Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Possible Areas for Doctoral Research in English Studies

After the recent announcement by the HRD that a PhD will be made mandatory after the year 2021 as minimum eligibility for applying for the post of assistant professor, the number of interested students inquiring with me about possible areas and topics for doing PhD has gone up. I have been regularly blogging about doing research in English studies, the questions of methodology and coming up with a research proposal and many people have found it useful. Please also check out my following blogs: 

i) A Beginners Guide to Doing PhD in English Literature
ii) Choosing a Topic for the Research Project in English Literature
iii) Writing a Research Proposal in English studies
iv) Possible Areas of Research on Translation Studies
v) On Theorizing Indian Literatures and Cultures
vi) Application of Dionyz Durisin's notion of interliterariness to Indian literatures

English studies in India, after the late nineteen eighties, has undergone a paradigm shift by moving away from centrality of the Anglophone literatures (‘English’ literature, ‘American’ Literature and ‘Indian Writing in English’) to a more comparative Indian literatures framework. It moved away from the study of ‘English literature’ to ‘literatures in English’. This shift was propelled by multiple factors like the rise of postcolonial studies, ‘ the crisis in English studies’ debates in India, growth in Indian literatures in English translation,  development of translation studies and the Dalit studies,  as well as substantial incorporation of non-Anglophone critical theory (largely continental) and cultural studies into the English studies curriculum.  It is the same cultural need to contextualize English studies in India and make it relevant to the Indian studies that has given rise to growing emphasis on ‘English Language Teaching’.

 I have been working within this reoriented discipline from the past two decades, and hence my suggestions for the topics and areas for an M. Phil or PhD research comes from comparative Indian literatures framework. These topics and areas also reflect my own understanding of ‘the knowledge gaps’ in research in English studies today, as well as my own personal research interests. Hence, obviously these are not the only areas. I will be blogging more on other areas as well in future.
 A distinction between ‘an area’ and ‘a topic’ needs to be kept in mind. I have offered broad outline of an area, obviously one needs to relate it to specific authors/texts/ languages/ periods to delimit the project. This specific delimitation would be ‘the topic’. I have given examples from my own research and one can come up with any number of parallel ‘topics’ for their own research projects.

1) Hypertextuality and the questions of Digital Archiving of Indian literatures (Bhakti, 19th century etc), the post-print condition

While digital humanities has made substantial inroads into the western humanities academia, it is yet to make its place in India. However, after the explosion of the internet and massive proliferation of post-print digital data (‘big data’), the nature of knowledge, its production , circulation has undergone a profound change, and it is often compared to the print technology revolution in the early middle period of the previous millennium. Digital humanities as a discipline engages with methodological, epistemological and ontological issues of literary research in the context of this post-print digital universe of discourse. In the west, digital humanities  has often been thought of in terms of ‘ waves’ where the first wave focussed on large-scale digitization projects and the establishment of technological infrastructure facilitating the shift from ‘ print’ to ‘ digital’ space, the later developments and waves moved towards creating tools for dealing with ‘ born digital texts. Digital humanities in India is still in its nascent stage and will require transferring of massive pre-print, and print era documents into the digital space , hence dealing with the basic issues of OCR, funding and lack of interdisciplinary expertise. One can look up books like Digital_Humanities. eds. Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, et al. MIT, 2012 and Understanding Digital Humanities , ed. David Berry , 2012 for more information about digital humanities.

2) Globalization and Literary languages in India

The processes of globalization unleashed during the nineteen nineties have profoundly altered the cultural landscape of India. How literatures in Indian languages engages with the disturbing questions of virtual reality, new corporate capitalism, hybridization of languages, ‘post-truth’ and politics of media manipulation, rise of social media and the questions of digital identity, privacy, freedom of expression, pornography, and new forms of religious fanaticism is a critical domain of research. One can study how literatures produced in Indian languages (bhashas) in the nineteen nineties and the twenty first century comparatively. My own research on contemporary Marathi poetry deals with such questions. How do literatures from other Indian languages engage with, and embody these developments?

