- Textual Traffic: Colonialism, Modernity, and the Economy of the Text
S. Shankar's monograph joins the long roster of scholarly texts produced over the last two decades on travel writing, a roster that includes [End Page 519] the works of James Clifford, Caren Kaplan, Mary Louise Pratt, Chris Bongie, and Inderpal Grewal. As in the instance of these other scholars, he discovers that the analysis of travel writing is ineluctably situated in an ethically and historically charged terrain, and that no analysis of, say, V. S. Naipaul or Richard Wright is possible without a concomitant mindfulness to concepts and phenomena such as colonialism, modernity, and postmodernity. Insisting that modernity is produced by colonialism and therefore always shadowed by a (raced) difference that mocks its claims to universality, he argues for critical readings that are vigilant about the manner in which travel writing even of the avowedly liberal variety can reproduce the axioms of colonialism. But much more emphatically than the scholars named here, he turns away from "textual" and "discursive" modes of analysis in order to foreground "praxis"-a term that for him encompasses both object (active, revolutionary human activity) and mode (materialist, politically engaged, and historically informed) of critical practice.
The results of such a practice are mixed: frequently acute and complex but occasionally ungenerous and flat-footed. The approach is also marked by a certain regrettable carelessness about questions of genre (including the history of genre). What, for instance, constitutes (European and North American) travel writing? Does this travel writing have its own history? These are simple but by no means inessential questions, and they haunt a book that combines a miscellany of texts such as V. S. Naipaul's Area of Darkness, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Hurston's Of Mules and Men, and Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. This is by no means to suggest that such comminglings are necessarily infelicitous or unworkable; far from it. But some attention must be paid to the distinct protocols that govern the production and modes of address of such disparate forms as novellas, ethnographies, and Hollywood films; it cannot be assumed that they all deploy the conventions of travel writing in the same way.
Shankar inaugurates his analysis of travel narratives by showcasing at some length the enormously popular cultural text, Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Set in 1930s (colonial) Shanghai and India, the film features the American anthropologist hero's success in squashing the revival of the bloodthirsty, goddess-worshipping, and fanatical cult of the thugs. Ever since its release, the film has received some criticism for the ways in which it traffics in Orientalist stereotypes of India; as Shankar points out, historical scholarship has effectively identified the thug cult as a politically expedient fiction of the British colonial imagination. Film critics and scholars, on the other hand, have also underlined the film's [End Page 520] ironic tone and its character as pastiche of the colonial adventure films of the 1930s. Shankar though is deeply dubious about the film's ironic or parodic claims, seeing it instead as neocolonial recycling of the myth of the heroic colonial male (American this time rather than British) in the guise of a postmodern romp. A reading of Temple as racist is convincing enough; on the other hand, its parodic character (often on display in some of the most heroic and orientalist scenes) is not easily dismissed. A reading of some of the filmic detail (rather than just those of plot or character) would have helped to establish this.
Shankar is much more witty, supple, and persuasive in some of his other readings. He is generally at his best when he honors the ambivalences of the texts and writers that he reads. He is stimulating about Gulliver's Travels,which he casts imaginatively as a meditation upon the emergent protocols of travel narrative itself. He is historically acute about the complicated relationship of Swift to eighteenth-century Irish conditions, bourgeois modernity, and to Anglican...