Literature and Imagination

Culture, uncritically read and experienced, can also mobilize the most bizarre and atavistic imaginings of the nation, a worst example of which can be found in the way the Taliban imagined their Afghanistan: a death world of humiliation and torture underwritten by uncritical retrieval of a so-called Islamic view of the nation.

Those of us who teach literature with an eye on the debates about the nation, nationalism, and the nation-state, find literary studies an appropriate medium for teaching the nation beyond the paradigmatic scope of the nation as mobilized in the interest of neoliberalism and the attendant financialization of the globe.

We live in an interesting age: an age in which the humanities have to constantly argue and assert the case for their existence. Most nations, especially the one’s designated as the “developing” ones, have pretty much forsaken the humanities and shifted their meager resources to the hard sciences and the disciplines of finance and business. The question that arises out of this new paradigm of global economy and the neoliberal imperative of progress is simply this: Is there a need for humanities in the current age?

Those of us familiar with the works of Benedict Anderson are also aware of his theorization of the nation as an “imagined community.” In his discussion of the nation as an imagined community, Anderson mobilizes the novel and the newspaper as two print media that enable the modern citizens to feel connected with the others of their kind. In such a scenario, the nation or nationness, in its cultural explanations, is invariably always connected with narrative forms of art. There is, however, a huge problem with the culturist assumptions about the nation. Culture, uncritically read and experienced, can also mobilize the most bizarre and atavistic imaginings of the nation, a worst example of which can be found in the way the Taliban imagined their Afghanistan: a death world of humiliation and torture underwritten by uncritical retrieval of a so-called Islamic view of the nation.

As always, when my anxieties about my role as a teacher of humanities become unbearable, I turn to the great Gayatri Spivak, for even though she is hard to understand sometimes, her commitment to the humanities and their role in ethical global citizenship is undeniable. In a public talk to a group in Sofia, Spivak invokes the problem of cultural nationalism in the following words:

“Culture” is a rusing signifier. If you are committed to ‘cultural nationalism’ while your ‘civic nationalism’ is committed to a Group of Eight state, it is possible, though not necessary, that you work against redistributive social justice in the ‘culturally’ chosen nation. (44)

I think what Spivak is suggesting here is that simply by defining the nation in cultural terms, we cannot also assume that the citizens so created would also become self aware and politically conscious enough to learn of their own exploitation at the hands of international capital. In fact, a deep investment in culture would serve a dual function in the interest of international global economic order: it would, and does, make the elite a party to the global exploitative practices while pitting the masses against each other in search of the illusive acts of cultural authenticity. Lost in the process is any appeal to the questions of redistribution of national resources.

Culture as a signifier of the nation and nation-state was not randomly chosen as a signifier. In terms of national theory, the purpose, at least in the works of Partha Chatterjee, was to refute the downward filtration thesis. The downward filtration theory posited that the rise of Indian nationalism was a direct outcome of the disillusionment of the Indian elite with the British system of dispensation and it is that disillusionment that enabled these western educated elite to then demand their own nation in the image of the European mother country.

By foregrounding culture, Partha Chatterjee can claim that the national consciousness pre-existed the politicization of the nationalist movement. Chatterjee explains this by dividing the colonial space into two spheres: the public and private. In his views, while the public sphere was under the direct dominance of the colonizers, the private sphere was always under control of the natives and almost impermeable to the colonizers. It is thus, in Chatrerjee’s view, in the private sphere that the idea of Indian nationalism takes its shape and can thus be called a purely native response to colonialism with not much to do with the politics of the western-educated national elite.

This privatization of the incubation of the nation has its attendant ramification, not the least of which is the retrieval of a purely nativist and archaic views on gender. This culturist view of the nation also mobilizes the mythological national narratives that we all consume and take as truth. The case is interesting in case of Pakistan.

In our textbooks, our stories, and in our media we are proffered a sort of universal imagination of the nation. If you went through the Pakistani educational system, you are probably not a stranger to the following stories:

  • Pakistan was created as a separate nation-state for the Muslims of India.
  • Pakistan is an Islamic nation-state.
  • Muslims of India wanted a separate country because of their irreconcilable differences with the Hindus.
  • These differences were heightened because the Hindus became a willing part of the rising British Empire at the final defeat of the Muslim kingdoms.

