Coming to terms with the twentieth-century ‘-isms’ (Part II) [Archives:2003/693/Education]

December 8 2003

By Dr Anil K Prasad, Associate Professor & Head,
Department of English, Faculty of Arts,
Ibb University,
Email: [email protected]

Certainly, we have been influenced by the slow 'decentring' of the canonical literature by the marginal or the literatures in English. The demand 'to open the canon' has been heard across the globe and the canon is enlarged to represent the other cultures and classes. Writers like Raja Rao, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Naguib Mahfouz, Tayeb Salih, Abdel Rahman Munef, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Bapsi Sidwa and Amitav Ghosh have found places in the university curricula worldwide. Competing with the big names of the West in the adventure of ideas we have names (to name a few) like Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Ihab Hassan, Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak, Aijaz Ahmed, Abdul R JanMohammed, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Ngungi Wa Thiong'o from the 'Orient' and the 'Dark Continent'. The rise of democracy, consumerist culture, mass culture, blurring of demarcation line between the high and low culture, introduction of new approaches to reading and interpretation, locutions to persuade – how to do things with words, new theories dislocating, dismantling, refiguring, and reallocating the boundaries of the author, the reader, the literary critic, the teacher, the text, and context, and the simultaneous developments in the fields of cinema, mass media and hyper reality have demytholized the concepts of creation, perception, and interpretation of contemporary art, literature, literary criticism, history and culture in such a way that coming to terms with different '-isms', 'de/di-' and 'post-' terms is a bewildering intellectual exercise. No wonder one can encounter a number of new terms, in the postmodern metalanguage of theory and criticism such as 'deconstuction, decentering, dissemination, dispersal, displacement, difference, discontinuity, demystification, delegitimation, disappearance' (Hassan, Ihab. “Beyond Postmodernism? Theory, Sense, and Pragmatism”, 1989), being used with altogether new connotations.
Even some the 'post-' terms like postmodernism, postcolonial, postfeminism, poststructuralism, postimperialism, postrealism, post-Marxism, and postnativism are used with/without the hyphen. The term 'postcolonial' has been described by Georg M. Gugelberger in The John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (1997) as 'one of the latest “tempests” in a postist world replacing Prospero's Books (the title of Peter Greenway's 1991 film) with a calibanistic viewpoint'. . Commenting on the use of the hyphen in the term 'postcolonial', Padmini Mongia (1996, 1997: 16) observes:
There has been some discussion of whether the term postcolonial should or should not be hyphenated. While there is by no means consensus on this issue, when used with the hyphen the term usually marks a temporal shift from the moment when colonialism officially ended to the period that comes after. Without the hyphen, the term refers to a form of critical practice that includes, but is not restricted to, post-structuralist analyses of colonialism and its legacies. (see Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: A Reader)
And even the terms 'Poststructural' and 'Postmodern' are sometimes used synonymously and it seems there is no consensus over the use of these terms. The definitions of Abrams (1991: 238) are very revealing in this regard:
“Postmodern” is sometimes used in place of, or interchangeably with, “poststructural”. It is more useful, however, to follow the examples of those who apply “postmodern” to recent developments in literature and other arts, and reserve “poststructural' for recent theories of criticism and of intellectual inquiries in general.
He further classifies:
Postmodernism in literature and the arts has parallels with the movement known as poststructuralism in linguistic and literary theory; poststructuralists undertake to subvert the foundations of language in order to show that its seeming meaningfulness dissipates, for a rigorous inquirer, into a play of conflicting indeterminacies, or else to show that all forms of cultural discourse are manifestations of the ideology, or of the relations and of constructions of power, in contemporary society (Ibid: 169).
Clearly, these terms defy clear-cut and precise definitions. This is again a reflection of the 'interconnected differences', overlappings, cutting across of the boundaries and the effects of a way of life in which even the 'cyborgs' cannot afford to be alone. Whether the former is more textual and language-based and the latter presents a vision of a new cultural wave that takes us to the realm of virtual reality both these pull together on the issues of creation, perception and interpretation of a text in the contexts of culture, history, psychology, gender, colonization, ethnicity, race, and power.
