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A critique of Fredric Jameson’s thesis on ‘Third World literature’

  • Published at 04:21 pm May 21st, 2019
Rabindranath
A landscape by Rabindranath Tagore

Essay

Who hasn’t become a Fredric Jameson fan during the university days? In the realm of theory where there are so many isms that one can barely keep their wits about their head, Jameson has always seemed to have presented himself with a difference. While most are rewriting history, projecting their own agendas and appropriating the past according to their respective critical frameworks, Jameson has assumed a broader position, though, in his classically Marxist way, incorporating in his language jargons and modes of analyses used extensively by both modern and postmodern thinkers, and carefully avoiding presuppositions arising out of binary oppositions. His theory of the “political unconscious” has widened our horizons the most, helping us remove the grey outlines from areas of intersectionality and make sense of the cultural logic of a whole new world order. 

Reading his articles and books back in those days, we felt reassured that classical Marxism was still capable of offering substantive perspectives of looking at history, without sounding essentialist on other crucial fronts, such as race and gender. After a gap of a decade, sometime in 2015, I came across an article that led me to Jameson again. I was really excited as it was written by none other than Aijaz Ahmad, one of South Asia’s pre-eminent Marxist critics. 

But the Jameson he presents is not the one I used to know. In his inimitable lucidity, avoiding any propensity toward ambiguity, Ahmad presents a Jameson who offers an interpretation, first, of “Third World” and then, of “Third World Literature.” In his article entitled “Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the ‘National Allegory’”, Ahmad takes serious issue with such categorization that Jameson sets out to elucidate in an article entitled “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism”. Ahmad, who’s thought of Jameson as a comrade, suddenly discovers to his utter dismay that he is actually the “civilizational other” who Jameson theorizes in his interpretation. Needless to say, so are we—all of us in brown or black skin.

After reading Jameson’s article and Ahmad’s illuminating response, every reader, whether from “Third World” or “First World,” is likely to have a whole lot to say about this. What follows is my long overdue response to Jameson from the position of an avid reader and writer of Bangla and English literatures. By presenting analyses mainly of Rabindranath Tagore’s fictional work, I will also seek to add a few points to strengthen Ahmad’s position. 

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According to Ahmad, Jameson proposes “Third World” merely as a “descriptive” category since there is no other “comparable expression” to indicate the cultural and economic difference of countries with a common colonial experience. As for describing aspects of “Third World literature”, he comes up with the idea of “national allegories” in a broader sense. Calling literary texts from “Third World” countries “unmodern” and seeing them as representing “older forms of culture”, Jameson goes on to claim: “All third-world texts are necessarily, I want to argue, allegorical, and in a very specified way: they are to be read as what I will call national allegories, even when, or perhaps I should say, particularly when their forms develop out of predominantly western machineries of representation, such as the novel.”

Pointing out the hollowness of the argument of “Third World” as a “descriptive” category, Ahmad emphatically says that of all the people in the USA, “ … Jameson should know that when it comes to a knowledge of the world there is no such thing as the ‘essentially descriptive’; that ‘description’ is never ideologically or cognitively neutral … ‘Description’ has been central, for example, in the colonizing discourses. It was by assembling a monstrous machinery of descriptions … that those discourses were able to classify and ideologically master colonial subjects …”

Jameson’s whole theory underlies the binary opposition between “First World” and “Third World” economies. While there is consensus in the First World about stages of economic transformation and their modes of production, in the Third World, he says, we are confronted with two different modes of production: one, primitive or tribal society in Africa and two, the so-called “Asiatic mode of production” in India and China. Forcing thereafter a one-to-one correspondence between mode of production and its accompanying literary effects, he claims, due to its unimpeded capitalistic growth, western literature (which he calls postmodern) is marked by a split between the personal and the political, which is to say, the personal and political remain absolutely separate from each other in western literature, which is why it cannot be called allegory, least of all “national allegory”. 

Delving deeper and discussing all the possible economic and political aspects relevant to this subject, Aijaz Ahmad demonstrates that the generalizations and binary oppositions (Western versus Eastern and Postmodernism versus Nationalism) underlying Jameson’s interpretations are untenable and constitutive of efforts contributing to preparing “a ground from which judgements of classification, generalization and value can be made.” 