All of these assertions and slogans have the power to structure our collective and individual imagination: this is the nation as imagined and represented through our schools, media, and through our stories. There is, of course, a huge cost of this uncritical imagining of the nation. If we are an Islamic state, then it becomes increasingly easy to forget that certain minorities also exist in this Islamic nation. Furthermore, any modes of politicization that do not repeat the same mantra and may offer alternative modes of existence—socialism, for example—automatically become suspect as they are, so to speak, not competently Islamic enough. On the other hand, the elite can very easily use the same imagined view of the nation to underwrite their privilege. An emphasis on culture, and that is why Spivak calls it a ruse, can also mobilize the most archaic cultural norms in the name of the nation and against the liberalizing potential of modernity.

It is not strange that the Taliban, the group considered most countermodern in Pakistan, are strictly nativist in their approach to what they consider the gendered space of the nation, but have no problem in acquiring and using the modern means of destruction—all produced in the “evil west”—mostly to kill their own Muslim brothers ands sisters.

Against this conservative drive of cultural nationalism, humanities, as Spivak suggests, and a humanistic education can be a great investment. To learn English or another language not just to be a cog in the machinery of world business but also to be able to “read poetry in that language” (76). This seemingly apolitical and trivial reason to learn another language says more in support of humanities than many a hefty tome. For when we learn a language to read “poetry in it,” our interest in that culture or subculture does not form part of the normalized instrumental logic of the global marketplace. It is rather a gesture, an attempt at knowing the other from the point of view of the other in terms of what is valuable in their culture. And we all know that we cannot read the poetry of another’s language without bringing a trace of our own tradition with us, but, more importantly, without a more intimate understanding g of the culture that our chosen second language constructs. Only a thoroughly comparatist education, an education that offers all truths and all national imaginings within larger connotations of the nation, can assure the kind of reading that reads the sign critically and not simply apodictically.

As someone who edits a journal on Pakistan ( I often encounter the problem of the global corporate speech. What I mean is that I sometimes get submissions by scholars from elite private institutions who offer me their scholarly apologies for the “global village,” “development,” or the treatises about the nature and importance of investments. In a way, these submissions come to me as letters written by the Pakistani elite in the very image of and norm of what their global economic masters have offered them as the accepted and normalized corporate speech. On the other extreme, I also, sometimes, get submissions that try to educate their reader about the hackneyed topics of the “two nation theory” and the importance of Sharia for the future of Pakistan. As an editor, I would rather have a sort of hybrid of the two: an awareness of the narrative of progress but with an eye towards the socialistic potential of Islam, but that is hardly ever the case.

In such a scenario, a deep humanistic education, an education that is deeply comparatist and engages with the silenced narratives of the Pakistani regions, languages, and cultures would be rather more nuanced and probably more liberatory. Only humanities can accomplish the task of consuming knowledge critically and sometimes just for the pleasure of it. Business schools and technological universities can produce businessmen and good scientists but not necessarily good national and international citizens, for that can only be accomplished through a comparatist humanistic education.

Literary theory enables us to read and experience the literary texts, but beyond this function it also enables us to read the artistic renditions of a nation in a critical mode thus placing the truth-values and affective spectrum of the literary works itself under scrutiny. Within a national space an engagement with what are called vernaculars (Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi, Saraiki to name a few) also contain specific modes of representation of the sub-national identities within the nation of Pakistan. It would be useful to make them possible subjects of study in our national educational system so that our students, just like I did, do not grow up believing in the fiction that Urdu and English are the only two languages worthy of their time.

The role of the humanities, as Spivak suggests in Other Asias, is to “train the imagination” of our students. It is only through a strengthened humanistic education that this imagination can be trained into a deeply critical and politically aware imagination, or else we will keep repeating the vocabularies of the global marketplace that are being offered to us as remedies for all our troubles or, on the other hand, our youth will keep courting the equally destructive worldview of fanatics whose only solution to life’s persistent problems is death and silence.

Works Cited

Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and its Fragments. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1993.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. 1983. Revised Edition. London: Verso, 1991.

Spivak, Gayatri. Other Asias. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

—. Nationalism and the Imagination. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2010.

(Also published by Viewpoint Online)