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  • In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures, and: The Rhetoric of English India
  • Kanishka Chowdhury
Aijaz Ahmad. In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures. New York: Verso, 1992. 358 pp. $29.95.
Sara Suleri. The Rhetoric of English India. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992. 230 pp. No price given.

Aijaz Ahmad's spirited and faintly reproachful rejoinder to Fredric Jameson's "Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capital" in the pages of Social Text has become an important document in the canon of cultural theory. Their exchange raised fundamental questions regarding the production and distribution of "Third World" texts, and Ahmad's incisive analysis of the category of "Third World" literature displayed the impossibility of creating such categories. Ahmad's compelling insights and his wide knowledge of various literatures were evident in that erticle and is again a feature in his latest publication, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures. What is, however, most striking in this work is Ahmad's efforts to locate literary theory as it has developed in the Anglo-American academy over the last twenty-five years within the framework of what he considers "the fundamental dialectic—between imperialism, decolonization, and the struggles for socialism—which . . . constitutes the contradictory nature of the world in our epoch" (9).

Ahmad's unquestioning acceptance of this "fundamental dialectic" provides him with a very definite political and philosophical space from which he builds a provocative argument concerning the deradicalization of the American academy. His criticism is always accompanied by a detailed presentation and elaboration of the significant historical events of the time. [End Page 206] Indeed, as he points out, "the problem of the determinate set of mediations which connect the cultural productions of a period with other kinds of productions and political processes . . . is rarely addressed with any degree of rigour in precisely those branches of literary theory where issues of colony and empire are most lengthily addressed" (5). Ahmad's goal, clearly, is to rejuvenate a Marxist tradition which has, according to him, become completely subordinate to other theoretical positions. In Theory, then, is a careful Marxist rereading of "a particular political configuration of authors and positions which has surfaced in particular branches of literary theory, clustered around questions of empire, colony, migrancy, post-coloniality, and so on, as these questions have been posed from the 1960s onwards" (3).

The book includes eight essays covering these authors and positions and a lengthy introduction in which Ahmad manages to explain the turn toward poststructuralism in the American academy against the backdrop of "essential global realit[ies]" (17). His historical analysis of the emergence and subsequent success of poststructuralism is a compelling one, and his ability to arrange and distinguish significant parallels between literary movements and global/national politico-cultural shifts are almost always convincing. Ahmad's historical sweep embraces the political changes and calamities in the last twenty-five years, but in the end he moves too rapidly back and forth between political events, literary figures, and literary critics, trying at the same time to elucidate these complex configurations within the framework of a defining paradigm. Ahmad had been exactly right in pointing out that Jameson's proclamations on "all" Third World literature had been made precisely because Jameson needed such a closed category to "produce a theory of Third World Literature" (107). Ahmad, however, does not hesitate occasionally to construct similarly dubious categories in order to produce unproblematized theories of nation, decolonization, immigration, or postcoloniality.

Ahmad's generalizations are perhaps most evident in his discussions on "languages of class, ideologies of immigration." In this chapter, Ahmad argues that "the combination of class origin, professional ambition and lack of a prior grounding in a stable socialist praxis predisposes a great many of the radicalized immigrants located in the metropolitan university towards . . . an opportunistic kind of Third-Worldism as the appropriate form of oppositional politics" (86). While Ahmad's point is definitely valid, it is simplistic to assume that any cultural space, whether it be in the so-called first or third world, is without its contradictions. The always ambivalent status of the bourgeois academic who occupies hybrid spaces is inevitably complicit with systems of knowledge. Perhaps it is more productive...


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