- Thinking Literature across Continents by Ranjan Ghosh and J. Hillis Miller
By Ranjan Ghosh and J. Hillis Miller. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016.
In Thinking Literature across Continents, J. Hillis Miller, an eminent critic and Stevens scholar whose major contributions to literary theory hark back to the time of the "Yale School" and the heyday of deconstruction, enters into dialogue with Ranjan Ghosh, a distinguished specialist of aesthetics and poetics who teaches at the University of Bengal. The result is a set-up—not quite Goethe's Conversations with Eckermann, but reminiscent nonetheless in its dialogic structure, stilted politesse, and far-ranging purview—that dares us to assess the big picture of literary studies in the era of the World Literature debates, new geographies of reading, new directions in translation studies (or non-translation studies), and the digital humanities. In Ghosh and Miller's extended dialogue, specific questions come to the fore: Can literature ever be a genuinely transcontinental medium or nation-neutral category (popularized by the "Literature majors" that sprang up in the 1970s and that maintained "theory" as a fulcrum)? Is World Literature an effective pedagogical framework for encouraging non-parochial canon formation or does it inevitably reproduce hierarchies of reception conducive to new imperialisms of reading—interpretive practices, that is, tilted towards metropolitan capitals and [End Page 272] literature published in dominant languages? How do we read with a specialist eye in the era of the "anxiety of the global"? (This was the fundamental point of interrogation for the panel "Specialisms in the Anxiety of the Global," organized by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Hosam Aboul-Ela at the Modern Language Association's annual convention in 2018, in which I participated.) "In the Anxiety of the Global" points to the anxieties issuing from the global circulation of knowledge—the fallout of standardization, commercialized life, packaged art, and branded literature typical of biennials and anthologies.
Rather than wallow in the futility of pedagogical exercises fated to dumb down specialized material, or worse, reproduce the violence of catachretic (forced) analogy and Europe-centered genealogies of comparison, Spivak, like Ghosh and Miller, enjoins us to imagine a "global criticality." Though she cautions against its adoption as a banner in the way of "transnational literacy" or "strategic essentialism," she puts it out there nonetheless, perhaps as part of a dialogue with René Zavaleta Mercado's abigarramiento, a term used in his Towards a History of the National-Popular in Bolivia (2008) to indicate a non-insular "peripheral-motley" configuration. In yielding ground to a greater indigeneity, Zavaleta's project presents the task of regioning differences—geotopically, phenomenologically, linguistically, and politically. It calls forth an advanced intersectionalism, opening a space for translocal readings and expanding the lexicon of possibility for language fields and disciplinary identifications that never before existed or were perennially subject to exclusion.
The politics of "area-ization" is fraught. It erects barriers, institutes zones of demarcation and phenomenologies of the border, even in cases where the objective is to foment class solidarities and internationalist alliances. Consider the way Three Worlds theory changed footing. For Mao, who invented the construct, First denoted the superpowers, Second the lesser powers, and Third the exploited nations. Later, in Cold War parlance, First designated the United States, the United Kingdom, and their allies, Second the Soviet Union, China, and their allies, Third the non-aligned countries. Later on, Fourth entered circulation as a category for the marginalized populations of industrial sectors: subsistence farmers, nomads, the stateless, ethnic and religious minorities targeted by sovereign nations. Like regional or linguistic cartographic names, the ordinal ordering of worlds enters the currency of area studies, generating a structurally "class-ified" map of over- and underdevelopment that often reproduces the very hierarchies it set out to overcome. Part of the comparatist's task of translation is to submit this stratified nominalism to the rigors of "global criticality."
Spivak came up with the term "global criticality" in response to Aijaz Ahmad's objection to "Global South" (which in his view "accepts capitalist globalization"). In an article published in Frontline in December 2017, Ahmad argues for replacing "Global South" with "Tri-continental...