Sunday, March 3, 2013

The presence of English in India at the crossroads chapter 4

Probal Dasgupta

Kumud Chandra Dutta Memorial Lectures 1997 (Dibrugarh University, Assam)

Published as ‘The presence of English in India at the crossroads’, pp 1-132, in Probal Dasgupta, Udayon Misra, Amaresh Datta (2002) English at Crossroads: The Post-Colonial Situation: Kumud Chandra Dutta Memorial Lecture Series, 1997-98. Guwahati: Students’ Stores.

Posted here chapterwise; this is the fourth of six chapters. In the text itself I call the chapters ‘sections’ and the sections ‘subsections’.

4. Against Industriality

4.1 The industrial hijack of language

The section Against Industriality considers in some detail the form of the presence of English in India. It argues that this presence and by extension the presence of English in many other societies represents an industrial hijack of the cognitive. Recognizing this and taking appropriate action is a prerequisite for any recovery of cognitive health in and outside India.

The speakers of Indian languages have mortgaged the cogni­tive sector of their verbality to the techno‑industrial leviathan whose antics we have been consigning to the category of the Olympian or monumental paradigm. In the present section of the argument we shall call it just "the industrial". In India, the industrial take‑over of our cognitive functions takes the form of a certain English monopolizing all discursive and analytical enunciation‑work and leaving the expressive sector to the Indian languages. The Indian elite that has grown up under this monopoly has a certain English identity.

This is not to deny that many members of this elite lead their personal lives in Indian languages and conduct only speci­fied types of business in English. The point is that the national elite as a whole has an investment in that language as a definer of the functioning and reproduction of the entire elite. This investment has led to the emergence of an English‑focused expressive subcommunity of virtually monoglot Indians. Call it the Anglophone elite. Its existence may be read as a marker of the broader national elite's commitment to the more than auxili­ary use of English, of that elite's commitment to a partial identity‑marking role for English in India.

Had this commitment been total or on the verge of becoming so, we would have expected to see signs of Marathi, Bangla, Telugu, Kannada etc. losing their hold over their respective constituencies. Then we would have little to discuss. But that is not the scene. Hence my image of a hijack rather than a killing.

That the scene is complex becomes especially clear when we look at the split lexis of modern Indian languages and at the absence of an audio‑visual expressive industry in India's Eng­lish‑speaking sector. To unpack the first point, in any typical modern Indian language, all speakers agree in using a generous sprinkling of unassimilated English words representing categories such as technicality or the world of remunerative labour. And yet, in the same language, all writers agree in systematically replacing these words with a whole battery of variably stable neologisms coined during various waves of the native term produc­tion enterprise. This is the split lexis fact about this country's modern languages. When they wax technical, they speak English but they write translationese. Now to unpack our second point: the numerous Anglophone Indians see fit to adapt them­selves to the entertainment habits of two distinct populations ‑‑ the Indian language population, which patronizes the films, the popular songs, and other subjectivity‑stroking industries in Indian languages; and the global Anglophone population, which forms a massive outer market for Anglo‑American media products. Despite the means, motive, and opportunity, there is no Indian popular culture in English to offer an arena of light, uncon­scious, and therefore collective self‑articulation for this country's English‑focused subcommunity.

Those were the points. Let us look at them. Point one, the split lexis, shows that speakers of Indian languages regard the English usurpation of their cognitive sector as a temporary arrangement, not to be welcomed into serious Indian language use. This shows that it is a hijack. Point two, the absence of an Anglophone Indian popular culture industry, indicates that not just the apparent victims but even the apparent agents of the hijack take it to be a provisional state of affairs that one is shacking up in, not a cultural home that one can inhabit as an incipient community of English‑speaking Indians who construct or vicariously sponsor a collective self‑expression system.

These and related facts, reviewed elsewhere, seem to support the idea that a person looking for identities in this country will find expressively articulated and tradition‑bearing identities only in the Indian languages, and that, if you need identity to be a community, then there is no such thing as a community of Anglophone Indians held together by their common language.

However, this reasonable first reading of the facts rests on an uncritical acceptance of the naive dichotomy between the cognitive sector of language use, hijacked in this country by the industrial language English, and the expressive sector, which such a division of cultural labour reserves for the Indian languages, appearing to explain the lack of a popular cultural base in English. What if we question the neatness of the cogni­tive vs expressive dichotomy?