Ahmad also raises the crucial question about why Jameson seeks to homogenize all western writers into something that is absolutely different from, say, Asian or African writers: why should he ignore aspects of periodization? 

I find all the different tenets of Ahmad’s argument equally irrefutable and illuminating except the one about Urdu literature, which, I believe, falls short of sufficiently countering at least one aspect of Jameson’s claim. First, I want to argue that while tracing the growth of Urdu fiction, Ahmad has understood Jameson’s idea of “national allegory” only as a response to colonialism, which deviates, even if slightly, from the broader sense to which Jameson applies the term; secondly, I will show that if we accept Jameson’s generalizations about western literature for the sake of argument, then Tagore, by the very standard Jameson himself lays out, writes as brilliantly as any western writer; thirdly, I want to say that the real question to ask here is not about Jameson’s blinkered theory about “Third World” and its literatures, but about what would have happened if Tagore had chosen to apply only non-western techniques? Why are we to believe that such application of western techniques is the only mark of an elevation to which western countries have graduated but “Third World” countries have not? 

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Ahmad’s is an eight-part article. It is in the seventh part that he presents a brief history of Urdu prose and poetry, which, quite interestingly, has a lot in common with the development of Bangla prose. His principal argument is that at no point in the history of Urdu fiction—from the beginning till the post-partition writers (e.g. Manto, QurratulainHyder)—has a fictional text been written in response to the colonial experience. About the generation of Manto, he says they have written more about the shock of how we ourselves willed to “break up our civilizational unity, to kill our neighbors, to forgo that civic ethos, that moral bond with each other, without which human community is impossible.” 

By national allegory, Jameson, on the other hand, means a particular form of writing which can broadly be read as tied inextricably to one or the other of social, historical or political concern of a time. In other words, according to Jameson’s formulation, what Manto’s generation wrote about can also be read as “national allegory.” So can be Tagore’s Ghare Baire (Home and the World) and Gora, novels which take a strong stance against nationalism. Any fictional text is inevitably allegorical insofar as a social, political or historical engagement can overpoweringly be carved out of the storyline. So, to me, the real question is not whether the story is about colonial or any other political experience, rather to ask how Jameson gets to the totalizing conclusion that all the stories written by all the Asian writers, Manto and Tagore included, are necessarily tied to such social and political realities that can be called “allegorical.” Also, what if Manto and Tagore have written stories that resist such categorization and align themselves more with modernist fiction in the European tradition? What if some of their stories are exclusively modern, some unmodern and some contain both and thus offer something even richer? What if Tagore’s scientific bent of mind combined with his keen observation power led him to work out the vicissitudes of human mind and explore the literary potential of his findings through his stories and characters? His Nastanir (The Broken Home) and Chokher Bali (Binodini), one a novella and the other a novel, were both published in 1901, eight years before Freud’s writing appeared in English translation, and several years before some of Freud’s main theories of the unconscious and sexuality were originally published. 

Now let’s take a look at some of Tagore’s short and long fictional works, in addition to the ones already mentioned above. 

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When I first read Nastanir as a teenager, I had missed much of its thrust as a story. To my teenage consciousness stories like “Guptadhan” (Hidden Treasure), “Khudita Pashan” (Hungry Stone) and “Detective” appeared to be more engaging. Later on, even before I had embarked on my undergraduate studies as a student of English Literature, I read a substantial chunk of Freud and Marx’s writings in Bangla translation. By the time I had picked up Nastanir for a second time, I was familiar with Freud’s ideas of the unconscious, repression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive neurosis. So, the effect this second time was significantly different. The story’s premise is entirely based on psychological tensions emanating from the psychosexual interactions between the main characters. Set in the latter part of the 19th century, the story involves Charu, Bhupati (Charu’s rich husband) and Amal (Bhupati’s cousin). Bhupati keeps himself busy with work, leaving his much younger wife alone and depressed. It is only after Amal’s appearance in the household that she feels alive. The two immediately become friends but soon desire sets in and results in a kind of mind games: when one desires the other usually ignores. Not only in Nastanir, also in Chokher Bali, almost every action is triggered by some form of desire expressed or repressed, leading finally to a kind of disintegration that leaves everyone derelict. There is not even an iota of any hint at any social, political dimension; nor is it a realistic narrative. If one has to come up with a term to describe this dimension of Tagore’s prose fiction, psychological realism, I suppose, is a much better term. 

