30 April 2010

You, me: We : Fashion and Self-fashioning in Ramjas English

This paper will analyse the dynamics of the self and other to illuminate markers of identity in the Department of English, Ramjas College. It shall identify and critically comment upon the salient features of the three major yet inter-changeable sub-cultures – the conventional, the indifferent and the avant-garde – which make up the said Department and presume alongside to project this analysis onto other Departments in other colleges to give it the long-lost status of (near) universality. It shall conclude with an overview of the arguments thus presented, claiming therefore that self-fashioning in a self-aware department of higher education such as this is dependant largely upon processes more or less inclined towards ritualised forms of alienation and identity crisis.

I begin with identifying and defining first of all the key concepts and ideas used herein, my theoretical toolbox as it were. For self-fashioning, I cannot but go back to the author himself, he who first consolidated the concept and gave it its current currency. In his seminal Renaissance Self-fashioning Stephen Greenblatt introduces self-fashioning as compound of those “control mechanisms… [and] cultural system of meanings that creates specific individuals by governing the passage from abstract potential to concrete historical embodiment.” In effect, therefore, in using self-fashioning we refer to that entire range of institutions, processes and interactions – or discourses – which make one what one is. In context of the said Department, we will refer to those practices, customs and institutional beliefs and interactions which influence a student’s evolving and changing conceptualisation of his/her self as a member of such an institution.

The second key concept, or idea, being employed in this critique is the idea of sub-cultures. The term is self-explanatory and seems to me a particularly post-modern, deconstructive and materialist conceptualisation of society as being constituted not as a homogeneity of the normative fa├žade of the ideology in power but as a heterogeneity of various groups and sections of society in simultaneous and continual contention for power and hegemony. For my purposes, I feel it imperative to further qualify this in the sense that these groups, or sub-cultures, need not necessarily be tangibly involved in active interaction with and struggle against and for the institutions of and authorities in power: conformity, as we all know, is also enmeshed in the infrastructure of power so that even to be is to be implicated as, if not anything else, a part of the system.

The third premise on which this critique is based is the old, weather-beaten one of self-criticism. Some may argue this is not suitable for the purposes of an academic seminar and that my energies should’ve been directed to a more literary pursuit wherein I myself would not have had a personal, and so necessarily subjective, stake in the subject of my criticism. To them I say, yes, I agree and concede as much; yet, I still qualify and claim that it is neither unnatural nor surprising that the critic’s roving eye should at times alight on his own house, that then a little analysis never hurts oneself and that a stage as bejewelled with such a wide and interesting expanse of humanity as an Indian Department of English cannot but be the subject of one’s admiration and comment. The nature of this analysis, therefore, is modelled on the cultural studies of Roland Barthes in his Mythologies and Aijaz Ahmed in his problematic on the characterisation and categorisation of Indian Literature.

The fourth and final idea which will find resonance in this critique is not as much as a theoretical concept as a feeling. This critique was carried out with a feeling of adventure, with a keen sense of doing something new and charting a domain left more or less sacrosanct and unexplored. There are, of course, those who have said much upon the institution – and Ahmed, as my ever so theoretical colleagues are well aware, is one of them – but to my limited knowledge nothing substantial has been written in the way of how Department policies, politics and worldviews – literally and metaphorically; we have them all – affect those for whom the Departments – ostensibly at least – are in the first place: the students. Indeed, if I was to take recourse to that doyen of Marxist theory, Monsieur Althusser, I would say that in commenting upon the Department of English type of ideological apparatus my analyses is just as descriptive as theoretical: i.e., I work on what is said and developed as theory and consolidate and construct it then in a vocabulary more theoretical than otherwise in use. Whether I succeed in this or not is, without the least possible modesty, for you, my intelligent audience, to decide.

Let us, therefore, start. We will consider as of now the two categories of conventional and indifferent and begin with the former. Unlike what it’s generally used as, I use conventional here to denote those who are in much of what they do quite the opposite of what I choose to label them as. This is the group of students which belongs to the materialist and deconstructive school of thought and is as such the progeny of those who had some thirty and twenty years ago fought pitched battles against the then dominant ideology of New Criticism. It is keenly aware of this history and its own position as a carrier of a subversive legacy and so exults in interrogating well nigh all that can be questioned. In doing so, it displays a confidence and enthusiasm – in the criticism at least – in the veracity of its judgements and in its own potential to affect radical change, if not on ground level then at least in the intellectual arena of discourse. More often than not this enthusiasm peters down in some way or the other with the passage of time, but in as much as student years are concerned most of this group show a passion and a thirst for radical ideological change.