3)  Dalit literatures of the twenty first century

Caste and gender-based discrimination is deeply rooted in Indian society, and finds its expression in literatures. Dalit literatures emerged during the nineteen sixties, primarily in the form of autobiographies and poetry, and are receiving significant attention in the English studies academia. However, most of the texts that are being studied deal with the lives of Dalit writers during the sixties and the eighties. There is a need to focus on the writers who grew up in the nineties and the twenty first centuries (like Meena Kandasamy and S.Chandramohan  in English and Des Raj Kali in Punjabi) in order to understand the nature of their protest and their negotiation of caste-gender discrimination. We need to ask the questions regarding the role of class, corporate capitalism and technology in this negotiation. We need to compare their writings with the Dalit writers of the earlier generations.

4)   World Literature and Modernisms in Indian languages

Though the concept of ‘world literature’ is fairly old, going back to Goethe at least, it was during the nineteen nineties, after globalization, that the concept started being critically rethought by scholars such as Pascale Casanova, Franco Moretti and David Damrosch. These scholars went beyond the traditional notion of world literature as body of texts or a canon to underscore the transnational, trans-regional contexts of literary production, consumption and circulation. David Damrosch edited World Literature in Theory (2014) is the key anthology that would serve as an introduction to various deliberations around World Literature.

Indian students may draw upon these critical re-conceptualizations, and look at the phenomenon like modernisms (as distinct from modern or modernity) in Indian literatures other than English. For instance, one can look at the writings of the immensely influential writers-scholars such as Suresh Joshi, Dilip Chitre, Agyeya, Krishna Baldev Vaid, Vilas Sarang , G.A. Kulkarni , Namdeo Dhasal and Nirmal Verma ( many of their creative writings are available in English translation)  using the notion of world literature. It will help us to go beyond the stereotypical readings of these works in terms of ‘influences’ or ‘derivativeness’ and ‘inauthenticity’ that is associated with conventional understanding of modernism in India. One can even approach important literary movements of experimentation such as the Theatre of Absurd in various Indian languages using this theoretical approach. 

More specifically, this approach is also helpful in looking at specific seminal authors like Anton Chekhov,  T.S. Eliot, Charles Baudelaire, Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Rabindranath Tagore as world literature and their reception in various Indian languages.

5) Reception and the Impact of Poststructuralist, Postmodern Critical Theories on literary criticism in Indian languages (including performative gender studies)

Though English studies have incorporated the continental theories like poststructuralism, postmodernism, cultural studies in its methodology, how have non-English literary studies ‘received’ these theories need to be examined in their cultural and historical contexts.   For instance, critics like Suresh Joshi, Suman Shah, Babu Suthar, Chandrakant Topiwala in Gujarati, Milind Malshe, Gangadhar Patil, Vilas Sarang , M.S. Patil and Harishchandra Thorat in Marathi draw upon these theories  extensively. What is their impact on the bhasha criticism? What does this reception tell us about the historical context and cultural politics underlying literary criticism in the bhashas?

6) Interliterary processes in the post-Independence Indian literatures

Like the notion of ‘world literature’, the notion of ‘interliterariness’ developed by Dionyz Durisin is extremely useful to understand formation of multiple Indian literatures, as it helps us to overcome the notions of ‘ influences’ that perpetuates the influencer-influenced hierarchies and also helps us to understand literatures as processes rather than products. I am grateful to noted Marathi critic late Prof Kimbahune for drawing my attention to this theoretical framework and its use in multilingual Indian context. Dionyz Durisin’s Theory of Literary Comparativistics (1984) is a useful book. One can also look up Amiya Dev and Sisir Kumar Das edited anthology on Comparative Indian Literature for its application in some places. Marian Gallik’s essays on interliterariness and Durisin are helpful.
Check out my own essay on application of the notion of interliterariness to Indian literatures  by clicking here.

7) Rethinking Bhakti literatures and English studies (beyond colonial paradigms of reading bhakti)

Most of the reading precolonial Indian religious literature tend to see it as ‘pan- Indian’ ‘bhakti movement’ and read ‘universal mysticism’ and ‘democratization’ into it. This anachronistic reading of ‘bhakti’ itself was a result of the nineteenth century colonialism and colonial nationalist modernity that projected such modern or quasi-Christian notions derived from the Reformation onto this body of literature. 
My own research on Narsinh Mehta is deeply coloured by this conventional reading of bhakti. However, when I rethink bhakti critically today, I find it more of a sectarian (or rather panthiya or sampradayik) propaganda rather than being a product of any universal mystical community . It will be a good idea to see how these 'bhakti movements’ in various Indian languages are constructed during the colonial period, especially in English. For instance, R.D. Ranade’s book Mysticism in Maharashtra is an influential book of this kind. There is a need to ‘de-romanticize’ bhakti and rethink the relation between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ in Indian contexts. One also needs to take a second look at the dialogic/conflictual relation between ‘bhakti’ traditions and ‘ Indian Islamic traditions’.