Consequently, in the present context the role of the traditional, authoritative and rigid classroom teacher and his/her strategies of teaching like everything authoritative and rigid have also been subverted and questioned. The traditional teacher has seen his/her demise with the death of the author and the absence of the text. And there appears in the class the incarnation of the teacher as a facilitator of learning/teaching. With the changing role of the teacher the meaning of the text has changed also. The traditional reader/teacher knew the definition of this world as the 'text, which the author intended' (Thorpe, James. Principles of Textual Criticism, 1972: 72), but now a 'text' is
ot a line of words releasing a single 'theological' meaning (the 'message' of the author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. A tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture. (Barthes, Roland. (1977). “The death of the author”. In David Lodge, Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader: 1988: 170)
We have entered the world of the twenty-first century with the 'necessity to substitute language itself for the person who until then had been supposed to be its owner' (Ibid p 168). The previous age has already seen the dismantling of the traditional distinctions between critic and creator, fiction and non-fiction, literature and non-literature where the English language has manifested itself under the hegemony of the British Empire the empire has written back to replace the canonical by the marginal, the Self by the Other decentering the centre and 'The centre is not the centre' (Derrida, Jacques. (1966). “Structure, sign, and play in the discourse of the human sciences”. In David Lodge, Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, 1988:109) therefore, it turns out 'to deconstruct the text into an undecidable scatter of opposed significations'. But
Most conspicuously, discourse has become the focal term among the critics who oppose the deconstructive concept of a “general text” that functions independently of particular historical conditions. Instead, they conceive of discourse as social parlance, or language -in-use, and consider it to be both the product and manifestation not of a timeless linguistic system, but of particular social conditions, class-structures, and power-relationships that alter in the course of history (Abrams, MH, 1999: 241).
In the world of academia there existed a relationship between the author and the text and the world during the heydays of classicism and humanism. Now the role of the author as a human subject is undermined, subverted and 'decentered'. Human author is 'simply a “space” in which linguistic and cultural codes come together to effect a text. In this antihumanistic stance, human being is no longer considered 'the major agency in effecting scientific, cultural and literary achievements'. To quote the French philosopher, Michele Foucault, 'Man is a simple fold in our language' and is going to disappear with the advent of the new form of language. Therefore an author is construed as the product of its own text; the result of the internal play of the language of the text. Further, the human subject is seen in relation to the surrounding world in terms of the relational effects of psychology, history, culture and society. On the contrary, the hitherto marginalized Others advocate for the identity of the human subject, the author as the representative of one or another groups, and consider him 'at the centre of the scene of writing, interpretation and political action'. As a result we have a number of relative perspectives and contexts, which interact with each other when a text is approached. These contexts (e.g. biographical, humanistic, classical, archetypal, historical, stylistic, psychoanalytic, phenomenological, dialogical, socio-economic, postcolonial, feminist, cultural, formalistic, linguistic, structuralist, poststructuralist, and deconstructive) can provide a possible point of entry for the students.
The twentieth-century literary world has been termed as an Age of the Reader and 'if a text does not have a reader, it does not exist – or at least it has no meaning' (Guerin, Wilfred, et al.: A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature.1999: 356). Different theorists have variously defined the reader but the reader in the classroom is a different reader. He might be called the 'actual reader' but not the' virtual reader' whom the writer has in mind or the 'ideal reader', 'the perfectly insightful' reader who follows the writer's every shift and move. Now the task of the teacher as the facilitator of learning is to make the actual readers in the class aware of what David Daiches (Critical Approaches to Literature, 1956:393) said:
Every effective literary critic sees some facet of literary art and develops awareness with respect to it; but the total vision, or something approximating it, comes only to those who learn how to blend the insights yielded by many critical approaches.