Similarly, therefore, while unconventional in most aspects, the group is conventional in our categorisation because it is a product of those battles which are in many places over and done with. In any discussion of a Department of English some thirty, twenty, perhaps even ten years ago it would’ve been fruitful to have considered a division on the lines the New Criticism and the new brood of materialists and so on. To do so now, however, would only be to paint the present with stale colours. This is not to say that the struggle’s over and all converted; no, rather, it’s to imply that where those Departments are concerned wherein are teachers of this new generation who fought against the old, students, regardless of the presence in the faculty of those of the old guard, will gyrate towards them. However institutionalised, subversion has its own rewards and pleasures and to defy the world and its norms thus is what very many adolescents and young adults wish to do.

Opposed to these are those I call ‘indifferent’. The word connotes a thousand possibilities, and without meaning to limit its horizon I would like to typify it with a few universal characteristics. First and foremost being that such a group is to be found in each discipline and is by and large a major constituent of society as a whole. These, in short, are those who will not be bothered by those ideological currents which so inflame the minds of our conventionals and as such survive three years of ideological indoctrination with as little impact on their perception of the world and of themselves as is humanly possible in such conditions. Many of these are of the class which my Marxist friends scorn as the petty bourgeoisie and in thus remaining immune to the primary thrusts of their training they display remarkable resilience to theory and to all the power of rhetoric and engagement. Indeed, marks and a degree are of prime importance to them and in making Literature a stepping stone to socio-economic betterment they betray a shrewd practicality which our conventionals take specific care to disdain.

However, just as the conventionals, they too do not form a single, homogenous group and are instead divided by varying degrees of ‘indifference’. Simply put, there are those who attend classes and make note of what is being said, those who attend and sleep away to glory and those who do not deign to attend at all. A considerable portion of this is of this first sort, those who come and take note: their attention is more often than not motivated by the ambition to score and do well. They are linked to the conventionals in the sense of espousing their causes and ideologies in public but caring not much about them in their own personal lives. There is not much difference between them and the second sort and classroom snoring being in not a few cases contingent upon the skills of the teacher, the fact of their being inattentive does not take away the underlying desire to successfully economise their association with an English Department. The third sort, of course, is the embodiment of this spectrum and boasts as such of near-complete imperviousness to the onslaught of a post-modern literary training. We must, however, be careful in not confusing these with those who do not attend on a regular basis and yet belong by virtue of their strong ideological affiliations to the conventionals.

Moving on, we come now to our third category or sub-culture. The avant-garde are those who comprise of those sections or groups which challenge extremely visibly one’s own conceptualisation as a scholar of English Literature – or Literature in English as the case might be. They are avant-garde not in sense of ideological belief; no, for all that can be ideologically contested is already subsumed in the discourse of the conventionals and the academia. These, then, are those sections of the Department which do not conform in behaviour, language and appearance to those norms which the Department sets for itself. At this stage I momentarily marginalise the faculty and imply it to mean those vocal sections of the student population which arbitrate taste, style and demeanour as being properly characteristic of students of English. By the very virtue of being different, the avant-garde further the ossification of this image.

Thus so, for in breaking norms the avant-garde engender new ones. More often than not these are the new entrants, the freshers, who by being as yet untrained and being not as yet assimilated into the system prompt value judgement from their seniors. These judgements, on interaction, often end in introspection so where at first reigns open hostility may later come cheerful camaraderie. Of course, what a Literature student should be like is heavily contingent on the ideological moorings and attitudes of the faculty, but as more visibly vocal carriers of these values the students appear as bigger and greater arbitrators of English Honours-ness. Exposure, then, to the so-called avant-garde forces both the conventionals and the more attentive of the indifferent to introspect and, more often than not, alter their conception of a Literature student. By the same virtue, exposure to the latter causes changes in the former and so in time the avant-garde lose some of their difference and become part of the system. Needless to say, this is an ongoing process which continues from one batch to another and thus in affect ensures that no fixed, rigid typification of an English Honours student occurs. Others, outsiders and those of other courses, may impose stereotypes and the faculty engender in generation upon generation certain of its own choice ideas and beliefs but the internal processes of change and dynamism ultimately allow of no finality.

The cycle, therefore, is year upon year the same. The avant-garde, usually though not necessarily freshers, puts strain on the conceptions of the conventionals and the attentive indifferent and through interaction refreshes these without closing them off for further reinvention. Something, indeed, remains constant, but with teachers themselves not all being fully impervious to outside influence with time, and age, new constants come into shape. This same can be claimed for our analysis of the conventional and the indifferent: both these groups, heterogeneous to the core but still threaded by a common link, respond to and interact with their training in ways – and these ways themselves have a repetitive, cyclical pattern which, with variations, plays over long periods of time – which influence their conceptualisation of themselves as Literature students.

