The Radical Universalism of Nivedita Majumdar


In The World in a Grain of Sand, Nivedita Majumdar offers a pointed correction to one of largest lacuna of Subaltern Studies (Post-Colonial literary criticism). 

Subaltern Studies, in case you have had the good luck to have never been mired in academia, is an influential field of historical inquiry that originated in the 1980s in India. It is a subfield of Postcolonial (Marxist) Studies, which is concerned with the cultural and political effects of colonialism and imperialism from an anti-capitalist perspective.

Subaltern Studies is specifically concerned with the experiences and perspectives of so-called "subaltern groups," which are social groups that are marginalized, oppressed or excluded from power by dominant groups in society. These groups may include peasants, workers, women, ethnic and religious minorities, and other marginalized populations. 

In theory, the aim of Subaltern Studies is to provide a "voice" for these groups and to challenge "dominant historical narratives" that have excluded or distorted their experiences. Subaltern Studies scholars draw on a range of interdisciplinary approaches, including history, anthropology, literary studies, and cultural studies, to recover the histories and cultures of subaltern groups, and to critique dominant historical narratives and discourses of power.

This is a goal I laud, however, in practice, I've always found Subaltern Studies to be dogmatic, narrow-minded and repetitious. Like most Post-modernist Studies, the proponents hide

They also veer toward a dangerous essentialism, which, ironically, is usually what those who approach human nature from an evolutionary perspective are accused of doing.

Essentialism applies to any stance that attributes to a human group an inherent and immutable set of defining characteristics or attributes that determine their identity and nature. While an evolutionary approach would see all of humanity as one species, with a human nature, but not a "race nature," essentialism asserts that people of different "identities," be they classes, castes, races, genders or "queernesses," cannot comprehend each other; they are essentially alien, even more than aliens are alien in science fiction.

This idea proposes that there is a fixed and universal nature or essence to all things, which determines their characteristics and behavior, and that these characteristics are innate and cannot be changed. In social contexts, essentialism can lead to the stereotyping and discrimination of individuals or groups based on perceived essential characteristics or attributes.

As far as I'm concerned, this is simply racism by a nicer name. 

I'm not a fan.

Less bitter than I, Niveditat Majumdar does not wholly dismiss the field, however. Yet she pinpoints the essentialist problem at the heart of "Postcolonial" studies. She writes:

I personally identify with the motivation behind the emergence of the postcolonial discipline: to challenge the ideology of colonial theory that what is distinctive and valuable about literary works from the South is that they eschew grand narratives and universal categories in favor of the concrete and the particular... by contrast [I argue] that postcolonial theory profoundly misunderstands what lies at the core of some of the most influential postcolonial works. 

This body of theory, I contend, insists on reading those works as emblems of a localized and particularistic consciousness, whereas in fact, often the opposite is true. 

...I draw a contrast between texts and interpretations that remain mired in categories of essentialized difference, and other texts that embody what I call radical universalism... while they are deeply anchored in lived experience, these latter texts delve into aspects of the local that are not specific to it. Rather, they are expressions of shared concerns and dilemmas, which readers in diverse cultural settings can understand and to which they can readily relate. 

This a local that encapsulates the universal. 

While I would ground my own universalism on an entirely different philosophical foundation, it fascinates and heartens me that even within the narrow straightjacket of the Postmodernist (Marxist) discourses in academia, some thinkers are able to reject the increasing trend toward essentialism.

She writes academically about what I've always felt intuitively about literature. A truly told story about a human life is a universal story. As Majumdar says, a work of meaningful fiction is "a local that encapsulates the universal."

We are in the process of moving into a new era of English Literature, as English literature cultures now exist all around the world. Not that a story loses its potential for universality, even if it must be translated. I still say that human is human; or, perhaps we will one day find: sentient is sentient. (May we one day not understand and be moved by stories told by dolphins, AIs, or real--extrasolar--aliens? Why not?)

A well-read scholar of English Literature must today consider novels not only from the five eyes (UK, US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand), but of course from India, Nigeria, the Caribbean, and the rest of global Anglophonia.

I would like to see more congregation and interchanges between the English-writing globe in popular genres, rather than merely the "high" literature, which currently dominates self-conscious dissemination of English literature. 

Digital publishing and print-on-demand offers an opportunity for publishers who might not be able to risk the cost of up-front prints or shipping between continents. 

Many of the digital platforms aren't available everywhere in the globe. Taxes and VATs imposed by governments cause problems too. This is an unnecessary burden place on indie publishers in small nations.

Yet, I think that with some creative strategies and more conscious marketing, we, as indie writers and publishers, COULD create a more accessible global market in English literature. Not just for the high-brow stuff praised in academia, but for the real meat and sorghum of literature... the romances, adventures, fantasies and mysteries and brand new genres that tell the universal human story with a million different local voices.