8) Literary Historiography, Pedagogy and the History of literary canonization in Indian languages

Literary historiography in Indian languages began with pedagogical concerns during the late nineteenth century. How did such projects influence creation of literary canons in those languages? How does looking at historical contexts of historiographical writings reflect the changing poetics and politics of literary cultures? For instance, how do historiographical writings during the nineteen seventies and the eighties differ from the colonial projects? How does the historiographical writings of the nineteen nineties differ from those in the seventies or at the turn of the century? What does this difference tell us about literary culture of its times? How are pedagogical and canonizing concerns articulated in literary historiographies?

9) Anxiety of Influence and the Politics of Canonization in Modern Indian Literatures

Anxiety of Influence is a powerful theory developed by the American critic Harold Bloom that seeks to de-romanticize relationship between creative writers, and hence a very insightful ( non-Eliotian) take on the question of tradition and modernism. How does this quasi-Oedipal conflict between the authors and predecessors play out in literary arenas in India? My own writings of contemporary Marathi poetry highlight this love-hate tension between the influential modernist poets like Arun Kolatkar, Namdeo Dhasal, Dilip Chitre and Vasant Dahake ,and the new generation poets who emerged during the nineteen nineties like Manya Joshi, Hemant Divate, Mangesh N. Kale, Sanjeev Khandekar and Sachin Ketkar. How does this conflict play out in other Indian literatures?

10) Little Magazine movements and the Literary Avant-gardes in Indian literatures

As demonstrated by Benedict Anderson, print capitalism facilitated the imagination of ‘imagined community’ called nation in the context of colonial modernity. The little magazine movements in Indian languages were ‘non-periodical’ very often ephemeral ventures that were non-capitalistic in their orientation and outcomes of deep discontent with the cultural conservatism of the mainstream periodicals. The dissenting, non-conservative, sexually explicit and radical experimentation with cultural forms (including the visual) was articulated on such fringe, ephemeral platforms during the nineteen fifties and the sixties. In fact, important Dalit writing in Indian languages had to find space in the little magazines.   

Great amount of such avant-garde modernist writings later on became ‘mainstream’ and even ‘established’ over a period of time. Little magazines in Marathi included magazines of the sixties and the seventies such as ‘a-ba-ka-da-ee’, ‘ aso’, vaacha’ and so on. My own research work in Marathi is on and through the little magazines of the nineteen nineties like Shabdavedh, Saushthav and Abhidhanantar that defined themselves as continuing the avant-garde tendencies of their precursors as well as expressing the need to reinvent the idiom of poetry and the need to deal with the altered life and cultural landscape transformed by the forces of globalization. They also expressed their discontent with the idiom of the modernist sixties by pointing out what was once anti-establishment had already become established and clich├ęd. How did the poetics and politics of the little magazines play out in other Indian languages? How do they compare with the little magazine movements in other parts of the world?

One can also examine ' post-print' (non) periodicals ( e.g. Hakara in Marathi) and blogs in other Indian languages and their cultural agendas when the digital promises to shape our imaginations as ' virtual-global communities'.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Mockingbirds, Good Fences, Bad Neighbours, Refugee Mothers and Children: Or Teaching American Literature in the times of Donald Trump

Literature, as Ezra Pound famously said, is news that stays news. Resonance of quote comes freshly alive for me when I am teaching  American texts like To Kill a Mockingbird, “Mending Wall”, and a poem by the Nigerian-born–settled-in-America writer Chinua Achebe titled ‘Refugee Mother and Child’ as part of the core introductory course for the Bachelor of Arts with English honours (at the first year or ‘freshmen’) at my University in Baroda, Gujarat.

