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  • Of Incommensurability:A Response to Ranjan Ghosh's and J. Hillis Miller's Thinking Literature Across Continents
  • Martin Middeke (bio)

Ranjan Ghosh and J. Hillis Miller present us with a rich dialogue. Their dialogue reveals that even though their approaches to the nature as well as to the functions of literature and literariness are in many ways incommensurable, it is this very incommensurability and the differences that guide their dialogue which create a fertile transnational and transcultural basis. Not only do incommensurability and difference of viewpoints and their creative polyphony characterise Ghosh's and Miller's methodology, the multi-voicedness and the anti-hierarchical coexistence of voices in an utterance or a text become the common denominator of the multitude of observations Ghosh and Miller make about literature. Ghosh's and Miller's dialogue—in the best sense of Bahktinian dialogicity—reveals the interplay as well as the independence of critical, scholarly, literary, and artistic voices. On the one hand, Ghosh and Miller relish in the heteroglossia that literature has to offer; on the other hand, their dialogue itself epitomises such heteroglossia—a network of interrelated yet incommensurable utterances and viewpoints.

The ten chapters of Thinking Literature Across Continents do not present literature, culture, and history as closed boxes. Reminiscent [End Page 846] of Rita Felski's provocative statement that "context stinks" (2011), both Ghosh and Miller, albeit in different ways, scrutinise the historicist belief that literature and art are mere symptoms of historical circumstance. Rather than asking why a particular piece of literature was written at a particular time and in a particular historical or cultural context, both Ghosh and Miller highlight the aesthetic uniqueness involved in each text, in its production, as well as in its reception. Thinking Literature Across Continents juxtaposes centuries of Western philosophy and critical/literary/cultural theory and likewise centuries of Sanskrit, Hindi, and Bengali concepts of philosophy, culture, and, particularly, literature (or, as Ghosh names it in his own language: "sahitya"). Of course it is impossible for a short response such as this to do justice to each argument of a book fuelled by such a vast array of theoretical and philosophical background. Rather than reflecting on their differences, in the following I shall concentrate on what Ghosh and Miller have in common. My focus will be on parts I and V of Thinking Literature Across Continents and, accordingly, on the questions of the matter and mattering of literature and how eventually a literary ethics can be formulated.

Ghosh's and Miller's methodology, at a first glance, seem very different. From Ghosh's transcultural approach, which he himself denotes as "(in)fusion," or, in variation, "infusion-now" and "(in) fusion-trans-now" (2016, 4ff.), a hermeneutic desire emanates: A cartography of what literature is, and what literature can do beyond the boundaries of nations, cultures, and individual texts. Ghosh's literary theory, hence, aims at a more general validity, at a lineage of knowledge about literature which presents inside and outside factors at work in the production as well as in the agency and appeal of literature. Infusion, however, also entails constant motion, constant exceeding and transcending, a perpetual development of the archive of knowledge, so to speak. Reminiscent of Nietzsche's view in his Untimely Meditations, Ghosh does not look upon history and historical development of literature through the eyes of an antiquarian, but rather provides an entirely revisionist view. Miller, though decisively disapproving of approaches to the fictional that go beyond the realm of language while, of course, acknowledging those, shares Ghosh's belief in the necessity and, in fact, inevitability, of revision. Any work of art, any reading of it, indeed any second reading of it by the same person, let alone by other persons, are entangled in time and temporal progression. Miller's consequence from this insight in the utter uniqueness, non-iterability, non-repeatability of an event, [End Page 847] an experience, an impression, or a reading is that any such reading must be a rhetorical reading—language-based—and that (his own) literary theory, thus, could only be an abstraction from such rhetorical readings which, at best, could be viewed as exemplary. Given the fact that...


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