Sunday, January 22, 2017

On Theorizing Indian Literatures and Cultures

         As a researcher in Indian literarures, languages and cultures, my interest in Semiotics of Culture as a theoretical framework developed by the scholars of the Tartu- Moscow School of semiotics especially Juri Lotman ( 1922-1993) stems from the fact that it:

I) Sees meaning as being essentially ‘translational’ and ‘culture’ as essentially multilingual  by underscoring the fact that no meaning-making system can exist in isolation or can be autonomous ( in contrast to Saussure) ……this core assumption makes it pertinent to Indian society which is mindbogglingly diverse and multilingual

II) sees literature (printed or oral or performative) as belonging to a expansive category of artistic texts thus going beyond the restrictive and colonial print-centric view of literature can allow us to understand the dialogic and translational exchanges between the printed or oral literary texts and  texts from cinema, paintings, dance or music

III) is of significant theoretical relevance to Comparative Indian Literatures.  The notion of vertical isomorphism of the semiospheres existing in dialogic interactions with each other at multiple levels  allows us to conceptualize a heterogeneous and stochastic ‘Indian semiosphere’ ( and consequently Indian literatures as being generated by the Indian semiosphere)made up of multiple semiospheres like ‘Marathi’ or “Gujarati’ semiospheres and these semiospheres can be conceptualized as being heterogeneous and stochastic in their own right, interacting dialogically with one another, different spaces within and interacting dialogically with cultural traditions and cultural histories that are neither specific to Marathi nor Gujarati (Sanskrit, Prakrit,  Perso-Arabic, European, Chinese, and so on).

The notion of semiosphere can also equip us to describe the cultural mechanisms underlying what Dionyz Durisin terms ' interliterary processes'. 
Similarly one can conceptualize ‘South Asian Semiosphere’ or ‘Asian Semiosphere’ or a Planetary Semiosphere that generates ‘ world literature’.

One can also understand gender, class and caste as semiospheres. 

IV) is a radical model of cultural historiography
a) It sees cultural historiography itself as a narrative and translational activity involving retrospective narrative reconstruction (translation) of cultural history (which is primarily unpredictable and irreversible) into the explanatory languages of the present ( e.g Habermasian sociology , Butler’s gender studies, Foucauldian analysis of discourse, governmentality or biopolitics )

b) it is a model of cultural change that highlights  differential and non-linear modes of development of the diverse co-existing meaning-making systems…for instance fashion, food and caste change at differential rates and poetry using the poetics of the 1940s ( the Ravi-Kiran Mandal lyricism ) can co-exist with the poetry using the avant-garde poetics of 60s in Marathi

c) It is a model of cultural change that views mechanisms of cultural change as being primarily ‘translational’….. it views the underlying mechanism in the generation of ‘the new’ as being translational

V) It provides tools and ideas for practical criticism of texts and their contexts
 The notions of semantic tropes, ‘the text-within-text, plot , the idea of symbol as plot-gene, continuous- discrete ( visual to verbal) dialogics and so on.

 The mainstream academic cultural studies in India due to its excessive reliance on French, American and British theories (which are monolingual, deterministic in orientation) has failed to come to terms with multilingual and chaotic social and cultural realities of India . 

Its lack of  critical self awareness can be seen in the fact that as it criticizes modernity ( with the ideas of nation or science) as being universalist, Euro-centric and elite on the one hand it has no  issues  uncritically accepting  ‘ Critical Theory’ whose roots go back to Frankfurt or Birmingham or Paris as if they are non-universalist, non-Eurocentric and non-elite.

The mainstream academic cultural studies have become reductive as it sees ‘political interpretation’ as the absolute horizon for all interpretation’ (as Jameson puts it)…. and extremely predictable almost conventional.  However the conceptualization of culture in semiotics of culture  subsumes the political as it sees cultural as fundamentally i) heterogeneous ii) asymmetrical iii) chaotically dynamic and iv) constructivist in terms of epistemology and cognition (seeing semiotic systems as ‘modelling’ systems)…in a sense subsumes political to the cultural rather than reduce the cultural to the political.

My Articles using Semiotics of Culture for Indian literatures :
 i) Indian Writing in English
ii) Indian Poetry in English
iii) Namdeo Dhasal and Dalit Literature
iv)  Modern and Modernism in Gujarati
v)  Avant-garde Gujarati literature
vi) Poetics and Politics of Self-translation


--- “On the semiosphere.” Translated by Wilma Clark.  Sign Systems Studies 33.1, 2005

---‘ The Text within the Text’ . (1981) Trans. Jerry Leo, Amy Mandelker , PMLA, Vol. 109, No. 3 (May, 1994), pp. 377-384

---“ Technological Progress as a Problem in the Study of Culture”, trans.  Ilana Gomel Poetics Today, Duke University Press Vol. 12, No. 4, National Literatures/Social Spaces (winter, 1991), pp. 781-800. 

---Universe of the Mind. A Semiotic Theory of Culture. Bloomington/ Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 1990. 

---‘Culture as Collective Intellect And Problems Of Artificial Intelligence’, trans. Ann Shukman, Russian Poetics in Translati0n,  No. 6, 1979, pp 84-96

---‘ The Poetics of Everyday Behaviour in the Eighteenth Century Russian Culture’, Translated by Andrea Beesing from “Poetika bytovogo povedeniia v russkoi kul’ture XVIII veka,” Trudy po znakovym sistemam, no.8 (Tartu, 1977), pp.65-89.

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