Saturday, July 27, 2013

Representing and (re)interpreting a society’s history


Randeep Wadehra

Society, representation & textuality Edited by Sukalpa Bhattacharjee & C. Joshua Thomas 

Sage. Pages: xliv+274. Price: Rs. 795/-

As a society evolves, it constantly discards and adopts new ideas, traditions and worldviews. Its cultural mores influence other societies, which, in turn, influence them; textual output, in the form of literature, cinema and other performing arts, plays a vital role in sustaining this process. It not only represents, or reflects what occurs at a particular point in time but also interprets and reinterprets various events, incidents and ideas with the passage of time. Therefore, text is representative and interpretative functionally, and by its very nature. 
There is a consensus that all literature gives us some sort of historic sense – complete, incomplete, skewed or otherwise. This symbiosis between literature and historicity has been of great interest to scholars of various hues. For example, in the 19th century Germany, Gustav Schmoller had formulated economic theory based on economic history, for which he was severely criticized. Friedrich Nietzsche regarded historicism as an antiquated, uncritical approach to history whereas Ernst Troeltsch described it as the “tendency to regard all knowledge as subject to historical change.” 

For Troeltsch, the 19th century historicism stood for a Weltanschauung or worldview, which was fundamentally different from a naturalistic or positivistic understanding of reality based on the idea of an unchanging, universal natural law. In the 1930s England, historicism was looked upon differently. FA Hayek and Karl Popper did not agree with the 19th century doctrine that scientific predictions about the future could be based on certain laws of development. In the 1980s, the French philosopher Michel Foucault spearheaded ‘new historicism’ wherein historically based criticism attempts to eradicate any distinction between literature and history. Today, historicism has re-emerged as a thesis on the limits of enquiry based on an understanding of scientific concepts as relative.

In this collection of excellent essays, different aspects of interface between society, representation and textuality are examined. This interface, according to the editors, is, “genetic in the sense of being an originary cultural and historical source of creative subjectivity… (and) epiphanic in the sense of unveiling the originary experience of the ‘social’ in the realm of representables in the language of text.” Ghose avers that great literature and great music are indestructible because they are revelatory of a ‘background web of murmurings’ of which human beings and society are products or parts. Maroof Shah points out that the problem of evil is arguably the most difficult problem for all theistic worldviews. He goes on to argue that the “changed perception (of evil) differentiates modern humanist secularist worldviews from the traditional religious worldviews.”

Textuality, in the historicity sense, has been able to deconstruct, although not shatter altogether, the communal fault-lines. Rahman traces the impact of “Turkic invasions” in Bengal upon the Brahaminical worldview of caste equations, which ushered in the “radical shift in the field of literature on the soil of Bengal”. He also quotes from various literary works to highlight the process of “fusion of religions” during the last years of Muslim rule there. The 1947 Partition and its attendant trauma too have been assiduously studied in this volume. Raghavendra compares it with the Holocaust in terms of the depth, spread and durability of its impact upon the subcontinent’s people and the resulting literature. He shows how different cinematic works like Tamas, Anmol Ghadi, and Lahore interpret that trauma. He also contrasts the Indian and Pakistani interpretations of the Partition. The other essays look upon such issues as tribal worldview, stereotyping, folk traditions, identity and politics, et cetera. 

Published in The Financial World dated 27 July 2013


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