The details of the literary basis of the NRI writing take‑off that took place in the eighties and became evident in the nineties lend themselves to the task of posing what look like the right questions. It transpires that a knowledge‑inebriated period turns creative writing itself into a crucible where notions of the cognitive and the expressive are renegotiated. To see this point quickly, consider the novel Shame, where Rushdie  ‑‑ or, if you prefer, the novel's narrator ‑‑ notes that the forms of fantasy and fabulation come naturally if you do not have the rooted, self‑assured knowledge‑claims over the society you write about that the classical nations with continuous primordial identities used to regard as the natural stance to be taken by their novelists. In other words, Indian creative writing in English took off precisely when the climate of creative writing put a certain cognitive framing exercise in power and the expressive needs of expatriate and other identity‑insecure Indi­ans met the newly available formal devices, which we may abbrevi­ate under the rubric of Metafiction.

These successes in metacreative writing by NRIs roughly synchronize with the high profile NRI presence in Silicon Valley in particular and the emergence of the professional NRI profile in the West in general ‑‑ an emergence whose domestic incidence in India, in the educational sector as brain drain and in the home lives of affluent families as the partial export of their work force, correspondingly transformed the Indian social scene around the same time, in ways that are only beginning to be taken seriously.

It seems fair to say that the literary centre of gravity of the high writing in English by Indians lies, today, in the NRI base of the Indian Anglophone community. What if this community is best viewed as being on its way to building a self‑definition, an identity if you wish, from the industrial base it already has rather than the popular‑cultural base which its India‑resident fraction lacks? What if the project of such an identity‑building can complete itself, becoming reflexive and self‑reproducing, without incorporating the rural base of an Indian nation along the lines of the nations imagined earlier? What would such a development, so read, do to our understanding of what is happen­ing and what sorts of outcome are possible?

We bear such questions in mind as we visualize ways in which the project of Anglophone Indian identity construction can move towards completion.

4.2 Scenarios of bounded completion

Our first exercise is to note ways in which such completion can occur that involve forming a strong boundary between the haves in India, who speak English fluently and marketably (dif­ferentiated into various markets, including some with a non‑market self‑image), and the have‑nots. We shall visualize scenarios, then, of a bounded completion of the task of An­glophone identity construction.

One such scenario proposes a frank sellout to an exogenous master elite calling the shots. There are variants, depending on the master elite being white or of Indian origin, on different geopolitical fractions of such a master elite being successfully played off against each other by an agile India‑based comprador elite or receiving uniform servility, and other obvious consider­ations.

The other scenarios are couched in the nationalist rhetoric. I would argue that they all involve hypothecating this nation to a master narrative, and that they differ only on their choice of narrative. This of course is an empirical thesis and deserves criticism and testing.

With some misgivings, we may appropriate the mainstream terms Right and Left, speaking of the left narrative scenario which conducts its serious discourse in English alone (and, rather strikingly, never did learn enough German and Russian for that to make a difference), as distinct from the right narrative scenario whose serious discourse, though conducted in English, allocates specific roles to a Sanskrit sublexicon (even in its English) and to the Hindi language as an arena of narrative anchorage. On our analysis, the national political parties on the right and on the left are equally committed to the articulation in English alone of the knowledge base of India ‑‑ and, we argue, to the emergence of an English‑focused core elite ‑‑ with respect to a particular master narrative driving the key discourses. The parties differ only in that they choose different master narra­tives.

The frank sellout scenario and the two nationalist scenarios (left narrative and right narrative) all count as visualizations of bounded completion for the project of constructing an identity for the Anglophone Indian elite. They all involve fortifying the walls separating this elite from the Indian public as a whole. They all reject India's modern languages as sites for the redefi­nition of modernity through public conversations relative to specific regions, for they assume tacitly that modernity is a given, flowing from either a master elite in some west or a master narrative in some epistemological heaven.

Concrete implementations of such programmes will of course play ball with India's regional languages and the political forces representing them. It is a matter of containing them as special interest groups, a problem that such a programme will also need to address in the case of categories like dalits or adivasis or women. The idea will be to hand out various types of populist sops and to appear to give these local specifications a place of honour in the grand scheme that the master narrative weaves. One would predict that, once such containment is success­ful, the relevant constituency's distinctive language, if any, will be resanskritized via English as the new Sanskrit, ever willing to purify local power into a representation of central power.

