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Reviewed by:
  • Subaltern Studies XI
  • Simona Sawhney
Subaltern Studies XI. Edited by Partha Chatterjee and Pradeep Jeganathan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

For those who still wonder how firmly Subaltern Studies has situated itself in the terrain marked by cultural studies and discourse analysis, this latest volume might provide definitive evidence. In itself that is cause neither for lament nor celebration. Surely what matters, in the long run, is not the generic affiliation (or change thereof) of a sustained intellectual project, but rather the critical force of the questions it poses and the validity of the analysis it offers. But just for the record, it might be worth noting that a project that was initially impelled by an explicit concern about the politics of Indian historiography1 has now become so manifestly interdisciplinary that not a single contributor to the current volume is formally housed in a department of History. In no way does this prevent the collection from being a strong and exciting addition to the field of South Asia studies, and indeed, many of the essays here would presumably be of use and interest to those engaged in more conventional kinds of historical research. It is not interdisciplinarity itself—nor, I might add, the malignant influence of post-structuralist thought—that accounts for some of the weaker moments in the volume. The problem is more complex, closely related, I think, to the expectations and temptations of academic work today, particularly in the US.

One might approach the problem by recalling that the “resistance” to theory that Paul de Man famously discussed in the early 1980s has by now taken the guise of an irresistible attraction to theory. Thus one notes that academic writing has become subject, on the one hand, to a ubiquitous imperative to “theorize”—to derive or deduce general laws from particular instances. On the other hand, it is not always able to provide the kind of evidence (perhaps dependent on a “disciplinary” foundation) which would give weight and depth to the laws thus generated.

Let me take as an example Qadri Ismail’s essay “Constituting Nation, Contesting Nationalism.” While Ismail’s analysis of the documents of Tamil separatist nationalism is remarkably thorough and convincing, his larger claims about nationalism are somewhat less so. The essay skillfully demonstrates that the Tamil nationalist movement (like many others) depends on a manipulation of nostalgia, that it establishes itself only by practicing strategic exclusions, and that women are not, and cannot be, the subjects interpellated by such nationalism. However, to conclude from this evidence that “in such expulsions…lies the possibility of other, more enabling, or ‘operable’ notions of community” (217), seems strange at many levels. First, because in light of the essay’s references to Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on the “inoperative community,” the very desire for an “operative” community is confusing. For Nancy, if the “exigency of community is still unheard,”2 it is not because existent communities are not operative, but indeed because they are relentlessly operative, all too capable of mobilizing and sublating even the death of their members. (The growing number of suicide bombers being produced in West and South Asian countries today is a very legible sign of this capacity.) As Gayatri Spivak notes in her Afterword to the volume, the problem with the nation is that “it is only too operative, too enabling, leading to liberation claims that seem the opposite of oppression” (305).

Lest this appear to be a mere quibble over a technical point (Ismail’s reading of Nancy), let us consider the more pragmatic implications of the argument. It is by no means clear from historical evidence that the kind of nationalism Ismail describes does not, in fact, have the resources to influence and attract even those who will never become free political actors under its auspices. In other words, the evidence cited in the essay, though provocative in its own right, does not appear substantial enough to support its general (theoretical) claims. One might recall, in this context, the work of Tanika Sarkar, Urvashi Butalia, Mary E. John, Susie Tharu and Tejaswini Niranjana3—including Niranjana’s essay in this collection, “Nationalism Refigured: Contemporary South Asian...

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