Rahila Khan and Toby Forward

More teasing of the Literary ‘what did I just say?’ Theory mafia, thanks to another link-donation by Allen Esterson. Terry Eagleton was doing his bit all the way back in 1999 – surely before After Theory was even a file on Eagelton’s computer.

Gayatri Spivak remarks with some justification in this book that a good deal of US post-colonial theory is ‘bogus’, but this gesture is de rigueur when it comes to one post-colonial critic writing about the rest. Besides, for a ‘Third World’ theorist to break this news to her American colleagues is in one sense deeply unwelcome, and in another sense exactly what they want to hear. Nothing is more voguish in guilt-ridden US academia than to point to the inevitable bad faith of one’s position. It is the nearest a Post-Modernist can come to authenticity.

Bogus! Now that hurts. And from Gayatri herself, too. Angst is good, and masochism is better, and autoguilt-tripping is downright special…but that doesn’t mean people want to be called bogus! Jeez. Especially not by the great Spivak herself. Talk about humiliating. You might as well be called an Orientalist by Said or a logocentrist by Derrida or a power-tripper by Foucault or a whiny bedwetter by Freud.

Post-colonial theory makes heavy weather of a respect for the Other, but its most immediate Other, the reader, is apparently dispensed from this sensitivity. Radical academics, one might have naively imagined, have a certain political responsibility to ensure that their ideas win an audience outside senior common rooms. In US academia, however, such popularising or plumpes Denken is unlikely to win you much in the way of posh chairs and prestigious awards, so that left-wingers like Spivak, for all their stock-in-trade scorn for academia, can churn out writing far more inaccessible to the public than the literary élitists who so heartily despise them.

Well exactly. Bingo. Get me I’m a radical and that’s why my writing is so deliberately incomprehensible that the public would rather be set on fire than read a word of it. Hotcha! That’s the way to start the revolution.

More charitable readers will see this garrulous hotch-potch as a strike at the linear narratives of Enlightenment, by one whose gender and ethnicity these violently exclude…The line between post-colonial hybridity and Post-Modern anything-goes-ism is embarrassingly thin. As feminist, deconstructionist, post-Marxist and post-colonialist together, Spivak seems reluctant to be left out of any theoretical game in town. Multiplying one’s options is an admirable theoretical posture, as well as a familiar bit of US market philosophy. For Spivak to impose a coherent narrative on her materials, even if her title spuriously suggests one, would be the sin of teleology, which banishes certain topics just as imperialism sidelines certain peoples.

He gets kinder after that – and we don’t want to read kindness on the subject, do we. At least I don’t want to quote it. Where’s the fun in that. So instead read this fascinating item that Chris Whiley brought to my attention. It’s full of interesting subjects and implications. Read about Rahila Khan, and her book Down the Road, Worlds Away which was published by Virago in 1987 in its ‘Upstarts’ series.

Virago accepted her book, an acceptance that, in the words of Professor Dympna Callaghan, Professor of English at Syracuse University and author of a Marxist analysis of the exclusion of women from the Renaissance stage, “seemed to fulfill one of Virago’s laudable objectives, that of publishing the work of a diverse group of contemporary feminist authors.”…The agent was surprised to discover that Miss Khan was actually the Reverend Toby Forward, a Church of England vicar…Virago felt it necessary to stand by its purely literary judgment, namely that the stories were written “with hard-eyed realism and poignant simplicity”—it had to do so, or it would justly have been accused of applying double standards to work by Asian women and white men, which would have revealed a frankly racist condescension. But Virago decided that politics in this instance was the better part of literature, and was more important, indeed, than whether the book had anything worthwhile or important to say. It therefore refused to sell any more copies of the offending work. This, as we shall see, was ironic, because the author was drawing attention, not before time, to the truly oppressed condition of certain women, a condition in which one might have supposed that feminists would be interested. The personal identity of the author thus came to be all-important just at the very moment when, elsewhere in the literary world, the death of the author was being confidently announced.

Ironic, all right. Ironic on many levels and for many reasons. Read the whole article – it’s a complicated and interesting story.

The confusion that the affair sowed was evident in the clotted prose that it stimulated. Here is Professor Callaghan again in her essay, “The Vicar and Virago”:

As we saw in the Vicar and Virago Affair, the problem of identity is exacerbated to the point of hypervisibility in the relation between the cultural inscription of race as color and the erasure of race in the dominant construction of white identity. Whites are feverishly clutching at their/our ethnicities—and everyone else’s—and are threatened by the knowledge that the racially hegemonic invisibility so long cultivated may now spell disappearance. In its worst manifestations, this becomes neo-Nazism, but even at its best, this attempt to register whiteness as a racial identity risks reproducing the notion of race as an objective (rather than socially constructed) spectrum of human identity. “Equalizing” racial categories will only succeed in suspending the history of racism and making whiteness, as opposed to white privilege, visible.

But Toby Forward was actually trying to say something, and people made it very difficult for him to do so.

Unfortunately, the ensuing furor over his identity and whether, again in the words of Professor Callaghan, “the appropriation of subordinate identities by privileged whites demonstrates that endeavours to compensate for the exclusion of racial ‘minorities’ from the means of literary production can become the very means for continuing this exclusion,” obscured the importance of what he was trying to say. Indeed, one might even interpret the furor over these matters as a displacement activity of the intelligentsia, who wanted to avoid having to think of the very difficult and real problems that he had raised in his stories, and which are so distressing to contemplate.

Which is understandable. Not everyone wants to try to solve the world’s problems. But then it is more becoming to avoid posturing as a transgressor or a hero of postcolonialism – it’s more becoming and decent to avoid being bogus.

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