On any of the bounded completion scenarios, one must visual­ize not only the political actions and their dynamics, but also the journalistic and academic commentary that stages and shapes them. Thus, one imagines a dispassionate, spectatorial mainstream social science community looking on, possibly pleading for some sort of Modern or Antirevivalist outcome when it takes sides at all, but underwriting a consensual view of the spectrum of choic­es available as ranging from sellout through right nationalism to left nationalism, period. And, when we think about the possible sanskritization of properly contained local satrapies, we cannot help also imagining a certain mainstream social science adding to the event itself the commentarial masala of an academically worded celebration of the victory of rational, communication‑maximizing, modern forces of civil sentiment over the primordial subject matter of a nineteenth century ethnology.
We turn now to another spectrum of possibilities.

4.3 Programmes of sustainable repletion

This subsection features another way to visualize the task of strengthening the Indian public's base of modern knowledge to the point at which one feels that this public is as much of a learner as any other community of learners ‑‑ what one might consider a completion or a phase transition. On the conception considered here, one would speak, however, not of completion, but of a certain type of Repletion. The idea is that the community reaches a point in its management of the relevant resource (here, knowledge as a resource) where its members know how to replenish whatever items get exhausted. If these members are confident about reproducing and upgrading such knowhow through further phase transitions, it is possible to speak specifically of sus­tainable repletion.

We consider here agendas that ask how this goal can be attained with the whole Indian public as the relevant domain rather than just some elite defined in terms of differential possession of some scarce resource such as knowledge of English. Of course, such agendas allow that the public goal of repletion with respect to knowledge resources may involve certain private subgoals. Thus, it is unsurprising if a subcommunity that speaks only or mainly English, in the course of pursuing its own sub­goals of reproduction and expansion, turns out to be serving the public interest as far as knowledge resources are concerned, for example by becoming model textbook writers or schoolteachers. But things change for such a subcommunity, say the Anglophone Indi­ans, if its articulate members view these private subgoals in the matrix of the public goal of replenishing knowledge resources and manage to work in terms of such a view as well as to communicate it ‑‑ not necessarily in these conceptual terms, but possibly by revisiting familiar Gandhian notions of trusteeship ‑‑ to their constituencies. We consider here the possibility of certain articulators of the Anglophone Indian community's interests moving into a visualization of this type.

The conceptual content of such a transition is perhaps most usefully seen as a shift from the model of a Master Narrative qua Foundation to the countermodel of a Host Narrative qua Arena. But these terms get us little mileage outside the ateliers of theore­ticity.

The strategic issue for such a transition may be phrased roughly as follows: will India's English writers be able to write up the hybrid non‑site of open negotiation as an achievement screenplay? For only if the appearance of workaholic frenzy is reproduced will the key actors in Anglophone India's social field consent to participate in Accomplishing such a Transition. The problem is that a hybrid non‑site where you relativize certain cultures to others does not immediately look like a scene of heroic action.
An affirmative response to this strategic question may be forthcoming from the normal visualizers of such scenarios. If the social scientific advisors to the new prince, while they quarrel over the doses of subversion masaalaa to be added to their recipes, hit upon a way to package Sustainable Relativization as a success story in the new genre of Negotiation, then we are home.

The word Home is not an inadvertent choice, of course. It designates the problem of sustainable relativization of culture to culture in terms of the task of mutual hospitality, the challenge of finding ways for each culture to play both guest and host to the other. This strategic problem is in dialogue with central theoretical issues in social science to the extent that a communication‑symmetrizing concept of learning can be reconstrued in a mutualizing fashion, in terms of extending reciprocal cognitive hospitality as a level where the cognitive economy of culture is defined by the actual cycle of re‑cognized, re‑writ­ten, re‑cultured practices circulating in a pattern of general­ized reciprocity. Such a level seeks a new political science that crucially relativizes sociology's industriality to anthropology's sustainable notion of cognitive transmission and provides a model, in the theoretical negotiation‑gesture itself, for the other relativizations.

