Shankar’s work is valuable in not only challenging the reductive understanding of ‘world’ as presented in theories of ‘world literature,’ but also critiquing conceptualisations of ‘literature’ as influenced by Western ideas of the ‘literary’

Jack Clift, MULOSIGE, SOAS

MULOSIGE was lucky to have S. Shankar (University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa) come to SOAS as a visiting fellow in May and June 2017, and we were fortunate enough to have a number of useful and exciting discussions with him about both his work and our project. Shankar shared a couple of his recent publications with us as part of a reading group session on 6 June 2017. The reading group took as its focus two articles that revolve broadly around issues of language, literature, and the question of comparison: ‘Literatures of the World: An Inquiry’ (2016) and ‘The Languages of Love: An Essay on Translation and Affect’ (2017) (see below for more details).

Of particular interest to the project is Shankar’s view on ‘world literature’ as presented in ‘Literatures of the World.’ In this wide-ranging article, Shankar not only challenges the reductive understanding of ‘world’ as presented in theories of ‘world literature,’ but also critiques conceptualisations of ‘literature’ as influenced by Western ideas of the ‘literary.’ In doing so, he draws on the multifaceted meanings of the Tamil word ilakkiyam – which is often translated as ‘literature’ – to reveal a variety of shortcomings in how we conceive of literature. Shankar’s focus on ilakkiyam, and the way it is deployed as a concept by the Tamil author and activist Periyar, brings into sharp relief the need to consider how language delineates different forms of knowledge, forcing us to note the inherent instability of our terminology and to seek alternatives that better reflect forms of variance. For Shankar, ‘world literature’ is a term that could be more productively understood as ‘literatures of the world,’ reflecting the different ways in which ‘what we call literature in English has been conceived in different cultures.’

By bringing different languages and different genres of texts together, Shankar gestures towards a method for broadening how affect is conceived and utilised in academic contexts

Shankar’s work on the subject of affect in ‘The Languages of Love’ takes this interaction of language and knowledge further. Examining different approaches to love in a variety of contexts – love as revealed through an ethnography on a Tamil family, love as embodied by Hindi-language ‘masala’ film song-and-dance sequences, and love as presented in the standard and ‘pidgin’ English of Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People – Shankar notes that while culturally specific ideas of love are not ‘untranslatable,’ there are nevertheless clear ‘limits of translated knowledge’ imposed by the use of different languages. This does not preclude bringing these different knowledges into conversation with one another; rather, Shankar suggests the need to develop a field of comparative affect studies that challenges the manner in which ideas of love are for the most part universalised and naturalised in the discipline as it stands. By bringing different languages and different genres of texts together, Shankar gestures towards a method for broadening how affect is conceived and utilised in academic contexts.

As our discussions with Shankar made clear, at the centre of both of these works – alongside his previous contributions, including Flesh and Fish Blood (2012) – is a tension between universalism and cultural relativism as outcomes of the comparative (or, as Shankar himself might prefer, comparativist) project. Does the act of comparing literature across languages and locations provide a set of tools that can be applied to all literatures? Or is the comparative act one that reinforces the specificity of languages and literatures, emphasising their difference from one another at the same time? Neither question, of course, produces completely satisfactory answers, and it is this tension – and the efforts to resolve it – that is so apparent in Shankar’s work. Translation as method, as outlined in ‘Language of Love,’ emerges as one such solution, but the emphasis on the act rather than the actor here raises equally valid questions about intent and perspective. Nevertheless, Shankar’s interventions are important in sustaining the questioning of postcolonial studies broadly, and comparative or world literature specifically, that is vital for their continued efficacy as disciplines.

From both our meetings and our readings, it was clear how engaged Shankar is with questions of pedagogy, particularly in developing more nuanced frameworks for the teaching of comparatism in the university. From encouraging us to interrogate the terms that we use without so much as a second glance, to constantly questioning the grounds on which literary comparison is to be conducted, Shankar frequently brought these issues to bear on discussions of classroom pedagogies. This interest in pedagogy extends to proposals for the development of a discipline of comparative affect studies, and was also reflected in Shankar’s comparison of issues of free speech as they appear in the contemporary Tamil literary sphere and in the modern American university system. (Details of Shankar’s talk on this topic can be found here.) In discussing the project, too, Shankar has pushed us to consider how we might best deploy the MULOSIGE approach to literature in not just a theoretical way, encouraging us to continue developing our collaborative courses as pedagogical resources that will be made available online to universities around the world. For this, and for all the other fascinating discussions we had, we are very grateful to Shankar!

Shankar’s latest book, Ghost in the Tamarind, will be published by University of Hawai‘i Press on 30 September 2017 and is available to pre-order online now. Shankar read extracts of the novel at a public event hosted by MULOSIGE at SOAS and led a discussion on some of the book’s themes; a podcast recording of this talk will be available on the website shortly, and more details can be found here. Shankar’s own blog can be found here. We look forward to welcoming Shankar back to SOAS in the not-so-distant future!

Shankar, S.: Flesh and Fish Blood: Postcolonialism, Translation and the Vernacular (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

—————-: ‘Literatures of the World: An Inquiry‘ in PMLA 131:5 (2016): 1405-13.

—————-: ‘The Languages of Love: An Essay on Translation and Affect’ in Comparative Literature 69:1 (2017): 54-73.