- Reviewed by
As the newest arrival on the shelf of postcolonial literary criticism, Deepika Bahri's Native Intelligence combines a seasoned analysis of canonical postcolonial texts with a convincing argument about the significance of aesthetic theory to the discipline of postcolonial studies. While Bahri joins a long tradition of scholars working in postcolonial South-Asian literary criticism, her study is easily one of the best in the field—a meditative, meticulous, well-executed scholarly work that offers an enduring critical framework for all postcolonial literature. Quite a feat for a book that enters a rather melancholic field where elite metropolitan theory on successful (elite metropolitan) texts regularly faces censure. In the self-reflexive turn of the last two decades, postcolonial theorists decried the emptying out of "resistance" postcolonial texts popular as multicultural staples. How then, asks Bahri, do we consider the social function of artworks that have not, as Adorno put it, "renounced consumption"? In a judicious return to Marxist aesthetics, Bahri purports to "reconjugate" aesthetics, restoring its capacity to emancipate the human senses (15).
Native Intelligence reflects a new direction in criticism on postcolonial literature, once christened a "twice-born fiction" almost a quarter century ago by Meenakshi Mukherjee. While Mukherjee focused on the language of South-Asian postcolonial fiction as primary to comprehending the politics of postcoloniality (elaborating on her early appraisal is the 2002 Perishable Empire) and was followed [End Page 214] by a slew of critics who underscored relations between the postcolonial text and its colonial precursors (for example, Fawzia Afzal-Khan's Cultural Imperialism and the Indo-English Novel ), recent explorations of the burgeoning postcolonial canon has looked elsewhere: to comparative analyses of postcolonial traditions and to the politics of consumption. Anuradha Needham Dingwaney's Resistance and the Literature of African and South Asian Diaspora (2000) exemplifies the former move, while Priya Joshi's award-winning Another Country: Colonialism, Culture, and the English Novel in India provides a stellar instance of the latter. Bahri's Native Intelligence takes on both these new vectors in her impassioned case for a comparative scope to postcolonial criticism and in her attention to the postcolonial text as cultural commodity.
Drawing primarily on the work of Theodore Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Hebert Marcuse (and especially Adorno's late work in Aesthetic Theory), Bahri makes a compelling argument for the utopian political dimension of the most canonical postcolonial text (such as Rushdie's Midnight's Children), despite its authorized circulation in global markets. The work of criticism, in Bahri's view, can elucidate the "unknowable" utopias of postcolonial texts by attending to a "native intelligence" that is not informancy (9, 20). In other words, critics need to work at dislodging the flow of postcolonial literature as commodity by preventing the quick translation of literature into information. A reading of the literary text's aesthetic capacities might lead us somewhere else: to consider how the text calls into question the means by which the end of political struggle is achieved, how it asks us to ponder the relation between theory and practice and how it gestures toward an unknowable utopia. And what might such a reading look like? In her four chapters treating literary texts of Seamus Heaney, Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, and Arundhati Roy, Bahri demonstrates such practice with clarity and rigor. In her chapter on Rushdie where Bahri proceeds through readings of Grimus, Shame, and Midnight's Children to alight on Moor's Last Sigh as the culmination of a certain Rushdein aesthetics, Bahri elaborates on Rushdie's Benjaminian habit—his "improper subscription to modern units of time and space" (a requisite for signing the modern nation) in representing a "disaggregated and plural" nation (158). Rushdie's aesthetics of pastiche and play have been noted before, but given Bahri's cogent critical framing, his restless times and spaces appear as a meditation on an alternative modernity. As always, Bahri displays her keen interest for epistemological histories, when she situates Midnight's Children as coming out of the same turbulent decade as did the initial forays of the...