the strategy to obtain ―control over processes of history along agential lines‖ (Radhakrishnan 2003, 17). As the narrator says in the book, Ben Yiju and his slave, Bomma, are preserved as ―tiny threads, woven into the borders of a gigantic tapestry‖ (In an Antique Land 95). They represent small agential lines in the borders of the processes of history.