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Modern Fiction and Politics

As I was circumnavigating the area of modern fiction and politics discursively with a view to writing this introduction, two marvelously eloquent phrases came to mind: locutions that have inspired me without fail from the first time I encountered them. The first is from Amitav Ghosh’s evergreen novel, The Shadow Lines: “to imagine with precision,” (29) something that Tridib, the cosmopolitan hero-martyr of the novel, valiantly endeavors to do in a critical-utopian vein against heavy odds, against “the shadow lines” of nationalism, throughout the narrative. The second phrase is from Ranajit Guha’s Columbia University lectures published subsequently as History at the Limit of World History: “the existential tangling with the epistemological” (87–88). Both of these locutions have much to say where fiction meets up with politics: an intersection fraught with themes such as reality, the Real, representation, narrative truth and point of view, ideology and simulation, the nature of community, tensions between the “I” and the “We,” subjective distortion and objective truth, and much else.

If fiction is unreal and politics takes on the imprimatur of the real, how then do we construe the aesthetic politics of “imagining with precision?” How is precision to be employed in the context of what does not exist? Well before the advent of Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities or Arjun Appadurai’s social imaginary, in the context of transnationalism and the diaspora, fiction had already made its most radical contribution to critical epistemology, that is, the concept of verisimilitude. In being like the real but not being of [End Page 659] the real itself, fiction had opened up the space of reflexive specularity without whose help reality can never make any truth claims about itself. If reality is what mimesis does, then reality is constrained to be verisimilar with reference to itself before it can attain any kind of ontological consistency, let alone epistemological credibility. In other words, for truth to be itself, it has to be like itself. There is no running away from the figurality of the simile. As Foucault would have it, the truth can never be in abeyance of the dubiety of fictive location: it can only be dans le vrai, within the space of the true.

The precision that Ghosh talks about does not inhere in the real in some primordially phenomenological mode; on the contrary, it opens up a cartographic space where locations neither coincide with themselves immaculately nor run amok in utter unaccountable autonomy. The phrase “imagine with precision” does an exquisite double duty: on the one hand, it unleashes imagination as a fully agentive, intentional, and constitutive form of energy, and on the other hand, it enjoins profound responsibility on the imagination, the responsibility of producing its own norm. To be precise in this manner is not to second-guess a preexisting answer, but rather, in the manner of Jean-Paul Sartre, it is to pose precision as a radical form of freedom with nothing to be free about. In other words, the birth of fiction is coextensive and coeval with the emergence of what Sartre understood as a thrownness toward freedom. This freedom has to be about something, which is to say, it has to produce its own burden of representation. The real of fiction in its very figural immanence inaugurates the contested realm of representation and the truth claims thereof.

What is even more significant, the precision that Ghosh advocates is not the factual exactitude of empiricism; the potential object as well as the subject of the precision is the Derridean avenir, the time/reality to come. What fiction does, from its immanence in the history of the present, is to coordinate into existence a future that haunts the present as radical absence. The phrase “imagine with precision” dangles ontology in a nameless temporality that awaits the emergence of a precise historicity; a historicity that could be in the name of ______. The dialectical tension between the openness of the imagination and the constraint of precision reconciles the two contradictory impulses that characterize and animate the will to knowledge: on the one hand, a phenomenological Gelassenheit or a “letting be” of the...


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