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The Force of the Everyday

From: Contemporary Literature
Volume 55, Number 2, Summer 2014
pp. 421-429 | 10.1353/cli.2014.0018

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In Prose of the World: Modernism and the Banality of Empire, Saikat Majumdar presents a timely contribution to global modernist and contemporary Anglophone literary studies. Through its provocative analyses of how banality, boredom, and the quotidian shape twentieth-century literature, the book enriches a growing body of criticism that foregrounds the effects of coloniality on the narratives of British modernism, while tracing modernist afterlives in contemporary writing. Long overlooked as motifs and formal elements in canonical literature of the first half of the twentieth century, representations of the ordinary and the ethnographic have begun to attract interest in recent years. The former is the subject of Liesl Olson’s Modernism and the Ordinary, the latter the topic of Carey J. Snyder’s British Fiction and Cross-Cultural Encounters. How the ordinary and seemingly uneventful function in postcolonial writing has likewise been neglected, largely, Majumdar contends, because so much literature of the global South has favored dramatic, spectacular narratives that portray eventful moments tied to anti-colonial politics. Treating works situated in the colonial periphery and postcolony that both long for and ironize the longing for an excitement projected onto the metropole, Prose of the World participates in practices of new, globalized modernist studies. Majumdar examines how modernism is constituted in locales outside of imperial centers and how it extends beyond the traditionally defined terminus of World War II. Because the book places into conversation modernist and postcolonial writing, it also forwards a critical trajectory in studies of contemporary literature that began in the 1990s with Simon Gikandi’s Maps of Englishness and has gained momentum through such publications as Jed Esty’s A Shrinking Island, Nicholas Brown’s Utopian Generations, and Christopher GoGwilt’s The Passage of Literature. Majumdar discovers in the banal a narrative logic bound to conditions of late-colonial and postcolonial modernity that ties together the fiction of James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Zoë Wicomb, and Amit Chaudhuri.

Drawing in original ways on theories of the everyday in literary criticism and cultural anthropology, Majumdar recuperates the negative, devalued aesthetic category of the banal and its corollary affect, boredom, arguing that they drive modernist innovations in literature across the twentieth century. The staging of this aesthetic and affect creates what he calls a “radical” politics. The carefully argued introduction engages theoretical work by Henri Lefebvre, Guy Debord, Thomas Dumm, James Clifford, and Njabulo Ndebele, among others, to elaborate a critical framework that enables its author to account for the book’s “chronological leap” (35) of several decades and analysis of Anglophone writings situated around the globe—Dublin, suburban New Zealand, Cape Town, Namaqualand, Calcutta, Bombay, London, Oxford. What connects high modernism and this late-twentieth-century literature is the central role that the metropolis-periphery dyad plays in generating textual innovation with the banal. Here, Majumdar counters John Marx’s argument that the globalization of English has produced a decentering that displaces the metropolis-periphery relation held to be a primary source of modernist experimentation. Majumdar establishes a link between contemporary and high-modernist writing by citing Pascale Casanova’s model of world literature, which maintains that global Anglophone fiction retains as a structuring component the metropolis-periphery relation that inhabits literatures of the colonial era. Proposing that “the embodiment of the banal as a narrative instinct ironizes the binary of the metropolis and the periphery” (30), Majumdar asserts that these writings disclose a diasporic, cosmopolitan sensibility in their “covert critique of the relation of the metropolitan and the peripheral as it has evolved within the global history of empire,” a relation whose “historical reality . . . creates realms of possibility and fulfillment beyond the reach of the immediate, which invests the banality of local life with a subtle narrative energy” (32). Majumdar maintains that rather than operating as conditions of privilege, boredom and concern with the quotidian serve a textual politics of resistance, whether by exposing oppressive effects of empire in the colony or by revealing the exclusions and marginalizations produced by “macropolitical” narratives of anticolonial struggle and national liberation (109).

Through rich, detailed readings that bring out the complexities and nuances of the literary works addressed, the first half of Prose of the World considers how the banal dispatches...


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