To return to the affirmative packaging that Anglophone India's articulators can be expected to create, the point is to see the way this subcommunity faces the Indian (non‑Anglophone) public and the Anglophone (global) public as twin challenges of learning how to play guest and host. As a point of departure for the job of redefining these issues, let us consider the following proposal. In mainstream articulations, India's Anglophone elite views itself as playing host to the rest of India and guest to the North (or to the Metropolis, or to the first world, however you put it); new articulations that can now be expected to emerge will persuade it to self‑consciously also play guest to the rest of India and host to the first world. This proposal enables us to see how programmes of sustainable repletion fan out into concrete options.

There are options that stress the idea of learning how to play host to the first world. This is an old idea at one level. But we are already finding out that it is a new idea. To play host to Anglophone whites coming to India is also a matter of learning how to help them to learn how to behave like real guests. And this turns out to be linked to our own global task in the third world. As we continue to grow with other third world countries into a politically articulate understanding of the role all of us have been playing in letting the first world take off into the consumerist stratosphere at our expense, it will become easier to spell out the variants of the programme that stress learning how to play host to the whites.

Other options emphasize the component of learning how to play guest and not host to the non‑Anglophone "rest of India". Institutionally, this means relativizing the work done at the university departments of English to the study of the Indian habitat that has, in various non‑English languages, received and recast the literature and culture of the industrial and manageri­al leviathan. I am happy to report that this relativization is already happening, thanks to cultural studies, feminism and other radicalities, and that one can expect it, in a decade or two, to do its own self‑conscious work in the Indian languages which will crucially reshape such agendas.

Yet another set of options focuses on the industrial hijack of the cognitive and seeks to reverse it in practice while elabo­rating the terms of this reversal in the theoretical commentary accompanying this practice. This deeper relativization of indus­try to non‑industry, of English to non‑English, asks directly the question of what form the industrial‑English hijack has taken and what one is supposed to do about it in order to arrive at sus­tainable repletion levels for knowledge resources, given that such a hijack is not sustainable. In this variant, the programme must pursue the general negotiation of the formal sector of all economies, including the cognitive economy, with the informal sector that surrounds it and must underwrite it for its formali­ties to be sustainable. Here one looks forward to a more clearly articulated alliance of feminism, ecology, aboriginal rights, and a geographically focused, possibly district level regionalism that will repose the basic questions of who knows what, and who learns what from whom, in the domain of resources and management. Such a recast localist struggle will lead to a redefinition of the idea of economics to which the social sciences have mortgaged human rationality.

All these variants of the programme depend on the powers and limits of narrative for the possibility of becoming properly tellable stories of Anglophone India's search for a dignified identity without a particular piece of land. Current writing shows that narrative can celebrate unfinishable but sustainable negotiation as richly as it can the older goal of permanent‑looking victories over various adversaries. Only in and after such new narratives can the English‑focused expressive cluster of Indians in and outside India get their act together. And all the scenarios and programmes considered in this argument are likely to get a hearing.

4.4 Concluding unscientific postscript

This is a methodological remark about the human studies and the social sciences, and addresses the question of how the vari­ous modes of discourse in our interwoven disciplines can and cannot add up.

I begin with the double articulation of modern society in what I might call the Literature of narrative and the Numerature of head counts and measurements of relative might, following the divide between Literacy and Numeracy in the qualitative and quantitative academic disciplines respectively. These two articulations meet at the point of discursive knowledge. The human studies look at the invitational core content of a narra­tive community, examining how this content ‑‑ the community inviting the new and the other into its self ‑‑ narrates and thus constitutes itself as a continuity. The social sciences consider how such content is consumed, distributed, and limited, formulating their speculations in a form that takes off from a journalistic ground and flaps its numerate wings in a scientific sky. This genre feeds back into the journalistic and narrative enterprises, activating an endless cycle of hybridization that neither the social studies nor the human sciences can ever hope to understand, but only to sustain, if we wish to continue to clothe our discursive knowledge in such shapes.

There are other, less Olympian, choices that thinkers may wish to consider. Some of these choices become attractive when we look at the reexamination of the basis of linguistic theory in the next section. The present section has tried to make a coffin for the picture of a natural presence of English as a code in India as a place. The following section tries to drive a couple of nails into that coffin. Those who wish to exhume the body are welcome to the stink they will produce in the process. As an opponent of the worship of products, I am doctrinally bound to welcome their process as yet another guest in Processland.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home