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Cultural evolution

Much of what goes under the name of cultural theory has found its most fertile ground in Marxism. Class is not only a powerful tool to explain the way culture is consumed but also the way it is manufactured.

books Updated: Mar 11, 2011 22:29 IST
Ishan Chaudhuri

Insurgent Metaphors
Pothik Ghosh
Aakar books
Rs450 pp 216

Much of what goes under the name of cultural theory has found its most fertile ground in Marxism. Class is not only a powerful tool to explain the way culture is consumed but also the way it is manufactured. And yet, the Marxist engagement with cultural theory has overwhelmingly been of stasis or forced misreadings. In Insurgent Metaphors, Pothik Ghosh tries to save Marxist critical theory from the Marxists. And almost succeeds.

Ghosh is no ‘liberal’ saviour. He uses Marxist tools to underline the fact that culture (like revolution) cannot be a frozen, unchanging slab. In an essay on Bangladeshi writer Akhtaru-zzaman Elias, Ghosh targets the subcontinental Marxist’s inability to jettison the dead weight of nationalism. “A self-containing, even psychotic, numbness, which goes by the national anti-colonial resistance, has held South Asian ‘revolutionary’ praxis in its tightly malignant grip for the five decades.” He pitches Elias, along with filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak — both artists unconstrained in their aesthetics and politics by nationhood cult — against those who parrot ‘class’ from a ‘national’ cage.

Ghosh’s essay, ‘Kafka and the Question of Revolutionary Subject-ivity’, takes the parable ‘Before the law’ in the novel The Trial about a man prevented by a doorkeeper from passing through a closed door, and uses it as a tool to explore the essence of law. “The law,” he writes, “has no meaning outside its fact of being a pure force of domination and determination.” The nature of ‘law’ is also contained in what lies outside it. Ghosh is essentially describing the real subject of his book: power.

One just wishes the book was not such a minefield of jargon. Why would anyone even want to write the sentence: “The promise that such a move would eventually steer Marxism out of its purported ontological crisis — which is essentially the outcome of the reduction of a critical science to a doctrinaire communistology — is on the verge of miscarriage"? Which is a pity since Ghosh’s ideas aren’t gobbledygook at all.

Ishan Chaudhuri is a Kolkata-based writer.