Admittedly, all this is not much of an identity crisis. However, in as much as it results in change and in attitudinal shifts and produces much discourse – some of which trickles down onto bits of paper and sheets of bytes – on norms and their normativity, these processes and interactions are constituted as “systems of meanings” which do lead onto “historical embodiment”. Further, the materialist mission well on its way to victory and the socio-economic spectrum of undergraduate entrants steadily widening, it may be safely assumed that an analysis such as this can, to a varying degree of success of course, be applied to very many other Departments of English besides this one in Ramjas. Nothing, of course, is fixed and the future is sure to warrant a different classification, but fashion being such as it is, self-fashioning, literally and metaphorically, may safely be taken such as it is presented– thus, but open ended and bound to change.

15 April 2010

Mastering Spivak: A Subaltern Speaks

I don’t really see why Spivak has to be a monster. I mean, yes, jokingly of course, but even then, isn’t the joke’s carried a bit too far? Agreed her style is difficult and hard to penetrate, but then at the end of the day she is a practitioner, however esoteric, of a form and style notorious for its impenetrability. Bad writer or not, to say that she doesn’t know what she’s saying is to do her a great injustice.

But then, what is she saying? The question, clear and concise- can the subaltern speak? The answer, simplicity itself: no.

But that’s not all. Life would be so much easier if it were, if the route which Spivak takes to come to this conclusion were not as it is. Can the subaltern speak? No. Why not? Herein lies the problem.

Using her skills as a translator, Spivak plays on the connotations of vertreten and darstellen to highlight the Western intellectual’s complicity in consolidating “the international division of labour” by unifying the oppressed as a “sovereign subject” capable of identifying all those exploitative socio-economic processes and practices which make it what it is. To these intellectuals, such a subject not only knows how and why he is being exploited but is also capable of representing his class as a whole. That is to say that such a subject, oppressed though he is, can correspond desire with interest and so create a class consciousness which would ultimately make him capable of articulating the interests of his class as a whole and so rid him the need of any “theorizing intellectual” to represent him or his class. The subaltern, for the intellectuals Spivak quotes, can speak.

And yet he cannot. For the subaltern, much more the subaltern Other, is constituted not as an undivided, homogenous, monolithic self. Instead, consciousness for Spivak – and going by her ‘re-presentation’ of that doyen of class and ideology, for Marx too – is as divided and heterogeneous as can be. Particularly “the colonized subaltern subject”, who is posited as “irretrievably heterogeneous”.

Now, first of all, what is the subject? As far as I remember it, Althusser throws some light upon the matter, arguing that ‘tis ideology that transforms an individual into a subject. Spivak too seems to be going along pretty much the same line so that when she asserts that “the colonized subaltern subject is irretrievably heterogeneous”, she is taking into consideration those practices – and, by extension, the ideologies that determined those practices – which at first arranged for and then reinforced continually the subordination of particular sections of society to particular ruling class(es). That these practices, or ideologies, conspired to subject the subaltern subject to such socio-economic forces as kept him under subjugation by fragmenting his consciousness and preventing him from linking desire with interest is the basic thrust of her argument.

An argument which seems valid enough. The subaltern, particularly the subaltern woman, has been victim to politics of re-presentation on one hand and essentialisation on the other. In analysing sati and so exposing the consequences of an all too essentialist and redundant translation of the Hindu scriptures, Spivak is highlighting as much, the role of the indigenous elite in re-presenting, in speaking of and not for the subaltern, the women, and the role of the colonial administration in essentialising indigenous knowledge and means of interpretation. That women themselves could not “speak” for their own community, or class, is, again, a fallout of patriarchal domination which, through re-presentation, denied them the means to fruitfully identify and articulate their desire(s) and link them with communal interests on the whole. It is this failure, a failure ruthlessly institutionalised in service of dominant groups in power, that the crux of the matter lies- women could not speak because their desires were dictated and their interests re-presented by others, by those above them in the hierarchy of production.

Be that as it may, to say all this, to say that ideologies perpetuated by the ruling, dominant elite enmeshed the subaltern classes in such a web of socio-economic forces as made it possible for them to only be re-presented by those immediately above them in the hierarchy of colonial social production and thus further denied them the agency to move from a descriptive to a transformative class consciousness is in no way to posit the impossibility of such a change in future. True, she denies agency to even the contemporary subaltern, but that is a two fold negation heavily contingent first on developments in the Western academia which seem to present the subaltern as a homogenised self in no need of “theorizing intellectuals” to represent it and then on socio-economic forces which further entrench the current “international division of labour” on the lines which the dominant order has prescribed. In the first, she’s salvaging the intellectual’s role in generating discourse on ideology – “the female intellectual as intellectual has a circumscribed task which she must not disown with a flourish” – and its role in determining the relations of lived experience and even though this seems like denying the subaltern the possibility of representing her/himself by giving agency to intellectuals to speak for them, the very act of orienting the intellectual thus in subaltern studies is to pave the way for the subaltern classes to come up on their own. Ultimately, this is in keeping with that old Marxist formula of the intellectual paving the way for transformative class consciousness to take root.

The answer seems clear for Spivak. No, the subaltern cannot speak- and yet, it can.