Book Review: ‘In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures’ Examines the Political Impetuses Of Literature


First published in 1992 immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, ‘In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures‘ by Aizaj Ahmad takes up the national question at a historic moment wherein governments negotiate at the cusp of a global geopolitical reordering of allegiances. The political impetus provided by the establishment of state socialism, first in erstwhile USSR and then in China provided the crucial reinforcement needed for the spine of a global anti-imperialist wave that witnessed the liberation of Vietnam. Furthermore, the spread of revolutionary energies into Cuba, the decolonisation of much of Africa, and the cementing of Eastern Europe into a Socialist bastion, largely enabled by economic, military and technological aid from the first two countries, seem to have harbored proletarian revolutions.

In such a scene, which unmistakably bears the grief of what appears to be the failure of what we now call 20th-century socialism, Ahmad takes up the properly Leninist task, to begin from the beginning again! It is a beginning which is located immanently within the political and institutional moorings of criticism and literature produced in the sub-continent. In his inquiry into the literature of the sub-continent, Ahmad painstakingly traces the deployment and function of the English language which was introduced by the Colonial Raj in its drive to create a class of intermediary officials between its offices and the masses. To be sure, this was its prime administrative function at the beginning. What this created, however, was the possibility of the professionalisation of English as a language that granted access to the knowledge of scientific advancements made in the rest of the world. Ahmad does register the alienation of a language used for professional purposes, but did not, at least initially, embody the emotive lives of its speakers. These observations are drawn from the establishment of Literature departments that taught English in the early years of India’s nation formation.

From such stunted origins, Ahmad attempts to bring forth some of the ways in which it may be possible to periodise these changes within the broader historiography of the Nationalist struggle. He also highlights the forms of inter-cultural transmission made possible by the work of translation, which was internationally blending into the body of literature available in English. From our perspective, this period is intimately marked by what we in a post-colonial world, call ‘orientalism‘. It was conceptually popularised by Edward Said and infamously remembered in the adages of Macaulay’s minute, which no longer requires recounting. Contrary to expectations, what is acutely picked up is the very opposite movement, of the immense translations into European languages of Indian texts by scholars from the ‘first world’. The extensive investigations in Indology, were also initiated in this period, which harbored the translation of the Upanishads.

Politically, the renowned American Marxist literary critic, Fredric Jameson had suggested that ‘national allegory‘ is the predominant form of narrative produced in the third world, and this being their narratorial signature which distinguishes it from other narratives. Here Ahmad tries to point out the largely polemical content of the category ‘third world’ and seeks to reintroduce the gap between the schemata of narratorial structure and the order in which different parts of the globe were industrialised.

Along the way, he takes up the cause of Rushdie and the politics of his persecution and investigates the political dramaturgy of Nehru in his address at the Bandung conference. A negotiation which apart from its international stage at the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, was also directed to his own party, the Congress which way wary of Nehru’s socialist leanings, and to the Communist movement in India too, which had not yet been elected to power in Kerala.

The model of such a mediatory address within the nation was delivered at an international summit, and Ahmad uses this as an analogy to describe how centrist forces such as Nehru, Nasser, and Sukarno negotiated with the communist and socialist movements in their own countries while steering the Non-Aligned movement.

I’d highly recommend it for literature, history and philosophy students, and even for scholars investigating the period in question from sociology or political science. It is also perhaps the most comprehensive account of the political impetuses of the literature produced in that time for a casually interested reader.

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