In Chokher Bali, Chaturanga (Quartet) and Jogajog (Nexus), Tagore took his psychological realism to a height that, to this day, seems unsurpassable in Bangla literature. Of course, there are other stories and novels in which traits of modernist fiction are visible. I have singled out these three to show how Tagore’s fictional works are informed by libidinal investment independently of any allegorical ties. 

Binodini (a widow) in Chokher Bali, Damini in Chaturanga and Kumudini in Jogajog—three of most powerful women characters in Bangla literature—curiously show a particular form of compulsive neurosis. Each of them confronts a family not ready to deal with their desires and rebellions, hence they each face what Freud calls “repression.” Resultantly, they, unbeknownst to them, resort to silent but compulsive chant-like utterances which are not mantras that widows or housewives chant in Hindu households. Performed almost ritualistically and compulsively, those are what Freud calls the formation of compulsive symptoms. 

To begin with, in his article called “Repression,”[i] Freud says that every act of repression generates a certain amount of mental energy which has to be expended by yet another mental exercise. One would assume that those compulsive utterances are what repression leads to. But there is more to it. Much like the content of “manifest dreams”, compulsive symptoms hide the libidinal aspects and transform them into incoherent utterances, as a way of partially fulfilling the demands of libido. In his article entitled, “The Paths to the Formation of Symptoms,” Freud says:

“We already know that neurotic symptoms are the outcome of a conflict which arises over a new method of satisfying the libido.” He goes on to say, “Thus, the symptom emerges as a many-times-distorted derivative of the unconscious libidinal wish-fulfilment, an ingeniously chosen piece of ambiguity with two meanings in complete mutual contradictions.” 

None of Tagore’s stories or novels (referred above) are realistic, nor are they in any way tied to any overpoweringly social-political situations. It must be mentioned in this context that the fact that these stories are all about the inner lives and growth of these characters as human beings has led many Indian and Bangladeshi Marxist critics to accuse Tagore of a higher-class bias, or of being too apolitical at times. That’s why, perhaps, one should also refer to “Shasti” (Punishment), a story about two day-laborers and their wives. In this story, there is no dearth of repression and psychological tension arising as much out of sexuality as of the poor brothers’ oppression at the hands of well-off landlords. Also, the description of how the brothers toil on a landowner’s house should satisfy those who believe that realism is the foremost characteristic of a “politically correct” narrative.

Tagore’s body of work offers a range that is unthinkable to most writers working in Bangla. He has numerous poems and plays and stories which are written in the non-European tradition while plenty of his works include both European and non-European elements. My question to Jameson is: what does it tell him about his totalizing analysis which Ahmad rightly calls “impoverished”? Does it mean that only those written in the European tradition represent a modern form while the rest offer “older forms of culture”? 

We can only hope that in the coming days the discipline of translation will strip itself of its neo-colonial, multinational (read European) clutches and attain at least some semblance of equality in matters of initiatives, distribution and circulation, so that the so-called Marxist as well as postmodern preachers of “political correctness” get a chance to read through the canonical texts from India and China, and thus correct their one-eyed views about Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Finally, considering such postulation of an arbitrary divide between the aesthetic practices of Third World and First World, I raise the question if we should aim toward a trans-African-South Asian-Latin American poetic and fictional praxis, if we should develop a counter-western epistemology, through both our fiction and nonfiction, to press home the point that Asia or Africa or Latin America can as well be the center of the world, and their non-western literatures can as well be the touchstone from which to look at and judge literary works from, say, the western world. 


Rifat Munim is Literary Editor, Dhaka Tribune.


[i] Freud, Sigmund. Repression. The Essentials of Psychoanalysis.  Ed. Anna Freud. London: Vintage, 1986.