Teaching Harper Lee’s celebrated novel (1960) about racism and growing up in the American south in the backdrop of the recent racist violence of Charlottesville and  the Las Vegas shooting made me recall Italo Calvino’s definition of a classic as a book that has not finished saying what it has to say.   Though racial segregation may have been legally dead in America after the Civil Rights Movement –the event that forms the historical background of To Kill a Mockingbird, the racial segregation of the American hearts and minds seem far from deceased. It is precisely this failure of the law to ensure justice that forms the central theme of this novel, the theme that is critical even today, when the far right has drastically resurged in the western society, fifty seven years after the novel was published

Chinua Achebe’s moving poem ‘Refugee Mother and Child’ made students discuss the burning issue of refugees that has so deeply influenced the global politics today, whether it is ‘Brexit’ or Trump’s anti-immigration policies. Multiculturalism as a political ideology of globalization seems to be on a decline and one of the things fueling this decline is the Syrian refugee crisis and the underlying Islamophobia. Unsurprisingly, my students brought up the issue of the Rohingya refugees too. Clearly, the poem published in 1971 in America has not yet finished saying what it had to say 46 years ago. 
The Robert Frost‘s classic “Mending Wall”, published in 1914, too, has not finished saying what it has to say , especially when the current President Donald Trump has come to power promising the Americans to build a wall to wall out Mexican immigrants,  103 years after its publication. The speaker in the poem mischievously wants his farmer neighbor to rethink his traditional wisdom regarding ‘ Good fences make good neighbours’by drawing attention to that  there is ‘ something’ -probably something supernatural ( an elf? ) or even natural ( winter) that doesn’t love the wall. I don’t think I am as good natured as the farmer -speaker in the Frost poem to ask the President-who is not particularly known for his interest in literature unlike his coloured precursor- to even consider the fact that the ‘something’ that doesn’t love a wall is neither an elf nor winter, but history.

It is precisely this question of history and its relation to culture and literature that drove home to me how baseless is the anxiety of globalization as cultural homogenization (or Americanization).  Many of my students, especially from the metropolitan cosmopolitan (and yes upper-caste) background, are brought up regularly consuming wide range of American cultural artifacts: from fashion to popular novels like  Twilight, from the Hollywood films to  American TV series like “ the Game of the  Thrones”, from  American junk food to American social media ( Facebook or Tinder). Or even American English.And yet they could hardly comprehend most of the content on the first two pages of To Kill a Mockingbird. Who are the Southerners? Who was Andrew Jackson and who were the Creeks? What on earth is a ‘Methodist’ and what is a human chattel? They could hardly catch the Lee’s sarcasm regarding how the white families in the South could trace their lineages back to the Battle of Hastings, nor could they get the joke about  how Simon Finch,  Scout’s forefather, was escaping  persecution of the Methodist by “ more liberal” Christians in England. How is Robert Frost’s New England different from Harper Lee’s Alabama?

The displacement and annihilation of the Native American population, the American Revolution, the Civil war, racism , slavery, the Puritans and various Christian denominations, American social and cultural geographies that the first two pages of To Kill a Mockingbird pack are things that are part of shared collective memory of the Americans ended u p acting as a boundary that separates the American cultural text from the non-American readers who regularly consume popular American cultural artifacts. In short, artifacts are not cultures, and as the cultural theorist Yuri Lotman would point out, culture is non-hereditary memory of a group and it is always bounded (dividing ‘us’ from ‘them’).
The myth of globalization as Americanization is unfounded- we may be consuming more and more American artifacts, but the American cultural memory will never replace non-American cultural memories. And I doubt whether globalization can erase the cultural memory of non-American cultures, because as Lotman has pointed out, the cultural memory is not an archive or a library of past events ,but a mechanism embedded in the present and the contemporary that creates the image of the past and projects it backwards.

Reading and teaching literary texts from other cultures, from Lotman’s perspective, would invariably involve translation and translation according to his theory is the primary mechanism of generation of new meanings and information. Reading such American texts in the non-American societies and cultures would result in translation and generation of new information in those cultures. Globalization accelerates the translation and generation of new meanings in other cultures, leading to added dynamism of cultural change in those local cultures. This dynamism will be chaotic and unpredictable, not a simple Americanisation of the  world. 
[Check out my older presentation on American Poetry with reference to the poetry of Dickinson, Frost and Whitman  embedded below]